No player better embodies the Pittsburgh Pirates' new brand of dynamic, youthful baseball than center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The first-time All-Star is a legitimate MVP candidate, trailing just Jose Bautista and Jose Reyes among position players in Wins Above Replacement. Still just 24 years old, 'Cutch is turning in his best season yet by adding home run power to his game. And that ability to clear the fence has pitchers treading more cautiously.
McCutchen is slugging .505 and has popped 14 home runs this year, leaving him just two shy of tying his career-best HR mark set in 2010. While the Pirates' first-round pick in the '05 draft is listed at 5-10, 190 pounds, McCutchen uses arguably the quickest wrists this side of Gary Sheffield to produce surprising pop. In particular, he's crushing high pitches and stuff thrown low-and-inside:
The biggest reason for McCutchen's power surge is his improvement against high pitches. He slugged .327 and hit two home runs versus high offerings last year, but he's got a .581 slugging percentage and seven homers against high stuff in 2011.
Pitchers have responded to McCutchen's increased thump by giving him fewer pitches to hit within the strike zone. His percentage of in-zone pitches seen has decreased sharply as the season has progressed:
McCutchen's 2011 Zone%, by month
For reference, the league average for pitches seen within the zone is 48-49 percent for non-pitchers. McCutchen isn't the sort of antsy hitter who goes after those off-the-plate pitches, either: his 21 percent chase rate is one of the 15 lowest marks among qualified big league batters.
Patience, speed and now power -- Pittsburgh hasn't seen a player as well-rounded as Andrew McCutchen since Barry Bonds left town nearly two decades ago.