First Pitch: What Could Be the Solution to the RISP Problem?

We’ve talked a lot this week about the issue of hitting with runners in scoring position. I’ve made my thoughts known on the matter. I don’t put much stock in RISP numbers. They’re small sample sizes, and as the samples get bigger, players will see their numbers fall in line with their overall numbers. So the fact that the Pirates have so many players under-performing their overall numbers this year, and even underperforming their career RISP numbers, seems fluky to me.

Since writing that article the other day, I’ve been getting a lot of messages from people who don’t think it’s just a fluke that everyone is having this problem at once, and who think that the problem is more than just sample size. Or there are people who just think it’s a problem, which I absolutely agree with. But what’s the solution? Chalking it up to small sample sizes and a fluke that so many small sample sizes are happening at once is unsettling. It relies on faith that the Pirates will regress to the mean, and will do it sooner, rather than later.

Most people would want a solution. Something where you can point and say “fix this, and that problem will disappear”. So I asked for your input tonight on Twitter. What is the solution to the RISP problem? Here are some of the responses, and my thoughts on each.

A proven hitter might help the situation, but it wouldn’t be a total solution. The entire team is struggling offensively and doing worse with RISP. So a proven hitter might upgrade one of those spots, but it wouldn’t solve the overall mystery of why everyone is struggling at once. Also, the Pirates have proven hitters who are also struggling, so it might not be as easy as just finding a proven hitter. We don’t know if they’d also come in and struggle like everyone else.

If it was easy for Pedro Alvarez to change his approach when needed, he probably wouldn't have as many strikeouts. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

If it was easy for Pedro Alvarez to change his approach when needed, he probably wouldn’t have as many strikeouts. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The approach argument is a good one, although it raises some additional questions. If it was that simple to just change your approach with runners in scoring position, why wouldn’t players be able to do it in every situation?

Mark puts it best by talking about how players should do something other than swinging for the fences. The Pirates have a very boom or bust offense. They have a lot of guys with power, low averages, and high strikeout rates. They are built for the big inning, stacking up several extra base hits or home runs in a row. So why don’t hitters change their approach all the time?

The power hitters obviously would take a normal approach with the bases empty, or even with runners in scoring position and less than two outs. They’re aiming for extra bases or home runs. But when they just need one run, it would be better to change the approach and go for any type of hit.

There’s a difference between the theory of changing an approach, and the actual practice. If Pedro Alvarez could change his approach with runners in scoring position, then he’d also be able to change his approach with two strikes and cut down on his strikeouts. The same goes with all of the other high strikeout guys. Changing the approach with RISP would definitely be a solution, but not if the hitters have shown no ability to change their approach in other situations.

The same goes for the guys who aren’t power hitters like Clint Barmes and Jose Tabata. Those are the guys who, if they could change their approach, they should just change that approach all the time. Tabata is batting .256. Barmes is batting .220. Both are doing worse with men in scoring position. It’s not like they need to swing for the fences, because they’re not power hitters. Those are guys who need to get as many hits as possible in as many situations. So if they could change their approach to focus on just getting hits, they probably would have done it in all of their at-bats. The fact that they have low averages to begin with doesn’t leave much hope that they could improve when they absolutely need to.

I believe in the theory of changing your approach, but I don’t think it’s that easy. I think the guys that can change their approach are the guys that do it in every situation. Those are the guys who have success not just with RISP, but in all situations. The problem here is that the Pirates don’t have guys who have demonstrated the ability to change their approach in other situations, which means we’re not going to see a change with runners in scoring position.

To go along with that last topic, I think you do have to take a look at the hitting coach. We give so much praise to Ray Searage for the pitching, and it’s totally justified. Searage has been a huge asset for this team, and has turned a lot of pitchers around in a few short years. And there seems to be this perception that a hitting coach has little impact on the hitters.

The Pirates have a situation this year where they have so many hitters performing under their career averages with men in scoring position. Individually, that’s a lot of small sample sizes compared to the career numbers. Put together, you either have a fluky situation where everyone is struggling at once, or you have a situation that has to point to the hitting coach.

