By Bob Smizik
With the full understanding that it is sacrilege in Pittsburgh to compare anyone with Roberto Clemente, and also knowing that a certain Pirates center fielder hit .217 in the second half of last season, allow me to dare measure Andrew McCutchen with The Great One.
McCutchen is in his fourth season with the Pirates. It is not his fourth full season since he did not join the team until June of 2009. But for purposes of this discussion, let’s assume at 25 he will be finishing his fourth season.
In Clemente’s fourth season, in 1958 when he turned 24, he hit six home runs, drove in 50, batted .289 and had an OPS of .736. In his fifth season, when he turned 25, he batted .296 with four homers, 50 RBIs and a .718 OPS.
In McCutchen’s fourth season, and he was 25 when it began, he is on pace to hit about 35 home runs, drive in about 115 runs with a .362 batting average and an OPS of 1.039.
With those figures in front of us, a comparison most certainly is in order. I write that today, before heading on a four-day vacation, not to discredit Clemente, a truly great Hall of Famer, but because I am absolutely blown away by the season McCutchen is having.
My expectations of McCutchen were that he’d have a long, successful career, make a lot of All-Star Games and be the pride of Pittsburgh. I saw him as a .290-.320 hitter, who regularly produced a home run total in the 20s and often challenged the 100-RBI mark.
What I am seeing this season is totally different. I’m seeing a player who can dominate the game. I’m seeing a guy who often will have a home run total in the 30s, who will almost always challenge the 100-RBI mark, who will be a perennial All-Star and who, as long as he has a team around him, will often be in the MVP discussion.
In other words, I’m seeing another Clemente — remarkably similar in size and type of game — but with more power and less defense.
As stated, McCutchen had a terrible second half last season. The great ones learn from those experiences and it seems McCutchen has. Is he going to continue his current onslaught of National League pitching? Probably not. But here’s the beauty of McCutchen: He might.
Clemente won the MVP in 1966 when he famously went for power instead of batting average and hit 29 home runs and drove in 119. Both are career highs. His OPS that year was .869. He had his career- best OPS in 1970 of .963.
Clemente played in an era when batting average was king. Batting championships were as honored as home run titles and the most magic number in the sport was .300. Base on balls were not as cherished as they are today and Clemente had a clear disdain for them.
All of that makes comparisons between the two players a bit unfair. But they will be compared, no doubt, for the next decade, whether it is fair or not. Will McCutchen be better than Clemente? Only time will tell. He has a long way to go to match the long-standing excellence of Clemente, who played the game exceptionally in his late 30s. But based on what we know now and how the game has changed, he had a chance to be as good — and better.