Andrew McCutchen, like the rest of the Pirates offense, developed a reputation over the last few seasons as a notoriously slow-starter at the plate. Now in 143 career games in March and April, McCutchen sports a .260 batting average with a 75 OPS+.
In every other month, the star center fielder owns a batting average no lower than .285. As the saying goes, pitching is usually ahead of hitting at this time of the year.
But this season, McCutchen didn’t seem quite right even though it was only April. He endured one of his worst hitting months as a professional, batting .194 and collecting only 14 hits in 86 plate appearances.
Ever since he missed 12 days of Spring Training, headlines about the Pirates surrounded the MVP’s health and what his “lower body soreness” truly entailed. Today, no one is still certain.
One can decide for oneself what one will believe regarding McCutchen’s health. Injury or not, his performance wasn’t up to snuff and the low batting numbers couldn’t simply be chalked up to bad luck on balls in play or an abnormality in any sort of metric.
Regardless of the reason, no one is more frustrated than the man himself.
“I’m sick and tired of going 0 for freaking 4,” McCutchen said after Tuesday’s game. “I know I’m better than that. I’m going to do everything I can to get myself back because this isn’t acceptable.”
Even when he isn’t putting up his usual numbers for a stretch, McCutchen’s mechanics remained sound. The sound of the ball coming off his bat was still a sharp, resounding “crack” whether it fell for a hit or into a fielder’s glove.
For most of this season, the ball didn’t jump off his bat with the same consistency. The motion with which McCutchen generated so much force on the ball seemed to lose its dynamic effectiveness.
When he hit the ball, it just didn’t sound the same.
At the very least, what’s been seen so far matches up with what’s heard.
“I’m seeing the ball well, noticing it well, recognizing it but right now the ball is not jumping,” McCutchen said. “I’m not squaring up balls the way that I should be squaring up balls right now.”
McCutchen and others in the organization only went as far as to say there was some disconnect between the upper and lower halves of his body in the early going. Whether that indicates his mechanics suffered from time missed in March or points to an injury, one can’t say for sure.
After his 0 for 4 game Tuesday, McCutchen’s average fell to .185. He’s raised it 34 points since by going 6 for 13 in Pittsburgh’s last three games, which included his first three-hit game of the year Thursday.
McCutchen went 2 for 5 Friday night and hit one of his hardest balls of the season when he lined a double into the North Side Notch, leading manager Clint Hurdle to say his halves are beginning to synchronize.
Before Thursday’s game in which the Pirates broke out with seven runs, 11 hits and seven walks, McCutchen, Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison were on the field getting extra batting work in before the team began its regular workouts for the day. Each player entered the day batting below .200.
McCutchen insists he needs no days off or any time down to rest or recollect his thoughts as that would only detract from his process.
“It’s not like I’m just sitting around going ‘uhh, it’ll come. It’s gonna come, it’s gonna come,’” McCutchen said. “I’m not doing that. I’m there and I’m working hard, trying to get myself back because I know it’s right there and I can feel it.”
Hurdle, a proponent of staying stubborn and consistent in one’s approach, is a fan of the way McCutchen has attacked his struggles. He warns of changing too many things around as that only makes players good at change and not at what they’re trying to improve or accomplish.
“There comes to a point in time when you need to commit to something,” Hurdle said. “He’s a man that likes to commit to things.”
The team’s best player took responsibility for his team’s struggles and although that’s not expected of him, it’s not a bad trait to have in a leader. By that logic, as McCutchen goes, the Pirates will go.
When he got going last season, the Pirates turned into one of baseball’s best offenses. The same perspective still carries clout in this year’s clubhouse.
“We’re not right where we need to be yet and that’s the great thing,” McCutchen said. “We’re doing okay. When we get hot, we’re going to really get hot.”
The unique crack of his bat was heard again this weekend. Maybe it’ll stick around.