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Anthony Castrovince

McCutchen making a case for an NL MVP encore

All-Star putting up better numbers than last year while leading surging Bucs

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PITTSBURGH -- One day this week, he met with a 100-year-old woman who cites him as her favorite baseball player. The next, he had lunch and played catch with a 12-year-old cancer patient whose dream was to spend a day with him at PNC Park. And at any given home game in these parts, you'll see that the segment of the population sporting his No. 22 on their shirts and jerseys is not restricted to any particular race or gender or age demographic.

In the Steel City, the clout of "Cutch" knows no bounds.

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They root for Andrew McCutchen because he's an accessible, fashionable, masterful superstar who, amazingly, keeps getting better at his craft.

The reigning National League MVP Award winner is, in fact, making an increasingly convincing case to be the repeat NL MVP. His offensive numbers have improved in every major statistical category, and his team -- now sitting just 2 1/2 games back of the Brewers in the NL Central -- is relevant and resolute in what might be baseball's toughest division.

"The young man," said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, "continues to impress all of us here that see him perform on a nightly basis and, just as importantly, see him work."

You want a running mate (or perhaps even an opponent) for Mike Trout in those admittedly trivial "Who is the next face of baseball?" discussions that have been emanating out of Derek Jeter's pending retirement? Here's your guy.

The stat savants love McCutchen's numbers.

The casual fans are drawn to his uber-athleticism.

The locals love the way McCutchen has committed himself to this community.

Heck, even the daytime TV talk show fans who know absolutely nothing about baseball can recognize him as the guy who proposed to his girlfriend on "Ellen" last December.

"If she said no, I still would have looked pretty good!" McCutchen joked. "I could have starred in 'The Bachelor'!"

He is, instead, quite content with the reality of a resounding "yes" from his soon-to-be-bride and what has been a remarkably strong sequel to that storybook 2013.

How strong? McCutchen's batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk percentage, weighted runs created plus, isolated power, at-bats per home run and stolen-base percentage are all better than they were a year ago.

McCutchen by the numbers
Bucs star is putting up better stats this year than in his 2013 NL MVP Award season.
Category 2013 2014
Batting average .317 .318
On-base percentage .404 .417
Slugging percentage .508 .557
Walk percentage 11.6 13.9
Weighted runs created plus 155 173
Isolated power .190 .239
At-bats per home run 27.76 22.18
Stolen-base percentage 73.0 94.1

All season, the general assumption has been that Troy Tulowitzki is the runaway favorite for the NL MVP Award honor, but that hypothesis is hurting right now. Tulo is now on the disabled list with a hip strain, and the longer that injury lingers, the more it will inflate the other knocks (his numbers are significantly inflated by his home park and his team has faded far out of view in the NL West) on his candidacy.

McCutchen, who is second only to Tulowitzki in OPS and ranks first in ballpark-adjusted OPS+, is waging a serious argument to become the NL's first back-to-back winner of the MVP Award since Albert Pujols in 2008-09. How the Bucs fare in the four-headed monster that is the NL Central will undoubtedly play some part in the result, and the good news there is that McCutchen, with a 1.101 OPS in July, has heated up just as the games increase in urgency.

"He just continues to evolve," Hurdle said. "He has a hunger to hit."

McCutchen's numbers are even more impressive when you consider how little he's been given to hit this season. Per FanGraphs.com, he's seen just 48.6 percent fastballs -- the fourth-lowest rate among qualified hitters this season. Meanwhile, no player has seen a higher proliferation of sliders than McCutchen (22.2 percent), and he's had to adjust to a steady diet of pitches outside the strike zone, leading to the highest walk rate of his career and the most walks (62) of any NL player.

"When I hit," he said, "it's not about standing in the box and just letting it swing. It's having a gameplan and knowing what that pitcher is going to do to you. I'm getting wiser."

Wiser and, remarkably, better.

You've got to watch out for this Pirates team. They caught up with the Cardinals when they completed a series win over the Dodgers on Wednesday night, so now they're in second place in the Central for the first time since mid-April. Soon, they're expected to get Gerrit Cole back in a rotation in which Francisco Liriano is just starting to show flashes of his 2013 form. Ernesto Frieri has, on measure, been a solid addition to a bullpen that's found its footing. Gregory Polanco, if he adapts to left-handed pitching in particular, has the potential to improve a lineup that -- thanks to the likes of Neil Walker, Russell Martin and Ike Davis -- has been an OBP machine.

Above all else, though, the Bucs have arguably the best player in the league, and the fact that McCutchen is improving upon his peak powers goes a long way in a tight race.

Maybe McCutchen isn't nearly as celebrated and revered nationally as he is locally. But that was never the goal, anyway.

"I don't play the game for attention," he said. "I play to win and to bring a championship back to Pittsburgh. Whatever that takes, that's what I'm going to do."

Here in 2014, McCutchen is doing it better than ever.

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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