I think it would be hard to praise Ray Searage for his work and then give Jay Bell a pass for the struggling hitters. If you blame Bell, I don’t think he is totally to blame, because you can only do so much with what you’ve got. As shown above, the Pirates don’t have a lot of hitters who have demonstrated the ability to make in-game adjustments. So pointing to Bell might be part of the solution, but no hitting coach will take a bad offense and turn it into a good offense. Even on the pitching side, Searage is working with some great arms. He’s just getting those great arms to do what they need to do on a consistent basis, and making the proper adjustments when necessary. I don’t think Bell has the same quality of players to work with, which doesn’t totally excuse him, but does mean that it’s not just on him.

Neil Walker is one of several players who can't hit lefties. Photo credit: David Hague

Neil Walker is one of several players who can’t hit lefties. Photo credit: David Hague

I’ve talked all year about how one of the biggest problems with this team is the fact that they have a lot of platoon players who can hit right-handers, and none who can hit lefties. They have an actual platoon at first base, but none of the right fielders have been able to hit left-handers, and Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez can’t hit left-handers. Ed is absolutely right that this leads to specialists who can exploit weaknesses. You don’t need anyone telling you this though. You’ve seen it every time the opponents bring in a lefty to face Alvarez or turn around Walker.

That’s probably why the Pirates run into so many situations where they score a lot of runs early, then struggle late in the game. Platoons are largely built for the first six innings, to capitalize on the starting pitcher. After that, you’re susceptible to specialists. As I’ve said all season, a big issue is that the Pirates don’t have a Gaby Sanchez for the other three positions. Sanchez is crushing left-handed hitters, and the only reason his overall numbers are down is because he gets an inexplicable amount of time against right-handers with extra starts. But that’s another issue.

In the long-term, you’d like to see the Pirates adding more players who can hit everyone, and play everyday. Guys like Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte prevent the need for so many platoons. But the Pirates are stuck with what they’ve got this year. Even the guys who were available on the market, or who are available in August (like Justin Morneau), have platoon splits. So they need to find more people to hit lefties. If someone brings in a lefty for Garrett Jones, you can turn to Sanchez. If someone brings in a lefty for Alvarez, Walker, or the right fielders, you’re stuck.

Josh Harrison can help. He has shown the ability in a limited at-bats this year to hit lefties, and he also has shown that ability in the minors. Down in the minors, Matt Hague and Russ Canzler could be options to hit lefties off the bench. Jerry Sands would be the best outfield option, although Sands has struggled all year.

Is There a Solution?

A few people also mentioned the fact that not all problems have a solution. I think that’s a very valid point, and something you can see above. The Pirates don’t have hitters who can make in-game adjustments. They have a lot of platoon players who can’t hit left-handers, and not as many bench players who can turn the tables when the opposing team brings in a LOOGY from the pen. A lot of the solutions above aren’t just solutions for when the Pirates have runners in scoring position. They’re solutions for the entire offense in all situations. This is the team they have, and they can try to make some small adjustments, but largely they’re stuck with this team.

I still think that the overall team is going to have success. The Pirates are going to win the way they have been winning. They’re going to win with strong pitching, strong defense, good positioning, depth to make sure all of these things are sustained even with injuries, and just enough offense to squeak by. They’re going to win some close games. They’re going to lose some close games that make you extremely frustrated when you look at the missed opportunities. All of these problems have existed all season, and they’ve done this well so far.

My belief is still that it’s kind of fluky that everyone is having the same problem at the same time. But even if there’s a solution to that, and everyone starts playing closer to their overall numbers, I don’t think they’ll be a good offense. They will be average at best, which will provide some improvements, and only help support the pitching and defense even more.

Overall the Pirates are stuck with the good and the bad of this team, and fortunately it’s been more good than bad so far. I think we would have to wait until the off-season to make some of the changes above, like finding everyday players rather than platoon players, and finding guys who are good at changing their approaches. Until then, the Pirates should remain competitive for the rest of the season, and might even get a boost offensively in September when rosters expand and they can bring up more guys to limit the late inning effects of specialist pitchers. It’s just going to be frustrating in those times where they lose a few close games like they have this week, with a very obvious problem that might have a solution in theory, but not a solution the Pirates can realistically apply this year.

