There’s always that one player that comes to the plate that you just know is going to come through for his team. You say out loud or to your friends, “They shouldn’t pitch to him.” Sure enough, the pitcher does and the hitter makes him pay. This year, that guy is Andrew McCutchen. McCutchen is leading the league in hitting at .369 and has been tearing the cover off the ball in June and July especially. This month, McCutchen has a .458/.524/.792 line with seven home runs. .792 slugging? That’s unbelievable. In June, McCutchen hit seven more home runs and posted a line of .370/.420/.676.
So the question is, why are teams pitching to McCutchen?
His manager Clint Hurdle is just thankful that he’s on his team and he’s not facing him.
“I wouldn’t want to have to pitch to Andrew McCutchen right now,” Hurdle said. “I wouldn’t want to have to come up with that game plan.”
Although Hurdle hasn’t had to face McCutchen, he has had to face a hitter that has made many pitchers around the league pay for challenging him.
“Do you know how many chickens I hung at AT&T Park when Bonds came to the plate,” Hurdle asked. “There comes a point in time, we tried to come up with a game plan in Colorado just because we thought we’d establish this. We’d ask our pitchers what they wanted to do and they said we want to pitch to him. I said okay why? They said if we do this, and this, and this to him we can get him out. We had a little success.”
“Then we had a couple guys who went off the plan and it was second row, third row, fourth row, second deck. He’s tearing stuff up. Structural damage to the bleachers so we reel it back in and say it’s not about you, it’s about getting him out and answering to these 24 other men for what’s the best thing we can do for the ball club and to win a ballgame. I try to keep that in context.”
Fellow All-Star Joel Hanrahan said he has a simple answer for when guys around the league ask how they should approach him.
“Guys around the league ask me, ‘How would you pitch him?’ and I say, ‘As of now, I’d probably just stick my four fingers out and walk him,’” Hanrahan said. “It’s fun to watch him mature and be an elite center fielder that everyone knows he can be. He’s really taken that big turn.”
Hanrahan said he thinks a lot of it is McCuchen’s approach and his confidence this year.
“He’s been fun to watch. The change that he’s made from last year to this year has been unbelievable,” Hanrahan said. “He doesn’t look different, he’s just got that sense of confidence like, ‘Why are they even pitching to me. They know I’m going to get a hit. I know I’m going to get a hit. Everyone knows I’m going to get a hit.’”
“He’s facing guys that are coming at him. They’re giving him 0-2 breaking balls in a 0-0 count. They’re throwing their best stuff at him and he’s still making it look easy and barreling everything up. ”
Sometimes when you see the numbers, you think that it’s just McCutchen doing it by himself. The fact is, as Hurdle points out, the guys protecting him in the lineup have done a great job as well.
“You have to have someone back there when they miss or decide to pass that can drive runs in,” Hurdle said. “It’s the guys like Casey or Garret or Walk that can step up and do something. Them piggy-backing each other in that spot; they’ve done a very professional job. It’s been blue collar, under the radar, they just go and compete and do the best they can. I’m very proud of them. None of them has hit a lot of cleanup.”
Garrett Jones says that playing everyday has been the key for him and McGehee’s presence in the lineup.
“I think me and Casey kind of got off to a slow start there with platooning,” Jones said. “Now just getting the chance to play everyday we’re thriving on that and trying to have good quality at bats and do some damage to drive in some runs. With Cutch getting on base as much as he does, it gives us more opportunities to drive in some runs.”
Cubs pitcher Jeff Samardzija, who did have some success against McCutchen in Monday’s game said that if you walk him, you’re just picking a whole different poison.
“I was trying to work away the first at bat, but at the same time, I knew he was really hot and didn’t want to give him anything,” Samardzija said. “The other side of that is he’s a great base runner so you have to pick your poison.”
Jones said McCutchen’s speed on the base paths could make pitchers think twice from intentionally walking him.
“Cutch is a great, patient hitter. They don’t want to put him on base for a walk because he can steal, get on second and with me or Casey or Pedro, we can drive him in. I think that kind of hinders them to pitch around him.”
For Samardzija, he said when he’s on, he looks forward to those matchups.
“When you have a day you’re feeling pretty good, those are usually fun matchups. Because you know, just one mistake and good hitters like that can make a difference in a game with one swing,” Samardzija said. “It’s not that you have to be careful, but you have to be smart and aggressive at the same time.”
When the motorcycle revs in the ninth inning, Hanrahan comes in to close the games. The opposing manager will throw his best hitters available at him each and every night. But for Hanrahan, he said it’s why he plays the game and has the confidence he will get each man out.
“You absolutely have that ego that you can get them out. It’s what we live for and why we play the game for situations like that,” Hanrahan said. “As a pitcher, when you’re facing a guy like that, you step up your game somehow. You try to be the same for every hitter, but somehow you step up your game for that hitter. When facing a McCutchen, Kemp, Braun or Pujols, those are situations that as a pitcher, you absolutely love.”
Photo Credits: Associated Press