First Pitch: Evaluating the Pirates Offensive Emphasis


As discussed yesterday, the 2014 Pirates are emphasizing on-base percentage in hopes of improving an offense that ranked ninth in the National League by scoring 3.91 runs per game during the 2013 season.

The Pirates on-base percentage has declined from a season ago. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates on-base percentage has declined from a season ago. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The key elements to this approach are being “intelligently aggressive” at the plate, striking out less and working counts to see good pitches to hit as opposed to flailing away at what a pitcher wants to throw in a given situation.

Although the sample sizes are quite miniscule through 26 games, the question begs asking; Is the Pirates’ “emphasis” working?

The easiest way to look at the effectiveness of the OBP-centric philosophy so far is comparing this year’s on-base percentage to last season’s.

Year

On-base Percentage

League Rank

Runs Per Game

League Rank

2013

.313

8th

3.91

9th

2014

.296

13th

3.69

11th

So, based on the fact the Pirates’ OBP is .017 points lower than it was last year, it’s pretty easy to say that the emphasis on improving in that area is not working out so well.

But as noted by Neal Huntington, Jeff Branson and Clint Hurdle, a key tenet of the emphasis on on-base percentage is the team’s approach at the plate. In other words, how disciplined the Pirates are in the batter’s box and whether they’re swinging at good pitches or not. So let’s dig in.

Swing by Swing

On a swing-to-swing basis, the Pirates have actually made some noticeable improvements early this season.

Year

Swing

Z-Swing

O-Swing

Contact

Z-Contact

O-Contact

Zone

2013

46.8 %

65.3 %

31.7 %

77.5 %

86.2 %

62.9 %

44.7 %

2014

44.3 %

63.5 %

27.7%

78.3 %

86.3 %

62.4 %

46.3 %

In addition to the above numbers, the Pirates have the lowest first-pitch strike rate in the league (57.6 percent) and have shown increased discipline as only 9.4 percent of their strikes are swings and misses as opposed to last year’s 10.2 percent clip.

Furthering the notion that the Pirates have improved their discipline at the plate is a four percent decrease in their swings at pitches outside the strike zone, and they are swinging at 2.5 percent fewer pitchers overall. These correlate with the team’s higher overall contact rate in 2014, however marginal it may be, as well as an increase in pitches thrown in the strike zone.

Pitch by Pitch

One primary reason for the Pirates’ current offensive downturn, and early decline from last season, is that hitters are receiving a lesser number of pitches to hit even though pitchers may be throwing in the zone slightly more than a year ago.

Year

Pitches Seen

Plate Appearances

Pitches per PA

League Average P/PA

2013

23, 718

6,144

3.86

3.80

2014

3,818

1,000

3.82

3.81

While the Pirates have made improvements with their patience on a pitch-to-pitch basis, they simply are not seeing as many pitchers this year as they did a year ago.

So far, there is only a -1.5 percent change from last year to the current season but the trend becomes more concerning when looking at the comparisons of the team’s batters currently qualified in the 2014 season, according to baseball-reference.com. And bear in mind, 1.5 percent translates to seeing about 356 pitches less than last season, which can equate to over two full games worth of pitches.

Player

2013 Pit.

2014 Pit.

2013 PA

2014 PA

2013 P/PA

2014 P/PA

McCutchen

2,562

503

674

120

3.80

4.19

Martin

2,027

288

506

73

4.01

3.95

Marte

2,168

458

566

118

3.83

3.89

Snider

1,172

284

287

73

4.08

3.89

Alvarez

2,415

400

616

107

3.92

3.74

Mercer

1,399

273

367

73

3.84

3.74

Walker

2,042

389

552

111

3.70

3.50

Tabata

1,269

227

341

66

3.72

3.44

McCutchen has taken the biggest strides, as one would expect in just about any area from an MVP, with a 10.3 percent increase in the amount of pitches he is seeing during each plate appearance. But the rest of the Pirates’ hitters have not come close to making similar improvements as, of qualified batters, only Marte has improved but only at a 1.6 percent mark.

