MLB: Pittsburgh Pirates at San Francisco Giants

Andrew McCutchen is the best player on the Pittsburgh Pirates. He might just be the best player in the National League, when awards time comes. He is the beating heart of the Pirates batting order, hitting third while posting the best numbers on the team. The right-handed center fielder lead the team in batting average, on base percentage, and slugging pecentage this year.

Already in the 2013 playoffs (five games, including the Wild Card play-in), Andrew McCutchen has reached base an astounding 12 times. In losing 2-1 to the Cardinals in Game Four, Cutch failed to reach base at all. It isn’t too much of a stretch to say as McCutchen goes, so go the Pirates.

Which is good news for Pirates fans ahead of their pivotal Game 5 against Adam Wainwright and the Cardinals tonight. Because Andrew McCutchen is very difficult matchup for the Cardinals ace.

PA H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS SH SF IBB HBP GDP missG
Adam Wainwright 34 13 4 1 1 3 2 4 .419 .441 .710 1.151 0 1 0 0 0
Total 135 34 7 1 3 8 16 25 .293 .378 .448 .826 0 2 3 1 1
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Play Index Tool Used
Generated 10/8/2013.

Andrew McCutchen is a handful for just about every Major League pitcher and his limited exposure against Wainwright don’t tell the entire tale. They do suggest that McCutchen has a good idea of what Adam Wainwright is trying to do to him and approaches each at bat accordingly.

The scouting report on Andrew McCutchen reads like a grave warning to right-handed pitchers. Interestingly enough, the recent Baseball Prospectus “Advanced Scouting Series” focused on the Pirates stalwart, suggesting a plan of attack that feeds right into Adam Wainwright’s strengths.

Right-handed pitchers can use more of the entire strike zone, but staying low and away is still the key. Because of his quick hands, he is susceptible to good off-speed pitches and good breaking pitches, especially on the outer half.

This is exactly how right-handed pitchers of the league go after McCutchen, especially with two strikes. McCutchen sees as many curveballs as any right-handed batter in the game, given his domination of even the best fastballs.

It bears mentions that the high volume of curves thrown McCutchen’s way is partly due to the high number of plate appearances against pitchers like Wainwright and Bronson Arroyo, who feature the curve prominently. Overall, McCutchen handles curves pretty well, in the middle of the pack among qualified right-handers. Incidentally, ESPN Stats & Info’s “well hit average” has McCutchen in the top 15, a much higher ranking than his overall numbers suggest.

Adam Wainwright takes a different tack to getting out the MVP candidate. Either by design or a failure to execute good pitches, Wainwright continually tries going inside with two strikes against McCutchen, with mixed results. Below we see Wainwright try to go away with a cutter, only to leave the pitch up and over the plate more than he wanted.

Another example of Wainwright failing to execute his pitches against McCutchen comes from a Pirates blowout last season. Again, catcher Yadier Molina calls for the two-strike pitch (a curve) down and away. Again, Wainwright leaves it up for McCutchen to show off his lightning quick bat speed, lashing it over the head of statuesque left fielder Matt Holliday.

The curveball is Adam Wainwright’s money pitch, one he throws as often as any pitcher in the game. Only Pirates Game One starter A.J. Burnett threw a higher percentage of curves than Wainwright. Wainwright uses his fastball to set up his curve, it isn’t a pitch he relies on to get a great deal of outs. They work together, the fastball and curve, with his cutter and occasional change up lurking around the margins to keep up appearances.

In Game One, Wainwright and Molina did a better job of outlining a clear plan against McCutchen. In his first plate appearance, they stayed away, working on the outside half with fastballs (humped up into the mid-90s) before getting a rollover with a curveball.

In the second plate appearance, they flipped the script, starting out inside with fastballs before leaving a curveball up in the zone that McCutchen hit up the middle for a base hit.

The final time McCutchen came to the plate, the game was well in hand for the Cardinals. Running counter to the prevailing “pitch to the score” philosophy, Wainwright remained vigilant against McCutchen, starting him with a first pitch curveball in the dirt. Then a well-placed fastball on the outside corner ended the affair.

mccutchen wainwright

Two of these three plate appearances came with the game very much out of reach. In the second at bat in particular, Adam Wainwright was free to “come after” McCutchen with inside fastballs after his team posted a seven run inning.

When Sam Miller of BP went looking for the best way to approach Andrew McCutchen, he showed how a well-rounded ace (Felix Hernandez) and a soft-tossing righty (Mike Leake) went after the Pirates outfielder – the Cy Young winner using his variety of fastball looks to get ahead while the slop-tosser just tried to keep McCutchen off-balance and away form his vulnerable “heater”.

Look for Wainwright to use an attack somewhere in the middle between the two. Wainwright is an ace in his own right but doesn’t have the variety of weapons that Felix Hernandez can dip into it. He also isn’t a soft-tosser like Leake.

Wainwright showed in Game One just how important it is to be aggressive against McCutchen without giving him any fastballs he can attack. Wainwright and Molina will stress the difference between throwing any strike and a good strike, as anything left over the heart of the plate gets hit hard by Cutch. Look for McCutchen to try and jump any hittable fastball he sees early in the count without having to expand his zone. It’s a fascinating matchup to watch as two key players try to keep their team’s season alive. No pressure, boys!