At the time, the Pirates center fielder was leading the league in total bases, batting and slugging, and he was among the top four in runs, hits, homers, RBIs, extra-base hits, on-base percentage and OPS. An NL MVP Award, a starring role on the first playoff-bound Bucs team since 1992, a rate-stat Triple Crown -- all of these concluding storylines were, if not probable, within the bounds of possibility.
As it turned out, none of these three rousing outcomes came to be realized, with McCutchen taking third in NL MVP Award balloting, the Pirates finishing nine games out of the second Wild Card spot, and McCutchen ending his year with leadership in two counting categories: hits and times on base.
Still, McCutchen's 2012 season -- his age-25 season -- carried a significant measure of weight. In terms of his placement among his NL peers, he finished in the top five in WAR (wins above replacement), batting average, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, runs, total bases and OPS+, was tied for eighth in both home runs and walks, and finished ninth in extra-base hits. Furthermore, McCutchen posted his second consecutive 20-20 season, topped .300 (he hit .327) and 30 homers (31) for the first time in his career, posted a .300/.400/.500 slash line for the first time in his career, and for the second straight season, improved on his OPS+, compiling a career-best 164. A deeper dive into baseball's history can hopefully provide some additional appreciation for just how special an offensive season this was.
McCutchen became the 17th player to enjoy back-to-back 20-20 seasons through his age-25 season. The others: Willie Mays, Vada Pinson, Bobby Bonds, Cesar Cedeno, Mike Schmidt, Andre Dawson, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, Sammy Sosa, Alex Rodriguez, Andruw Jones, Carlos Beltran, Grady Sizemore, David Wright, Hanley Ramirez, and Carlos Gonzalez.
1893-2012: Center fielders in Age-25 Season, Qualifying for Batting Title
Sorted by Highest OPS+
McCutchen put together the 14th season in history where a center fielder batted as high as .327 while hitting as many as 31 home runs, and he was the first to do it since Kirby Puckett in 1986. In addition to McCutchen and Puckett, Hack Wilson, Joe DiMaggio, Duke Snider, Mays and Mickey Mantle each did it twice, while Earl Averill and Fred Lynn each did it once. Of the predecessors to McCutchen, only Lynn didn't find his way to induction into the Hall of Fame.
McCutchen became the 37th center fielder to qualify for the batting title and own a .300 batting average, a .400 on-base percentage, and a .500 slugging percentage. Among this group, he is one of 15 players to have at least one of these seasons before his age-26 season; Mantle had four, while Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker and DiMaggio each had three. Al Simmons, Mays, and Ken Griffey, Jr. each posted two such seasons, and Bill Lange, Benny Kauff, Heinie Manush, Pete Reiser, Al Kaline, Bobby Murcer and Lynn join McCutchen with one apiece. Obviously, most of these seasons are in the distant past, with only McCutchen, Murcer (1971), Lynn ('75) and Griffey ('93-94) representing the past 50 seasons.
Since 1893, 1,616 players have qualified for the batting title while having at least 75 percent of their games coming as a center fielder. In this set, McCutchen's 164 OPS+ is tied (with Pete Reiser's mark in 1941) for the 64th highest. Bringing age into the consideration: McCutchen's 164 is tied for the 21st highest among those in their age-25 or younger season, and he is one of eight to be exactly in that age-25 season and produce a mark that high.
Taking Kauff's season out of the collection, the group of (now) seven presents an immensely interesting congregation of names and storylines. For Mantle, Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio and Simmons, their age-25 seasons represented just another high point in what were already wonderful resumes. Mantle and Cobb -- by the time their respective age-25 seasons rolled around -- had already captured league Triple Crowns; Speaker (in 1913) and DiMaggio (in '40) were each coming off seasons in which they won the American League MVP Award; and Simmons' age-25 campaign came two seasons after a year in which he led the league in extra-base hits, total bases and hits (with 253, the second-highest total at that time in baseball history). And then there is Murcer, whose '71 season -- at least in terms of narrative -- presents an interesting match to McCutchen's 2012.
When Murcer was ready for his first official plate appearance of the 1971 season, he had already accumulated more than 1,400 trips to the plate, having debuted with the Yankees as a 19-year-old in '65. By '71, icons like Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra were gone, the team had not won a pennant since '64, and Murcer had not yet realized some of the grand expectations that had been constructed for him. But this final point changed in a hurry, with a season in center field that was both far beyond anything else he had accomplished and a worthy addition to some of the great seasons put up by various Yankees Hall of Famers at the position.
Murcer led the AL in on-base percentage, OPS and OPS+, posted the highest offensive WAR in the league, and he was fairly close to claiming his own rate-stat Triple Crown, finishing second in batting average (.337 to .331, to Tony Oliva) and second in slugging (his .543 behind Oliva's .546). His 181 OPS+ is tied for the 21st highest since 1893 for a center fielder (it is the eighth highest in Yankees history, behind five seasons by Mantle and two by DiMaggio), and makes Murcer one of 17 center fielders since 1893 to lead his league in this category.
Following his breakout season, Murcer continued to be a force in 1972, finishing in the top 10 in 13 high-end offensive categories (including a 169 OPS+ that ranked second in the AL). Before Murcer, the only center fielders to have -- through their age-26 season -- at least two consecutive years with an OPS+ of at least 160 were Cobb, Speaker, DiMaggio, Mantle and Mays, while only Griffey has done it since.
It's this final bit -- this potential of joining Murcer and six of the greatest center fielders in history -- that adds another level of appreciation and significance to McCutchen's 2012. In and of itself, it's indeed a weighty season, one that resoundingly echoes and legitimizes McCutchen's eminence in today's game. But with another like it, it will sparkle as a foundational element for even more historic accomplishments.
Roger Schlueter is senior researcher for MLB Productions. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.