Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pellas On The Pirates - Has McCutchen Hit The Wall?

Once again, the world wonders concerning Andrew McCutchen.

Generally speaking, when the higher ups tell you to "hit the ball on the ground and run", (as they apparently have told McCutchen, according to today's blurb in the GW) it usually means, "You're a punch and judy hitter but you sure are fast, so slap-hitting looks like the only way you're going to stick around." Is that anything to say to a supposedly elite prospect?

For comparison: does anyone think Eric Davis, who was even faster than the fleet McCutchen, was EVER told to "hit the ball on the ground and run"? And this was a guy who once stole 80---eighty!!!---bases in a single season! Of course, that's because Davis also had 30-plus home run power and usually hit for a respectable average, as well. Which is why nobody---NOBODY---ever told him he needed to stop hitting so many fly balls.

To be sure, no one was predicting that McCutchen was going to be Eric Davis v 2.0. But he was definitely thought to be the best high school player in the country the year he was drafted, and he was definitely thought to be, at minimum, a Gold Glove defender with a better than average all around offensive game. If the Pirates were confident he'd even be that good, let alone a player like Davis, would they be telling him what they're apparently telling him now?

McCutchen's numbers at Triple-A last season weren't terrible, and yes, he was young for his level, and yes, his defense is already more than adequate for the big time. But he definitely didn't set the world on fire at Indianapolis. Nor has he done so this spring in Florida, which is particularly disconcerting because the common perception was that he could force his way onto the 25 man roster with a strong spring.

The bottom line? If Pirates' brass is telling him, stop hitting so many fly balls, it probably means several things, none of them good.

One, that he has warning track power or at least doesn't hit the ball as far as he ought to be if he is going to be a fly ball hitter.

Two, that he also doesn't hit for enough of an average, and the brass figures he can add 10 or 20 points by outrunning the defense on ground balls. This is not a bad thing in and of itself, of course, but---cue the broken record---it's not the kind of thing you tell a truly elite hitting prospect.

Three, that management believes he's not likely to get significantly better than he is right now, and so they are trying to maximize McCutchen's raw athletic acumen as opposed to banking on improvement from his baseball skills. (In other words, running real fast in a straight line is not, in and of itself, a "baseball skill"; it is an athletic attribute that can be translated into on field performance, but it is not the same thing as hand-eye co-ordination or an innate knack for hitting the ball consistently hard.)

The inescapable conclusion, for me, is that Andrew McCutchen is in trouble. By extension, so are the Pirates. If he flames out, or merely ends up a significantly lesser player than he was thought to be when drafted, the team essentially loses the current crown jewel of the farm system.

While it's really not right in the end to load even more expectations on McCutchen than he already has to deal with, it's also plainly true that if he isn't what he was thought to be---which is to say, a near-phenom---then the Pirates immediate future is considerably darker than it was thought to be heading into this season.

Will the world come to an end if he is more Marvell Wynne than Mike Cameron? No. But the Pirates' rebuilding process will certainly be significantly lengthened, and there will be a ripple effect that will be felt throughout the entire organization, top to bottom. Unfair, yes. But that's reality.

(Will Pellas is back writing for GW with his periodic take on all things Bucco.)


Ron Ieraci said...

Hey Will - My guess is that they probably don't want to Nyjerize him by pounding everything into the dirt. My take is that they want to take the lift out of his swing and get him to drive the ball into the gaps; it's pretty apparent that he's not the second coming of Willie Mays, so those flies aren't much good to Mr. McC.

Will he ever become a textbook leadoff guy by nature rather than need? Can't tell yet. My expectations are for McCutch to become a good glove OF'er that hits .280, steals 20+ bases, and can draw a walk or hit a double.

And that McLouth hits behind him.

WilliamJPellas said...

At this point, I'd be ecstatic if McCutchen performs as you describe. Mind you, a .280, 20 SB, Gold Glove center fielder is a respectable player. Just not what he was thought or expected to be. I take it you're also not sold on his power? I think if we got anything close to McLouth-ish numbers from Andrew, we should count our blessings. I don't personally think he's going to end up being as good as McLouth, which is both a tribute to Nate and an indictment of McCutchen. We'll see, of course. As you know, I've had my doubts since last season.

Ron Ieraci said...

I think he'll be a solid, productive CF for years in the league, Will. I don't think he'll be a super-star.

It would be nice to be able to pencil in center field with one name for the next five or six years, no? That's what I believe he'll give Pittsburgh.

WilliamJPellas said...

Okay, fair enough. If he ends up being a reliably excellent defensive CF for the next 5-6 years, and gives us 25-30 steals and the occasional longball, okay. That's still a better than average all-around starting CF. The only problem I have with that is that he was drafted to be an All Star and middle of the order hitter, and it's looking more and more like he'll be neither of those things.

Would McCutchen be a "failure", quote-unquote, if he was a turbocharged Marvell Wynne instead of Mike Cameron or Eric Davis Redeux? I guess you couldn't call a guy with .260-ish, 15-20 HR-ish, 20-30 SB-ish numbers and a few Gold Gloves a "failure". Just mildly disappointing compared with what he was thought to be.

But, maybe your point is that we should count our blessings and be thankful we're getting someone who might be a better than average CF for the next 5-6 years at low dollars. In the big scheme of things, that's not bad. I just hope he is even as good as you predict, that's all. I'm worried he might not even achieve the level you're expecting.