Andrew McCutchen Arrives

The Pittsburgh Pirates are in the middle of their most successful season in nearly two decades, but you can’t blame their fans for still being disappointed. The Pirates have received virtually no coverage despite the fact that they are currently four games above .500, play in a winnable division, and currently employ one of the best players in baseball. Despite his All-Star Game “snub” — which Eric Seidman covered last week — Andrew McCutchen has officially established himself as one of the best, and most exciting, players in the game. It’s a damn shame that he continues to fly under the radar.

McCutchen has truly taken a huge step forward this season. The 24-year-old center fielder currently rates as the third most valuable position player in all of baseball according to WAR, he’s rated as the best defensive center fielder in baseball this season, and he’s far surpassed his season-high in WAR in just 88 games. Based on his age and current performance, this could be the start of a string of MVP-caliber seasons from McCutchen.

Just how has McCutchen done it?

Well, even though we shouldn’t rely on half-season defensive numbers, his allegedly improved outfield defense is a strong reason for his breakout. Since it’s such a small sample, though, we have to remain somewhat skeptical. After posting a slightly below-average season in 2009, McCutchen posted a terrible -13.7 UZR last year — among the worst of all center fielders. There’s been some talk out of Pittsburgh that McCutchen is positioning himself deeper than usual this season, which may be the main reason for such a major defensive turnaround. While he’s likely not this good of a defender, it seems reasonable to think that there are some legitimate gains in his new approach.

As a hitter, almost all of McCutchen’s peripherals are headed in the right direction. He’s managed to increase his walk rate for the third consecutive season — putting him at 12.7% on the season. Although his strikeouts are slightly up this year, he’s made up for it by showing a huge increase in power. McCutchen has nearly surpassed his season-high total in home runs this season while posting a .214 ISO — good for 16th among all outfielders. The spike has come despite the fact that he hadn’t really been considered a power hitter in the early stages of his career. With his strong base-stealing ability, McCutchen might be on his way to posting the quietest 30-30 season in Major League Baseball history.

Some slight changes in his approach at the plate may be the cause of his increased power. His fly ball percentage is up this season, which could indicate that he’s getting more loft on pitches, perhaps contributing to his career high HR/FB rate. He’s also absolutely crushed fastballs this season — rating fourth in the league against the pitch. While the sample is likely small, he has also improved against the slider this season, a pitch that had given him trouble in the past. These improvements, while not drastic, have certainly contributed to McCutchen’s meteoric rise up the WAR charts.

Despite the fact that the Pirates are off to their best start in decades, and are led by one of the best/youngest/most exciting players in baseball, they can’t seem to get any recognition. While the All-Star “snub” made people more aware of McCutchen’s breakout, it’s truly a shame that nobody paid attention to McCutchen until now. For the first time since Barry Bonds patrolled the Pittsburgh outfield, the Pirates have another home-grown, phenomenal young outfielder — and one of the best players in the game. You would think that would command a little more attention from the baseball world.




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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.


56 Responses to “Andrew McCutchen Arrives”

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  1. Danya says:

    I cannot believe that I am defending the MSSM (mainstream sports media) here, but I think you are off target about the Pirates and McCutchen getting no coverage anywhere. They are getting mentioned on Sportscenter and Baseball Tonight a pretty fair amount, not to the level of Yankees or Red Sox or anything like that obviously, but I definitely think ESPN and the like have recognized them as a definite continuing story. Same goes for McCutchen–on PTI and elsewhere they devoted entire segments to discussing, not all star snubs in general, but specifically how McCutchen originally being left off the team was a crime.

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    • My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan) says:

      I disagree on the accounts of Bruce Bochy choosing Beltran over him, even though their numbers were similar but Beltran plays RF, and that MLB.com never has him on their front page. I highly doubt if he kept this up (a la Ryan Zimmerman last year) he would get any MVP backing. It’s playoffs or bust for notoriously bad team’s great players. That’s sad too because an MVP debate with their player mentioned would draw in interest and revenue. The good keeping the, no fault to them, bad down. I’m rooting for the Pirates in the playoffs or just barely missing it. Enough to add McCutchen (assuming he maintains this performance) to the discussion and maybe win.

