When searching for baseball's next breakout star, it's best to begin by looking for someone with a unique blend of speed, power and athleticism, a rare five-tool player. It should be someone heading into the prime of his career, usually his third year in the majors, the time when many players finally become accustomed to the quality of pitching, number of games and plethora of other variables that go into an MLB season. And it helps if the player in question made great strides in his previous campaign.
The search for 2011's breakout star begins and ends in Pittsburgh, where 24-year-old center fielder Andrew McCutchen will start his third season in the majors on the heels of an impressive 2010 and with all the requisite skills to make a run for his first All-Star selection and, perhaps, be a dark horse candidate for National League MVP honors.
Such a claim may seem outrageously premature for someone who has played just 262 career games in the majors and is employed by a perennial last-place team. But in 2010 McCutchen quietly pieced together a very impressive season, including a September performance that showcased all that the rising star has to offer. In the season's final month, McCutchen batted .324 with four HRs, 16 RBIs and five stolen bases, brining his final season totals to .286, 16 and 55. His 33 stolen bases and 94 runs scored ranked fifth and 12th, respectively, in the NL.
A key to McCutchen's success has been his consistent approach at the plate, where he trusts his hands and focuses on driving the drive the ball up the middle.
McCutchen's skill-set is reminiscent of his childhood idol, a former MVP himself. "I grew up watching Ken Griffey Jr.," says McCutchen. "He was a guy that I really loved to watch because of all the things that he could do -- he was a very exciting player. I believe that I can be, and I believe I am, that exciting player just like he is that can bring a lot to the table."
Obviously, McCutchen is a long way from being the type of impact player Griffey was during a Hall of Fame career that included 13 All-Star selections, 10 Gold Gloves and more than 600 home runs. But both were first-round draft picks and both compare favorably at similar points in their careers. Below is a look at how the two players did in their second seasons.
The only vast discrepancy was in RBIs, and that was a result of Griffey playing on a better Seattle team and McCutchen leading off for most of the beginning of the year. Griffey really erupted in his third season, 1991, when he hit .327 with 22 homers, 100 RBIs, 18 steals and 76 runs scored. It was his first 100-RBI season and the best batting average he would post in his 22-year career. He also established then-career highs in on-base and slugging percentage. Griffey placed ninth in MVP voting that year and brought home his first of seven career Silver Slugger Awards.
For a more recent comparison, there is Rockies outfielder Carlos Gonzalez. Last year, prior to his Triple Crown-threatening 2010 campaign, Gonzalez was 23 years old and going into his second MLB season, exactly the same situation as McCutchen this year. Gonzalez wasn't called up until June 5 and played in only 89 games, finishing with a .284 average, 13 home runs, 29 RBIs, 16 steals and 53 runs scored. Projected over 155 games, however, his stats look much different: .284 BA, 22 HRs, 42 RBIs, 27 SBs, 92 runs scored
Now here are his 2010 numbers, when he played a full season: .336 BA, 34 HRs, 117 RBIs, 26 SBs, 111 runs scored
"It's the game of baseball, and it's a crazy game," says McCutchen. "[Gonzalez] came up last year with the Rockies and had a decent year and he came this year and killed it. A lot of players do it."
In addition to Griffey and Gonzalez, other recent outfielders such as Carlos Beltran, Curtis Granderson and Andruw Jones also witnessed statistical leaps during their third year in the majors. Should McCutchen experience a similar jump in 2011, it would be hard to keep him out of the discussion of the game's best overall players.
Mired on the eternally lousy Pirates, who just completed their 18th consecutive losing season, McCutchen has been ignored for too long. Yet, if Felix Hernandez's sparkling 2010 has taught us anything, it's that great players should not be overlooked simply because they play for terrible teams.
"I'm just gonna keep preparing to get myself to be an elite player," says McCutchen. "With me, anything is possible.