PITTSBURGH - Andrew McCutchen is unquestionably the Pittsburgh Pirates' best player, and one of the main reasons the team was 16 games over .500 on July 28.
But it's also apparent that McCutchen is one of the main reasons the Pirates collapsed over the last third of the season and finished with their 20th consecutive losing record.
McCutchen's batting average was a season-high .372 on Aug. 7. He finished at .327. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that was the biggest decline in average for any full-time player over that period.
After reaching .372, McCutchen batted .240 (48-for-200) for the rest of the season. To put that in perspective, much-maligned Clint Barmes hit .269 over the last two months of the season.
No one should have realistically expected McCutchen to hit .372 for the season. But he'd had three solid months in May, June and July, after a good April that didn't include a home run. It wasn't an isolated hot streak. He was one of the National League's best hitters, combining average with power.
What's even more disturbing about his decline is it happened for a second consecutive year. In 2011, his splits between the first half and the second half of the season were dramatic: a decline in batting average (.291 to .216), on-base percentage (.390 to .330) and slugging percentage (.505 to .392).
The Pirates had a corresponding drop in winning percentage (.580 to .309). It happened again this year, with the Pirates falling from a .593 first-half percentage to .383 in the second half. McCutchen's statistics were sinking at a similar level.
When the Pirates assess this season, a component will be determining why McCutchen fades down the stretch. If it were simply a matter of opponents discovering different pitching patterns in the second half of 2011, that would have been in play over the first four months of this season.
Does he wear down? Does he need more time off? Does his approach change? The Pirates are invested in McCutchen through 2018, and they need answers.
Last Sunday's PNC Park commemoration of Roberto Clemente's 3,000th hit included an odd touch.
Clemente's widow and two sons were joined by an actor dressed as Clemente, who walked in from right field, then duplicated Clemente's famous cap-lifting pose at second base after the historic hit.
The Clemente impersonator, dressed in a full Pirates' No. 21 uniform, has appeared in an off-Broadway play about Clemente's life. His participation in the ceremony was apparently requested by the Clemente family.
After the ceremony, the faux Roberto walked off the field with the family. It was more unsettling than poignant.
Mehno can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.