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    • GiantHusker says:

      …and Regis Philbin lauds them almost every day.

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    • Templeton1979 says:

      Right, but he still gets less credit than he deserves because he doesn’t lead in the overrated stats: .300+ average with 20 home runs and 70+ rbis already. The new triple crown stats should be wOBA, XBH, and wRC.

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  2. Telo says:

    “Player X is soooo under appreciated” is the most tired theme on Fangraphs. We all appreciate him. We all exactly the type of baseball fans that should and DO appreciate him. Why in the fu#$ is this what every third article is about? These articles should be written on ESPN or Yahoo.

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    • juan pierre's mustache says:

      people don’t read things to learn, they just like to be told they’re right

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    • SiddFinch says:

      I think the point is they’re written here when they HAVEN’T been mentioned in the mainstream sports media. Ya dig?

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      • Telo says:

        Yea, but the point is… he’s telling us a whole bunch of crap we already know. Did you learn 1 single thing from this article, did it make you think about something new, did it do anything except regurgitate his stat sheet and say “he ain’t getting enough credit!”?

        It’s mindless filler. If you like reading that, have at it.

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      • Telo says:

        Meh, maybe you’re right. There are different levels of articles, and this is the most introductory, lowest, braindead form. In a way FG is the gateway drug to sabermetrics, so there are a fair amount of people crossing over from ESPN etc who need these type of pieces… I guess. Still, they are useless to at least half the audience.

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      • SiddFinch says:

        I get what you’re saying and I agree to a point. No, I personally didn’t learn anything new about McCutcheon or his numbers by reading this article.

        Your metaphor works out perfectly — there still need to be “intro-level” sabermetrics articles. Not every article is going to be high-level sabermetric research, and it’s better that way.

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      • BIP says:

        Actually, it made me think about something new. The “underrated” angle does get overplayed sometimes, but it got me thinking about McCutchen’s All-Star snub and the popularity contest that is the fan voting. When people talk about fixes, they mention various ways to take voting power out of the fans’ hands, with the unstated assumption that these oversights are the fans’ fault, but isn’t the real root of the problem the fact that MLB has done a terrible job of marketing its best players?

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      • chuckb says:

        I agree, Telo. I think we ought to immediately demand our money back from fangraphs!

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  3. Ryan says:

    The top four NL CF in WAR are McCutchen, Kemp, Victorino, and Bourn. He’s younger and better than all of them. I can only see his stock going up.

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    • Where does Carlos Gonzalez rank? Or is he considered LF?

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      • Templeton1979 says:

        Carlos Gonzalez

        193 Plate appearances at home
        166 away
        \
        .431 wOBA at home
        .300 wOBA away

        17.6 wRAA at home
        -1.9 wRAA away

        .378 BABIP at home
        .282 BABIP away

        38.8 wRC at home
        16.3 wRC away

        .415 obp at home
        ..295 obp away

        23 XBH at home
        11 XBH away

        .345 avg at home
        .231 avg away

        He hasn’t proven that he can play outside of Coors field with it’s spacious outfield and thinner atmosphere. Sorry, but he’s a bit overrated. It was pretty much the same for his stats last year too.

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      • Feeding the Abscess says:

        I will continue to beat this drum until someone freaking notices:

        Will Venable outpaces Carlos Gonzalez on the road. By a pretty sizable margin.

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  4. Vote4Pedro says:

    The point of the last paragraph was to say what a shame it’s been that the All-Star snub raised awareness of McCutchen in the past week or two, not his great play leading up to it.

    I am all for any and all Pirates coverage, and have enjoyed the media buzz around the team in the past few weeks. The ESPN article about how the Pirates should be buyers was (unintentionally) humorous. The writer cited the Marlins Adrian Gonzalez trade in 2003 as an example of why the Pirates should be buyers. I’d love to see fangraphs take a stab at what the Pirates should do, especially with rumors floating around about some potential targets.

