In the Pittsburgh Pirates’ first 50 games, you had to wonder if they would wind up as the “Andrew McCutchen and Friends” show. They were struggling to score three runs per game, averaging 2.9 while playing break-even baseball.
The focus was on McCutchen, then as now, and it’ll probably stay there until the day after the 2012 NL MVP award is announced. But as formulas for team-wide offensive success go, one man does not a contending lineup make, at least not easily, even if he is the best hitter in the game. Sure, the ’85 Royals and George Brett are a feel-good story if your memory stretches back to those days, but even Brett had help.
Fortunately for the Bucs, things have changed for the better on offense since the first two months, and not just because the bats warmed up with the weather. Their 7-6 win over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night was the latest reflection of what's going on. In their 60 games since that slow start, the Pirates have scored 5.2 runs per game, a league-leading clip that would outpace even the Cardinals.
Neil Walker’s five runs driven in on Wednesday, starting with a three-run home run in the first inning, make him the big-number star in this one game. Plating a fistful of runs is consistent with what Walker has been doing, especially from the fifth slot in the lineup: From that lineup perch, Walker was putting up a .901 OPS while plating baserunners at a 19-percent clip, a mark that puts both him and McCutchen in baseball’s top 20 for cashing in their scoring opportunities.
Beyond them, this season’s lineup has been a work in progress, but one that could be saving its best for last. Pedro Alvarez has successfully silenced questions over whether he’d stick by providing some power (if little else). The promotion of Starling Marte to step into their hole in left field gives the Bucs another homegrown talent with power in a power hitter’s slot; he ripped his fourth homer off the D-backs as he completes his second week in the majors.
These breakthroughs with homegrown talent can make a general manager look brilliant, like this was all a matter of planning and patience. Nevertheless, there hasn’t been a stampede to nominate Neal Huntington for a Nobel Prize for baseball just yet. You can also argue he’d already achieved his one masterstroke with the pitching staff this spring when he struck a bargain to liberate A.J. Burnett from a chamber of horrors in the Bronx; how many miracles do you want in a single season? And at the deadline, Huntington didn’t make the big, splashy move.
In fairness, he didn’t need to; Marte was on the way. But Huntington did not just settle for letting his farm crop ripen. What he didn’t do in terms of making a name for himself he might have achieved more quietly, and more lastingly, than any deadline headline. Getting Travis Snider from the Blue Jays might turn into a coup. (However disappointed the Jays might have been in him, he’s a 24-year-old with the power to play in a corner, exactly the kind of hitter the Pirates could employ during this stretch and for years to come.) While Snider’s outfield glove has been described as DH-worthy, that’s a risk the Pirates were already willing to run, after playing first baseman Garrett Jones in right field. Now Jones is back at first base, platooning with the just-acquired Gaby Sanchez.
Huntington has wound up with a significantly different, yet better lineup than the one he started with, and that’s what a smart GM is supposed to achieve in-season. The Pirates now feature two young power-hitting outfielders in the corners, and a young-vet first-base platoon that didn’t cost them anything significant to construct. Plant that around the core of McCutchen and Walker and Alvarez, and you wind up with a lineup that’s strong enough to sustain their in-season growth.
Say the Pirates keep up their current clip of scoring down the stretch -- they may not finish the year any higher than seventh in total runs scored, which sounds mediocre but discounts the kind of team they’re becoming. And that’s because of that slow start, with players such as Jose Tabata or Alex Presley playing every day. They might also be watching October’s action from the bench, if not a couch near you.
This year’s Pirates may be a ways away from breaking out in refrains of “We Are Family.” But as Sister Sledge said, have faith in you and the things you do. By lining up a few more bats worth having faith in, McCutchen can look forward to getting more than a little help from his friends.
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As post-cool as batting average might be among stats, McCutchen’s current .370 clip is the highest from anybody since Barry Bonds also hit .370 in 2002. It’s the highest single-season average for a right-handed batter since Nomar Garciaparra’s .372 in 2000. The last right-handed hitter to hit .370 or better in the NL was the Big Cat, Andres Galarraga, for the Rockies in Denver back in 1993.
To find a right-handed hitter in the NL who delivered an average so high that didn’t involve doing it at altitude, you have to go all the way back to Joe Medwick in 1937. Whatever your complaints are about batting boosts from the PED era or a mile-high setting, the competitive environment of the small eight-team, all-white leagues of the ’30s was such that you might even asterisk Ducky’s big year as well. Simply put, McCutchen’s season already looks like one for the ages.
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