First Pitch: The Other Black Hole in the Lineup

Last week I looked at the black hole in the lineup that is the 7-9 spots, specifically looking at how the Pirates have seen the worst offensive production in the league from non-pitchers. I wanted to continue that by taking a look at the top of the order.

Going in to this I expected the results to be bad. My focus was primarily on the on-base percentage, which is an area where the Pirates have struggled this year, especially at the top of the order. Their leadoff hitters have mostly been Alex Presley (.283 OBP) and Jose Tabata (.314 OBP). Starling Marte (.293 OBP) has taken over the leadoff role for most of the final two months of the season. Neil Walker has the most games at the number two spot, with a .339 OBP, but almost two-thirds of the games have been filled by guys with lesser on-base percentages.

Here is the chart, showing how the Pirates compare to every team in the league. I included runs created, but sorted by OBP.

What I found ended up confirming my belief that the Pirates would end up as one of the worst teams in this area. That’s not a hard guess, as all you need to do is look at the on-base percentages of the guys listed at the top of the lineup. The Pirates were 27th overall in the majors, and next to last in the National League in on-base percentage. What I saw next was surprising.

The 28th overall team, with a .289 OBP, was the Baltimore Orioles. The 29th overall team, with a .282 OBP, was Cincinnati. Both teams are having great seasons, with Baltimore at 88-66, and Cincinnati at 92-61.

It’s a problem to have an on-base percentage that low from the top of the lineup. But that problem doesn’t seem to be holding back the Reds or Orioles. So I did a rough comparison of the three teams and how they stood in other areas.

Looking at the middle of the lineup (3-6 hitters), the Pirates are dead average, coming in at number 15 in the league in runs created. By comparison, Cincinnati is up at the top, ranked third, while Baltimore is right behind Pittsburgh at number 16.

Going back to the bottom of the lineup, Baltimore ranks 5th in runs created, Cincinnati ranks 17th, and the Pirates ranked 30th.

From a runs perspective, Baltimore has given up 683 runs, Pittsburgh has given up 624, and Cincinnati has given up 566 runs.

All three teams rank near the bottom in on-base percentage from their top of the order hitters. But the difference is that the other two teams are making up for that in other areas. Cincinnati has better pitching, much better 3-6 hitters, and an improvement at the bottom of the lineup. So while the top of their lineup is weak like the Pirates, every other aspect of their team is stronger.

Baltimore is frustrating. They’ve given up more runs this year than they’ve scored. They’ve also given up more runs than the Pirates. Their middle of the order hitters are just below the Pirates. Their top of the order hitters are just below the Pirates. The only advantage they have statistically is that their bottom of the order hitters are much better than the Pirates. But that shouldn’t account for a massive difference in record, especially playing in a tougher division.

Focusing just on the Pirates, they have a good but not great middle of the order. However, their top of the order and bottom of the order both rank near the bottom in the majors. The issues with the bottom of the order are philosophical. The Pirates prefer defense and sacrifice offense at the catcher and shortstop positions. That’s not the case with the top of the order. The team was relying on Alex Presley and Jose Tabata to hold down their corner outfield spots. Both players had horrible seasons, and now the focus is on Travis Snider and Starling Marte.

Marte isn’t your typical leadoff hitter, but he can get the job done once he adjusts to the majors. He has a career .361 OBP in the minors, which is in part due to a .303 average. The numbers dropped in Triple-A, but even his .286 average and .347 OBP would be fine for the big leagues.

The Pirates need to upgrade one of those areas next year. They can’t go in to next season with two holes in the lineup. The best bet for an upgrade is probably the top of the lineup, since they would still be focused on defense at the catcher and shortstop positions. The answer might be Marte. It might be finding a spot for Gaby Sanchez in the lineup. It might be a healthy Travis Snider. Or it could be someone who isn’t in the organization right now. Whoever it is, that person needs to do a better job of setting the table for Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Garrett Jones.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 6-2 to the Mets today.

**Pirates Notebook: Offense Struggles to be Consistent.

**Prospect Notebook: Farm System Evaluation, Instructional League Reports.

**Victor Black Headed to the Arizona Fall League.

**McPherson Ready to Make an Impact in the Majors.

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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