No one could blame McCutchen if he believed his swing was problem-free when he reported to the Pirates' rookie-level affiliate in the Gulf Coast League three weeks after he was drafted. As a 14-year-old eighth-grader, he was so good that he took over as the starting varsity shortstop at Fort Meade (Fla.) High—and then hit .507, best in the county. As a ninth-grader in the fall of 2002, McCutchen signed up for private hitting lessons with Matt Diaz, a 24-year-old Tampa Bay Devil Rays prospect who had hit .274 with 10 home runs at Double A the previous season. The instruction ended after two lessons. "I told him, 'If you want to keep coming, that's fine, but I've got nothing for you,'" recalls Diaz, now a Braves outfielder and 10-year big league veteran who was McCutchen's Pirates teammate last year. "His bat speed surpassed mine. He was in ninth grade. It was a little discouraging."
The Pirates scouted every one of McCutchen's games in his senior year. The first time scouting director Ed Creech showed up, McCutchen hit a home run toward a cow pasture beyond leftfield. One of the club's scouts went beyond the fence and walked off the distance: roughly 500 feet. McCutchen ended up hitting .709 with 16 home runs that season, but because Fort Meade played in one of Florida's lower high school levels, the Pirates weren't sold on his skills. In March 2005 they invited him to their spring training facility in Bradenton, about an hour from Fort Meade, for a workout. Most of the club's player-development decision makers—general manager, scouting director, farm director, minor league hitting coordinator, scouts—surrounded the batting cage to watch the 18-year-old McCutchen take BP with outfield prospect Rajai Davis, a 24-year-old who hit .314 in Class A during the previous year. "I was nervous for the kid," says Rob Sidwell, the scout who found McCutchen for the Pirates. "He handled himself like it was no big deal. In that workout he outshined Rajai Davis."
That performance helped convince the Pirates that McCutchen was their pick. His maturity and calm demeanor made an impression on the front office too. "They could see something—that spark," says Pirates owner Bob Nutting. Two years later, those intangibles would be as instrumental in McCutchen's rise to the majors as the swing he displayed that day.
After Ritchie confronted McCutchen with the list of his shortcomings, they got to work. They designed daily instruction and accomplishment plans, and Altoona manager Tim Leiper held McCutchen out of the lineup for a few days so he could focus on working with Ritchie and Moore. "I believed in them," McCutchen says. "Anyone can be coachable if you just accept the fact that you need to change."
The items on Ritchie's printout were all related to a basic problem: McCutchen had to learn to keep his hands close to his body so the barrel of the bat would move quickly through the hitting zone—what coaches call staying inside the ball. One of McCutchen's greatest natural talents is that his hands are impossibly quick and can generate bat speed that produces unusual power for his 5'10", 185-pound frame. When he began to combine that quickness with better hand control, McCutchen's Double A struggles ended. In 2007 he batted .307 over his final 41 games with Altoona. He was called up to Triple A Indianapolis and hit .313 over 17 games, then batted .283 in a full season there in '08. He debuted with the Pirates the following year and hit .286 with 12 home runs and an .836 OPS in 108 games as a rookie.
"Adversity is a great teacher," says Pittsburgh assistant G.M. Kyle Stark, who oversees player development. "Our philosophy here is that we're trying to maximize what guys do naturally, so we want to see that before we change things."
McCutchen's development has been mirrored by a shockingly high number of his fellow 2005 first-round draftees—10 of the 48 players taken in that round have already earned an MVP or Cy Young vote or received an All-Star nod. When the Pirates centerfielder sees a highlight of one of his peers from that group—it includes Justin Upton, Ryan Braun, Ryan Zimmerman and Troy Tulowitzki among others—he'll shout to anyone who happens to be listening, "Oh-five draft class, don't forget!
"It's unbelievable," he says. "We've got some studs drafted in that class. I let people know."
Pittsburgh now hopes McCutchen will become part of an even more exclusive club: active players who have helped the Pirates finish .500. With Pittsburgh mired in a 19-year streak of losing seasons, there are no such players—but the start of this season is reason for hope. "Once that streak is beaten, you're going to want something else," McCutchen says. "Why not reach the playoffs and win the World Series? Why not do it all? Let's open some eyes, man."
If McCutchen can do that, he'll have ticked the boxes on an even more important checklist.