How Andrew McCutchen got his groove back

Andrew McCutchen found his power stroke in June as he hit six homers and drove in 23. Bill Streicher/USA TODAY Sports

Andrew McCutchen signed his first professional contract with the Pittsburgh Pirates at age 18. He was 24 years old when he made his All-Star Game debut and 26 when he won the National League MVP award, leading the franchise to its first playoff berth in two decades in 2013. Given the stature he has attained in the city and all the love that has been shared, it's not outlandish to think McCutchen would be in line for one marathon honeymoon.

It lasted until just shy of his 30th birthday.

For an elite talent with such a stellar track record, McCutchen has had a heaping dose of humility thrown his way. From the 2016 non-waiver deadline through the offseason, he was a walking trade rumor. He had a position change foisted upon him in early February when the Pirates determined they would be best served with Starling Marte in center field and McCutchen in right. And when McCutchen got off to a slow start this season coming off a disappointing 2016, it was only natural for scouts, fans and media analysts to assume his skills were deteriorating.

Now that McCutchen is spraying rockets all over the field, it would be easy for him to harbor resentment over real or perceived slights. But there's not a lot of diva in that 5-foot-10, 195-pound frame. McCutchen is secure enough to admit that the skepticism surrounding his performance hit close to home, and realistic enough to understand that his performance will be scrutinized because he has established a certain standard of performance.

"First and foremost, I'm human,'' McCutchen said. "I may not go off on anybody, but that doesn't mean I can't be angry. We're guys who perform at a very high level. So if things aren't going the way you want, you're going to be angry and upset. There's nothing wrong with that. It just shows that you care.

"The way I look at it, at least I'm being talked about. It may not be something I want to hear. But some guys can hit .250 and everybody couldn't care less about it. I look at it as a good thing. People expect me to be better than where I'm at. At the end of the day, people [in the media] have a job. They have to talk. I just need to go do my job and play and give them something else to talk about.''

In light of what McCutchen has been through, it's just nice to be relevant again.

"He was the face of the franchise as we came out of a dark part of history, and he's a remarkable man on and off the field. He's handled a ton of adversity as well as anybody could possibly handle it." Neal Huntington

In June, McCutchen summoned memories of the old dreadlock days when he logged a .411/.509/.689 slash line with six homers and 23 RBIs to win his fifth career Player of the Month award. To put that achievement in black-and-gold perspective, Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla each captured the honor four times as Pirates, and Willie Stargell and Roberto Clemente claimed it three times each.

In hindsight, the turning point came in late May, when manager Clint Hurdle sat McCutchen on the bench for two days and dropped him to sixth in the batting order from his customary third spot. Then Hurdle just sat back and watched an artist at work.

Hurdle was the starting right fielder in Kansas City in 1980 when George Brett hit .390, and he was the hitting coach in Texas in 2010 when Josh Hamilton amassed 49 hits and batted .454 in June on the way to an American League MVP award. He also watched Todd Helton, Dante Bichette and Larry Walker inflict some altitude-enhanced pain for years with the Colorado Rockies, so he knows what a world-class hot stretch looks like.

"I've been around a lot of good hitters, but the month he threw up was fantastic,'' Hurdle said. "It gave me goosebumps from time to time. And when I get goosebumps, something special is going on.''

The numbers tell the story of McCutchen's turnaround:

  • Since his low point on May 23, he has reduced his swing-and-miss rate from 23 percent to 18 percent and increased his line drive rate from 17 percent of balls in play to 31 percent. He also has done a better job of keeping the ball off the ground (33 percent of balls in play, down from 45 percent).

  • Through May 23, McCutchen was hitting .181 with a .361 slugging percentage against balls on the inner half of the plate. Since then, he's batting .442 with a slugging percentage of 1.000 against those pitches.

  • McCutchen has been more selective early in at-bats, swinging at the first pitch only 19 percent of the time compared to 33 percent during his early-season funks. But he's also been more productive later in counts. After logging a .161/.257.280 slash line with two strikes in April and May, he raised the bar to .311/.415/.444 in June.

Journeys of discovery for baseball hitters often come with recollection of a eureka moment or adjustment that set the world right again. Maybe a player regained his timing by shortening a leg kick or changing his hand positioning. And suddenly, we're told, everything clicked and the baseball "began to look like a beach ball.''