As for the rest of the Pirates’ hitters, six of the eight currently qualified players are in the red when comparing this current season to the last. Martin’s change from last season to this is only -1.5 percent and has a marginal effect at best on this year’s numbers.

McCutchen is seeing over 10 percent more pitches per plate apperance this season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

McCutchen is seeing over 10 percent more pitches per plate appearance this season. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

As for the other five players, their declines in the area play a large role in the changes to the team’s pitches per plate appearance tally. Jose Tabata is seeing 7.5 percent less pitches per plate appearance this season, while Walker is seeing 5.4 percent less, Snider 4.7 percent, Alvarez 4.6 percent and Mercer 2.6 percent.

These numbers all seem small as they are only just percentages in the single-digits, making them small decimals by extension. But for players like Walker and Alvarez, who each saw over 2,000 pitches a year ago, a simple five percent decrease means over 100 less pitches to see.

For someone like Alvarez, who homered once every 67 pitches last year, that could amount to two fewer home runs over the course of a season. And with the Pirates offense as strapped as it currently is, those are power numbers the team can’t afford to leave on the table.

Strikeouts and Walks

To zoom back out, though, the Pirates have become one of the better teams in the National League this season in terms of their standings in walk and strikeout rates.

Year

Strikeout rate

Walk rate

2013

21.7 %

7.6 %

2014

21.4 %

8.4 %

The Pirates had the third-worst strikeout rate among all N.L. teams a year ago and although their rate isn’t significantly improved, their current percentage is sixth-best in the league. Strikeouts are trending much higher through the first month of the season, with only two teams owning strikeout rates below 20 percent while eight clubs finished below that threshold in 2013.

In addition, the Pirates’ moderately-improved walk rate ties with Cincinnati for the league’s fifth-best mark. Sticking with the group of eight qualified hitters from before, a few of them have made some salient improvements from last year.

Player

2013 K%

2014 K%

2013 BB%

2014 BB%

Alvarez

30.3

23.4

7.8

12.0

Marte

24.4

31.6

4.4

7.7

Martin

21.3

17.8

11.5

11.0

McCutchen

15.0

16.7

11.6

17.5

Mercer

17.0

17.8

6.0

4.1

Snider

26.3

20.5

8.4

9.6

Tabata

13.2

18.2

6.7

4.5

Walker

15.4

11.7

9.1

5.4

What should pop off the screen is the increase in McCutchen’s walk rate, a result of him being pitched like a Most Valuable Player instead of the above-average player many thought him to be before last season. As a result, he is second only to Joey Votto among all N.L. hitters with 21 walks in 26 games so far.

Another encouraging set of numbers comes from Pedro Alvarez, who has cut a seven-percent chunk off his strikeout rate a year ago and improved his walk rate by over four percent. Changes like this should lead to a higher on-base percentage for a power hitter of his caliber.

Alvarez is off to an encouraging start, cutting his strikeout rate and improving his walk rate. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Alvarez is off to an encouraging start, cutting his strikeout rate and improving his walk rate. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Of concern, though, is the seven-percent spike in Marte’s strikeout rate. With 37 punchouts already, Marte is pacing toward roughly 230 strikeouts, which would break Mark Reynolds single-season record of 223. E.g., not something any manager wants to see from his leadoff man.

Verdict

Obviously it is still very, very early in the season with nearly 85 percent of games left for the Pirates to play. But from  the first month or so of the season, a couple of conclusions can be drawn.

First of all, it seems like the emphasis on on-base percentage has helped the Pirates become more disciplined at the plate. While the Pirates are seeing less pitch from one plate appearance to another compared to last year, other numbers reflect they’re swinging at more quality pitches.

And, concrete examples such as Marte’s increased walk rate and Alvarez’s improved strikeout rate show the philosophy has at least taken roots with hitters.

