Two nights ago I wrote about how the Pirates aren’t perfect, but they are legit contenders. The main flaw with the team this year has been the offense, and one of the problems has been their inability to hit with runners in scoring position. As I also mentioned in that article, RISP numbers are not something you should build analysis on, as explained in this article by Matt Snyder.
But let’s entertain this idea for a second. If you look at the numbers, the Pirates hitters rank 29th in average with runners in scoring position (.231). Their overall offense has a .254 average.
Pirates players who have struggled in this role, along with their RISP average and their season average:
Garrett Jones: .207/.253
Neil Walker: .228/.259
Starling Marte: .230/.282
Russell Martin: .235/.256
Pedro Alvarez: .240/.236
Andrew McCutchen: .286/.313
McCutchen hasn’t been bad, although he has missed a few opportunities in the last week, and he’s the star of the team so if he doesn’t come through on every play he’s seen as a disappointment. With the exception of Pedro Alvarez, everyone had a much better season average than an average with RISP. That’s the same as the Pirates as a team, and it makes sense that those two situations would match up.
So why does this happen? What’s the theory behind it? If Starling Marte is a .282 hitter, then why does he hit .230 with runners in scoring position? Is that just coincidence, or does it say something about whether Marte can handle the pressure?
If it does say something about whether a player can handle pressure, then that should show up over the course of a player’s career. But if you take a look at some of the players above, that’s not the case. Neil Walker has poor splits this year, but has a career .278 average and a .282 average with RISP. Garrett Jones has a .258/.243 split, which is a difference, but not as much as his difference this year. Russell Martin is exactly at .259/.259. Andrew McCutchen has a .294/.296 split in his career. Pedro Alvarez has been .237/.246. That’s a slight difference, like Jones, but not extreme.
In almost every case you’ve got guys who have identical career averages and career averages with RISP. That makes sense, as a player’s ability to hit shouldn’t change depending on how many men are on base. You might argue that there is added pressure on the player, but they’re also in an easier situation with added pressure on the pitcher and the pitcher throwing from the stretch. So there’s not much of a disadvantage.
There are two possibilities with the 2013 RISP numbers:
1. All of the above players have career RISP numbers in line with their averages, but for some reason they all lost the ability to perform with RISP in the same year for some unknown reason.
2. In each case during the 2013 season we’re talking about a sample size of less than 100 at-bats, and for some fluky reason a lot of players are under-performing at the same time, just like when the Pirates went a few months without a sacrifice fly before bouncing back to normal in that area.
The second one makes much more sense. In fact, I’m now going to end the non-sense of entertaining the validity of RISP numbers. It’s the second one.
This kind of stuff stands out when the Pirates are losing close games. You can point to a situation where they had a runner in scoring position and didn’t come up with a hit. You probably don’t notice the times where the Pirates have won games because they brought in a runner who was left in scoring position.
Basically there’s nothing that can be done. For whatever reason the Pirates have a lot of players with a huge gap between their averages and their RISP averages in 2013. That gap doesn’t exist throughout their careers, showing it’s a sample size issue this year. And the Pirates happen to have a fluky situation where a lot of those players are falling victim to sample sizes in the same year.
This is like the sacrifice fly issue. While you’re in the situation it seems hopeless, with no solution. It seems like a massive problem that will never be solved. Eventually the RISP numbers will line up with the regular batting averages. The downside here is that those numbers are also lower than the league average. But as I said the other day, the Pirates have been winning with pitching and defense, and have gotten just enough offense to carry them to first place in the NL Central. There’s the fear that this won’t last, but that same fear has been around all season, and the Pirates are still contending. And when their fluky RISP issues disappear, it will only make it easier for them to contend.
Links and Notes
**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 16: What Would the Pirates’ Playoff Rotation Look Like?
**Pirates Roundtable Live — Episode 5. James Santelli hosts, and this week’s guests include:
- Pat Lackey from Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke?
- Cory from Three Rivers Burgh Blog
- Travis Sawchik from Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
- Ed Giles from In Clemente Weather
- Michael Waterloo from The Punxsutawney Spirit