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Gregg Ritchie entered the manager's office clutching the printout that would change Andrew McCutchen's career. It was May 2007, and Ritchie, the Pirates' minor league hitting coordinator, had traveled to Altoona, Pa., on a search-and-rescue mission for the young outfielder's lost swing. McCutchen, then 20, had been Pittsburgh's first-round draft pick in 2005, and he was at the top of the organization's small group of promising minor leaguers; before the '07 season Baseball America ranked him as the 13th-best prospect in the game. McCutchen cruised through his first two years in the minors, hitting .297 with 16 home runs and 39 stolen bases in 172 games at the Rookie and Class A levels, then finishing 2006 by batting .308 in a 20-game stint with Altoona, the Pirates' Double A affiliate. The following spring, buzz in Pirates camp was that the centerfielder might make the Opening Day roster—though he had spent all of three weeks above A ball.
McCutchen ended up returning to Altoona after camp. He began the 2007 season 0 for 15. By the end of April he was hitting .189, and, having no experience in handling a prolonged slump, he took to expanding his strike zone and pressing at the plate. Says McCutchen, "I had never in my life struggled."
Enter Ritchie, who pulled into Altoona, sat the prospect down and showed him an 8½-by-11-inch printout with McCutchen's name at the top and what sounded like a report from a very cranky area scout: Hands too high. He's on his front leg. Hands are over his head. Not much of a load. Swing is too sharp to the ground....
It was a list of flaws in McCutchen's hitting mechanics that Ritchie had written down a year and a half earlier, on his first day on the job. When McCutchen was raking in the low minors, the list stayed buried in Pittsburgh's player-development database, which stores detailed progress and scouting reports on every player in the organization. There was no reason for the club's instructors to fix something that didn't seem to be broken, and McCutchen was unaware that such a list existed. But when he began to struggle, the organization's coaches pounced. "He had played on talent alone for so long," says Brandon Moore, Altoona's hitting coach at the time.
McCutchen had been a minor leaguer for two years, but this was the moment when he truly became a professional: He learned that even for the bluest of baseball's blue-chip prospects, natural talent isn't enough. The struggling minor leaguer examined Ritchie's list of flaws and recommended fixes, looked the coach in the eye and said, "Let's go do it."
NOW 25, MCCUTCHEN is in his fourth major league season. He was an All-Star in 2011, when he hit 23 home runs and stole 23 bases. This year he's threatening to make those numbers look mundane: In Pittsburgh's first 59 games he hit .325 with 11 homers, 11 steals and a .951 OPS, all while playing stellar defense in centerfield. The Pirates' surprising start—after a weekend sweep of the Royals they were 32--27 and tied with the Reds for first place in the NL Central—is largely due to McCutchen's keeping their offense afloat. Through the Kansas City series Pittsburgh had scored just 191 runs, fewest in the majors; 57 of them had been produced by McCutchen.
The Pirates stamped their five-tool centerfielder as the franchise cornerstone last off-season by signing him to a six-year, $51.5 million contract extension, the second-largest deal in club history and one that keeps him under team control through 2018. McCutchen, the 11th pick in one of the deepest drafts ever (sidebar, page 65), represents a shining example of a franchise finding the player-development holy grail: The Pirates groomed a raw, homegrown talent into a major league star.
But McCutchen's story is also a case study in a dilemma every organization faces with top draft choices: When is the right time to help them unlearn bad habits—especially if those flaws aren't affecting their minor league performance? Making changes too early can damage a player's confidence and his trust in his coaches. (McCutchen says that if Ritchie had approached him with that to-do list when he was hitting .300 in A ball, his reaction would have been along the lines of, "What, am I going to hit .450 now?") Waiting too long can be costly too. Bad habits can become ingrained, and shedding them becomes more difficult as a player rises through the ranks. "You've got to pick your spots," Pittsburgh general manager Neal Huntington says. "There are teaching moments."
Most organizations are willing to see how far a prospect's natural talent will take him; the days of rebuilding a blue chipper's flawed swing a few days after he's drafted are gone. "The thing that we've all got to be careful of is, Don't just jump right in there," Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long says. "That's what we're getting paid to do—teach—but sometimes it's better to lay back and watch for a while. You're going to lose trust if you jump in right away."
Adds Braves hitting coach Greg Walker, "Over the years I've become less aggressive about making changes early in the process." Walker believes that while everyone is different, there is one truism about getting a young player to listen to coaching: "He's got to believe there's a problem."