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  5. Robbie G. says:

    The wild year-to-year variation in UZR here is the latest example of why many folks remain skeptical, at best, of this tool. Offensive performance should be expected to have its ups and downs but defensive performance should be pretty steady. It is not credible that Andrew McCutchen has gone from being one of the very worst defensive players in MLB to one of its very best in less than twelve months. I understand that a player can become a better defensive player but to go from one of the worst to one of the best? Just not credible. Heck of a ballplayer, though, for sure. Possibly the second straight season that the eventual NL MVP bizarrely gets snubbed for the All-Star Game. It never fails to amaze me how poorly human beings are at selecting the best anything, whether we’re talking about baseball players, politicians, movies, whatever. I mean, Forrest Gump? Seriously?

    I’d like to see the Pirates go after some Dodgers here. James Loney, James Carroll, maybe Hiroki Kuroda. I’d also like to see the Pirates look into trading for Edwin Jackson. Their starting pitching has seemingly grossly overachieved in the first half and we should expect some regression there in the second half. Jackson would surely be this team’s ace starting pitcher. The fans in Pittsburgh need to be thrown a bone here. The organization needs to appear to be making a good faith attempt to win this division.

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    • My echo and bunnymen (Dodgers Fan) says:

      I could see all of those players in Pittsburgh, especially Loney. I’d be glad he’s gone here, because as long as he has management support and fan support he’ll continue to block other younger players from starting.

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    • Kirkwood says:

      If you’re not going to take the time to learn about UZR, that’s fine and you’re certainly entitled to do so. However, all of your concerns about its fallibility have been beaten to death umpteen times and if you took the time to look it up, you could have all of your questions answered.

      Basically, what I’m saying is, “folks remain skeptical” because they haven’t taken the time to understand UZR. People like to get a basic knowledge of something—entry level, really—and then act like experts.

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      • oh Hal says:

        This just isn’t true. No real effort has been made to even properly delineate the multitude of flaws that UZR has. If anything, its pretty much established as poorly conceived, unscientifically executed and largely a proprietary promotion/revenue tool. It may make you feel as if you have some power of evaluation, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t garbage.

        The irony is that McCutchen isn’t an elite defender. He’s average at best.

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      • Kirkwood says:

        What I’m getting at is there are a TON of variables that can factor into a player’s defense. Let’s put it like this: a player has a nagging injury somewhere in his leg. Now, this may not be a serious injury at all. They may miss no time and, indeed, not even report it. However, that injury would definitely affect an outfielders range. For one season.

        Another example: a young outfielder without a ton of experience is playing in a ballpark with a huge outfield. He may position himself on most plays at a distance that he has for the majority of his career. However, owing to the large outfield, he now has a ton of ground to cover that he may not typically had, including behind him. Playing at his typical depth that he always has, he misses a large amount of balls behind him. Next year, he moves back and suddenly has less ground behind him and more ahead of him. Moving in to catch a ball, especially with a lot of speed, is easier than ranging back. The ball is nearly always in front of him and he’s able to get good reads and use his speed to get those balls.

        See where I’m going? Those are two examples. There are many more. Defense is complicated and is affected by a wide range of variables. I’m not surprised there are huge fluctuations year to year.

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      • Kirkwood says:

        I should point out neither of my comments were meant to defend the infallibility of UZR. Rather, I’m pointing out that it is player defense that is so difficult to pinpoint and not UZR that is so inaccurate. Instead of blaming UZR, maybe we should look at DRS and TotalZone: all exhibit large fluctuations year to year for specific players. Maybe, just maybe, we are going in the right direction in evaluating defense and it is just very fickle.

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    • reillocity says:

      From the sample of games I’ve seen of McCutchen, I wouldn’t put him on any list of elite CF. I’ve seen him misplay balls into bonus bases, throw to the wrong base, etc. far more times than I should have in the number of games I’ve watched. He’s probably an average to slightly below average defensive CF by MLB standards.

      What’s most impressive about McCutchen to me is his ability to drive the ball to straightaway center, particularly given his lanky build. He’s an emerging star, no question, and will have supreme value for as long as range allows him to patrol CF.

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      • Sultan of Schwinngg says:

        I agree with this. Considering his position, his offense is bonafide, but if his defense is what has Fangraphs (and in turn, their legion of robots) drooling, well, that’s just wrong. Not to mince words, McCutchen is a spaceshot; he is an extremely unintelligent player who misplays too many balls.

        “Well, even though we shouldn’t rely on half-season defensive numbers….”. Walk the walk, Chris. You guys should stop bastardizing your own stats.

