McCutchen clear choice for NL MVP

I’m thinking of a player. Play along and see if you can guess who it is from the clues I provide.

  • He plays an important position in the outfield.

  • He has hit in the neighborhood of 20 home runs.

  • He has stolen at least 25 bases.

  • He is enjoying a .300/.400/.500 (AVG/OBP/SLG) season, something that can be said of only two other players.

  • He has earned above-average defensive grades from advanced metrics.

  • He leads his league in Wins Above Replacement.

If you guessed Mike Trout, you are correct! Congratulations.

If you guessed Andrew McCutchen, you are also correct.

Trout will once again receive a groundswell of MVP support from proponents of sabermetrics in the face of Miguel Cabrera’s historically great offensive output this season and the emergence of Orioles first baseman Chris Davis as baseball’s first 50-homer player since Jose Bautista hit 54 in 2010. Meanwhile, McCutchen, the Pirates center fielder, has flown under the radar as one of baseball’s most productive players, made all the more surprising since he is a big reason the Pirates have ended a 20-year losing-season skid.

Like Trout, McCutchen provides value in myriad ways, many of which aren’t obvious simply by watching baseball on TV. For starters, he plays center field, one of the more important positions on the diamond. Consider that the average National League right fielder has posted a .764 OPS this season but the average center fielder has mustered up only a .717 OPS. To match player production to those numbers, Jason Heyward is at .771 while Denard Span is at .714. What this means is McCutchen provides excellent production (.925) at a position where such production is difficult to find.

But not only does McCutchen hit well for a center fielder, but he also plays the position well. Advanced defensive metrics are typically unreliable in single-season samples, but all types of those analyses -- as well as scouts using their eyes -- agree that McCutchen has been a plus defender this season, a unanimity of opinion that hasn’t always been the case. In a column by Michael Sanserino of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Clint Hurdle praised how hard McCutchen has worked to improve that area of his game, specifically his willingness to dive and slide to make catches.

McCutchen’s speed is a factor in two ways: defensively and on the bases. He has stolen 27 bags in 36 attempts, a 75 percent success rate. While he stole home once, the most interesting aspect of his running is that he has attempted to steal third more often, currently 6-for-6 after attempting it only four times last season. Additionally, Baseball Reference credits him for taking the extra base (e.g., going first-to-third on a single to right field or first-to-home on a double in the gap) 65 percent of the time, well above his career average of 50 percent. This has made him the National League’s fifth-most valuable baserunner overall, according to FanGraphs.

All of the above is great, but still, the bulk of most players’ value comes from their offense. McCutchen has been the league’s fourth-most productive hitter according to weighted on-base average, a sabermetric statistic that weighs each individual component of a player’s offensive performance. At .397, McCutchen isn’t far behind the leader, Jayson Werth (.407). The league average, without accounting for position, is .310. In McCutchen’s 607 plate appearances, the difference between his output and the league average in terms of runs is about 42 runs.

Even that isn’t obvious, though, since he has hit 19 home runs, scored 90 runs and driven in 79. He does a lot of things well, like drawing walks in 11 percent of his plate appearances, avoiding strikeouts (15 percent), putting the ball in play and getting hits frequently on those balls in play (.364 BABIP). This is why he has a .327 batting average and a .405 on-base percentage. He joins Trout and Cabrera as the only three players in baseball with a .300/.400/.500 output this year.

There have been quite a few outstanding performances this season by National Leaguers. Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has had a great year with the bat, continues to limit runs with his defense and has the intangibles -- such as calling a game and handling a pitching staff -- firmly on his side. Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt has the most clutch hits, leading the league with 109 RBIs while being a great defensive first baseman. Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez has emerged as a five-tool player, playing the game like McCutchen in a lot of ways.

However, no one has truly measured up to McCutchen this year. By WAR among position players, he leads with 7.7 to Gomez’s 6.9. By FanGraphs’ version of WAR, he leads by 1.5 over a three-way second-place tie involving Gomez, Matt Carpenter and Joey Votto, 7.5 to 6.0. Whichever brand you use, WAR isn’t the be-all-and-end-all of MVP arguments, but when you see a gap this wide, it is a signal you should pay attention to. McCutchen does a lot of things extremely well at an important position.

McCutchen has been the cornerstone of a Pirates franchise that has been clawing its way back into relevance ever since it hired Neal Huntington as GM in 2007. It is only fitting that, in the same season in which the Pirates ended a 20-year run of failure, the backbone of the franchise goes home with the NL MVP award.

Bill Baer writes on the Phillies at Crashburn Alley and is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.