After One-Hitter, Where Will The Pirates Get Offense?

Russell Martin Pirates

Russell Martin has been one of the Pirates’ best hitters relative to his position. (Photo credit: David Hague)

One day after the Atlanta Braves held the Pirates to just five hits in a 5-4 defeat win over Bucs and the day of Julio Teheran twirling a no-hit bid into the 8th inning, it seems appropriate to ask when Pittsburgh’s offense will begin to turn it on.

Start with the basics: the Pirates are 10th in the 15-team National League in runs scored, 12th in batting average, 12th in OPS and 12th in wRC+. Now to my underlying stat of choice, Batting Runs, which is FanGraphs’ hitting component for Wins Above Replacement. In this stat, the Pirates are once again 12th despite being 7th in RE24, which adds in the context of at-bats. Dave Cameron explains the concept of sequencing here.

Translation — Although the Pirates are already below average in producing runs this season, the underlying stats actually project they will be somewhat worse than that moving forward. This discrepancy is probably due to lucky sequencing of hits and quality baserunning more than anything else. The baserunning will likely stay in the Pirates’ favor, sequencing will not.

Now let’s take this a step further by looking position-by-position at how the Pirates rank in the National league in Batting Runs. It means I get to use more bullet points!

  • Catcher: 4th

No surprise. Russell Martin has been one of baseball’s best offseason signings, and Michael McKenry continues to provide a solid bat.

  • First Base: 7th

Both ends of the Pirates’ platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are holding up, and the Bucs have been about league average as a result.

  • Second Base: 8th

Neil Walker’s injury gave a few too many plate appearances to Brandon Inge, bringing down the numbers. But they are still at about league average, and I like Clint Hurdle’s idea of using Jordy Mercer against left-handed pitchers, against whom even the switch-hitting Walker struggles.

  • Shortstop: 13th

Okay, first red flag. Clint Barmes’ plate production remains dreadful (.218/.255/.296), as was that of John McDonald in his few plate appearances. But Jordy Mercer has provided pop in his limited opportunities.

  • Third Base: 13th
Pedro Alvarez Pirates

Despite leading the team in home runs, Pedro Alvarez’s production has been below average.

Another trouble spot. This low ranking has a little to do with Brandon Inge getting reps at third base, but also Pedro Alvarez starting slow once again and continuing to maintain a lowly .267 OBP plus striking out in one of three at-bats. Alvarez, as Hurdle will say often, can still “change the game with one swing of the bat,” but those swings need to also provide something beyond the occasional home run.

  • Left Field: 6th

Starling Marte’s walk rate remains dreadful as he swings at way too many pitches outside the strike zone. But other than that, he is providing better-than-decent production out of the corner spot, using his good-looking swing to reach base in many different ways from the leadoff spot.

  • Center Field: 5th

Andrew McCutchen didn’t exactly tear baseballs a new one like he did in May’s of previous seasons. But he is still a player primed for a summertime surge if he can get his timing right and see some more left-handed pitching.

  • Right Field: 9th

This platoon has not been as successful. Travis Snider reaches base pretty often, but his power is still coming in drips rather than buckets. Jose Tabata was swinging well before his recent injury, but his absence has required the use of such replacements as Russell Martin against lefties.

  • Pitchers: 14th

The Pirates’ honored tradition of having terrible hitting pitchers is still alive because that’s the way we like it. James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez are the only pitchers with more than one hit all season.

One stat that pops out to me for the Pirates is that the team ranks dead last, and by quite a bit, at hitting balls outside the strike zone. I don’t know if there is a specific approach that is causing the Bucs trouble at hitting non-zone pitches. Perhaps the number is simply being brought down by the frequent at-bats of Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, who have trouble making contact on pitches not in the zone. Either way, putting the bat on the ball would serve the Pirates (4th-highest strikout rate in the NL) quite well.

Okay, so now we see the three positions where the Pirates have been at their worst offensively: shortstop, third base, right field and pitcher. None of the names I suggest are necessarily advocating for certain players, just trying to raise the discussion. These are the areas where the front office can bring in the greatest improvement to the offense:

1. Get a platoon partner for Pedro Alvarez

There has been a lot of discussion on this site about whether or not Alvarez is a platoon player. I will not pass judgement either way. Still, if we get to late July and Alvarez is still not hitting left-handers (.636 career OPS) nearly as well as he is right-handers (.765 career OPS), the final two months of the season could use a third-base partner.