Links and Notes

**Check out the newest episode of the Pirates Prospects Podcast: P3 Episode 16: What Would the Pirates’ Playoff Rotation Look Like? Episode 17 comes out tomorrow morning with more on this issue, as well as reactions to the past week for the Pirates.

**Pirates Roundtable Live — Episode 5. James Santelli hosts, and this week’s guests include:

Prospects

**Prospect Watch: Rojas Collects Three Extra Base Hits, GCL Pirates Face Halladay.

**Minor Moves: Waldron Promoted to Altoona, Singer Added to Bradenton.

**DSL Prospect Watch: Munoz Reaches Base Six Times in Win Over Mets.

**Minor League Schedule: Taillon and Glasnow Tonight.

Pirates

**Pirates Notebook: Neil Walker Has Been a Hit in August.

**MLB to Expand Instant Replay in 2014, Yet the System Is Flawed.

Tim Williams

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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  • http://@gwbicster gwbicster

    It’s very simple. With two strikes you need to shorten up and hit the ball to the opposite field for a single. Anyone that watches the Cardinals can see that this is a conscious approach. They don’t hit a ton of HRs but know how to get runners in. The Pirates sole approach is to “barrel up” which is fine before two strikes, but idiotic with two strikes.

    • NorCal Buc

      YES! One of the most frustrating for me is Cutch; so many times simply making decent (not powerful) contact will bring in a run, yet his swing shows NO alteration from his customary ” whip-like” power swing.

      Great point about the Cardinals’ approach; all so evident in this series. YET, we took four-of-five from them, by shutting down their offense, with stellar pitching.

  • moose7195

    I don’t know which camp I fall into. The small sample size approach isn’t a valid reason to me because not a single player on this team is going to accumulate a large enough sample size to allow a well reasoned problem or solution to be discovered. So it feels like an easy out to say its just a fluke because the sample size is small, especially because there is no guarantee that more chances will lead to improvement.

    In a way it feels like an approach issue if only because when you look at some of the plate approaches with this team, it seems like half of them are guessing where the ball is going to be thrown before the pitcher even throws it. And when you make it a guessing game in a high leverage situation, more times than not the batter is going to lose. I don’t know if I think they are all guessing, but when your lineup is made up of a bunch of swing and miss guys that rarely take walks, you’re almost begging to strand runners at an alarming rate. So maybe a conscious change in approach to where you force players to shorten their swing and put the ball in play might work. But screwing with players swings is a whole other can of worms that will bring a hailstorm of criticism if the teams hitting struggles spread to the entire game and not just with runners in scoring position. So it sounds like a risky move for Hurdle to try in order to solve a problem that may not have a solution.

    I think the problem might stem from the current situation the team is in. If the epidemic is being suffered by the whole team, then the source has to be something afflicting the whole team. When I look at the roster, the only everyday player on this team with real pennant-chasing experience is Russell Martin. Every game now has more meaning and more pressure on each individual to perform. So maybe I’m questioning the lineup’s constitution. Maybe they can’t handle the pressure, and now they are all just pressing. It isn’t really a problem with a solution, except to let the growing pains run their course and hope that they, as a team, learn from these new experiences. But like Tim mentioned, some problems don’t have solutions. But this doesn’t explain why we struggled back in May when the pressure is much less. So maybe the first few months were a small sample size fluke that grew into an disease because of this team’s new-found success and lack of experience to deal with the pressure that comes with it. Yeah I’m gonna go with that because, honestly, I don’t know.

    • moose7195

      Idk why this posted twice….. Sorry.

  • moose7195

    I don’t know which camp I fall into. The small sample size approach isn’t a valid reason to me because not a single player on this team is going to accumulate a large enough sample size to allow a well reasoned problem or solution to be discovered. So it feels like an easy out to say its just a fluke because the sample size is small, especially because there is no guarantee that more chances will lead to improvement.

