When the Pittsburgh Pirates began the 2014 season, an offensive approach touting the importance of on-base percentage was emphasized after the team finished ninth in the National League with a below-average .313 clip.
After 97 games this season, the Pirates lead the National League with a .332 OBP, and are scoring over 4 runs per game.
|Year||On-Base Percentage||League Rank||Runs Per Game||League Rank|
Alongside the improvements in OBP, the Pirates are among the top N.L. teams with a 8.8 percent walk rate (3rd), a .388 slugging percentage (5th) and are one of just three teams with a wRC+ over 100 at 104, second to only the Dodgers (106).
Being “intelligently aggressive” is the catchphrase general manager Neal Huntington uses to describe his team’s offensive success. That, in tandem with manager Clint Hurdle’s mantra of “staying stubborn in your approach”, has paid dividends.
“Our guys have attacked their pitch when they’ve gotten it,” Huntington said. “They’ve not been afraid to take pitchers’ pitches early in counts, instead of putting pitches in play weakly which is what we’d done early.”
Think of it this way; the hot topic at this year’s All-Star Break wasn’t when the offense will finally break out, as it usually would be, but instead what the team can do to improve the back-end of the bullpen.
But the Pirates are 51-46 just after the break, and remain in contention mostly due to their offensive performance while the pitching staff continues to sort itself out amidst injuries and inconsistency.
There isn’t too much of a secret to the way the Pirates recovered from an atrocious start at the plate, when their on-base percentage was equal to the Colorado Rockies’ batting average for the first month of the season.
Teams generally perform below their abilities at the plate during the first few weeks of the season, so the slow start to April should’ve been taken with a grain of salt. As hitters establish some rhythm and get into the literal “swing” of things, numbers rise as the calendar turns and that’s exactly what’s happened for the Pirates.
As for the Rockies, their April was an extreme outlier. The next best-hitting team was the Miami Marlins who hit .260.
Of course, the Pirates’ April was still quite bad. Their .222 average was third-worst in the league.
While Pittsburgh has benefited from the passage of time, the team has also gotten contributions from three individuals that helped the offense turn into one of the National League’s best so far this season.
The People’s Right Fielder
As discussed earlier in the week, the Pirates may not be in contention right now if it wasn’t for Josh Harrison’s play — especially at the plate — after he became a regular in the lineup, which he did around May 20.
His role at the plate in that span has helped the team turn its offensive fortunes nearly as much as anyone else in the batter’s box.
“First month, we were in a little rough patch and guys were still trying to figure it out,” Harrison said. “It’s one of those things where May comes and guys start to get a feel for it. They’ve had 100 ABs for the season and they start to get a feel for their set-up and their approach, and how guys are pitching them. “
Harrison started to “figure it out” in a big way once he became a regular.
In 207 plate appearances since May 20, Harrison has batted .295/.335/.420. And, he’s created 13 percent more runs than the average hitter with a 113 wRC+ in that span.
He’s also been worth 2.2 WAR in his 79 games played, 53 of which have been starts. Most of those came in the Pirates’ two best-hitting months of 2014, which also happened to be Harrison’s hottest months.
His numbers have been good this season, and gave the Pirates stability in the outfield while they awaited the arrival of Gregory Polanco. Harrison has struggled in the early weeks of July, but maintains the importance of sticking to his approach and not becoming “result-oriented” despite his success.
“It can tear you up,” Harrison said. “You can do everything right and not get the results, but at the same time if you do stick with that approach and do what you’re supposed to, you’re going to be rewarded.”
The reward for Harrison includes consistent playing time despite Polanco’s presence.
The Right Fielder of the Present (and Future)
Speaking of the highly-touted right fielder, Gregory Polanco’s role in the lineup has helped complete the Pirates’ offense.
Hurdle mixed and matched in the leadoff spot prior to Polanco’s arrival June 10, a process that resulted in a few days on the bench for Starling Marte.
Now, the Pirates have their leadoff hitter in Polanco and a formidable trio at the top of the lineup with him, Marte and McCutchen awaiting opposing pitchers in their first inning of work each game.
Despite a slump to begin July, Polanco has accorded himself through his first month of major-league play.
With another dangerous bat in the Pirates’ lineup, the numbers for the hitters around Polanco have spiked up–especially Marte’s.
|March 31 – June 9||.240||.311||.371||.683||96|
|June 10 – July 19||.303||.374||.438||.812||134|
The friendship between the two Dominicans is well-documented, but it’s relatively difficult to quantify how that might impact Marte’s hitting.
But for one thing, Marte is seeing better pitches to hit since Polanco joined the big-league club. Since June 10, Marte has seen 48.4 percent of pitches come through the strike zone — a seven percent boost from the 42.2 percent clip he received prior to Polanco’s arrival.
Polanco’s call-up also coincided with the beginning of McCutchen’s torrid hitting, but his numbers have also improved since.
|March 31 – June 9||.309||.423||.509||.932||166|
|June 10 – July 19||.341||.409||.667||1.076||197|
At any rate, Polanco’s presence in the lineup may be what has allowed McCutchen’s power numbers to improve lately, with nine of his 17 home runs coming in the stretch since June 10.
Andrew McCutchen Heading to Another MVP Award
When attempting to implement a new philosophy, it’s generally a good sign when a team’s best player is one to tout what’s being preached. The Pirates are fortunate to have Andrew McCutchen, who’s talked about staying stubborn in one’s approach as much as his hitting coach, Jeff Branson.
The 2013 National League Most Valuable Player believes his approach helped him post a scorching hot month of June in which he recorded a 1.096 OPS with eight home runs, and 12 doubles.
As McCutchen raked, he propelled the Pirates to a 17-10 June record that helped them overcome a slow start in April and May, and the team jumped back into contention as a result.
It was no wonder he was named the National League’s Player of the Month, and his approach had a lot to do with that success.
“It’s paying dividends,” he said. “Definitely.”
In June and through the early parts of July, McCutchen is red-hot. He’s creating double the average number of runs, and his 177 wRC+ for the season is tops in the N.L. and bested only by Mike Trout.
His 4.6 WAR ranks second in the N.L., topped only by Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki.
Stubbornness in McCutchen’s approach has also been a major factor in what’s been most important for the center fielder, especially as opposing pitchers are giving him less and less to hit after his MVP season.
“Staying within myself is the biggest thing,” McCutchen said. “Staying within myself, seeing the ball deep, letting it travel and just trying to drive the ball.”
As McCutchen and the Pirates continue to stick to what they do best at the plate, the pitching staff has the leeway necessary to round into form. If that happens, the Pirates can be just as dangerous as any other team as they enter the home stretch of the 2014 season.