One big thing that eventually has to change course for the team is its horrible luck on balls in play. Pittsburgh currently sports a .259 BABIP, far below the league average of .297, while players have posted numbers much worse than their career marks.

At some point, players like Alvarez (.161 BABIP), Ike Davis (.211) and Jordy Mercer (.204) will catch some breaks as their BABIP numbers regress closer to their career lines. In turn, the respective OBPs should rise as well.

At the moment, it’s difficult to say the emphasis on on-base percentage is working out well. The team is scoring less runs per game that it did a year ago. But that doesn’t mean it’s not working below the surface level, and should begin to manifest itself on the field sooner rather than later once the Pirates catch a little luck and their plate discipline begins to pay long-term dividends.

Links and Notes

**Pirates Look to Improve Offense by Emphasizing On-Base Percentage

**Prospect Watch: Tyler Glasnow Walks Seven Batters in Two Innings

**Pittsburgh Pirates Positive Regression Candidates: Pedro Alvarez

**Draft Prospect Watch: Casey Gillaspie or Sean Newcomb?

**Minor Moves: Elvis Escobar Joins West Virginia Outfield

**Prospect Highlights: Andrew Lambo Breaks Homerless Drought

**Minor League Schedule: Rehab Start For Wandy Rodriguez

Nate Barnes

Author: Nate Barnes

Nate covers the Pirates beat for Pirates Prospects, and is an English Writing major at the University of Pittsburgh. Nate has covered the Pirates for Pittsburgh Sports Report, and covered Pitt Men's Basketball, Duquesne Men's Basketball, and Pitt Baseball beats prior to this summer. You can find Nate on Twitter @NateBarnes_ where he'll keep you updated on each and every time Clint Barmes breaks up a no-hit bid with one-out in the third inning of ballgames.

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  • skliesen

    Marte’s strikeout rate is alarming to say the least. It appears P have an idea on how to get him out and he hasn’t figured out how to adjust his game plan to their game plan. Be interesting to see how this develops over the next month or so.

    I’ll go as far as saying, as he goes, so goes the Pirates offense. He gets on base, makes it easier for Cutch and Alvarez to see quality pitches. And we know what Cutch and Alvarez can do to quality pitches.

  • piraterican21

    Two changes I will like to see, let Marte be himself, emphasis on seen more pitches is leading to him striking out more, he needs to remain aggressive and jump on the best pitch he sees, with that said, either Tabata or Snider should replace him as in the lead-off spot. Last point, Alvarez needs to change his approaches, is nice to see him swinging at less pitches out of the zone, but with runners on base he needs to be aggressive, I will even be ok with him swinging all 3 times at anything close, have grown tired of seeing him watch a called third strike pass by.

  • IC Bob

    Tim you mentioned bad luck on BBIP. What I have seen is bad hits not bad luck. Its not like we are cranking line drives right at people. A little league team could make the plays on the soft contact the Bucs make. If you take away the beating on the rule five guy we should get back soon it would even be worse.

    • Andrew

      Pirates BABIP on Line Drives .605, 30th in league

      League Average 2014-2010 .691/.684/.682/.696

      • S Brooks

        And then imagine how much better they’d be if they were even league average at hitting line drives in the first place (18.8%, 24th in the league).

    • Y2JGQ2

      agreed Bob- however I think Tim is actually pointing more towards the BABIP on the non-linedrives as well. If you look at the walker write up, he pointed towards a much lower BABIP, taking line drives out of the equations, for his fly balls and ground balls, and that is somewhat because of luck

