He may be at the height of his powers on a baseball diamond, but one of Andrew McCutchen’s greatest talents already has faded away. ¶ He no longer possesses the power to surprise his manager. ¶ “I don’t know what it would be,” said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle, squinting as he considered the last time his MVP center fielder did something during a baseball game that left him astonished. “When you’re around great players like Andrew, you see him do so many things well, you stop being surprised by his ability to do whatever you need him to do.”
Really, nothing McCutchen does, not the diving catches, the home-run power, the bunt singles, clutch hits and stolen bases — nothing about the National League’s best all-around ballplayer is unexpected anymore? McCutchen has made a career — an entire life, come to think of it — of surprising people. Just ask his fiancée, Maria Hanslovan — McCutchen shocked her by proposing marriage during an appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” last December, a heartfelt moment that immediately went viral far beyond baseball’s borders.
Wait, there is something, his manager finally remembers. “I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him draw,” Hurdle says triumphantly. “I wasn’t aware he has some artist in there as well.”
How fitting, considering the artistry that the 27-year-old Floridian has demonstrated ever since he broke in with the Pirates in 2009. He’s batted above .300, with an on-base percentage above .400, in each of the past three seasons, all the while averaging around 20 homers and 20 stolen bases per season. Not to mention outfield range that ranks just this side of Willie Mays, and a throwing arm that produced 11 assists last season.
Yet McCutchen somehow seems restricted by the notion of a “five-tool” player. As Hurdle points out, he’s got plenty more than five talents.
“Let’s see, music? I’ve heard him play keyboards, watched him on guitar,” Hurdle said. “He can dance — he does imitations that are entertaining. He took me along to places where he did some public speaking after winning the MVP. … He’s really gifted in front of large groups.”
Particularly in front of pitchers. No wonder that, in a poll of Baseball Writers Association of America members conducted by the Star Tribune, McCutchen was a runaway winner for the title of “Best Five-Tool Player” in the National League. McCutchen gathered 29 votes in the midseason balloting, with Milwaukee’s Carlos Gomez a distant second with 11 votes. Colorado’s Carlos Gonzalez was third with eight.
“That’s good to know. A five-tool player, that’s why I was drafted. But I’m trying to fine-tune those tools, sharpen them,” McCutchen said. “A lot of guys might have physical tools, but it’s about making them consistent. That’s what I’ve tried to do for a long time now.”
That effort has paid off in an MVP award, a $51 million contract that he signed after only three seasons in the majors, and a trip to the playoffs — Pittsburgh’s breakthrough season after two decades of frustration. Getting to the postseason, even for only one round, “was a revelation,” McCutchen said. “It was such a thrill for the city and the team, it was unforgettable. But it didn’t satisfy us — it just made us that much hungrier. We can go so much farther.”
Hard as it is to believe, McCutchen insists he can, too. He’s not as adept as he would like to be at pitch recognition. He’s learning to shade hitters toward their own hitting tendencies, to increase his range. And he wants to become fluent in the language of pitchers, to think along with them.
“The thing I really have to work on is plate discipline. Hitting for average, that’s going to come. But being disciplined at the plate, that’s probably the toughest thing of everything,” McCutchen said. “Just being the guy who, more than likely, will get pitched differently than anyone else — it’s up to you to figure that out quicker than normal. That’s the goal I’ve set for myself.”
Being a big-league ballplayer was once McCutchen’s goal, though there was plenty of reason to believe he might be sidetracked. Growing up in Fort Meade, a central Florida town about 50 miles east of Tampa, as the son of a pair of former athletes, there was no mistaking the direction he would be nudged. “Oh, it’s a football town,” said the talented high school wide receiver, a coveted recruit if he had committed to that game. McCutchen scored touchdowns as a receiver and punt returner, and on a couple of kickoffs, too.
Football recruiters from Florida State and Miami, Georgia and Central Florida, among others, inquired. What they found was a reluctant pass-catcher. McCutchen wanted to catch fly balls, not footballs. He wanted to hit — but baseballs, not other players.
“I’ve always liked hitting. That’s my first love in sports. It didn’t matter what it was when I was a kid — I’d pick up a broomstick and some rocks, and work on my swing,” McCutchen said. “I’d get the oranges that weren’t ripe yet, pick them up while they were super green, still small. I’d throw them in the air and hit them. I could do stuff like that for hours. Rocks, fruit, tennis balls, anything I could find, I’d hit.”
So when it came time to choose, there really wasn’t much of a choice. McCutchen put his football offers in a box, many unanswered.
“Baseball was the first sport I ever played growing up. I didn’t even pick up a football until I was 10 years old,” McCutchen said. “Baseball came more natural to me, and I love to hit [baseballs] more than anything. That’s why I decided to stick with baseball.”
His teammates are glad that he did.
“It’s great, and it’s important to have someone who catches over here, and then over there. He catches everything,” said Francisco Liriano, a pitcher who has been backed up by such outfielders as Torii Hunter, Denard Span and Ben Revere during his career. “If anyone can get to the right spot, he can.”
“He takes fast and smooth,” said catcher Russell Martin, “to a whole new level.”
The smoothness was evident in that national-TV marriage proposal, an event that introduced him to a whole new audience. He was invited onto the DeGeneres show to talk baseball, but the host loved the idea of turning it into something far more personal.
“I just wanted to make [the proposal] as big as I could. I got over the nerves, got over the national TV part, I didn’t care about that. I was just trying to let it flow out,” McCutchen said of his confession of true love. “The hard part was before the show, trying not to give away that I was planning to propose. It was fun, but I’m glad it’s over now. It was hard to keep the surprise.”