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By Jeff Saukaitis, TSN Contributor - Archive - Email
Pirates' McCutchen deserving of MVP buzz
Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - Whenever Andrew McCutchen steps to the plate in a Pittsburgh Pirates home game these days, the fans in the stands start a loud "M-V-P" chant.

Here's hoping the voters hear them loudly and clearly when it comes time to make their selections.

Over the past couple of weeks, if you listened to a cross section of MLB radio and TV broadcasts, you may have heard these kinds of statements:

"Joey Votto is the clear leader for MVP, but guys like Andrew McCutchen and David Wright will be candidates if their teams continue to contend."

"A guy you shouldn't forget about -- Andrew McCutchen of the Pirates. Sure, he's a long shot, but maybe he won't be if the Pirates make the playoffs."

On Monday, Reds first baseman Votto learned that he'd need surgery to repair torn meniscus in his knee. He'll be sidelined three or four weeks, which could certainly have an adverse effect on his NL MVP candidacy.

Even before Votto's diagnosis, though, McCutchen was already starting to stake his claim to the award. He has been NL player of the week for each of the last two weeks, and he's anything but a long shot for the MVP award now.

Let's preface this by saying that about 11 weeks remain in the baseball regular season. If McCutchen becomes a mere mortal during that time, then he likely won't be the NL's MVP.

The guess here is that McCutchen will continue to establish himself as the league's most exciting young star. He's leading the NL in batting average at .372. He's second in home runs with 21 and tied for second in RBIs with 64. By nearly any measure, McCutchen is among the top MVP contenders.

Yet, some seem to feel that he won't win it this year unless the Pirates take the National League Central Division title. They trail the Cincinnati Reds by one game heading into Tuesday's action.

Votto was perceived to be the MVP leader at the All-Star break. He has looked like a deserving candidate, too. He is second in the league with a 1.069 OPS, which is arguably the most significant offensive stat. McCutchen is first at 1.073.

There's another big offensive stat that doesn't always get the most attention - runs produced (RBIs plus runs scored, minus home runs).

Votto has produced 87 runs. McCutchen has produced 104. New York Mets third baseman David Wright leads the NL with 105 runs produced. Ryan Braun, last year's MVP, has produced 99. Those are probably the top four MVP candidates in the NL thus far.

Other potential candidates, should they continue their solid play during the second half of the season, would include the St. Louis Cardinals' Carlos Beltran and Yadier Molina, the San Francisco Giants' Melky Cabrera, and, maybe to a lesser degree because their teams are struggling, the Philadelphia Phillies' Carlos Ruiz and the Colorado Rockies' Carlos Gonzalez.

Through mid-May, the Los Angeles Dodgers' Matt Kemp would have been considered the runaway leader, but a hamstring injury sidelined him for the better part of two months and pretty much destroyed his MVP hopes.

McCutchen is first in OPS and second in runs produced. His numbers are outstanding across the board, but what's the biggest reason he should he be the leading MVP candidate?

It's simple. He represents so much of the Pirates' offense, having produced 29 percent of their runs. Other than third baseman Pedro Alvarez, who is a Rob Deer clone (18 homers, 94 strikeouts in 269 at-bats), and above-average second baseman Neil Walker, the Pirates lack offensive weapons to complement McCutchen.

Why teams don't pitch around McCutchen more often is mind-boggling. He has been issued a mere seven intentional walks this season. With the parade of pretenders in the cleanup spot (including No. 4 hitter du jour Casey McGehee), McCutchen simply doesn't get much protection in the Bucs' lineup.

With a weak supporting cast around McCutchen, the Pirates have still managed to generate enough offense to fight for first place in the NL Central Division. They're ninth in the league with 363 runs scored, thanks to a great month of June and McCutchen's red-hot July.

Votto has the likes of Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce hitting behind him. That helps quite a bit. Teams are far less likely to pitch around Votto, because the Reds have proven run producers coming up after him.

Phillips paces the Reds with 88 runs produced. He also has 50 RBIs, one more than Votto. Bruce is the team leader with 57 RBIs, and he's tied with Votto with 87 runs produced.

That's not to say that Phillips or Bruce is as deserving as Votto when it comes to MVP talk. They're not; Votto is easily the best all-around hitter and the most feared of the three. What the stats illustrate, though, is that it's easier for Votto to produce big numbers in a solid Reds middle of the order than it is for McCutchen to do the same in his team's mediocre-at-best lineup.

Braun is on pace to hit more home runs and drive in more runs than he did last year, when he edged Kemp for the NL MVP. The most impressive thing about that is that he no longer has Prince Fielder protecting him in the Brewers' lineup.

However, two factors will probably work against Braun as he tries to repeat. With a 42-47 overall record, the Brewers more likely to sell at the trade deadline than they are to contend for a playoff berth. Even more importantly, though, the feeling is that numerous voters will decline to vote for Braun again because of his positive test for extraordinarily high levels of testosterone at the end of last season.

Braun successfully won his appeal on a technicality and avoided a 50-game suspension to begin this season, but a majority of voters is unlikely to agree that Braun's urine sample was tampered with. If most voters buy the tampering story, then Braun's stats (.312, 26 homers, 65 RBIs) will give him a chance to win the MVP even if the Brewers don't return to the playoffs.

The Mets' Wright will also be a legitimate MVP candidate, especially if his team remains in contention all season. He has an outside shot at finishing first in the NL in batting (currently .345) and OPS (currently .991). With just 11 homers, though, he would probably have to improve his power numbers to win the MVP.

Wright is having a great season and has clearly been the leader of a Mets team that has far exceeded expectations. However, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda and Daniel Murphy are all on pace to drive in better than 80 runs, so the supporting cast around Wright is better than perceived.

If you're McCutchen, you have not had great table setters in front of you, nor outstanding run producers behind you. You have essentially been the Pirates' offense.

Despite the enormous pressure that's been put on McCutchen's shoulders, he's turning in by far his finest season. He has never hit more than 23 homers in a season, but he has 21 already. He has never scored more than 94 runs in a season, but he has 61 already. He's never driven in more than 89 runs, but he has 64 already.

McCutchen's previous best batting average was .289, but it's .372 this year. His previous best slugging percentage was .471, but it's .649 so far this season. His previous best on-base percentage was .365, but this year it's .424.

McCutchen has a legitimate shot at the NL Triple Crown, and he is also playing Gold Glove-caliber defense at a critical position - center field.

McCutchen has never so much as received a 10th-place vote for NL MVP during his previous three seasons with the Pirates. If his second half of 2012 is anything like his first half, he's going to deserve most of this year's first-place votes.

Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.