Neal Huntington Discusses Strong Recent Performances From McCutchen, Jaso, Kingham

Andrew McCutchen had an .852 OPS in the final two months of the 2016 season, after getting a few days off at the start of August. Prior to that, he was struggling, having the worst year of his career at the time.

The Pirates benched McCutchen for two games last week in similar fashion after his new worst start of his career. When McCutchen returned, he was batting sixth in the order, giving him a lower pressure situation. And as I wrote last week, they needed him to start hitting again, not just to give them any kind of shot during the 2017 season, but also to get any kind of value from him when they eventually part ways.

So far, so good.

McCutchen has played four games since returning, hitting for an impressing .357/.471/.857 line. That was capped off with a walk-off home run last night to give the Pirates a 4-3 win over the Arizona Diamondbacks.

It’s too early to dig in to the stats — we’re still only talking about four games — and see if there are any signs that McCutchen is turning it around. For now, it’s just a good sign to see him coming out of his break performing so much better.

“It’s just fun for him,” Pirates’ General Manager Neal Huntington said on Sunday night, prior to McCutchen’s big game winner. “I know watching him, you see the frustration that he’s not been able to help this club the way we’ve become so accustomed to him helping us. To take a deep breath, to acknowledge what hasn’t gone well and then to try to figure how to get it to go well again and then to get a couple big hits, it’s good to see for Andrew. Now, the work needs to continue.”

McCutchen struggled for the first four months of the 2016 season, and struggled for the first two months this year. He showed last year that he can still be the old Andrew McCutchen at times. But he’s also showing that it’s not as easy as before. This time, he realized he was struggling, and approached Clint Hurdle, Jeff Branson, and Jeff Livesey to get some necessary adjustments. He is currently applying those adjustments in games, and the early signs are encouraging.

“We’re grateful to him for ability to remove his ego and do what’s best for this team, what’s best for him going forward and for him to take his ego out of it, whether it was to move to right field or now drop in the lineup,” Huntington said. “He’s moved back to center field. He’s done a nice job when he’s been out there. If we get him swinging the bat, this offense has a chance to put a good run together.”

Jaso Heating Up

John Jaso is another player who is turning things around lately. He was sitting with a .486 OPS on May 8th, reaching his low point in May. Since that point, his bat has picked up, hitting for a .920 OPS, and coming up big in the late innings at the end of last week.

Huntington noted that Jaso was hitting this well during Spring Training, and was expected to provide this type of value off the bench from the start of the season.

“Another reminder that Spring Training is hard to predict from based on how somebody does — whether they have a good spring or a bad spring,” Huntington said. “John swung the bat really well this spring and seemed like he was going to flow right into a quality April. Not the results he was looking for or we were looking for. He continues to be a professional. He continues to show up and do his work. He continues to answer the bell when you ask him to do some different things like right field. He continues to get more comfortable out there, like [Sunday] night: two professional at-bats in really big situations. I look forward to more of those.”

The Pirates got some brief good news over the weekend when Gregory Polanco returned, giving them a better situation in the outfield and moving Jaso to the bench. With Polanco going down last night with an ankle injury, there is the possibility that Jaso could return to the outfield. If he keeps hitting, that wouldn’t be a problem in terms of getting his bat in the lineup, although it would create some defensive concerns.

Kingham Returning Strong

Nick Kingham’s return to Triple-A has gone fairly well. His first outing saw just two runs on six hits in 5.2 innings, with three walks and four strikeouts. The control issues were a bit concerning, but he’s done better in that regard in the two starts that followed.

Kingham walked just two in six innings during his next outing, giving up three runs on four hits, while striking out eight. He was hurt by a two run homer, leading to most of the damage.

His start on Sunday was his best one since returning. He gave up one run on three hits in 6.1 innings, with a walk and five strikeouts.

“[He showed] better with the aggression of the fastball,” Huntington said on his recent performance. “Better pitching his game than trying to make perfect pitches or exploiting a hitter’s weakness. The breaking ball and the changeup continue to get better. Really, just gaining experience and confidence at that level. He continues to be a guy that we believe can and will help us at some point this year.”

Kingham could be a rotation option for the Pirates in the second half, especially if he continues pitching like this. While most of the Pirates depth options have back of the rotation upside, Kingham could be a middle of the rotation starter one day, putting him at the front of the group when he’s on his game.

