Marte should return for Dominican League finals (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates 2014 Focus: Improving the Consistency of the Offense

It seems that every Spring Training the last few years has had a theme. Last year the focus was on controlling the running game, which came a season after teams were stealing bases at-will on the Pirates. The year before the focus was the importance of pitching inside. The Pirates did a better job with each improvement, especially with their focus on catching runners last year.

Russell Martin was brought in for his defense, and ended up responding with a 40% caught stealing rate, which was the best mark of his career. That wasn’t entirely on Martin, since the entire pitching staff focused on mixing up their deliveries to the plate to keep base runners guessing. The overall approach paid off, which means we won’t hear quotes about controlling the running game every day this Spring Training.

What we’re probably going to hear instead this year is a focus on the offense, and more specifically, the focus on the offense being more consistent.

“All of these things have got to stay in place and improve, but offensively we’re going to challenge these guys, and encourage these guys, and coach these guys up to be a better, more consistent offensive ball club,” Clint Hurdle said, referring to the focus in previous years and the focus this year.

The perception with the Pirates is that they had a horrible offense in 2013. The offense wasn’t great, but it also wasn’t horrible. The Pirates actually ranked 13th in wRC+ and 16th in wOBA. They ranked 13th in offensive runs above average, which combines batting and base running. Based on the advanced metrics, the overall offense was about league average.

The problem the Pirates saw was their consistency. They had a long stretch where they didn’t score anyone on a sacrifice fly. They had individual players who struggled during big portions of the year. And when too many of those players struggled at the same time, the offense would go completely cold. That’s often a problem for a team full of young hitters making adjustments to the big leagues.

“I don’t think there’s a lot of ground to cover,” Hurdle said. “I think it’s acute focus in some specific areas. We’ve also continued to add three to four hundred, to five hundred at-bats for some of these men in some certain cases. Which, a lot of times, right around the 1,500 at-bat mark in the big-leagues, the league gets them to a point where they understand who they are, what they need to do, what they need to improve upon, the areas that have been exploited, their strengths, and just all seems to come together a little bit better.”

The Pirates won last year in large part due to their pitching and defense. Last week I pointed out that teams who were only above average in runs allowed did much better than teams who were only above average in runs scored. So if you had to choose between a strong offense, or strong pitching and defense, the pitching and defense is more likely to lead to success.

Teams don’t have to choose. They can try to go for both. If the Pirates can improve the consistency of their offense, and pair that with their strong pitching and defense — well, you probably don’t need to see stats that show you that teams with above average offense, pitching, and defense tend to be among the best in the league.

Consistency is the difference between a bad hitter and a good hitter, or a good hitter and a star hitter. You won’t find many players who are consistent every month of the year. Even Andrew McCutchen had a .731 OPS in April last year. But the difference between McCutchen and hitters who aren’t stars is that McCutchen only struggled that one month. By comparison, Starling Marte had a .676 OPS in May, and a .672 OPS in July. And then the difference between Marte and a poor hitter is that Marte may have two down months, but the poor hitter might only have 1-2 good months.

It’s not going to be an easy feat to improve the consistency of the offense. It won’t be as easy as reducing stolen bases, since that just requires that a pitcher mix up his approach to the plate, along with the addition of a good defensive catcher. Improving the offense will take some strong coaching to improve the hitters, and that has been something we haven’t seen a lot of in the last few years. The Pirates aren’t looking to change their hitters, but they are looking to solve this problem by giving each hitter a blueprint.

“One of the things we’re asking our guys to do is share one thing you did well, share one thing you thought you’re improving upon, share one area you know you need work on,” Hurdle said on how they planned to improve the offense. “So we’re actually getting an offensive blueprint with their interaction, drawn up for each guy that we’re going to have for them before the games start, and then we’re going to hold fast to those and work through Spring Training. Then you wrap that in a collective mentality of the team concept, and I really believe that it will be about focus, it’s about ability, it’s about the talent we have. I’m confident that this is something we’re going to get done.”

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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, 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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  • jaygray007

    Isn’t Hurdle asking for more consistency just a nice way of saying “be better”?

    i feel like saying to erase your bad months is just asking for them to be better than they really are because bad months are just a part of baseball.

    it’s like asking pedro to be better against lefties. asking him to be better vs lefties is just asking him to be better.

    and that’s fine! i guess i’m glad he’s asking for them to be better. He’s just going about it in the nicest way possible.

    • jaygray007

      i don’t know what my point is. i guess it just struck me weird. i guess a fun thought experiment is..

      would you rather have a team that scored 4 every game or a team that scored 3 in half of its games and 5 in half of its games.

  • Bucco_Joe

    Hard to be consistent when you have a batter order which has holes in RF, 1B, and SS. Add to that you have high strikeout rate guys at 3B and LF. The best this offense can be is inconsistent.

  • rburgh

    Odds are that, of Mercer, Marte, and Alvarez, two will improve and one will disappoint. Of Tabata, Snider, Lambo, and Polanco, it’s likely that one or two will step up, one or two will fail, and one or two will just be meh. If there are more ups than downs from this group, it will be a fun summer in the Burgh. If there are more downs, it will be a struggle to get to .500.

    This is, of course, the best spring outlook we have had in two decades, since I like the chances of Marte and Polanco, and am cautiously optimistic about several of the rest.

    • Y2JGQ2

      nothing like putting odds to hypothetical situations and then extrapolating a result out of it…..sounds like me!

  • Andy Zibuck

    So the key is trading Pedro. Got it.

  • Y2JGQ2

    If they can magically take inconsistent hitters who have always been that way, and fix what high school, college, minor leagues, and the first however many of MLB seasons haven’t fixed……then how in the world can anyone defeat us!

    Anyways! – If we weren’t giving players things specifically to work on in the past regarding how to make them better hitters and holding them accountable to it, then seriously what the HELL were our coaches doing before?

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