[If you're not familiar with wRC+ or Weight Runs Created Plus, it is an all-encompassing offensive stat with 100 set as league average.]

Possibilities:

  • Trevor Plouffe, Twins: 137 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
  • Danny Valencia, Orioles: 127 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010, hit .281 vs. lefties in AAA last year (but Biogenesis link)
  • Michael Young, Phillies: 125 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010, Leadership™
  • Alex Rodriguez, Yankees: I mean could you imagine?

2. Find a better hitting shortstop? Or try?

Clint Barmes Pirates

Clint Barmes continues to labor at the plate. (Photo credit: David Hague)

Getting a Major League shortstop is tough any time of the year, so maybe a triumvirate of Barmes, Mercer and Chase d’Arnaud is about as good as the Pirates will get.

However, all three are right-handed hitters, so perhaps the Pirates can look at some shortstops who can hit right-handed pitcher better? Let’s throw out the options.

Possibilities:

  • Jimmy Rollins, Phillies: 107 wRC+ vs. righties since 2010

And that’s all.

3. Add a better right-handed hitter to match with Travis Snider

Snider’s career numbers against lefties are bad, but still a smidge better than those of Alvarez:  .231/.279/.372 for a .651 OPS. But that’s still rather horrendous, and there might be a selection bias involved; if managers know Snider is bad against lefties, they may only play him against more hittable southpaws.

Here’s the trouble: Snider’s usual partner in right field is Jose Tabata, who has no platoon split. He is merely average (around a .710 OPS) against both lefties and righties. There should be other options out there for a corner outfielder that has some pop against left-handed pitchers. You know, besides Russell Martin.

Possibilities:

  • Corey Hart, Brewers: 161 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
  • Chris Denorfia, Padres: 145 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
  • Josh Willingham, Twins: 134 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
  • Alfonso Soriano, Cubs: 129 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010

Let’s end with a chart that should give the Pirates some optimism. It compares Batting Runs across the National League this season (which is, again, the hitting component of WAR and does not take into account when at-bats occurred) with RE24 (which is a run expectancy stat based on the context of runners on base or not on base).

Batting Runs vs. RE24

You may notice the Miami Marlins are so bad they are completely off the board.

The Reds have been a fairly lucky team with run production: they have a 103 wRC+ with the bases empty and a 115 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals’ luck has been even more dramatic: a 78 wRC+ with the bases empty and a league-leading 139 wRC+ with runners in scoring position.

You think these teams are clutch? Go ahead. I’ll just bet that it has been good luck with the sequencing of base hits, and both teams will face some regression to the mean. They are both above-average offensive teams, but perhaps not the two best run-producing teams in the NL. That is a bit of good news for the Pirates, the team in competition with them.

James Santelli

Author: James Santelli

James covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects. He is a Broadcast Journalism student at USC and has written for such outlets as NBCOlympics.com, Pittsburgh Magazine and the official websites of the Los Angeles Clippers and Pittsburgh Penguins. James previously covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report. He also broadcasts play-by-play for the USC Trojans baseball team and was awarded the 2013 Chick Hearn Memorial Scholarship and Allan Malamud Scholarship. James dispenses puns at his Twitter account (@JamesSantelli) where he promises to write in first-person. Google

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  • http://www.facebook.com/bryan.graham.773 Bryan Graham

    It’s plain and simple, the Pirates are a bottom third team offensively. That’s what they were last year and little was done to change that. Russel Martin is a massive upgrade defensively, but is in no way an offensive juggernaut and that is the only change I can think of. There was a big discussion a couple years ago when we had the Hammer and what his trade value might be and it was rather high, I wonder if Grilli would have the same kind of value assuming he keeps up what he is doing. I still see the Pirates as a couple years away. I like the young guys Marte, Snider, and even Mercer, but see them needing another year or two to mature. That being said, somewhere they need to find a guy that can hit for both power and keep a solid average consistently for the middle of the order. I like their future, just not the future of this season.

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 Lee Young

      “That being said, somewhere they need to find a guy that can hit for both power and keep a solid average consistently for the middle of the order.”

      Unfortunately, these types of guys cost a lot. Is NH willing to part with prospects for one of them?
      Unfortunately (#2), we thought KDro was gonna be that player.

      Foo

  • Arrowreb

    What about platooning Pedro with Russell Martin? Martin plays third against lefties, Alvarez comes off the bench. Bring Sanchez up to back up Martin. Sanchez plays against lefties, when Martin plays third. Sanchez definitely has better defense than McKenry with his offense probably no better, no worse.

