McCutchen surges despite big contract
For the longest time, Albert Pujols did nothing worth mentioning this season, and that's being kind. The $240 Million Man for the Los Angeles Angels joined the epidemic of guys signing big contracts in the spotlight before vanishing in the shadows.
The list of such infamy includes Alfonso Soriano, Barry Zito, Vernon Wells, Adam Dunn and Chone Figgins.
So why didn't I mention Andrew McCutchen, the gifted center fielder of the Pittsburgh Pirates? Isn't he another player who suddenly can afford to stay away from soup lines for a while?
Glad you asked, because McCutchen is a baseball rarity. Since he received the most expensive deal in the 130-year history of the Pirates three months ago, at $51.5 million over six years, he has gotten significantly better, not shockingly worse like many of his peers. In fact, he has resembled Roberto Clemente on some days and Honus Wagner on others.
He has hit steady and well enough to rank fourth in the National League at .333 entering Wednesday night's action.
Just call him the anti-Pujols.
"I like [Pujols], because for 10 years, he has been one of the greatest players out there on the field," McCutchen said of the decade in which Pujols prospered as a three-time NL MVP with the St. Louis Cardinals. He led all active hitters through 2011 with a lifetime batting average of .328 and a career slugging percentage of .617. He also had 445 home runs, averaging more than 40 per season.
Then Pujols became that $240 Million Man by going without a home run for his first 28 games and 111 at-bats. Worse, the night he broke out in early May, he was hitting under .200. And, despite slamming a flurry of homers the rest of the month, Pujols still isn't Pujols these days with a batting average that sits in the .240s.
McCutchen shrugged, saying, "Over time, he'll come out of it. He's still going to hit .300. He's still going to get 30 home runs. He still going to drive in over 100 runs. Right now, he's not doing what he wants to do, but I don't know if you can say his struggles are because of the contract."
Yes, you can say it -- at least, I will.
Pressure bursts pipes, and when it comes to many of those with big contracts, pressure causes the hitters to grip bats too tightly and the pitchers to do the same with baseballs. It all contributed to Adam Dunn forgetting how to slam pitches toward the stars after doing so regularly for years and to Barry Zito losing the ability of a former Cy Young Award winner to retire hitters more often than not.
Guess McCutchen can handle pressure. He never has hinted of producing sawdust after gripping a bat. He also maintains his smooth glove in the outfield and his swift ways on the bases.
"Well, signing [a big contract] wasn't pressure for me, because it was all about trying to get it," said McCutchen, 25, in his fourth season in the Major Leagues, all with the Pirates. "So it really was just a matter of going out there every day, working hard, but my overall goal wasn't trying to get a big contract. It was trying to win a championship.
"That's why, during this past offseason, I worked as hard as I possibly could, because I wanted to go into this season with the attitude of, 'You know what? Regardless of the outcome, I did everything I could to become a better ballplayer.'
"I just felt like that, with that kind of mentality, all of that other stuff would be able to fall into place."
No question, it has done so for McCutchen (as in his getting that mighty contract with the Pirates), and this was despite McCutchen flashing more potential than production. He batted .286 in each of his first two seasons, and then he dropped to .259 last year.
Even so, McCutchen showed his versatility and team-first attitude in 2011 by agreeing to float between the leadoff and third spots in the Pirates' order. He produced career highs with 23 home runs and 89 RBIs along the way to his first All-Star Game appearance.
Not only that, those around the Allegheny, Monongahela and Ohio rivers began to embrace McCutchen's infectious personality as the days became weeks and the weeks became months and years.
Now, unless your name is Sidney Crosby or Ben Roethlisberger, nobody is more famous as a sports personality in Pittsburgh right now than McCutchen and his dreadlocks. In fact, no Pirate has been this high-profile in the city since Barry Bonds.
That was 20 years ago.
"I treat all the attention as a reminder that I should remain the same person that I've always been," said McCutchen, who grew up in Fort Meade, Fla., where his father, Lorenzo, is a youth minister in the church that featured McCutchen singing in the choir.
In addition to baseball, Andrew played football and ran track at his Fort Meade high school. But baseball was the sport of his heart, so he signed to play at the University of Florida. He decided to skip the Gators to join the professional ranks after the Pirates made him the 11th pick overall in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.
Nothing in McCutchen's life ever has dampened his desire to seek humility over fame, even with $51.5 million.
"There is no need for me to change who I am or what I do," McCutchen said. "I just have to continue to do what I do -- and then try to do even better than everything that I'm continuing to do. If I keep that mentality, then everything else will take care of itself."
McCutchen is showing it's so.
Terence Moore is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.