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.
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.