The technical term for Andrew McCutchen's performance in 2012 and 2013 is "a hard act to follow."
All he did was hit .322 with a .932 OPS across those two seasons, with last year's National League MVP award being the bow on top of it all. It's hard to ask a guy to be any better than that.
And yet, that's what McCutchen has become in 2014: better.
If you haven't been keeping up with the Pittsburgh Pirates superstar, you've been missing a heck of a show. McCutchen has been absolutely scorching in the month of June, owning a .421 average and 1.440 OPS in 14 games, the last eight of which have been multi-hit games.
MLB figured that was worth an award:
"It's just so fun to watch a guy up there with that kind of confidence night in, night out," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle recently told Bill Brink of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette of his superstar center fielder. "Once this calendar month flipped, man, he's hit another gear."
McCutchen was doing pretty well before June came, mind you, hitting .298 with an .862 OPS through 54 games. But with his June hot streak tacked on, his season now looks like this:
McCutchen has hit better than .325 (in 2012) and posted a slugging percentage better than .550 before (also in 2012). But the .990 OPS he's carrying would be a new career best by close to 40 points, and you can trace that to the most-impressive .437 OBP that McCutchen is rocking.
That's as good a place as any to start our investigation into how McCutchen has improved this year.
Take one look at McCutchen's OBP, and you might conclude that he's been walking more often.
Indeed he has been. After never walking in more than 13.1 percent of his plate appearances coming into this year, according to FanGraphs, McCutchen is walking in 16.2 percent of his plate appearances. With 50 walks, he's already over halfway to his 2013 total of 78.
Rather than an accident, consider this a product of McCutchen finally accepting how he's been treated for years.
Via FanGraphs, here's a table that shows how often McCutchen has chased pitches outside the strike zone (O-Swing%) relative to how many pitches he's seen inside the strike zone (Zone%) since 2010:
Every year since 2010, McCutchen has seen a smaller percentage of pitches in the strike zone. And even through his MVP season, his response had been to go chasing after more and more pitches. In doing so, he was incentivizing pitchers to keep staying out of the zone.
Things have changed this year. McCutchen has once again seen a decrease in pitches in the strike zone, but he's chasing less often rather than continuing his pattern of chasing more. Instead of obliging pitchers when they've thrown balls, he's taken them.
This obviously helps explain McCutchen's elevated walk rate. But besides that, it also helps explain his excellent hitting.
Besides more walks, McCutchen's improved discipline has also earned him a career-low first-pitch strike rate of 55.3 percent. He's getting ahead in the count more often, which is his best hope of seeing good pitches to hit.
According to BaseballSavant.com, only 7.7 percent of the pitches thrown McCutchen's way have been inside the strike zone when he's been behind in the count. Switch things to when he's been ahead in the count, and the number jumps to 11.4 percent.
Which brings us to another thing about McCutchen's stupendous 2014 season: When he has seen pitches in the zone, he's never been better at dealing with them.
In so many words: If you throw McCutchen a pitch inside the strike zone, that pitch will die.
What is it, exactly, that McCutchen is punishing inside the zone? Well, there's really no better word than "everything."
BaseballSavant.com tells us he's hitting .385 against hard stuff in the zone, .360 against breaking stuff in the zone and a whopping .529 against off-speed stuff in the zone. All of those are career bests.
Granted, the slow stuff McCutchen has seen inside the strike zone hasn't been as frequent as the hard stuff. If he was being overmatched by hard stuff in the zone, we're not having this conversation.
As for why McCutchen hasn't been overmatched against hard stuff in the zone, that would have something to do with how (A) he was an excellent fastball hitter to begin with, and (B) it seems he's corrected a couple of previously subtle shortcomings.
Courtesy of Brooks Baseball, here's a look at McCutchen's averages against heaters in the zone through 2013 (him being a right-handed hitter, picture him on the left side of the box):
In terms of only heaters that found the zone, McCutchen didn't have any real problem areas. But he was weaker in some spots, namely low and away and up and in.
Keep that in mind while you look at his averages against heaters in 2014:
Remember those two weak spots? Those have become strengths in 2014. Pitchers who have thrown heat either up and in or down and away have been punished for doing so.
That means that, even despite how he's not dominating the high-outside corner like usual, McCutchen has the strike zone covered better than ever when it comes to hard stuff.
Here's the short version of all this: McCutchen has renewed his focus on the strike zone, and any pitcher who goes in there basically has nothing to get him out with. Or, if you prefer the even shorter version: He's more locked in than he's ever been.
It's saying something that, even after all this, there are still some things left to praise.
There's how FanGraphs has McCutchen working on a career-best 1.074 OPS on balls to right field. There's how he's a perfect 9-for-9 in stolen base attempts. And while the advanced metrics are actually down on his defense this year, this video has another opinion of his D:
With McCutchen playing the way he is, you can't help but think of the possibility of a second straight MVP award. His numbers certainly make it possible, and that the Pirates have turned things around with a 17-10 record in their last 27 games makes it even more possible.
If McCutchen does make it two straight MVPs, Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com reminds us that he'd be putting himself "in rarefied air, as only Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds (multiple times), Mike Schmidt, Dale Murphy, Joe Morgan and Ernie Banks have won consecutive MVP awards in the National League."
I want to say that joining that list of names isn't going to be easy, but I should probably save that sentiment for a guy who isn't making it look as easy as McCutchen.
Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.
If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.