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BEING THE NATURAL ISN'T ENOUGH

June 18, 2012
June 18, 2012

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June 18, 2012

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BEING THE NATURAL ISN'T ENOUGH

Andrew McCutchen is breaking out in Pittsburgh—and providing a model for how teams can turn draft-day studs into major league stars

Gregg Ritchie entered the manager's office clutching the printout that would change Andrew McCutchen's career. It was May 2007, and Ritchie, the Pirates' minor league hitting coordinator, had traveled to Altoona, Pa., on a search-and-rescue mission for the young outfielder's lost swing. McCutchen, then 20, had been Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick in 2005, and he was at the top of the organization's small group of promising minor leaguers; before the '07 season Baseball America ranked him as the 13th-best prospect in the game. McCutchen cruised through his first two years in the minors, hitting .297 with 16 home runs and 39 stolen bases in 172 games at the Rookie and Class A levels, then finishing 2006 by batting .308 in a 20-game stint with Altoona, the Pirates' Double A affiliate. The following spring, buzz in Pirates camp was that the centerfielder might make the Opening Day roster—though he had spent all of three weeks above A ball.

This is an article from the June 18, 2012 issue

McCutchen ended up returning to Altoona after camp. He began the 2007 season 0 for 15. By the end of April he was hitting .189, and, having no experience in handling a prolonged slump, he took to expanding his strike zone and pressing at the plate. Says McCutchen, "I had never in my life struggled."

Enter Ritchie, who pulled into Altoona, sat the prospect down and showed him an 8½-by-11-inch printout with McCutchen's name at the top and what sounded like a report from a very cranky area scout: Hands too high. He's on his front leg. Hands are over his head. Not much of a load. Swing is too sharp to the ground....

It was a list of flaws in McCutchen's hitting mechanics that Ritchie had written down a year and a half earlier, on his first day on the job. When McCutchen was raking in the low minors, the list stayed buried in Pittsburgh's player-development database, which stores detailed progress and scouting reports on every player in the organization. There was no reason for the club's instructors to fix something that didn't seem to be broken, and McCutchen was unaware that such a list existed. But when he began to struggle, the organization's coaches pounced. "He had played on talent alone for so long," says Brandon Moore, Altoona's hitting coach at the time.

McCutchen had been a minor leaguer for two years, but this was the moment when he truly became a professional: He learned that even for the bluest of baseball's blue-chip prospects, natural talent isn't enough. The struggling minor leaguer examined Ritchie's list of flaws and recommended fixes, looked the coach in the eye and said, "Let's go do it."

NOW 25, MCCUTCHEN is in his fourth major league season. He was an All-Star in 2011, when he hit 23 home runs and stole 23 bases. This year he's threatening to make those numbers look mundane: In Pittsburgh's first 59 games he hit .325 with 11 homers, 11 steals and a .951 OPS, all while playing stellar defense in centerfield. The Pirates' surprising start—after a weekend sweep of the Royals they were 32--27 and tied with the Reds for first place in the NL Central—is largely due to McCutchen's keeping their offense afloat. Through the Kansas City series Pittsburgh had scored just 191 runs, fewest in the majors; 57 of them had been produced by McCutchen.

The Pirates stamped their five-tool centerfielder as the franchise cornerstone last off-season by signing him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension, the second-largest deal in club history and one that keeps him under team control through 2018. McCutchen, the 11th pick in one of the deepest drafts ever (sidebar, page 65), represents a shining example of a franchise finding the player-development holy grail: The Pirates groomed a raw, homegrown talent into a major league star.

But McCutchen's story is also a case study in a dilemma every organization faces with top draft choices: When is the right time to help them unlearn bad habits—especially if those flaws aren't affecting their minor league performance? Making changes too early can damage a player's confidence and his trust in his coaches. (McCutchen says that if Ritchie had approached him with that to-do list when he was hitting .300 in A ball, his reaction would have been along the lines of, "What, am I going to hit .450 now?") Waiting too long can be costly too. Bad habits can become ingrained, and shedding them becomes more difficult as a player rises through the ranks. "You've got to pick your spots," Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington says. "There are teaching moments."

Most organizations are willing to see how far a prospect's natural talent will take him; the days of rebuilding a blue chipper's flawed swing a few days after he's drafted are gone. "The thing that we've all got to be careful of is, Don't just jump right in there," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long says. "That's what we're getting paid to do—teach—but sometimes it's better to lay back and watch for a while. You're going to lose trust if you jump in right away."

Adds Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, "Over the years I've become less aggressive about making changes early in the process." Walker believes that while everyone is different, there is one truism about getting a young player to listen to coaching: "He's got to believe there's a problem."

