Andrew McCutchen knows what it takes.
He went from playing on dusty fields in the little town of Fort Meade, Florida, to roaming the outfields of baseball's greatest coliseums. There were no shortcuts on Cutch's journey. He never had the best gear or the best facilities at his disposal. But what he did have was a drive to see how far the game he loves could take him. Five All-Star selections, four Silver Sluggers and one NL MVP award later, McCutchen is one of baseball's all-time greats.
If your goal is to dominate on the diamond, follow these nine tips from Cutch.
1. Become a Master of Hand-Eye Coordination
Hand-eye coordination is a huge success factor inside the batter's box. McCutchen—a career .289 hitter—began honing this skill from a very early age. His father, Lorenzo McCutchen, developed a drill that forced young Cutch to focus on putting the bat to the ball. "My dad used to get broomsticks and pieces of cork—fishing cork, whatever it was. Then he'd wrap the cork up in tape so it was heavy enough that the wind wouldn't blow it too crazy. Then he would just flick the corks at me, and he'd tell me to hit them with the broomstick. I used to do that a lot; that was one thing I did a whole lot," McCutchen says.
This drill, easy to replicate, is an excellent way to develop strong hand-eye coordination. You can also use whiffle golf balls in place of the tape-wrapped corks.
2. Protect Your House
Lorenzo came from a football background. When he was teaching Andrew how to play baseball, he often did so with a physical, football-type mentality. One lesson that shaped the way Andrew still plays the game today? Treat the plate like it's your house.
"He was a football guy; he used this football mentality, but he put it in a baseball sense. He'd say, 'The plate is your house. You gotta protect your house. You don't want anyone coming into your house. You don't want people messing with your mom, your sister. Protect it. Picture that ball being someone that's trying to take what's yours.' He told me to do that, and that's the mentality I took. I didn't want anyone to come into my house," McCutchen says.
3. Never Let The Stage Get Too Big
When you find yourself on a big stage, don't tense up—there's a reason why you've made it there. McCutchen learned this lesson as an eighth grader. The middle school and high school in his school district were joint, which gave him the chance to play on the high school varsity team when he was still technically in middle school.
"It was the first day of tryouts. I was in eighth grade. JV was on one side and varsity was on the other. So I go to the JV side—that's where all my friends are, the guys I grew up playing baseball with. I run over there and get in line and starting warming up. My coach screams at me, 'Hey! No! You're over here!' I was like, 'What? Varsity? No way.' I ended up moseying to the varsity side, all uncomfortable. I didn't think it was the place I should've been because I was so young. But I held my own and I ended doing really good for myself as an eighth grader on varsity. My confidence kinda shot up after that year. I knew that regardless of my size or my age, I could compete," McCutchen says. Cutch was surprised, but he never let the moment get too big for him. He went on to hit .507 on varsity as an eighth grader.
4. Injuries Are Temporary
McCutchen had already shown plenty of athletic promise by the time he was a sophomore at Fort Meade High School. But when he tore his ACL running a jet sweep during a football game, his bright future was suddenly in question. Yet McCutchen approached his rehab like a professional, determined to come back better than ever. "That was a tough, tough spot for me—going through that situation as a young kid, as a sophomore. I definitely went through some stuff, but I got through it. I knew I'd be alright. Sometimes I had to encourage my own dad—'look, no time to mope and be upset about it. We'll get through it. I'll get through it and get better.' It's just motivation to get yourself even better. When everyone thinks I'll be down, I'll be back on the field [as soon as I can] and getting right back at it. That's what I did. It was a learning lesson," McCutchen says.
5. Watch And Learn
When McCutchen first broke into pro baseball, he had a lot to learn about how to watch the game. Many players just stare blankly at an opposing pitcher and wait for their turn to hit, but elite players analyze every pitch—even during warm-ups. During McCutchen's first spring training with the Pirates, Jack Wilson—a team veteran who'd go on to play 12 seasons in the MLB—gave him a tip that's stuck with him to this day.
"I was standing on deck during my first spring training ever in 2006. I was 19 years old. Jack Wilson was hitting in front of me. The pitcher was warming up, throwing his pitches. Jack looks to me and tells me, 'the second pitch a pitcher calls when he's warming up, that's his second-best pitch.' I was like, 'oh, ok.' I watched him and he was throwing his fastball, then he went change-up. So his change-up was his next best pitch. More than likely, if he wants to throw an off-speed pitch, he's going to throw that change-up before any other off-speed pitch. That's something I learned, and that's stuck with me until now," McCutchen says. "Pay attention to the game throughout the game. When you're in the dugout not hitting, don't just be watching. Try to learn something when you're watching. There are things you may pick up that could help you."
6. Shatter Slumps With The Power of Positivity
Slumps—extended periods of poor batting performance—are a part of baseball. How you respond to slumps can define your career. Will you let a slump affect your belief in your own abilities, or will you take a more positive approach? For Cutch, the latter has always been the answer. "A lot of guys focus on things that are wrong during a slump. I do my best to focus on what's right. We try to correct what's wrong, what's wrong, what's wrong—sometimes, that creates more wrong. I try to do more of what I'm doing right. Or if I'm looking at what's wrong, I [also look] at what's right. The more you do that, you'll slowly get out of it. You're going to go through it. Baseball is a game of failure. You gotta learn how to deal with failure," McCutchen says.
7. Train Smart
During the early portion of McCutchen's MLB career, he spent offseasons working out by himself. But after doing that for a few years, he realized he could get more out of his workouts if he linked up with a knowledgeable trainer. Nowadays, he spends his offseasons at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, training under the guidance of strength and conditioning specialist Will Townsley.
"The thing that's changed about my training [over my career] is I get a trainer. A trainer that knows you, knows your body, knows what you're trying to accomplish and they help you accomplish it. Before, I didn't have a trainer. I didn't have anybody pushing me. I just kinda followed the sheet and did it myself. But then I looked back and said, 'I need to be pushed.' So that's what I did. You can only do so much, but when you have someone behind you who knows what they're doing, follow them. [It helps me] get ready as best as possible and be the best player I possibly can," McCutchen says.
8. Find Your Balance
Single-leg training plays a huge role in McCutchen's offseason routine. Though they may be unaware of it, most athletes aren't equally strong in both legs. For a baseball player, this condition can hamper everything from base-stealing speed to balance inside the batter's box. McCutchen hasn't yet achieved equal strength in both legs, but exercises like Bulgarian Split Squats and Single-Leg Kettlebell Deadlifts are helping him address his muscle imbalance. "Single-leg training is big. It helps me because my legs aren't the same strength. Most people, you're a little stronger on one leg than the other. So trying to work both legs, strengthen both legs, you can really hit the areas that need improvement the most. It's only making me a better player," McCutchen says.
9. Hard Work Makes The Game Easy
McCutchen's tenacious work ethic originated when he was in high school. He'd get up at 5 a.m. before school to train with his father, terrified by the thought that another player was out-working him. "My dad would always tell me, 'while you're sleeping, they're working.' That's how he wanted me to approach it. You want to get better? You gotta work when everyone's sleeping. So that's the mentality I took, and it paid off," McCutchen says.
Every athlete might not be able to work out at 5 a.m. for one reason or another (it's not a good idea to sacrifice a good night's sleep in favor of working out, for example), but Cutch urges young athletes to prioritize work ethic above everything else. He says, "Prepare every way you can, physically and mentally. Then you can just go out and play the game the way you know how, and have fun doing it."
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