It's time to give Andrew McCutchen a little love.
The reigning National League MVP is quietly performing at the same level as last season but with little national attention. That's what happens when your team goes from America's favorite underdog to same old Pittsburgh Pirates. McCutchen, who homered and drove in three runs in the Pirates' 6-2 win over the Chicago Cubs, can't even crack the top three among outfielders in the All-Star voting.
McCutchen is now hitting .309/.423/.509, pretty much identical to 2013's .313/.404/.508. But you're not hearing his name mentioned as an early MVP candidate. Heck, we've had more discussion about minor league outfielder Gregory Polanco; thank god the Pirates finally announced that he's joining the team on Tuesday, so we can finally see if the kid can play rather than just speculate on whether he'll be a first-ballot Hall of Famer or merely a Hall of Famer.
Of course, one sign of a great player is when you have a great season and nobody really notices. Henry Aaron churned out MVP-caliber seasons like clockwork for nearly 20 years but won only one MVP Award early in his career, in part because it's harder to get recognized when the story is simply, "Oh, yeah, he does that every year."
That means the attention among National League outfielders has centered on Yasiel Puig and Giancarlo Stanton. Puig is a lightning rod for many reasons but he's putting up even bigger numbers than last season. Stanton is carrying the surprising Marlins, routinely hitting 450-foot monster mashes and even making diving catches in right field. Both are young, awesome and undoubtedly have a "wow" factor that few in the game possess. Even Carlos Gomez, third in the voting, has been in the spotlight with his bat flips and is one of the most exciting players in the game with his power/speed combo.
McCutchen? All he does is hit, hit with some power, play good defense, run the bases well, draw walks, rarely miss a game and deliver cotton candy between innings. He doesn't do dumb things on the bases. He doesn't start brawls. He's boring. No signature element to his game. Nope. He just does everything well.
OK, to be fair here: Who do you leave off the ballot? All four guys are having outstanding seasons. The numbers:
Puig (1,472,717 votes): .333/.430/.584, 11 HR, 40 RBIs, 34 runs, 6 SB, -2 Defensive Runs Saved, 2.8 WAR (DRS and WAR entering Monday)
Stanton (1,259,047 votes): .301/.393/.589, 17 HR, 53 RBIs, 47 runs, 4 SB, 14 DRS, 4.3 WAR
Gomez (1,192,174 votes: .307/.376/.554, 12 HR, 35 RBIs, 42 runs, 11 SB, 0 DRS, 2.5 WAR
McCutchen (1,190,516 votes): .309/.423/.509, 8 HR, 31 RBIs, 33 runs, 7 SB, -2 DRS, 2.8 WAR
Stanton has separated himself in WAR mostly because of his superior defensive numbers. He's been regarded as an average outfielder in the past, but Stanton's defensive metrics are strong so far this year -- both in Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating -- and he rates fourth among all players, regardless of position, with his 14 Defense Runs Saved. Gomez, who actually edged out McCutchen in Baseball-Reference WAR last year thanks in large part to his outstanding defense in center, hasn't been as good this season, again by DRS and UZR, which both rate him as average defensively so far. McCutchen was +7 last year, but he has no assists this season, compared to 11 in 2013; both defensive systems rate his defense slightly below average this year.
As for offense, McCutchen's home run and RBI numbers fall short of the others, but keep two things in mind: (1) He doesn't have a lot of help around him (2) He plays in a tough home run park, especially for right-handed hitters. He may have only 31 RBIs but he is hitting .327/.444/.551 with runners in scoring position. But he's had just 63 plate appearances with RISP; Puig has had 89, Stanton 77 and Gomez 63.
Anyway, it's tough to leave one guy off, but I'd go Stanton, Puig and McCutchen.
The good news is the loser can get the start at DH since the game will be in an American League park.
Finally, as for Polanco: Yes, he deserves the spotlight on Tuesday as he presumably makes his debut. It's an exciting day for the Pirates and their fans, and at 30-33, Pittsburgh is still in the clogged-up NL playoff races. The Pirates are in a pretty good stretch to make a run -- three more against the Cubs, three against the Marlins, and then 19 against teams that currently have a losing record. So maybe good things start to happen.
If they do, maybe then we'll remember again that Andrew McCutchen is still one of the best players in the game.