    In a way it feels like an approach issue if only because when you look at some of the plate approaches with this team, it seems like half of them are guessing where the ball is going to be thrown before the pitcher even throws it. And when you make it a guessing game in a high leverage situation, more times than not the batter is going to lose. I don’t know if I think they are all guessing, but when your lineup is made up of a bunch of swing and miss guys that rarely take walks, you’re almost begging to strand runners at an alarming rate. So maybe a conscious change in approach to where you force players to shorten their swing and put the ball in play might work. But screwing with players swings is a whole other can of worms that will bring a hailstorm of criticism if the teams hitting struggles spread to the entire game and not just with runners in scoring position. So it sounds like a risky move for Hurdle to try in order to solve a problem that may not have a solution.

    I think the problem might stem from the current situation the team is in. If the epidemic is being suffered by the whole team, then the source has to be something afflicting the whole team. When I look at the roster, the only everyday player on this team with real pennant-chasing experience is Russell Martin. Every game now has more meaning and more pressure on each individual to perform. So maybe I’m questioning the lineup’s constitution. Maybe they can’t handle the pressure, and now they are all just pressing. It isn’t really a problem with a solution, except to let the growing pains run their course and hope that they, as a team, learn from these new experiences. But like Tim mentioned, some problems don’t have solutions. But this doesn’t explain why we struggled back in May when the pressure is much less. So maybe the first few months were a small sample size fluke that grew into an disease because of this team’s new-found success and lack of experience to deal with the pressure that comes with it. Yeah I’m gonna go with that because, honestly, I don’t know why they can’t hit the ball once a guy gets past 1st base.

  • http://www.facebook.com/faye.zbuksukcz Faye Zbuksukcz

    This is simple: have Bell and the team watch film of every Allan Craig AB with RISP.

    • NorCal Buc

      Brilliant!

      • emjayinTN

        Allen Craig is a .300 hitter with 15-20 HR power and a career OPS of about .850 – the Pirates may have one player on the team with skills like this and it is unfair to think we can develop that in the short period of time that Jay Bell has been the hitting coach. A good hitter for average has to be prepared to make adjustments pitch by pitch, and the Pirates under Hurdle have never expected that of their hitters. In that way, Clint follows the Earl Weaver method of Managing. Since the All Star break, the Pirates are 5-3 against the mighty Cardinals, and 15-12 overall – give me another month like that and I will be very happy, regardless of how they get there.

  • CalipariFan506

    I think cutting out sacrifice bunts to give them an extra chance to get a run producing hit would be a nice start.

    • https://profiles.google.com/116255365477483987850 jalcorn

      Amen brother! I about threw my radio through a wall yesterday on that Marte 7th inning bunt. They were down a run on the road, they need two runs to win not one, wake up Hurdle!

      I do think some of it is approach. The focus on hitting it to the right side for a productive out is part of the problem. If you are trying to make an out (bunting, moving runners) you are usually successful. Of course that doesn’t explain the large number strikeouts with RISP, its almost an issue of pressing too hard.

      • Nuke Laloosh

        I also concur. To bunt in that situation is incredible. You bunt up to get into scoring position. To bunt to third with this team in that situation was moronic.

        They also need to stop taking so many first pitch strikes. Miller was throwing first pitch fastballs right down the middle of the plate the first time through the lineup the other night and it was taken for a strike more often than not. I am sure advance scouting reports note that. I am also sure they want to get opposing pitch counts up, but at the expense of getting down 0-1? Heck even the great Pirate color guys made mention of it. Digging yourself in a 0-1 hole or 0-2 hole is just asking for a strikeout or a weak grounder and that is done throughout the game.

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

    Like Tim says….If Pedro (and others) could change their swings they would have by now, doncha think?

    Actually, with two strikes, I think everyone should choke up on the bat. That’s what my old HS coach preached.

    lol.

    Foo

  • Kevin_Young

    As David Lewis and I discussed on here a couple days ago, it seems that there is a chance the Pirates are changing their approach, given their 2% overall drop in K rate (that might have a little to do with pinch hitting though), and their decrease in slg%. It’s just not a successful change in approach…If we could see the batted ball types it would shed even more light on it, but alas, we couldn’t find it. It seems clear, though, that if anything is going to adjust for the better by the end of the year it would be the fluke nature of it, so personally I’m hoping it’s that.

