By John Perrotto
PITTSBURGH -- Neil Walker has seen Andrew McCutchen up close for a long time. They became teammates in the Pittsburgh Pirates farm system in 2007, at Class AA Altoona, three years after Walker was the organization's first-round draft pick and two years after McCutchen had the same honor. They have been together ever since, McCutchen making his major-league debut in June, 2009, and Walker following three months later.
Walker, the second baseman, has watched McCutchen, the center fielder, blossom into a superstar, the unquestioned leader of a team that is a surprising 87-63, tied with the St. Louis Cardinals for the National League Central lead.
So what's Walker's scouting report?
"The guy is unbelievably talented," Walker said.
Nothing new there, of course, as McCutchen can hit for average and power, fly around the bases and track down fly balls from gap to gap. But Walker has something to add to his report that probably has eluded all the scouts sitting behind home plate during games at PNC Park.
"He can sing," Walker said. "He's really good."
You bet, he can.
McCutchen was a member of the church choir growing up in Fort Meade, Fla., a rural phosphate mining town in the central part of the state, 55 miles southeast of Tampa and 70 miles southwest of Orlando, with a population of just over 5,500. He can do a dead-on Marvin Gaye impression, and he sang a memorable version of "Sexual Healing" at Walker's wedding reception following the 2010 season.
"It was their wedding night," McCutchen said with a smile. "I thought it was fitting."
McCutchen can also draw, knocking out sketches as quickly and sharply as he does line drives.
He starting writing poetry while recovering from a knee injury suffered during his sophomore of high school. Though the demands of a major-league season have taken away the time to become the next Shakespeare, he still does some freestyle rapping from time to time.
Then there are McCutchen's impression skills. Not only does he do Motown soul singers, but his impressions of characters Peter Griffin and Cleveland Brown from "Family Guy" are hilarious. Whenever the Pirates add a new player to the roster, McCutchen will have his mannerisms down pat within a couple of days.
Yet while McCutchen has been blessed with some much ability with the arts, he says he would likely be working in the science field if he wasn't a baseball player. "Something like MythBusters on the Discovery Channel," McCutchen said with a smile. "That would be fun." It seems there is nothing McCutchen can't do or doesn't think he can do.
Baseball is what McCutchen is best at, however, and he is a strong candidate to become the first Pirates player to win the MVP since Barry Bonds in 1992. The 26-year-old is hitting .324 with 19 home runs, 79 RBIs, 27 stolen bases, a .404 on-base percentage and a .515 slugging percentage, in 146 games. Baseball-reference.com has him leading the NL in WAR with 7.8, ahead of Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw (7.6) and Milwaukee Brewers center fielder Carlos Gomez (7.4). Only Los Angeles Angels center fielder Mike Trout (8.7) has a higher mark in the major leagues.
McCutchen finished third in the MVP voting last season, behind San Francisco Giants catcher Buster Posey and Milwaukee Brewers left fielder Ryan Braun, and is a better all-round player this year after working to improve his baserunning and throwing accuracy.
"My criteria for MVP has always been simple -- who's the baddest dude in the league?" Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "To my way of thinking -- and I realize I'm a little biased because I see him every day -- Cutch is the baddest dude in the league."
If the MVP went to the player who meant the most to their organization in its entirety, then McCutchen definitely would win. It seems whenever anyone connected with the Pirates is asked about McCutchen, they mostly talk about what he does off the field. Just as he is adept at singing, drawing, mimicking and playing baseball, he is tremendous at connecting with fans and representing the Pirates. His people skills almost overshadow his enormous baseball talent.
That was a large part of the reason why the Pirates signed McCutchen to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension last year in spring training. It is the second largest contract in club history (after the six-year, $60 million deal Jason Kendall signed in 2000), and it keeps McCutchen under the Pirates' control through the 2018 season.
"When your best player is your hardest worker and one of the your very best people in a clubhouse full of good guys, you have sometime special," general manager Neal Huntington said. "He has a hard time telling people no, because he wants to give back to the fans and community so much, and we've told him to let us be the bad guy and tell people no. He's just a great player, a great teammate and a great person. We're fortunate to have someone like him."
McCutchen takes his responsibility as the face of the franchise seriously. He has a love affair with Pirates fans, and he is deeply involved in the community. He works closely with Habitat for Humanity, building houses for the less fortunate, and his Cutch's Crew charity mentors inner-city youth baseball players and at-risk children.
McCutchen is just as proud that he has helped bring baseball back to prominence in Pittsburgh. The Pirates have had a club-record 21 sellouts this season at PNC Park, and after long being the No. 3 professional sports franchise in Pittsburgh, the Pirates are now the top story on local sportscasts and on the sports pages of the two Pittsburgh daily newspapers, displacing the Steelers and Penguins.
"When I first came up to the big leagues, all I heard was, this will never be a Pirates town," said McCutchen, who endured a 105-loss campaign in 2010, his first full major-league season. "I've never bought that. I know this used to be a Pirates town. I've heard the stories. We didn't always lose. There is a great baseball tradition in this city. Some of the greatest players in the history of baseball wore this uniform. It's just a great sports town. It's a Steelers town, it's a Penguins town, and now it's a Pirates town, too, and that's great for everybody."
The greatest for Pirates fans who suffered through two decades of losing would be to see their team reach the postseason for the first time since their last winning season in 1992. The Pirates' magic number for clinching a playoff berth is six, with 12 games remaining.
McCutchen can't wait for the Pirates' chance to get on the national stage in October, as evidenced by the way he answered a question about his favorite World Series memory.
"I never really followed the World Series very much," he said. "I'd much rather play in it … and make my own memories."
Heck, if that happens, McCutchen probably will sing at the victory parade.
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John Perrotto has covered professional baseball since 1988 for such outlets as USA Today, The Sports Xchange, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus and the Beaver County (Pa.) Times. You can find more of his work on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.