Andrew McCutchen has never drawn more than 89 walks in a season, and right now, he's on track to increase that by a healthy margin. For the first time, opposing pitchers and catchers are making a point of pitching around McCutchen and putting the onus on the hitters who follow.
In the first quarter of the season, it's a strategy that has paid off. Pedro Alvarez has a .200 average, and entering Saturday's action, the Pittsburgh hitters who have filled the cleanup spot ranked 20th among 30 teams in OPS (.693). The batters hitting in Pittsburgh's No. 5 slot ranked 22nd in OPS.
Those numbers must improve. The Pirates, who face the St. Louis Cardinals in their first "Sunday Night Baseball" appearance since 1996 (8 ET on ESPN and WatchESPN), have good starting pitching and a good bullpen. But their start has been sluggish, with their offense ranked in the bottom third in runs, and they cannot count on McCutchen to consistently contribute; as the Pirates have seen early this season, he is getting a small handful of pitches with which he can do damage. He is being treated like their Miguel Cabrera.
Maybe Alvarez will be the hitter who will do more; maybe it will be Ike Davis, who has been productive in his first weeks with the Pirates, posting a .359 on-base percentage, although with a mere five extra-base hits in 59 at-bats. When Davis first joined the Pirates, they let him get settled in. Now, there is more work being done with him to get him back to what he did before he got hurt in the second half of last season, when he was able to keep his weight back more consistently.
Maybe Starling Marte -- who has been hitting in the No. 5 spot lately -- will be a help, now that he has worked through some early-season struggles at the plate. Maybe Gregory Polanco will help after he arrives, whenever that is. The Pirates probably want to be sure that Polanco is fully prepared to help when he arrives, to reduce the time required for his initial growing pains, just as the Tampa Bay Rays do with their prospects.
The good thing for the Pirates is that just about every NL Central team is grinding through issues early in the year.