  • Y2JGQ2

    I can honestly see Marte’s gears moving at the plate, and that’s not a good thing. He is trying to implement the changes, and right now, its a forced consciousness for him to be patient, and wait longer for pitch recognition. He’s trying to change and learn to be a better hitter, and right now, its making him worse. I expect him to eventually even out, but its a tough ride right now. Marte is an awful 2 strike hitter, so the new approach only works when he becomes more comfortable hitting behind in the count, shorteing his swing, driving the ball the other way, etc. As a hitter, I actually got way better when I stopped taking so many pitches and became more aggressive, because the more quality pitches would come earlier in the at bat when the pitcher was trying to get ahead. The problem now, is that the entire league knows that Marte is a first pitch dead fastball hitter, and so he is being forced, like a lot of second year players, to adapt. I expect him to not be a leadoff hitter, i think polanco will likely be our leadoff guy next year, but marte has to find that mid point of patience and aggressiveness and it could very well take all this year….to see where in the lineup, he will ultimately fit

  • leadoff

    Numbers, Numbers, Numbers, baseball is a simple game, forget the numbers, forget the walks, forget the strikeouts and walk up to the plate and hit the ball. I have seen a lot of Brewer games and they don’t have a walk, strikeout problem, nor do they try to work the pitcher, they just hit the ball, first pitch any pitch, the Pirates are dancing the Brewers are punching. I will take their approach any day to the dance the Pirates are trying to do. The Pirates look like they want to be like the old Yankee teams, work the pitcher, get him out of the game, kill the pen, unfortunately that philosophy only works when you have a 38 year old team that does not care whether they have 2 strikes on them or not, the Pirates are much to young for this philosophy.

  • leadoff

    If they keep emphasizing walks, Marte will not get any better, this guy
    is a free swinger and he is not a leadoff hitter unless they forget
    about his walks and strikeouts and just let him alone. It would appear
    to me that the Pirates have an ideal of what each number in the batting
    order is supposed to do and that is what they want these players to
    conform to. A leadoff hitter gets a lot of walks and gets on a lot. A 4
    hitter is the power guy and so on. IMO that is the wrong approach, a
    lot of teams move their power closer to the leadoff hitter, no further
    back than 3.

  • Bryan Graham

    Hopefully their BABIP improves significantly before they’re 12-30

  • mysonisnamedafterRoberto

    Looking through the data from the article and Baseball Reference I noticed a couple of things.
    First McCutchen is an expectation and not norm when it comes to hitting in pitcher’s favoring counts. So his ability to be productive from behind in the counts allows him to work the counts deeper
    than most hitters. Most data suggest that being aggressive on the first pitch pays dividends for most hitters.

    Also with the emphases on pitchers getting ahead, you would think it would be in the best interest of most hitters, everyone outside of McCutchen in the Pirate’s line-up, to be aggressive on the first pitch.

    Looking over data since 2011 and including this year for theleague. A couple of things standout:

    ·
    -60% first pitches are strikes, but batter only swing about 27% of the time at the first pitch.
    So there are a lot of pitchers placing that first pitch in the strike zone. Now these could be pitcher’s pitch and not what the batter is looking for. It also means that 0-1 is the most common outcome after the first pitch. Still if I’m told to work the count deeper, then my mentality is not be aggressive with first pitch. I would be looking for the perfect strike to hit.

    -Over that same period, the Batting Average and OPS are higher on the first pitch then on 0-1.
    The closest gap for BA is .333 to .321 in 2012. The closest OPS is .63 difference in 2011
    with first pitch being .859 and 0-1 count being .797. The means for first pitch BA is .332 and OPS
    is .870 compared to the means of 0-1 count’s BA of .315 and OPS of .794.

    -The difference between taking the first pitch and swinging at the first pitch also favors being aggressive on the first pitch. Below is the outcome of whether a batter swings or takes the first pitch.

    Swinging Taking Difference

    Year BA SLG. BA SLG. BA SLG.
    2014 .267 .417 .242 .378 +.025 +.039
    2013 .267 .421 .248 .387 +.019 +.034
    2012 .268 .435 .249 .395 +.019 +.040
    2011 .266 .419 .251 .391 +.015 +0.20