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.

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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