    This frees Huntington up to concentrate on upgrades for SS and RF. Of course if Martin can’t cut it defensively at third than this won’t work.

    • James Santelli

      It’s a decent idea to put Martin at third base on days you want him to take a rest from catching, but no more than that. So much of Martin’s value comes from his defense behind the plate and ability to direct the pitching staff, and you don’t want to limit that. But I like your thinking.

  • http://www.facebook.com/ron.loreski Ron Loreski

    Alex Rodriguez? Jimmy Rollins? Josh Willingham? Alfonso Soriano? You dream big my man.

    • James Santelli

      “None of the names I suggest are necessarily advocating for certain players, just trying to raise the discussion.” :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/joshdziomba Josh Dziomba

    This is what I think could be solutions to the offense…. not Pipe dreams but reasonable solutions

    SS – Yuniesky Bentancourt , defense isnt as good as it once was, but still has some pop in his bat and you can replace him with Barmes late in the game, and he really shouldn’t be more expensive than a couple of fringe minor leaguers

    RF – He’s having a down Year so he might come a little cheaper, but we should look at Scott Hariston, we should wait to see if he heats up but he has a history of hitting lefties really well

    Now if you want to go bigger this is what The Pirates can do

    Call Milwaukee and get Aramis Ramirez and Betancourt in a package deal, or Just Ramirez

    You put him at 3rd, bat him 4th, Put Pedro in a platoon at first for the rest of the year with Sanchez, putting Jones in right to platoon with (wait for it) Jerry Sands, Sands cant do worse against LHP than we’ve had

    A Lineup of Marte, Walker, Cutch, Ramirez, Jones (Sanchez), Martin, Alvarez(Sands), Barmes (Betancourt/Mercer)

    • James Santelli

      Good ideas all around, though I’m not sure if Betancourt is much better (when combining offense and defense) than Mercer. Could be a lateral move.

  • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

    If only we a RH RF who had lets say a career 154 wRC+ against left handed pitchers. Anyone have any ideas?

    • James Santelli

      Haha I think Jerry Sands is a possible option, but I have two not-so-small qualms: (1) That number is in 86 MLB plate appearances. 86! Do I have to break out the sample-size reliability chart again? (2) Sands is still having his fair share of trouble hitting AAA pitching. I wouldn’t want a Major League right fielder hitting .206/.321/.339 in the minor leagues.

      • http://battlingbucs.wordpress.com battlingbucs

        Obviously I know sample size is an issue so to counter your point I’m going to use another small sample size. Down in AAA Sands has a .961 OPS against left handed pitching this year (I know 35 AB).

        Also showing signs of improving (again SSS):

        April: .406 OPS
        May: .776 OPS
        June: 1.058 OPS

        I know this all has to be taken with a grain of salt but really does anyone truly think he isn’t a better option to send out in RF than Martin or Inge right now?

  • reddfoxx39

    Marts is the engine…..when he struggles, we look bad on offense.
    I say Snider has to go. He just doesn’t provide any punch from a Power position (RF). Go get Willingham or go big with a Garza/Soriano rental.

    Tabata just can’t stay on the field or get enough AB’s to develop any consistency. I think we know what he is.

    Don’t see us buying a SS, not this year. So it’s 1B or RF. they are committed to ElToro, and should be, in my opinion.

  • http://www.facebook.com/david.donahue.100 whiteAngus

    the pirates offense projects to worsen…
    .
    ummmmm, what if the projections are wrong? what if its just slumping?
    .
    metrics do NOT predict outcomes. players can improve or streak just as easily as they “regress”, which is a word that is way overused on sabr
    influenced websites.

    • James Santelli

      Well let’s tap the brakes a little bit. First of all, the “projections” (which are really just the underlying stats so far this season) could absolutely be wrong! Any number of things could be wrong. It absolutely could be a slump. However, I rely on what the metrics tell me because I think they are more reliable than any gut feeling that a guy could be slumping. Secondly, yep, players certainly can improve or go on a hot streak, which is why I specifically point out McCutchen’s likelihood for a summer surge. But if you have a problem with regression to the mean, a basic mathematical idea that speaks to the reliability of sample sizes, I’m not sure I can help.

  • ZEBimperial

    I would target Jurickson Profar and be willing to trade Cole or Polanco as part of the package to get him.