Justice: McCutchen has stats, attitude to take MVP
By Richard Justice
Andrew McCutchen was the National League's best all-around player in 2012, and there's not much dispute about that. He changed games with his bat and his glove. He also changed them with his speed and his attitude.
Attitude? Yes, attitude. Stay tuned for details.
No NL player had a greater impact on his team than McCutchen had on the Pirates, and if that isn't one of the best definitions of a Most Valuable Player, it's at least in the conversation.
It's why it's easy to build a case that he should be the NL MVP. He'll be dropped on some Baseball Writers' Association of America ballots because the Pirates missed the playoffs. But every other player in the NL MVP debate had at least one other impact player around him in the batting order.
McCutchen hit 47 points higher than any other Pittsburgh regular and was the player virtually every opponent built its game plan around stopping. Those holes in the lineup eventually caught up with the Pirates, but McCutchen's fourth Major League season became a showcase for his assorted skills.
At 26, he's already one of the players others are measured against, and the six-year, $51.5-million contract he signed last spring is an indication the Pirates intend to build their franchise around him.
In McCutchen's first three seasons, we saw glimpses of his greatness. One day, he'd do something spectacular at the plate. And then a day or two later, he'd take your breath away with a defensive play.
This was the season he put all those dazzling gifts together. Let's go to the numbers:
McCutchen led the NL in hits and was among the leaders in virtually every offensive category, including batting average (second), runs (second), OPS (third), home runs (eighth), RBIs (11th) and stolen bases (24th). He hit 31 home runs despite playing half his games in pitcher-friendly PNC Park. He had a nice split -- 15 at home, 16 on the road.
He won the NL Gold Glove for his play in center field.
He used his speed smartly and aggressively, not just in stealing 20 bases, but in going from first base to third on a single 42 times.
That's where attitude becomes part of the package. McCutchen's was relentlessly aggressive, and the Pirates fed off it. Opponents knew they had to play with an edge when he was on the bases because he was unafraid to test them.
In Bill James' complex "Win Shares" calculation, McCutchen led the NL with a 40 score. According to another James' calculation, McCutchen accounted for 19.5 percent of his team's offense, tops in the Major Leagues. BaseballReference.com's Wins Above Replacement gave McCutchen a 7.0, second in the NL to Buster Posey's 7.2.
This story seemed headed for a happier ending when the Pirates were 70-60 and in the thick of the pennant race on Aug. 30. That's when the wheels came off as the Pirates went 9-23 the rest of the way.
With his team in free-fall, McCutchen did himself proud. He had an .861 OPS during the 9-23 fall, and his plate discipline remained first-rate. When the Pirates came up short again, McCutchen vowed to work hard again and try again in 2013.
The MVP is weighted heavily toward players who are part of playoff teams. But this season three of the five finalists -- Ryan Braun, Chase Headley and McCutchen -- were part of teams that missed the playoffs.
That the Giants (Buster Posey) and Cardinals (Yadier Molina) were part of playoff teams does not diminish the season McCutchen had. He has emerged as one of the players who'll bring fans to the park simply because he does more things well than all but a few players.
If this isn't his MVP season, he'll have plenty more. He seems certain to win one at some point in his career. There's some luck involved in an MVP, not just luck in a a player having a career yet, but it coming in a season when all the various pieces fall into place around him.
No matter what happens in the MVP balloting, this entire season was a coming-out party of sorts for McCutchen. And there's so much more to come.
Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.