    • Andrew

      If you want to find batted ball data go to Fangraphs, they have aggregated data for every team and its available for all the different splits Fangraphs track.

      I question how much more it will tell you then just the BABIP data. In the completely valid statistical division of data, hitting with RISP, the Pirates hit a relatively low percentage of LD, which contributes to a low BABIP of .270, leading to the much debated BA w/RISP of .223. But LD% and BABIP are not well correlated year to year ( like < 0.40), thus of little explanatory value. It is helpful to prove incorrect anecdotes wrong, but after that the data lacks value.

      Overall RISP data is not reliable, failing to be reliable means that we cannot progress to asking about issues of validity/explanation.

      To me the talk of team's "approach" and hitting w/RISP is a tautology The Cardinals hit well w/RISP thus they have a good approach. How do we know their approach is good? Well, they hit well w/RISP.

      • Kevin_Young

        LD% and BABIP correlate horribly year to year I believe, but GB, FB, and K% all correlate quite well. Also, if you could look at a difference in pull rates that could help too. If you’re seeing a difference in those things when it comes to “situational hitting”, I think it’s irresponsible to simply brush it off as random variance, as it could lead to an explanation.

        Though, I do certainly agree with your last statement. We seem to talk ourselves in circles on this topic for the most part.

        • Andrew

          I have some more thoughts but I put them at the bottom, I hate reading in that small column

  • buccofan

    My problem with this team is the number of called strikes taken by middle of the order hitters … particularly Walker and McCutchen. Tuesday’s game was a perfect example. Our MVP takes three correctly called strikes with a runner on third and less than two outs. I want my top run producers looking for RBIs … not walks that set up double plays. Don’t swing for the fences but at least get the bat off your shoulder!

  • Monkshot

    The problem is, as fans, we have no idea how the hitters prepare for a opposing pitcher. I have an idea, but also know every team has its own book/strategy. My experience is that a hitting coach can only do so much. Personally, I don’t think any of the players have the ability to do some of the things they want to do offensively in terms of approach. It seems like we dont have any “professional” hitters who could hit the opposite way consistently/as needed. I’m thinking their professional baseball players and they should be able to do that, but obviously that’s not true. That’s why baseball now has some of these crazy defensive shifts were they load everyone to one side, and for whatever reason these players never seem to adjust to it. They are what they are, and the offense will improve if guys step up their game. Obviously, that’s much easier said than done but that’s the only way things get better.

    Side note: I noticed Pedro has gone to a one handed follow through. I’m thinking that’s to help him reach inside pitches better. Some say it creates more back spin, but I think that’s BS.

  • benh444

    Ed Smallwood is absolutely correct. And to compound that issue, it seems like hurdle is struggling to find a balance between playing his best offensive lineup and his best defensive lineup. Too many times we see defensive subs in the 6th or 7th inning that end up hurting us later in the game. The defensive subs make our team extremely right handed. Are Garrett jones and lambo that bad at defense where we need to sacrifice two bench players that can create favorable later in the game? We end up with Sanchez and Harrison left in the game forced to face righties on a consistent basis which is a recipe for failure. Obviously in game management isn’t Clint’s strength but he handcuffs himself almost daily by over utilizing the bench early in the game.

    • Nuke Laloosh

      benh444, you are SO CORRECT! I hate the 6th or 7th inning defensive substitution.

    • leadoff

      You could not be more correct, another Hurdle blunder, he lets A.J. (The Vet) stay in the game way too long, then with 2 outs in the 6th, he pinch hits his power away, left with nothing but right handed soft hitters. Hurdle has a tendancy at times to over manage. I noticed the media hates when someone brings up that the manager could actually be to blame for something. He gets credit for shifts that he does not do, the coaches do, his decisions with resting bullpen pitchers works, the field management that is his part is not good IMO.