McCutchen's personal account reflects the drudgery involved in navigating the rough patches in a 162-game season. He just showed up at the cage, day after day, and tinkered with small and indiscernible changes until all that work and experimentation brought him to what he calls a "better place.''

"You can't say something is going to change and not work at it,'' McCutchen said. "You have to work more and do more, even if it means getting a couple of blisters or your hands being raw. You're trying to get out of a bad habit you've created, and the only way is by taking more swings, or watching more video, or talking more with the coaches and other players about your approach. You're diving deep into it because you have to.

"The only thing I notice is my mind is more at ease now than it was over a month ago. Before, I was preparing to try and feel something. Now I know what I need to feel, and I'm sticking with that and bringing it into the game every day."

"The way I look at it, at least I'm being talked about. It may not be something I want to hear. But some guys can hit .250 and everybody couldn't care less about it. I look at it as a good thing. People expect me to be better than where I'm at." Andrew McCutchen

As a hitter, McCutchen spends more time focusing on the mental side of the game than statistical indicators or mechanics. After being treated to a stat-by-stat update of his June surge during a conversation at Citizens Bank Park, McCutchen shook his head and observed, "That made my brain hurt."

As McCutchen concentrates on maintenance rather than crisis management, his resurgence has changed the tone of the conversation in Pittsburgh. It's now a slam dunk that the Pirates will exercise his $14.5 million club option for 2018. But will he even last that long in a Pittsburgh uniform?

The Pirates are 40-47 and on the fringe of contention only because the NL Central is such a forgiving division this season. Josh Harrison, David Freese, Tony Watson and even Gerrit Cole -- a 26-year-old heat dispenser who would require a monster return in spite of his so-so numbers this year -- will be among the names bandied around in trade speculation after the All-Star break.

Pirates general manager Neal Huntington knows what it means to parlay veteran, short-term assets into long-term pieces. He did it early in his tenure when he traded All-Stars Jason Bay and Nate McLouth for prospects, and again last summer when he dealt free agent-in-waiting Mark Melancon to Washington for young pitchers Felipe Rivero and Taylor Hearn. While the attention is more stifling in McCutchen's case because he's baseball royalty in Pittsburgh, the dynamic is quite familiar.

"Andrew will forever be a huge part of Pirates history,'' Huntington said. "He was the face of the franchise as we came out of a dark part of history, and he's a remarkable man on and off the field. He's handled a ton of adversity as well as anybody could possibly handle it. Some we've put on his plate, and some the game of baseball has put on plate.

"We anticipate Andrew continuing to be a Pirate until something changes -- whether it's through free agency or someone coming in [with an offer] that we believe can help this organization over the big picture. That's the hard reality. We'll listen on anybody. We have to. It doesn't mean we're looking to move him or actively engage. There's active and passive engagement, and we'll always be open for passive engagement if somebody wants to come to us."

McCutchen was widely regarded as a bargain when he signed a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension with the Pirates in 2012. But nothing in the team's modus operandi or its finances suggests the Pirates will reciprocate based on sentiment.

"You've got to understand, I've been in this organization since I was 18," McCutchen said. "I've seen people come and go, so I'm used to that.

"As far as me being toward the end of my contract, I can't control that. I'm not the guy dishing out the money and making the moves. People understand where I want to be. They know I want to be here in a Pirates uniform. This is the team that's drafted me, and I want to win here. Right now, we're not, but we need to. That's how you stay. You win. It's not just the Pirates. That's all around baseball. You've gotta win."

As McCutchen's future sorts itself out, he can rest comfortably knowing he will remain in center field upon Marte's return from an 80-game PED suspension on July 18. He has also returned to hitting third in the order.

He and his wife, Maria, recently announced on Twitter that they're expecting their first child in December, so that's a piece of joyous personal news to add to the list. If McCutchen's current torrid streak had begun a week sooner, chances are he would be heading to Miami for his sixth All-Star appearance. Instead, he'll take a breather early next week, let the aches from the baseball schedule subside and gear up a second-half run.

Wherever life takes him during the All-Star festivities, he's in a better place than he was six weeks ago. It's nice to welcome back the old Andrew McCutchen.