Andrew McCutchen makes his return to Pittsburgh tonight as the San Francisco Giants open a three-game series against the Pittsburgh Pirates. The series opener marks the first of nine straight home games for the Bucs.
As mentioned, the former face of the Pirates finally returns home. Expect to see a tribute video, a long standing ovation, and a lot of number 22 jerseys. It’s all warranted.
Cutch, as he was affectionately known, WAS the Pittsburgh Pirates for several years until the team found their way back into the playoffs. Even then, he was the guy everyone still loved.
Hot take incoming: Andrew McCutchen was the most polarizing Pittsburgh athlete since the turn of the Millennium.
But Cutch is gone and the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates are better without him and so far it’s not really debatable.
For the record, this isn’t about saying that McCutchen sucks now. It’s more or less to prove that getting rid of a 31-year old outfielder who had been declining over the years was the right move and upset fans need to understand that.
The two are not far apart in terms of records. The Pirates are 21-16 and in second place in the NL Central with a 10-3 record against the division. The Giants are 19-19 and in third place in the NL West; however, they’re currently missing a few key players due to injury.
The outfield situation
Whether Cutch was a Pirate or not, Starling Marte would likely have manned centerfield, as was the plan heading into 2017 before Marte’s 80-game suspension.
So as McCutchen gets traded, it was assumed Polanco would stay in right field and a platoon of guys would play left.
Then for some reason, the Tampa Bay Rays designated All Star outfielder Corey Dickerson for assignment. Neal Huntington jumped at the opportunity almost immediately and suddenly Pirate fans had a reason for some optimism in the offseason.
Despite Dickerson not being known for his defensive abilities, he is currently tied for the major league lead in outfield assists with four and his Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) is at 5.
As a Pirate, McCutchen wore out his welcome as the centerfielder as he didn’t have the strongest arm and struggled going back on fly balls and in 2016, his DRS was -28. While in 2017 he brought his DRS up to 2, it was still clear he was better suited in right field.
No more slow starts
The aforementioned trade for Dickerson could not have turned out better for the Pirates. The 28-year old leads the team in batting average (.323), runs batted in (26), and extra base hits (17).
Now of course, we have Gregory Polanco and Josh Bell struggling to do much of anything with a bat in their hands for the first quarter of the year. Luckily guys like Francisco Cervelli and Colin Moran are there to pick them up.
In recent years, Cutch was known for his slow starts in Pittsburgh and it seemed to have followed him to the West Coast. Heading into May, he was hitting just .200 with 11 RBI and three home runs. However, he seems to have turned it around coming into the Pittsburgh series riding a nine game hitting streak (12-for-38).
Chemistry made easy
Jordy Mercer said it best himself, no one expected them to win. They get to just go out and have fun.
While the team has its fair share of seasoned veterans, it’s an overall young group. Mercer, Cervelli, and Harrison among others get to be the main leaders in the clubhouse now. They seem to have let everyone be themselves and not put many restrictions on anything.
From post-game locker room dancing (RIP) to mustard showers for rookies, this is a loose team and they aren’t putting pressure on themselves.
There’s no sabermetrics for team chemistry but it’s no coincidence that things have seemed to change once Cutch and Gerrit Cole are gone.
When it comes down to it, this is going to be an emotional weekend.
If you’ve been watching games and enjoying the success the team has had so far, I hope you really embrace the moment seeing Cutch back in PNC Park. Think of it as the official changing of the guard ceremony.
However, if you are one of the fans boycotting the team, I really hope you find it in you to go out to the ballpark this weekend.
You’ll see a familiar face but more importantly you’ll see what you’re missing by not supporting these 2018 Pirates.
Hopefully I’ll be seeing you there.