It’s a three-word term you will hear often early in the season: small sample size.
Carlos Gomez leads the NL in batting average? Small sample size. Chris Davis is second in the majors in OPS? Small sample size. B.J. Upton is last in the NL in on-base percentage?
You get the point.
But not all early-season statistics are unreliable noise. If you’re looking in the right places, you can find stats that are indicative of a player’s true talent, and pretty good predictors about what he will do the rest of the year.
At this point in the season, the rate stats that have a large enough sample for everyday players are those that measure contact, swings, strikeouts, walks and line drives. If you want to learn more about how reliability is measured and when other stats will become reliable, Carleton’s studies are linked above. But basically, the stats with a large enough sample measure what a hitter is doing with his bat, and not really what happens once it enters the field of play (doubles, home runs, power numbers, etc).
So what do we know about the 2013 Pirates based on these numbers?
1. Andrew McCutchen is better than ever at the plate.
Still concerned about McCutchen’s offensive numbers? Take a look at his OPS in the month of April over the years:
- 2010: .796 OPS
- 2011: .747 OPS
- 2012: .723 OPS
- 2013: .731 OPS
The Pirates’ center fielder has always looked pedestrian to begin the season. Maybe the slow starts are because he is a Florida native who does not hit as well in the cold weather. Whatever the reason, McCutchen always turns it around, with an OPS above .900 in May, June and July.
His early lack of production is also due to some bad luck on balls in play, earning just a .258 BABIP compared to a more reliable .322 career BABIP (which is weird, since McCutchen has hit fewer ground balls than last year). I’m optimistic about McCutchen because of what he has been doing with his bat instead of what has happened after the ball has been put into play.
PitchFX Contact Rate:
- 2011: Made contact on 80% of swings, swung at 20% of pitches outside the strike zone
- 2012: Made contact on 78% of swings, swung at 22% of pitches outside the strike zone
- 2013: Made contact on 82% of swings, swung at 20% of pitches outside the strike zone
These are little changes in the numbers, but it is very encouraging to see McCutchen make little improvements at the plate. Most importantly, his strikeout rate has dropped to 13% this season from just under 20% last year. McCutchen is becoming a tougher out for pitchers, and that must scare some opposing teams.
2. You should start worrying about Pedro Alvarez… maybe.
First, the bad news about Alvarez:
- 2012: 71% contact rate, 48% swing rate, 10% walk rate
- 2013: 63% contact rate, 53% swing rate, 7% walk rate
This is all bad news with regards to Alvarez’s discipline and results. He is swinging at a lot more pitches, hitting a lot fewer of them, and thus his ability to get on-base is suffering. And when Alvarez struggles like this, it can be really tough to watch in the middle of the lineup.
The redemption here? As with McCutchen, April has always been the cruelest month for the third baseman. Over Alvarez’s career, he has had the lowest OPS and the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio in April. The first month of the season has always been a struggle, but in June and July, Alvarez starts to walk about 10% of the time and hit homers in more than 5% of at-bats. And like McCutchen, Alvarez has had bad luck so far on balls in play (.210 BABIP).
The hope is that at age 26, Alvarez would have a better plate approach in the early part of the year. He has not made the adjustments yet, though, so Pirates fans will once again have to hope that the warmer weather heats up Pedro’s bat.
3. Starling Marte is adjusting really well to Major League pitching.
MLB.com’s Power Rankings dropped a Mike Trout comparison to Marte’s phenomenal start. We’ll file that one under the “getting ahead of themselves” category, but the Pirates’ left fielder has been incredibly impressive early on. He is 4th among National League hitters in Wins Above Replacement and 12th in wRC+ offensively. Those stats show Marte’s great production, but they aren’t reliable predictors for the future.
What we do know is that the 24-year-old is less overwhelmed by Big League pitchers. He has made contact on 80% of his swings this season, compared to just 72% of swings last season. That improvement has helped Marte fix one of his biggest flaws coming up through the Pirates’ system: strikeouts. Marte’s season strikeout rate is down to 22% after he struck out in 27.5% of plate appearances last year.
Yes, his BABIP will drop from the unsustainable .398 it is at currently. But Marte is getting the bat on the baseball, and that is very important for a leadoff hitter with the speed to reach base on all sorts of ground balls.
4. The aging curve is already starting to eat away at Garrett Jones.
It’s not a huge problem to see Jones’ power numbers slide a little bit. He is 31 going on 32, and even the late bloom from Jones will not be able to last all the way through his thirtysomethings.
What we have seen that is concerning for Jones this season, though, is that his timing looks to be a bit off. Over his career, and even last year, Jones has made contact on 77% of his swings. This year, that percentage has dropped to just 69%. The drop is especially visible on pitches outside the strike zone (51% contact rate this year vs. 65% career).
Perhaps Jones will have to be more selective on what pitches he pulls the trigger. He is in a specialized hitting role now, facing right-handed pitchers almost exclusively, and should focus on getting his timing lined up against those righties to avoid sky-rocketing strikeout numbers.
5. Greetings to the more disciplined — and more productive — Russell Martin.
Let’s break out the bullet points once again, this time for the Pirates’ catcher.
- 2012: 80% contact rate, 42% swing rate, 20% strikeout rate
- 2013: 86% contact rate, 38% swing rate, 11% strikeout rate
All of this is very exciting to see from the most expensive free agent in team history. Maybe Huntington finally got one of these signings right.
While Martin hitting the ball on 86% of his swings does not put him among the Marco Scutaros of the world of great contact hitter, it does represent a career-best for the catcher. His strikeout and swing numbers are also at career lows, which is a great trend to see.
His home run rate will almost certainly go down with more games at PNC Park, but the improved plate discipline we are seeing will continue to make Martin an offensive asset. It looks like manager Clint Hurdle rightly wants Martin’s bat in the lineup as much as possible, whether he catches or fields at third base.
Later this week, we will take a look at some early-season numbers from Pirates’ starting pitchers, including A.J. Burnett transforming himself for the better and why Jeff Locke could be headed for disaster.