  • leadoff

    IMO, the problem with scoring runs with RISP involves more than a simple solution. The Pirates do work with hitters on different situational approaches, I know for a fact the minor league hitters are worked on with 2 strike approaches. The Pirates talk about how much they are working with Marte about swinging at pitches way out of the zone, he still does it, but he is young and only time is going to help him if at all.
    There are ways that a manager can help a team like this one, that struggles.
    Here are some things I think Hurdle can do.
    1. Hit and run more
    2. Run and Hit more
    3. Bunt with the bases loaded once in a while, make the other team do something to stop you. Surprise is always good to try once in a while.
    4. With 1st and 3rd occupied and no outs, steal 2nd, if they throw through, go home, if they don’t, you put another man in scoring position and eliminated the double play.
    5. Don’t make hitters cardboard cutouts, don’t be afraid to bat for anyone in certain situations, for example: Alvarez is pretty much toast if they bring in a left handed relief pitcher in big RISP situations, bat for him, quit being hard headed with certain players.
    6. Work with pitchers on bunting, there is no excuse for the poor bunt techniques used by the Pirate pitchers. A.J. cost himself runs with hit poor bunting.
    St.Louis does have a different approach to hitting, but their approach requires a certain amount of luck because they have to hit it where they ain’t, and they have to get the pitches to hit it where they ain’t, the Pirates don’t have that kind of luck.
    Being smart helps a lot too. Take the Cards big hit yesterday, Morse gave the hitter nothing to hit and he kept wasting pitches, knowing sooner or later Morse would make a mistake and give him what he wanted, Morse makes the mistake pitch and he raps it up the middle, now Morse should have been pitching defensively, he could have walked the hitter, even a walk was better than giving in to that hitter. Apparently none of the Pirates pitchers watched the day before when Liriano pitched the same hitter in tight on almost every pitch. The Cards love the outside pitch, anything away from their hands.

    • buster09

      leadoff : I didn’t get to acknowledge that reply this afternoon,I got too busy. But that is a great response. I just don’t get some of the stubbornness I see in the situations you bring up.

  • CalipariFan506

    Against St. Louis I didn’t mind pinch hitting for Jones and Lambo early. St. Louis has three pretty good lefties with Choate, Seagrist and that black guy (sorry I forget his name, just trying to be as descriptive as possible haha). With Alvarez up before them you almost are sure they’re going to bring one of the lefties in to face him in any kind of leverage situation. This puts the onus on Matheny to either let his lefty stay in the game, or burn through his bullpen looking for match ups.

    Now against a team like the Reds who only have Parra and the close Chapman, I’d load up those bench righties in the 9th and hold off on earlier substitutions.

  • buster09

    Small ball with this team is like hunting deer with a tank. But to me,the biggest error yesterday,and Sunday in Colorado,is letting your pitcher in when it is very apparent almost every hitter is squaring him up.And as far as the hitting goes,till you gate a leadoff man that can come up 5 times a game and not strike out three times,you are going to have problems with your OPS. This is not me slamming Marte’,he just is in the wrong place at the wrong time.

  • Andrew

    Your ideas and your reasoning are sound I just question that team data will lead you anywhere. When you take your overall team average then break it down into situations like RISP, your sample of RISP is going to be biased b/c of several factors

    1) It will not be representative, certain hitters will have more ABs w/RISP and their underlying K/BB/GB rates could skew the outcome.
    2) Not all RISP situations are equal, runner on 2nd w/2 outs, is different than runner on 3rd, < 2 outs.

    The main issue is Individual batting averages do not stabilize until 900 AB, so adding up 12 different hitters rates over 90-120 AB gives you terrible data, garbage in garbage out. K and BB is much lower 60 and 120 PAs respectively, so looking at these to determine approach is appropriate, and others have done this, but it comes back to what are you trying to explain. This is why it feels like this debate is moving in circles; you’re trying to explain statistical variation of a non-representative sample.

    At this point we have to take stock of what we know, which is typically good hitters hit well w/RISP, and overall all hitter performances is a better predictor of future performance. I known John Walsh wrote some articles for Hardball Times looking at approach and sac flies highlights some of the difficulty with analyzing batting approach.