Andrew McCutchen had taken just one swing as the Phillies’ leadoff hitter Thursday when he went back to left field, lifted his cap, cupped his heart, and bowed to the crowd.
The Phillies could not have asked for a better first glance at the lineup they spent all winter retooling. And McCutchen, who opened the season with a homer on his first swing, could not have asked for a better start as the leadoff batter atop a lineup expected to be one of the deepest in baseball.
Gabe Kapler, even before the Phillies signed Bryce Harper, spent most of the offseason imagining how he would chart his lineup on opening day. The Phillies, he hoped, would sign Harper or Manny Machado. They signed McCutchen and traded for J.T. Realmuto and Jean Segura to accompany Rhys Hoskins.
The manager, after a season of constantly shuffling his lineup, sought a batting order that could be consistent. He had five hitters who belonged near the top. All five reached base last season at rates well above the league average, and three of the five — Harper, Hoskins, and McCutchen — averaged more than four pitches per plate appearance.
All five are expected to play nearly every day. The Phillies, after a season in which they produced the ninth-fewest runs in baseball, have constructed a lineup of tough outs.
Kapler said the influx of talent allows him to be less tactical and place his hitters in places where they feel most comfortable. That, Kapler said, will lead to better performance “because they’re comfortable.”
And it was Kapler’s duty to find his leadoff hitter. After a winter of typing mock lineups into his iPad, Kapler settled this month on McCutchen. The 32-year-old outfielder had spent most of his career batting third when San Francisco bumped him to leadoff last July before trading him to the Yankees. McCutchen’s new place suddenly felt comfortable. The five-time All-Star finished last season with a .858 OPS in his final 54 games, 49 of which began with him batting first.
“I like it,” McCutchen said. “It sets the tone for the team and just be a threat from No. 1. That’s all I’m trying to do, just do my job and try to create runs.”
The leadoff hitter, conventional baseball wisdom goes, should be a speed demon who causes havoc on the basepaths and steals at will. But the game has changed. Last season’s stolen-base total, 2,474 combined by 30 teams, was the lowest in a full season since 1973, when the major leagues had six fewer teams. A stolen base has never held a lesser value. Hitters can hit for more power, and catchers are quicker with their throws. An extra base is not always worth the risk of an out.
The top of a modern lineup calls for a hitter such as McCutchen, who placed in the top 20 last season in on-base percentage, walks, and pitches seen, and hit 20 homers for the eighth straight season. The Phillies’ new leadoff hitter reaches base at a high rate, regularly works a deep count, hits for power, and will not clog the basepaths once he’s on them. McCutchen is the type of hitter built to start a lineup that Hoskins said does not provide “a breath of fresh air for the opposing pitcher.”
“The pitchers aren’t able to say, ‘Oh, OK, the first guy, the second guy, then I’ve got to lock in to the third guy.’ They’ve got to lock in from first pitch,” McCutchen said. “I think that helps us out as a team. That helps me out as well, being in the box and knowing that this guy, he’s trying to lock in from Pitch 1. He’s not just giving me a get-me-over, 90-mph fastball right down the middle because he knows that I can do something with that. I think it’s beneficial for the team, and I think it’s beneficial for me.”
The first two pitches that McCutchen saw on Thursday were fastballs outside the zone. His patient approach put him ahead in the count. And he was then rewarded with a fastball over the plate. McCutchen slammed it to center for a homer to join Heinie Mueller (1938) as the only players in franchise history to begin their Phillies career with a leadoff homer in the first inning of opening day.
It seemed at times this winter that McCutchen’s signing in early December had been overshadowed as the offseason kept churning. When he jogged to the outfield for the second inning, the fans were on their feet. McCutchen stopped, stood straight, and bowed. He might have been overshadowed, but the team’s new leadoff hitter was not forgotten.
“They showed me love, and I’ve got to show it back,” McCutchen said. “That’s the way I look at it. Have a lot of fun with them. It was awesome.”