NL All-Star Report: Pittsburgh’s McCutchen Fills CF Void

By the middle of May the race to be the National League’s best centerfielder looked like kind of like the race for the NBA title during the Michael Jordan era—it was about watching to see who would finish second. That’s how dominant Matt Kemp was for the Los Angeles Dodgers, as he rattled off a .444 on-base percentage and a stunning .719 slugging percentage in a tough hitter’s park, keying his team’s scorching start. Then Kemp went down with a hamstring injury. Then he came back and promptly re-injured the hammy. Now he’s just hoping to be able to play in Kansas City for the July 10 All-Star Game.

You might still choose to vote for Kemp as a reward for both last season, when he should have won the MVP award (and that has nothing to do with steroid allegations surrounding Ryan Braun) and his fast start (that’s what I intend to do), but this particular feature of TheSportsNotebook is about tracking where players are based strictly on the body of work for the 2012 season and by that standard, Kemp’s lack of playing time clearly leaves him short and opens the door for others. But any hope of a real debate on that has been effectively closed off by Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen.

McCutchen has an on-base percentage/slugging percentage stat line of .398/.577. While PNC Park might be friendlier for a hitter than Dodger Stadium, the Pirate lineup takes the phrase “lack of support” and brings it to new levels, especially for a contender. The team is 15th in the NL in runs scored and the presence of McCutchen is the one thing that separates them from San Diego and with Pirate pitching as good as it is, McCutchen’s “get on my back and I’ll carry you” kind of season is what’s enabling his team to win close, low-scoring games, rather than lose them and why he has passed Ben Roethlisberger as the most valuable athlete on the confluence of the Three Rivers.

The injection of the Pirate centerfielder into the MVP race isn’t a major shock, as you could see him coming as a star for the past three seasons. He’s been a full-time player for three years and in 2009 introduced himself with a .365/.471 stat line. The following two seasons saw him jump to 570+ at-bats per year (a leap of 140 from ’09). The on-base percentage held steady in the mid-.360s, and the home runs increased and reached 23 last season. What’s noteworthy is that while his batting average dropped 27 points in 2011, he made up for it by upping his walk totals from 89 to 126, thus showing the kind of balance a star player needs. Right now he’s not needing to walk, with a .340 batting average, although if Pittsburgh doesn’t get him some help one wonders how much longer opposing pitchers will give him anything to hit. Particularly given his 13 home runs, setting him on a pace for a career high. Whatever the rest of the season holds for McCutchen, the record tells us he’s going to produce and he’s going to play a good defensive centerfield. He’s far and away the best centerfielder in the National League based on the season to date and should create a good debate with Kemp once both are back and healthy—who knows, perhaps the two stars will even go head-to-head in the National League Division Series.

Colorado’s Dexter Fowler isn’t the choice for the top spot, but he deserves mention and quite possibly a place in Kansas City as an NL backup, pending how the rest of the rosters shake out. The Rockie centerfielder has a .374/.518 line making him clearly the best of the Kemp/McCutchen challengers. Let’s also give a nod to Atlanta’s Michael Bourn, with his.356 OBP setting the table, a .440 slugging that’s pretty good for a leadoff guy and an excellent defensive season. Both are close enough to the leaders to make a run at this spot when TheSportsNotebook revisits the topic in September.

Moving down the ladder to centerfielders who are good, but nowhere in shouting distance of the league’s best, are Miami’s Emilio Bonifacio and St. Louis’ Jon Jay. Both are geared more strictly to getting on base without much power, but they each do a solid job in creating action on the base paths. Health is a factor here—Jay just got off the disabled list after a separated shoulder, and Bonifacio just went on after a hand injury that will keep him out to mid-July.

Gerardo Parra and Angel Pagan, in Arizona and San Francisco respectively, aren’t tearing it up, but both have OBPs in .340 range. Parra supplements that with respectable power, having popped six home runs and slugging .437. Pagan plays good defense, an invaluable asset on a team geared more to run prevention than production. And a shout-out also to New York’s Kirk Nieuwenhuis. He’s now playing left field, but has gotten his share of time in centerfield along the way has compiled a .339 OBP. The Mets are currently playing Andres Torres in center, hoping the veteran can stay healthy and build on his own .333 OBP.

Now let’s move to the three big disappointments. Milwaukee’s Nyjer Morgan leads up this group, as he’s doing nothing with the bat and is not notable defensively. For as many injuries as the Brewers have had, it’s the failings of players like Morgan and second baseman Rickie Weeks hurt even more, as they were supposed to be the 1-2 punch at the top of the order. Instead the only punch they’ve delivered is one to the collective gut of Brewer fans. Washington’s Rick Ankiel and Philadelphia’s Shane Victorinio are also having lousy years with the bat, something that’s more surprising in the case of Victorinio, but just as disappointing in either case. Unlike Morgan though, both Ankiel and Victorino excel in the field at a critical defensive spot.

Jordan Schafer for Houston and Cameron Maybin in San Diego fall into the area I did when I went to college in my freshman year. Bear with me on this story. I hadn’t worked out all summer and when I did my bench-press, I forget the weight amount, but it was something awful. The strength coach just said to write “improvement needed” on my card. A nice way of saying there was still time, but a lot of work was ahead. I’ll extend the same niceties to Schafer and Maybin. And I suppose we could say the same for Chicago’s Tony Campana, but in the case the improvement is going to have to happen by shipping him out of town and getting a new player in there.