The Pittsburgh Pirates have had a lot more nightmares than fairytales since the franchise won its last World Series championship in 1979.
Amazingly, the Pirates’ comeback win over the Baltimore Orioles in that Fall Classic remains the franchise’s last victory in a postseason series. The Pirates also haven’t won a division title since 1992 and there is a whole lot of other futility that you are likely aware of if you have been paying even a slight bit of attention over the last four-plus decades.
However, a fairytale is unfolding with the Pirates this season. Andrew McCutchen’s return to the team after a five-year absence is working out better than anyone could have imagined.
McCutchen reached 2,000 career hits Sunday when he singled off the New York Mets’ Carlos Carrasco in a 2-1 victory at PNC Park.
That is just a continuation of the type of season it has been for the 36-year-old outfielder/designated hitter, one of the most popular players in franchise history. McCutchen is hitting .265/.381/.423 with eight home runs and seven stolen bases in 57 games and is one of the major reasons why the Pirates are in first place in the National League Central after four straight last-place finishes.
Despite his advancing age, McCutchen is playing just as well now as he did in 2017, his last season with the Pirates before being traded to the San Francisco Giants.
It would be a stretch to say McCutchen is as good as he was when he played in five straight All-Star Games from 2011-15 and won the NL MVP award in 2013. But he has been more than good enough.
McCutchen is also still an effective leadoff hitter, though that wasn’t necessarily supposed to be his role when he signed a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent in January.
“I obviously knew what he was here before, spectacular player,” Pirates general manager Ben Cherington said. “I hadn’t really beared down on him the last couple of years. As I looked at him closer, I was reminded just how impressive his swing decisions are. How good of an eye for the strike zone he has, which adds up to just being a tough at bat. Really against almost any kind of pitcher. That really stands out. We’ve seen that show up. That’s partly why he’s hitting top of the lineup a lot. He’s a very consistent at-bat. You have to work hard to get him out. He’s going to find his way on base even when he’s not getting hits. That’s just an incredibly steady, reliable part of his game.”
McCutchen has drawn 38 walks in 239 plate appearances while striking out 48 times. Yet he can still do damage at the plate as his eight homers indicate and he likely would turn the bat loose and hit for more power, if dropped from leadoff, a spot where he doesn’t particularly like to hit.
“He also still has enough bat speed to get to balls and drive them when he gets his chance,” Cherington said.
Where McCutchen makes just as big of an impact is in the clubhouse, which can’t be measured statistically. He provides a veteran presence to a team that went 142-242 in manager Derek Shelton’s first three seasons as manager.
McCutchen has a way of connecting with teammates that few other players possess, and he is sneakily one of the funniest guys I’ve been around in 36 years of covering the Pirates and the major leagues.
“He’s a great teammate,” Pirates right-hander Mitch Keller said. “He brings the energy. He brings the laughter. Everyone just feeds off of him.”
Added Cherington: “Just impressed with how remarkably steady he is and the joy he brings to the clubhouse every day. Just fun to be around. I think I’ve said it before, you can appreciate people who take their jobs seriously and not themselves too seriously. As I’ve gotten to know Cutch, I think he does that.”
Sparked by McCutchen, the Pirates are one of the biggest surprises in baseball in 2023 with their 34-30 record and standing atop the NL Central.
McCutchen is so spry that he is jokingly looking ahead to his 3,000th hit – knowing there is almost no chance of that happening – especially with Major League Baseball contemplating the addition of a designated runner rule.
“I can play until I’m 50 if they do that,” he said. “Just hit and someone runs for me, that’s a piece of cake. The hits will come, and I will look back and see where I’m at. Two is good, more is better.”
Who knows where McCutchen’s final hit total will fall? Based on his magical first 2 ½ months of this season, there appears to be plenty more to come.