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    • Trotter76 says:

      James Loney, Jamie Carroll, Edwin Jackson?? It sounds like you want the Pirates to return to sucking.

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    • MarkInDallas says:

      Having watched McCutchen almost every game last year and this year, I’d say he definitely has improved markedly from last year. Previously, he did make spectacular plays, but many times he would sprint over to the ball and just miss it. This year, he is catching almost any ball he can get to with his legs. He has so much more focus in the field. I think the reason a player likeMcCutchen can go from near the bottom to the top is because there is about half the variance in defense from worse to best as there is in offense.

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    • RC says:

      “but defensive performance should be pretty steady.”

      Why? Why should defensive performance be any more steady than offensive?

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      • Robbie G. says:

        Maybe this is a flawed inference on my part, but it seems to me that a hitter has little or no control over whether or not the hard-hit ball gets fielded or not. All you can do is go up there, be selective, and take a good swing at a pitch you can drive. Maybe it gets fielded, maybe it doesn’t. On the other hand, a player has all kinds of control over his fielding, which should only really be affected by either a) genuine improvement as a fielder, b) the aging process (which presumably reduces range), or c) injuries, which also negatively impact range/performance. Although maybe this is a flawed inference on my part and the number of variables involved in fielding are the same or comparable to the number involved in hitting.

        I do not claim to be an expert at all but I just have a hard time believing that a player is going to go from one of the very worst fielders at his position to one of the very best fielders at his position in less than twelve months. All of the fielders who were better than him last season, and we’re talking about nearly all of his peers, well, they are presumably about as good now as they were last season, right? And some of these fielders are incredibly, incredibly good… yet we are supposed to believe that McCutchen has somehow not only drastically improved but that he has gotten even better than his elite peers from 2010? And we are further supposed to believe this when we know that these numbers fluctuate dramatically year to year and will not be particularly surprised to see his defensive performance return to being lackluster in 2012?

        I would love, LOVE, for the baseball community to ultimately be able to very accurately quantify defensive performance but I’m sorry, I just don’t think we’re there yet. I would like to think that we are going to get there, though, probably sooner rather than later, so I do very much appreciate the hard work that many people are putting into this. I love baseball statistics!

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    • A guy from PA says:

      I don’t know Robbie, changing your positioning and changing your routes can probably lead to as big of a defensive change as changing your swing can lead to an offensive change. McCutchen is the Jose Bautista of defense this year. Also, I’d say defense is less steady than offense. One missed play and your defensive stats plummet, one strikeout and your offensive stats don’t change much at all. Each miss for an outfielder seems to matter more because an outfielder is expected to get to balls in their zone, whereas hitters are expected to get out over half the time. Could be wrong, but that’s how I was thinking of it.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      your logic and mine are very different. To me it seems self evident that defense would be the hardest skill to stabilize from year to year. The range of possible pitch speeds and locations is far more limited than the range of possible spins, speeds, and locations of batted balls.

      Plus as a rotation changes so do the balls being hit change since the rotations and angles of the batted balls would change.

      Lastly, weather affects batted balls more, fans affect batted balls more, and stadiums affect batted balls more.

      To me defense has more variance logically.

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  6. matt w says:

    Nice article.

    McCutchen’s ISO is even more impressive because his home park is PNC, which is one of the worst parks for home runs by right-handers. If you look at his home run tracker, at PNC he has a 342-footer just inside the foul pole, a 380-footer to straightaway left, and three of more than 400 feet — only one really pulled. If he played in a park with a smaller left field, he’d have more homers.

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  7. Kirkwood says:

    Yeah, Bochy named McCutchen to the ASG yesterday. So there you all go.

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  8. Person says:

    Speaking of quiet 30/30 seasons, Dante Bichette is notorious for his low WAR despite superficially excellent offensive stats.

    In 1996, he hit 31 home runs and stole 31 bases… while posting precisely 0.9 fWAR. (And 0.7 rWAR, which is the lowest for any 30/30 season.)

    Just felt like sharing that. It’s not a comparison between McCutchen and Bichette.

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  9. lex logan says:

    It’s a shame sabermetricians continue to use point statistics to attempt to infer true value. I’m guessing that a confidence interval estimate for defensive metrics would span both positive and negative values for almost all players for almost all seasons; you probably need a sample of several seasons to draw any conclusions.

