Jim Young-USA TODAY Sports

Mack: Bucs Clubhouse Better Without McCutchen & Cole?

"If you wrote the atmosphere is better without them then you wouldn’t be wrong"

Chris Mack
April 16, 2018 - 12:49 am

You can measure just about anything in baseball. From Exit Velocity to simple Wins and Losses, there’s a number for everything. And the numbers don’t lie.

Naturally, it follows that you can measure the biggest reasons for the Pirates’ surprising 11-4 start. You can look at the 10-game hitting streak of Corey Dickerson and his team-leading .971 OPS, or the fact that he’s one of four regulars in the lineup with double digit RBIs already. You can see Jameson Taillon’s 0.89 ERA, the best in baseball of any pitcher with at least three starts.

There are some things in baseball – a lot of things in baseball actually, to the chagrin of many statisticians – that can’t be measured, though. The numbers don’t always tell the whole story. After all, you don’t get off to the franchise’s best start in over a quarter-century without some intangibles.

The Pirates’ best position player and best pitcher through their first 15 games, each mentioned above, are examples of the biggest intangible difference between the 2017 and 2018 teams: Andrew McCutchen and Gerrit Cole, and more importantly, the dark cloud of their impending departures that hung heavy over the clubhouse the last two seasons, are no longer around.

John Perrotto wrote about it last week, and while the General Manager parried away Greg Brown’s question about it on Sunday’s “Neal Huntington Show,” off-the-record sources in the Pirates’ locker room agreed: In a weird, unmeasurable way, the team is in a better place without McCutchen and Cole.

Now, before this goes any farther and you mistakenly read this as approval of a strategy that advocates disloyalty to a team’s best players or the backwards belief that the Pirates somehow became a better baseball team when they ultimately decided to trade each of their signature stars, let’s be clear: No team should become better by trading the face of their franchise as well as a pitcher with Cy Young Award-level talent. The 6.7 Wins Above Replacement lost when those two were dealt is statistical evidence of such.

When you acknowledge that one of those stars – Cole – would have never signed an extension in Pittsburgh though, and that the other – McCutchen – as attached to the city as he may have been, saw the writing on the wall 16 months ago that his time here was limited, you acknowledge that there was a lame duck status to their roles on a team that desperately lacked leadership in limping to sub-.500 finishes in 2016 and 2017.

A room full of guys who came up under and came together with McCutchen and Cole was constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop. McCutchen and Cole certainly were, as well. That atmosphere simply wasn’t conducive to the team-first atmosphere that has helped slingshot the Pirates to their best start since 1992.

David Freese said it himself back in February.

“The demand to win just has not been in the air. You can say all you want about, ‘We’re gonna win’ and this and that, but if you don’t walk in and feel it and see it in people’s eyes, it’s just not gonna work.

“We have to take pride on getting that vibe in the air, that when people come in to our place, they’re going to have to work their tail off to win that series. The last two years people come in and they’re just like ‘Oh, we have the Pirates, let’s take care of ‘em.’”

One player suggested to Perrotto that the departures of McCutchen and Cole have aided in returning that vibe to the room, saying “if you wrote the atmosphere is better without them then you wouldn’t be wrong.”

Another explicitly pointed to the two disgruntled stars as a detriment, saying  “they didn’t want to be here anymore, regardless of what they might have said publicly. They were miserable. It had become like a bad marriage. They were unhappy and that kind of rubbed off on everybody.

“Everyone here now is happy to be here. That makes a big difference because tension is removed from the equation. It’s a long season and things just go better when everyone is in a good mood.”

So the team’s two best players are sent packing, and somehow the team gets better?

The numbers say it can’t happen.

Maybe detractors will be proven correct, and an inevitable regression to the mean will bring the Bucs back down to earth.

If you’re looking for something other than numbers though, some thing that can’t be measured, look no further than Taillon’s proactive mentorship way back in February, when he began arranging daily meetings over breakfast with all of the potential starting pitchers at Pirate City.

That kind of leadership simply is not in Gerrit Cole’s DNA. Go back to Cole’s time at UCLA if you want, or when he was a younger Major Leaguer and hovered close under A.J. Burnett’s wing, and it’s clear: Cole wanted to win for his teammates, but his willingness to mentor younger starters was as short as his temper.

With Dickerson, the desire to win has only been heightened by his unceremonious dumping by the Tampa Bay Rays. Rather than go back in the tunnel to watch videotape of his previous plate appearance, he’s more likely to talk to his teammates to find out what they’re seeing from an opposing pitcher, and to mutually share his thoughts and perspectives with them to make them better as well. In McCutchen’s final two seasons in Pittsburgh, he found himself mired in the kind of slumps where he at times struggled to keep his own head above water, let alone help others.

Again, this is not meant to impugn the talent or the integrity of either McCutchen or Cole. Nor as a defense of the financial limitations the team they played for was placed under. However, from the moment Cole was drafted and from the moment McCutchen was first shopped, we had to understand that their time with the Pirates was limited, regardless of whether we agree with those limits or not.

It’s obvious that Cole is still a phenomenally talented pitcher. It’s obvious that McCutchen can still be a very good player with a penchant for big moments in the clutch. The numbers don’t lie.

What’s less obvious though, if you’re going to rely simply on numbers, is how the Pirates have somehow, someway, at least 15 games in to the season, become a better team without them.

Maybe the numbers don’t tell the whole story.