Men on Fire: Robinson Cano and Andrew McCutchen

 

No player in the National League is hitting the ball with more authority right now than Andrew McCutchen is for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Same goes for Robinson Cano in the American League. Both players are on an absolute tear and have taken pole position in their respective MVP races.

McCutchen has been absolutely dominant in the month of July, hitting for an astounding .491/.536/.958!!! triple slash with 7 homers and 14 RBI in just 13 games. He’s brought his season totals up to .369/.423/.649 with 22 homers (1 shy of his career high), 65 RBI and 14 steals. He leads all of baseball in batting average, slugging, runs scored (65), total bases (216), and OPS+ (194). All of this production has Pittsburgh in the driver’s seat in the Wild Card race and they are  just a half game back of NL Central-leading Cincinnati. Those are the best numbers for a Pirates player since a young (and steroid-free) Barry Bonds roamed the outfield at Three Rivers Stadium in 1992. Coincidentally the 2012 edition of the Pittsburgh Pirates is also the best edition of the team since that ’92 squad was eliminated by Braves in the NLCS on a 2 run single in which Sid Bream scored the winning run.

McCutchen pretty much does everything well. He’s hitting like some sort of Babe Ruth throwback when ahead in the count, posting an OPS of over 1.200. McCutchen is also excellent when hitting with 2 strikes, batting a robust .304/.351/.615, a line most players would kill for. His defense is outstanding, despite the fact that defensive runs saved says he has cost the Pirates 9 runs this year. Other statistics like range factor, fielding percentage, and total zone runs saved paint a slightly more accurate picture, and credit him as one of the 5 best centerfielders in the National League.

McCutchen has also been very clutch this season, especially when hitting when the game is on the line. Baseball-Reference.com refers to at-bats that occur after the 7th inning with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck, as late and close situations. It’s difficult to pinpoint the exact who the most clutch hitters in baseball are, but McCutchen is no-doubt one of the best. He’s hitting a bananas .426/.471/.596 in these late and close situations with 2 homers and 9 RBI in 51 plate appearances, and if the rest of the Pirate offense outside of Neil Walker wasn’t so incompetent, that RBI total would be higher.

McCutchen signed a 6 year/$51.5 million dollar contract extension before the 2012 season, but since that hasn’t kicked in yet, Pittsburgh is only on the hook to pay their best player only half a million this season, making the talented centerfielder the best bargain in baseball. No player produces more while making less, and even when the largest payments of the new extension kick in during the 2016 and 2017 season ($14 mil during 2016, $14.75 mil during 2017, the long-haired McCutchen will still be a bargain. And the scariest thing is that he is only 25 and still may have a little room to grow as a player. Pirates fans have to be thrilled that their front office finally wised up and was able to lock down the most exciting player in baseball for the next 5 years and a bargain price.

The American League’s answer to Andrew McCutchen is Robinson Cano. The Yankee 2nd baseman is currently on one of the best tears of an already prodigious career, hitting safely in 21 straight games. This is no one-a-day vitamin hitting streak either. Cano has 11 multi-hit games during the streak and has hit with excellent power, blasting 6 homers while driving in 20 runners. Cano has raised his batting average 25 points since the streak started and has fully asserted himself into the AL MVP race, which is stacking up to be a doozy, featuring Josh Hamilton and the uber-talented Mike Trout. His hitting streak has brought his overall batting line up to .320/.380/.584 with 21 dingers and 55 RBI. He also has taken the American League lead in total bases (206), ranks 6th in OPS and runs scored, and he’s 3rd in the league in doubles.

Cano isn’t just an offensive force either. He’s arguably been the best defensive 2nd baseman in baseball, combining unorthodox, yet great footwork with an arm that resembles a cannon. Except for the 2011 season, advanced defensive statistics have never had much love for Cano, despite the fact that he year-in-and-year-out makes more plays than almost any other 2nd baseman. No player at the position has been involved in more plays (assists and putouts) than Cano over the past 2 and a half seasons, so why his defensive still rates as below average statistically is beyond me.

Historically, Cano may be on the way to one of the greatest seasons ever posted by a 2nd baseman in the live ball era (post-1920) by a player not named Rogers Hornsby*, and he’s definitely on his way to posting the best numbers by a 2nd baseman since Jeff Kent’s MVP season in 2000.

*Side note on the Rajah. He had for separate seasons in which he posted an OPS+ of over 200, with a career-high of 222, and he led the National League in OPS+ 9 different times. Granted, offensive production was down tenfold in the 1920s from what it is today, it’s nonetheless remarkable. He also has the highest batting average ever since the inception of the World Series in 1903, hitting .424 in 1924, a record that likely will never be broken. He managed a .400 average in 2 other seasons (1922 and 1925) as well and hit .397 once. He was truly a special, special player.

Cano’s current 152 OPS+ compares favorably to many of the previous MVP winners at the position. Of the 9 players who have won the award only Jeff Kent (162 OPS+ in 2000), Joe Gordon (OPS+ of 154 in 1942) and Joe Morgan (OPS+ of 169 in ’75 and an amazing 182 in ’76) have had better seasons. Jackie Robinson’s best MVP season produced an OPS+ of 152, Nellie Fox had a 113 OPS+ when he won the award, and Frankie Frisch had only a measly 101 OPS+ back in 1931, when he won the inaugural Baseball Writers Association MVP award. More recently Ryne Sandberg had a 140 OPS+ when he received the hardware in 1984 and Dustin Pedroia’s 2008 MVP season produced only a 123 OPS+, meaning that if Cano keeps this up, he’s in very, very good company.

The Yankees will need to lock him soon, because Cano can become a free agent after the 2013 season. He should command a small fortune due to the contracts handed out to Ian Kinsler and Brandon Phillips, who are both excellent players but not quite in Cano’s league. He’s only 29 right now and will probably look for an 8 year deal with an average annual value of about $20 mil or more per season. The Yankees usually are free spenders, and with Cano’s status as the franchise’s best homegrown player, he it wouldn’t be surprising to see him sign an extension this off-season.

As long as McCutchen and Cano continue to be major impact players at the plate, and their respective teams keep winning, both will remain viable MVP candidates through the September stretch. Fans in Pittsburgh and New York should take pride in these players as they both easily rank in the top-5 in all of baseball.

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