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  10. CabreraDeath says:

    The Pirates coaches also had a weird/unique shift that may have caused/help cause Cutchs bad defensive numbers last year. He’s been equal to what his numbers say this year, IMO.

    Dude is a stud.

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  11. William says:

    I still don’t understand why fangraphs uses UZR for the defensive component for WAR from 2005-2010 when you have ADR, which takes into account things like his positioning using the fans scouting report

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  12. Bascinator says:

    The main complaint with UZR and DRS is that it takes 3 years for the data to stabilize, or be reliable. So I find the estimates somewhat useful. Good points were made above about using ADR (the more defensive metrics combined, the better) and a confidence interval instead of a point estimate for the values.

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  13. Brian says:

    I’m a Mets fan, don’t really care about what’s happening in Pittsburgh unless we’re playing ‘em.

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    • kick me in the GO NATS says:

      Switch the two middle letters in your name and you will stop being a Mets fan. It is impossible to be a brain and Mets fan at the same time.

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  14. KCDaveInLA says:

    Haven’t all of you heard?? No teams matter except the Red Sox, Yankees and Phillies.

    This year’s all-star roster has such a big-market bias, it’s like looking at Colin Cowherd’s ballot.

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    • Antonio Bananas says:

      Colin Cowherd might be the biggest sack of shit on ESPN. Seriously, Joe Morgan is kinda dumb about baseball, but he’s not a massive cocksucker like Cowherd.

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  15. Brendan says:

    A big reason for the huge swing in McCutchen’s UZR, in addition to improved play could well be the end of the much derided ‘triples defense’ that they often employed last year. In fact this year’s Fangraphs previews presciently suggested a potential swing in their team preview:

    “The Pirates are going to have to see major defensive improvements, especially from McCutchen, whose -14.4 UZR placed him among the worst center fielders in the league. Still, this might be a metric and park issue. It also might be a John Russell issue. The former Pirates manager apparently positioned his fielders in a peculiar manner, something dubbed no-triples defense. Matt Bandi of Pittsburgh Lumber Co. (now Pirates Prospects) provided an in-depth look at how the Pirates outfielders positioned themselves. Might this have led to wonky UZR figures? If it did, and if new manager Clint Hurdle doesn’t employ a similar alignment, we could see a natural correction. This would make sense, considering the glowing scouting reports on McCutchen’s defense.”

    http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/index.php/team-preview-pittsburgh-pirates/

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  16. dcs says:

    Could there be a bit of racism to McCutcheon’s snubbing? I mean, he’s a black guy with braids and he has a style of play where he doesn’t look like he cares or is trying hard.

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    • Sultan of Schwinngg says:

      Please. Braun is a Jew and Joey Bats a spic, and they were the top selections. I don’t believe racism even exists in baseball anymore.

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    • Brendan says:

      I don’t think so. McCutchen is extraordinarily professional and his work ethic is beyond reproach based on all reporting. Aside from having dreads he does very little of things that make middle aged white people uncomfortable and then cause them to make unfounded judgements about a players character. No hat cocked to the side, no hip hop records (ala Lastings Milledge), no flashy cleats (also ala Lastings). I think it’s more a case of playing in Pittsburgh, being in only his second full season, and an emphasis on HR/RBIS/BA as a determination of value, rather than the entire package (as reflected by WAR).

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      • Antonio Bananas says:

        He doesn’t fight people like Nyjer Morgan. Who’s name I’m positive also generates racist thoughts. At least when spoken because it sounds like it could be spelled “Niger”. There is still racism amongst baseball fans. I posted this on another article, but I was at a Springfield Cards baseball game. One guy in the crowd said he liked a prospect more than the latin ones because “he’s actually his age, he’s not 6 years older than he says”.

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  17. Feeding the Abscess says:

    McCutchen isn’t lanky, the dude’s lower half is pretty darn thick.

    Secondly, I’d like everyone to check out Barry Bonds’ age 24 season (1988). Now, look at McCutchen’s year this season.

    Hot. Dog.

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  18. Thanks, I’ve been looking for information about this subject matter for ages and yours is the best I’ve located so far.

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