The Pittsburgh Pirates got a rare turn in the spotlight last week. In picking UCLA starting pitcher Gerrit Cole first overall in the amateur draft, the Bucs gave the baseball world a chance to imagine the hulking, 6-foot-4 right-hander anchoring a winning rotation. A half-decade from now, Cole and last year’s highly-touted high school phenoms Jameson Taillon and Stetson Allie could lead one of the best pitching staffs in the game.
The next Pirates superstar
Through three years of his career, Andrew McCutchen is producing a lot like Barry Bonds did when he was in Pittsburgh.
McCutchen broke into the big leagues at an age almost a full year older than Bonds was when he made his debut; that’s not insignificant in baseball terms. Still, the accompanying chart shows that the righty-swinging center fielder and lefty-swinging left fielder put up fairly comparable numbers early in their respective careers. Even more remarkable: In his third full season McCutchen is on pace to shatter what Bonds did in his third campaign.
McCutchen’s progression starts with his bat. He’s hiked his walk rate to career-high levels, and now walks once for every eight times up. His isolated slugging, a measure of power which subtracts batting average from slugging percentage, has jumped to a career-best .202. He’s continued his early-career trends of rarely swinging at pitches outside the strike zone and even more rarely swinging and missing — just 6.3 percent of the time, a strong 21st best among qualified National League hitters. A player who walks, hits for power and makes frequent contact is a very rare breed; McCutchen joins Prince Fielder, Albert Pujols, Troy Tulowitzki and Todd Helton as the only players to rank in the top 30 of isolated slugging, walk rate and swinging strike rate.
A less reliable, though still somewhat encouraging trend is a potential uptick in his defense. Ultimate Zone Rating works best when viewed in a three-year sample. That makes McCutchen’s current blistering pace (he’s on pace to produce nearly a win and a half with his defense alone this year) look almost as strange as last season’s UZR total, when he supposedly cost the Pirates nearly a win and a half. Still, other fielding metrics also suggest a big improvement in McCutchen’s glovework. That wouldn’t be an unreasonable development, given he still has the youth and athleticism to range after balls, while gaining experience and sharpening his defensive instincts.
Add up his contributions and McCutchen ranks fourth in MLB in wins above replacement. He’s been especially hot lately: McCutchen’s 2.5 WAR in the past 30 days makes him the most valuable player in the majors over that stretch.
The best news for the Bucs is that they’re not just a one-man team. The Pirates can thank several other young contributors for the team’s near-.500 record this season. McCutchen’s outfield mate Jose Tabata sports a .363 OBP and ranks among the league’s stolen base leaders. Neil Walker’s batting average is down some 40 points from last year, but he still ranks second on the team in homers, offering impressive pop from second base. Acknowledging the smaller sample size, the Pirates’ team fielding also looks much improved from last season, when they finished last in team UZR.
That defensive proficiency has made life considerably easier for Pittsburgh’s stable of mostly no-name pitchers. Jeff Karstens leads the starting rotation with a sub-3.00 ERA and a strikeout-to-walk ratio of nearly 4-to-1. Charlie Morton’s league-leading ground ball rate has also fueled baseball’s lowest home run rate, allowing him to flourish despite subpar strikeout numbers. Joel Hanrahan quietly has developed into one of the top closers in baseball. Jose Veras and Chris Resop have been quality setup men with big strikeout numbers. Going forward, the Pirates will need a couple more of their prospects to pan out like McCutchen has. Pedro Alvarez, for one, has been a major disappointment to this point, while Cole, Taillon and Allie have yet to advance beyond Class A. That said, there’s hope in Pittsburgh even if there are still a lot of unknowns.
What the Bucs do know is that they have a star in McCutchen, a player who could continue the franchise’s legacy of great outfielders, following in the footsteps of the Waner brothers, Kiner, Clemente, Stargell and, yes, the home run king. The likelihood of McCutchen’s career panning out just like Bonds’ did is nearly zero. To have a player whose first three seasons inspire enough hope to justify mentioning the two in the same sentence, though? For a Pirates team that hasn’t a winning season in nearly two decades, that’s an encouraging thought.