It has been 20 years since the Pittsburgh Pirates finished the regular season with a winning record. That year, Barry Bonds was the 1992 National League MVP as a member of the Pirates, the last time the franchise made the playoffs.
Luckily, Pirate fans can hide the paper bags and be proud to be Pirate fans once again. There is one big reason why the Pirates are currently in first place of the National League Central at the All-Star break: Andrew McCutchen.
Josh Hamilton, Mike Trout, Carlos Beltran, Melky Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Kemp and so many other stars are all having great years, but Andrew McCutchen has been the best player in the game this season.
McCutchen is batting .362 with 18 homeruns and 60 RBIs this season. He has the highest batting average in the game. His 18 bombs are tied for fourth most in the NL. His 60 runs batted in have him tied for third in the NL. He also has a .414 OBP, .625 SLG%, which combines for a 1.039 OPS. He ranks first in the NL in slugging (second highest in the majors), third in the NL in OBP (fourth in the majors), and second in OPS in both the NL and majors.
McCutchen has also displayed exceptional baserunning skills by swiping 14 bags this season, which is pretty remarkable for a No. 3 hitter. He is tops in the game in total bases. He has also scored 58 runs this season, which is tied for third most in the NL. Let's not forget he is one of the best centerfielders in the game, and will have a few gold gloves hanging on his mantel before he retires.
Look up the definition of a five-tool player and this is what you will find: Andrew McCutchen.
Just imagine what this 25-year old kid is trying to accomplish. The Pirates have been one of the worst baseball teams over the last two decades. He wanted to stay in Pittsburgh and signed a six-year contract extension before the 2012 season so he can lead this team back to greatness. He has set Twitter on fire with his - #whynotnow trademark. He believes this team can get back to the postseason, and has Pirate fans believing the time is now. He wants to get this team back to playing meaningful games in October, and by the looks of it, he is on track to be the first MVP in Pittsburgh since Barry Bonds. Still a long way to go of course, but he has been the best player in the game this season.
During late June, McCutchen did something only Honus Wagner ever accomplished. During a five-game span starting on June 28, he went 14-21 with two home runs, six-RBI, and 11 runs scored. You have to date all the way back to 1904 to find the last player to ever have 14 hits and 11 runs during a five-game span.
McCutchen has put this team on his back. Since May 12, the Pirates are 34-19, tied with the Angels and Yankees for the best record over this period. The consistent play of McCutchen has been the main cog in the Pirates recent success. In the month of May his numbers were nasty.
May: .360 avg., 8 HR's, 18 RBI, 16 runs, .424 OBP, .709 SLG%, 1.134 OPS, and 5-6 in stolen bases.
His stellar play didn't let up one bit during the next calender month. McCucthen was named National League Player of the Month in June.
June: .370 avg., 7 HR's, 26 RBI, 19 runs, .420 OBP, .676 SLG%, 1.096 OPS, and 4-5 in stolen bases.
Wait. He wasn't done. His July has been absolutely insane. In eight games, McCutchen is on track to win player of the month once again.
July: .517 avg., 3 HR's, 9 RBI, 11 runs, .548 OBP. .931 SLG%, 1.479 OPS.
All of these numbers are huge for the Pirates success this season, but the one quality that he brings to the table is his leadership ability. He has put this team on his back and has showed how it is done. By signing his contract extension before the season, he showed the franchise he wants to lead the way. He has helped Pedro Alvarez finally get on track. The Pirates have been waiting patiently for Alvarez to show why they selected him as the second pick overall in the 2008 amateur draft. His 16 HR's this season are tied for eighth in the NL.
It finally looks like Alvarez has found his comfort zone in the big leagues. In his first two years in the bigs, he had 20 HR's in 582 at-bats. This season he has 16 in 255 at-bats. Neil Walker has been a solid ball player in his first two years, but he is having his best season since being called up in 2009. Garrett Jones is having his most consistent season in his fourth year as a member of the Pirates. A.J. Burnett has been one of the better pitchers in the game, along with James McDonald. Joel Hanrahhan has been money closing games this year. His 23 saves are second best in the NL. The Pirates success starts with McCutchen and the rest of the team is following his lead.
There have been a ton of great stories in the first half of the season. R.A. Dickey's knuckleball revolution is amazing. Rookies Mike Trout and Bryce Harper have been playing like seasoned vets this season, the two biggest prospects in quite some time. Matt Cain became the first pitcher to ever throw a perfect game for the Giants' organization. It only took their franchise 129-years to witness this. His 14-strikeout performance in a perfect game tied him with Sandy Koufax for the most K's in a perfect game. Josh Hamilton became the 16th player to hit four HR's in a game. Despite all of these great feats we have seen this year, the story of Andrew McCutchen and the Pittsburgh Pirates, has been the best in the game this season.
There is still a long way to go this season. We are only half way done, but a lot of people will be keeping a close eye on the Pittsburgh Pirates. It would be a tremendous story if McCutchen can lead the Pirates back to the postseason for the first time in 20 years. The Pirates haven't been relevant since Barry Bonds left after the 1992 season. Andrew McCutchen has finally given the Pirate fans something to cheer about. The playoffs were always left to the Steelers and Penguins in the city of Pittsburgh, but in 2012, the Pirates are finally back into the discussion. All of this comes back to one man: McCutchen.
He has been the first half MVP this season, but the more important question is, will he continue this in the second half? We will have to wait and see. Judging on how he has gotten better month-by-month, it would be hard to think he won't keep this up.