  • Wabbit_Season
    May 30, 2017 3:19 pm

    100 games to go and we’re 3.5 games out. I would wager that nobody would have expected this to be the case if you were told this spring that we were losing Kang and Marte and Cutch was going to drop off the planet.

    I would say if Cutch does what I think he’ll do the rest of the way out, we have a decent chance, especially if Marte joins rested late on. If TG or Kingham step up, I don’t see any reason why this club can’t contend…. given that our division seems to be stuck in a mud bog right now.

    The Bucs have already had their share of misfortunes this season. I think the gods of mischief have already used all their spells up on us. Only good from here on out, right?



    • A decent chance at what? Nothing literally matters if the Reds and Brewers continue to battle us the way they have this yr…

      • pierogieking
        May 30, 2017 4:03 pm

        I would say adding some good ole cutch production plus the other players Wabbit mentioned matters a little bit…

      • Joe Nastasi
        May 30, 2017 9:09 pm

        Reds & Brewer’s have done this to us for years

  • Sorry Jaso is not in any way shape or means deserving of GM kudos.

    • pierogieking
      May 30, 2017 2:01 pm

      Pretty nice slash line since May 8. Bucs needed it badly too. Doesn’t deserve All Star votes but give the guy a little bit of credit.

      • Darkstone42
        May 30, 2017 2:30 pm

        I don’t think folks will notice how well Jaso has hit the last few weeks because his start was so abysmal this season, it’s still holding his overall numbers way down. But, while he’s not the guy we’ve gotten the last three weeks, he’s closer to that guy than the guy who started the season, for sure.

        • He disappeared for long stretches last year, too, so this just may be who he is as an older hitter, but I have an optimistic explanation for the start of his season: he’s joined the fly ball revolution.

          An extreme ground ball hitter for the last few years, he’s cut his ground ball rate this year by 20%(!), and some comments during the spring along with his swing this year sure seem like it’s intentional. A swing/approach change that major could, in theory, take time to settle in. In theory, that time could’ve been the first month of the season, where he was admittedly abysmal. The last month, not so much.

          • Darkstone42
            May 30, 2017 4:27 pm

            Everything in his batted ball profile is better this year, even with the crappy start, except that his pull% is much higher. More fly balls and line drives, fewer ground balls, more hard hit balls, and less soft contact. And everything has been better in May than in March and April, in which his ISO has been a rather solid .188. Hopefully that means the new approach is working.

  • It would be great if Nick K came back from TJ surgery in similar fashion to Taillon, i.e., a better pitcher than before.

  • Sorry, Mr Huntington, but Andrew is NOT doing a good job in CF. He is sitting at -8 DRS so far this year. If he keeps it up, he may outpace last year’s horrible -28. The sooner he is moved back to RF, the better.

    • And UZR/150 of -1.5, which ranks middle of the pack among all centerfielders this year and would be the 3rd best mark of Cutch’s career.

      Plenty of chances to play “gotcha” with Huntington, but using a questionable defensive metric that’s easily refuted by another questionable defensive metric is just petty.

      • Darkstone42
        May 30, 2017 2:35 pm

        And he passes the eye test for being roughly average so far. There are balls that got down that I’m pretty sure Marte gets to, but measuring him against Marte isn’t exactly fair to him, since Marte is pretty awesome. He’s gotten to enough, and he’s mostly made the right decisions with his throws, too, which to me was the most frustrating thing about him in CF last year.

        • The problem with the “eye test” is that almost all FO’s are using analytics. They can read Fangraphs, also. 😉

          • I agree, and think your eye test is backed by the new statcast catch probability numbers that show him at 84% for 3-star catches, 84% for 2-star catches, and 90% for one-star catches versus 48%, 75%, and 84% last year.

            Combine better inherent performance (measured by statcast) with improved positioning depper in the outfield and I don’t see any reason not to trust him as an average-ish center fielder right now.

            -8 DRS seems completely implausible.

    • Foo, NH has to say that.

  • So far, been pretty lucky with the health of starters.
    With the new 10 day DL, maybe we might keep
    them strong by giving them a little rest mid summer
    if the quality depth is available.