Originally posted on Baseball Prospectus  |  Last updated 7/18/12

The Tuesday Takeaway
Remember when Matt Kemp was “the league’s best player, and the most valuable player to his team”—not to mention “the best show in the NL.” Over his first 100 at-bats of the season, Kemp produced 40 hits, including four doubles, a triple, and 12 home runs. The Dodgers were running away with the National League West, and Kemp was running away with the Most Valuable Player race.

No one knows how long a healthy Kemp could have sustained his incredible early-season run, though by the time he landed on the disabled list with a hamstring injury on May 13, his batting average was down to .359, and he had added only one more extra-base hit. Likewise, no one could have predicted that a player would top that run less two months later.

As Kemp began to slow down during the second week of May, Andrew McCutchen began to heat up, delivering a four-hit effort on May 9 and matching it on May 12. That was only the beginning.

Remember Kemp’s .400 effort with 17 extra-base hits over a span of 100 at-bats? Well, in a surge that dates back to June 16, McCutchen has collected 48 hits in 100 at-bats, including seven doubles, two triples, and 10 home runs. Kemp’s triple slash at the end of play on May 7 was .406/.488/.832. McCutchen’s line over the past 31 days is .480/.519/.890.

I wrote on June 25 that, in his quest to emerge as a star, develop into the face of the Pirates franchise, and lead the team’s return to contention, the 25-year-old McCutchen was “a resounding 3-for-3.” You can now add performing better than anyone else in the National League to that list, and the two-time All-Star would be an equally resounding 4-for-4.

With Kemp still regaining his groove after a month and a half away from the field, and Joey Votto now out at least three weeks following knee surgery, McCutchen has become what Kemp was in April and what Votto was in May and June—the league’s best player, the most valuable player to his team, and the best show in the NL.

That show continued in last night’s 6-4 win over the Rockies, during which McCutchen launched his sixth home run in as many games. The half-dozen includes this shot to right-center field at Miller Park and this blast over everything at Coors Field that traveled a season-best 448 feet, highlighting McCutchen’s ability to drive the ball to all fields, which is also illustrated by the spray chart from TexasLeaguers.com below.

With the victory, the Pirates improved to 50-40 and stayed a game behind the Reds in the National League Central. They will attempt to win the series behind James McDonald in the rubber match this afternoon, and McCutchen could not ask for a better opponent to help him maintain his recent home-run pace. Rockies starter Jeremy Guthrie has served up 12 long balls in 39 innings of work at Coors this season (3:10 p.m. ET).

What to Watch for on Wednesday

  • With Zack Greinke taking a break to return to his normal routine, the Brewers will turn to rookie Tyler Thornburg, who will make his first major-league start in this afternoon’s series finale versus the Cardinals. A third-round pick out of Charleston Southern in 2010, Thornburg started in 44 of his 47 career minor-league appearances, but his high-effort delivery and power stuff are likely to result in a bullpen role down the road. For now, the 23-year-old will focus on keeping the ball in the yard, as he has been taken deep five times in 7 1/3 big-league innings. The Cardinals, meanwhile, will try to break a slump of five straight games with three or fewer runs scored (2:10 p.m. ET).
  • Wednesday’s best pitchers’ duel, at least on paper, will take place in Los Angeles, where Cliff Lee and Clayton Kershaw are set to toe the rubber. Lee finally earned his first victory of the season on July 4, but his winning days were short-lived, as the Phillies offense failed to back him in a 6-2 loss to the Rockies last Friday. Kemp is just 1-for-10 with five strikeouts in his past meetings with Lee, and Kershaw is 0-4 with a 4.95 ERA in seven career starts against the Phillies, so the deck seems to be stacked in Lee’s favor this afternoon (3:10 p.m. ET). 
  • The White Sox are only halfway done with their four-game series at Fenway Park, and already, Red Sox Nation has just about had it with Kevin Youkilis. Chicago’s third baseman went 3-for-4 with two doubles in the opener on Monday, then added a three-run blast off Jon Lester in last night’s 7-5 White Sox win. Youkilis has now hit four home runs in 18 games since he traded socks on June 25, after hitting four in 42 games for Boston. He enters tonight’s matchup against Felix Doubront with a .286/.427/.540 triple slash versus southpaws this year (7:10 p.m. ET).
  • As trade rumors surrounding Francisco Liriano continue to swirl, the left-hander will take the mound looking to deliver an encore to last Friday’s effort, when he struck out a career-high 15 A’s in 8 1/3 innings but suffered a tough-luck defeat. Liriano struggled against the Orioles in his first start of the season, allowing six runs (five earned) in four innings, but he has a 3.16 ERA since the beginning of June. The O’s will counter with Tommy Hunter, who did not surrender an earned run in his duel with Liriano on April 7, but who, conversely, has a 7.30 ERA since the beginning of May (8:10 p.m. ET).
  • The Mariners entered their series versus the Royals with an American League-worst 621 team OPS against left-handed pitching, but after shelling Jonathan Sanchez and Ryan Verdugo on consecutive evenings, they have raised that mark 10 points—no small feat with a sample size of more than 1,100 plate appearances. Tonight, Seattle will face a lefty for the third straight night, as Kansas City sends Bruce Chen to the hill looking to avoid its eighth loss in nine games. Ichiro Suzuki, who is just 8-for-48 so far this month, has 11 hits in 26 lifetime at-bats against Chen (8:10 p.m. ET). 
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