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.”