Two things happened over Easter weekend that Pirates fans might have considered miracles at the end of last season:
- The Buccos swept the Cubs in Chicago.
- Andrew McCutchen — for one crucial at-bat — looked like that Andrew McCutchen.
With the Pirates trailing by one run in the seventh inning of Saturday’s matinee, McCutchen launched a three-run home run into the Wrigley Field seats and gave his team the lead for good.
It was vintage Cutch. Well, vintage pre-2016 Cutch.
On Andrew McCutchen’s Wikipedia page — at least at the time this published — there was no entry for the 2016 season. It was a year disgruntled Pirates fans (like the one tasked with the annual upkeep of Cutch’s Wiki) and McCutchen alike will never look back on fondly. But McCutchen’s extremely-lousy-by-his-standards 2016 happened, and it left plenty questions.
The two biggest questions were both answered in the offseason, a place McCutchen rarely made headlines before in his career. Will he stay or go, and where will he play if he stays?
Despite tons of speculation, the 30-year-old was not traded in the off-season. The only move he did make was from center to right field, which was announced in early February.
With his current status sealed (at least until the trade deadline nears), McCutchen’s biggest remaining question deals with his ability to bounce back. Will Cutch ever be clutch again?
For the first six full seasons of McCutchen’s career with the Pirates, the kind of game-changing moments like the one he provided Saturday became expected. On any given night, it seemed like McCutchen would come up big, the #McClutchen tweets would fly, the Buccos would win and everyone would leave the North Shore with a smile.
It was a recipe that revitalized baseball in Pittsburgh. But those same ingredients went missing most nights in 2016.
As McCutchen goes, the Pirates go. It doesn’t just feel that way, either. That’s been a consistent truth.
In McCutchen’s career, he has a 1.018 OPS in Pirates wins. That number is more than 300 points lower (.715) in losses. McCutchen’s career batting average is also more than 100 points higher in wins than losses (.344 to .240), and he’s hit 113 of his career homers in wins and just 64 homers in losses.
In 2016, McCutchen batted .225 and had more strikeouts (78) than hits (65) when the Bucs were on the losing side of games. The Pirates finished 78-83 last year, their first sub-.500 season since 2012.
“When it goes his way, it goes our way,” Pirates utilityman Josh Harrison accurately told MLB.com of McCutchen after his Saturday homer.
Manager Clint Hurdle, in the same story, illuminated the other reason McCutchen could return to form this season.
“To be in that situation and to have the ability to go ahead and put that swing on a pitch right there, it’s why he’s one of the elite players in the league,” Hurdle said.
While his status certainly took a blow last year, he’s still Andrew McCutchen. That’s a player who can raise a pitcher’s heart rate and have opposing fan bases chewing their fingernails when he steps up to the plate. He’s also a player who is going to be at the heart of the Pirates order when the daily lineup card is written.
McCutchen isn’t in the middle of the Pirates everyday lineup based solely off name recognition, though. Even after a down season, he remains the Bucs’ best option, as long as he’s healthy and not going through an epic slump (as seen in late July 2016).
McCutchen is going to get chances to come up big, and the Pirates — who are 6-6 on the season after the sweep of the Cubs — need their star to produce. He probably won’t put up MVP numbers again this season, but if he can improve on his stats from last year and come through with a few moments like Saturday, it should help keep his team in the playoff race, for a few months at least.
Through 12 games of the 2017 season, McCutchen is hitting .250 with a .732 OPS and seven RBIs. It’s not a scorching start, but it’s worth noting McCutchen’s worst month over his career has been April.
To determine if 2016 was an outlier for McCutchen or the start of a sharp career descent will take time. (What doesn’t in baseball?) So after a modest start with a signature game-winning hit, the question remains: Will Cutch ever be clutch again?
As long as the Pirates have McCutchen, they’ll need him to be. And as long as McCutchen is on the Pirates, he’ll have his chances.
Stephen Pianovich is a freelance baseball writer. He’s written for Land of 10 and MLB.com among other outlets.