No one could blame McCutchen if he believed his swing was problem-free when he reported to the Pirates' rookie-level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League three weeks after he was drafted. As a 14-year-old eighth-grader, he was so good that he took over as the starting varsity shortstop at Fort Meade (Fla.) High—and then hit .507, best in the county. As a ninth-grader in the fall of 2002, McCutchen signed up for private hitting lessons with Matt Diaz, a 24-year-old Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect who had hit .274 with 10 home runs at Double A the previous season. The instruction ended after two lessons. "I told him, 'If you want to keep coming, that's fine, but I've got nothing for you,'" recalls Diaz, now a Braves outfielder and 10-year big league veteran who was McCutchen's Pirates teammate last year. "His bat speed surpassed mine. He was in ninth grade. It was a little discouraging."

The Pirates scouted every one of McCutchen's games in his senior year. The first time scouting director Ed Creech showed up, McCutchen hit a home run toward a cow pasture beyond leftfield. One of the club's scouts went beyond the fence and walked off the distance: roughly 500 feet. McCutchen ended up hitting .709 with 16 home runs that season, but because Fort Meade played in one of Florida's lower high school levels, the Pirates weren't sold on his skills. In March 2005 they invited him to their spring training facility in Bradenton, about an hour from Fort Meade, for a workout. Most of the club's player-development decision makers—general manager, scouting director, farm director, minor league hitting coordinator, scouts—surrounded the batting cage to watch the 18-year-old McCutchen take BP with outfield prospect Rajai Davis, a 24-year-old who hit .314 in Class A during the previous year. "I was nervous for the kid," says Rob Sidwell, the scout who found McCutchen for the Pirates. "He handled himself like it was no big deal. In that workout he outshined Rajai Davis."

That performance helped convince the Pirates that McCutchen was their pick. His maturity and calm demeanor made an impression on the front office too. "They could see something—that spark," says Pirates owner Bob Nutting. Two years later, those intangibles would be as instrumental in McCutchen's rise to the majors as the swing he displayed that day.

After Ritchie confronted McCutchen with the list of his shortcomings, they got to work. They designed daily instruction and accomplishment plans, and Altoona manager Tim Leiper held McCutchen out of the lineup for a few days so he could focus on working with Ritchie and Moore. "I believed in them," McCutchen says. "Anyone can be coachable if you just accept the fact that you need to change."

The items on Ritchie's printout were all related to a basic problem: McCutchen had to learn to keep his hands close to his body so the barrel of the bat would move quickly through the hitting zone—what coaches call staying inside the ball. One of McCutchen's greatest natural talents is that his hands are impossibly quick and can generate bat speed that produces unusual power for his 5'10", 185-pound frame. When he began to combine that quickness with better hand control, McCutchen's Double A struggles ended. In 2007 he batted .307 over his final 41 games with Altoona. He was called up to Triple A Indianapolis and hit .313 over 17 games, then batted .283 in a full season there in '08. He debuted with the Pirates the following year and hit .286 with 12 home runs and an .836 OPS in 108 games as a rookie.

"Adversity is a great teacher," says Pittsburgh assistant G.M. Kyle Stark, who oversees player development. "Our philosophy here is that we're trying to maximize what guys do naturally, so we want to see that before we change things."

McCutchen's development has been mirrored by a shockingly high number of his fellow 2005 first-round draftees—10 of the 48 players taken in that round have already earned an MVP or Cy Young vote or received an All-Star nod. When the Pirates centerfielder sees a highlight of one of his peers from that group—it includes Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki among others—he'll shout to anyone who happens to be listening, "Oh-five draft class, don't forget!

"It's unbelievable," he says. "We've got some studs drafted in that class. I let people know."

Pittsburgh now hopes McCutchen will become part of an even more exclusive club: active players who have helped the Pirates finish .500. With Pittsburgh mired in a 19-year streak of losing seasons, there are no such players—but the start of this season is reason for hope. "Once that streak is beaten, you're going to want something else," McCutchen says. "Why not reach the playoffs and win the World Series? Why not do it all? Let's open some eyes, man."

If McCutchen can do that, he'll have ticked the boxes on an even more important checklist.

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THE PIRATES FOUND THE PLAYER-DEVELOPMENT HOLY GRAIL: THEY GROOMED A RAW PROSPECT INTO A BIG LEAGUE ALL-STAR.
PHOTOPhotograph by MORRY GASH/APTHE KINDEST CUT The Pirates always believed in McCutchen's innate talent, but telling him how good he wasn't became the key to making him a player to build the franchise around.PHOTOBRAD MANGINPHOTOBRAD MANGIN/MLB PHOTOS/GETTY IMAGESTRYING TO BUC THE ODDS McCutchen is doing his part, but he'll need help from other hitters in a weak lineup for the Pirates to break their streak of losing seasons.