The ‘Stubborn’ Approach That Has the Pirates Leading the NL in OBP


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
2013 .313 8th 3.91 9th
2014 .332 1st 4.10 6th

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.

Consistent Improvement

Month Games AVG R OBP SLG OPS wRC+
March/April 26 .222 96 .296 .351 .647 84
May 29 .276 111 .347 .401 .748 113
June 27 .270 128 .350 .404 .754 114
July 15 .253 63 .330 .398 .729 105

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. “

Josh Harrison's hitting earned him regular time, and helped the Pirates stay afloat.(Photo Credit: David Hague)

Josh Harrison’s hitting earned him regular time, and helped the Pirates stay afloat.(Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

Month PA AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
May 87 .317 .356 .488 .844 139
June 110 .317 .358 .465 .823 131

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.

AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
.255 .342 .336 .678 99

With another dangerous bat in the Pirates’ lineup, the numbers for the hitters around Polanco have spiked up–especially Marte’s.

Marte AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
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.

Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte

Gregory Polanco’s arrival has seemingly brought out the best of Starling Marte. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

McCutchen AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
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.

Month AVG HR OPS wRC+
March/April .286 4 .908 158
May .310 0 .815 142
June .343 8 1.096 204
July .356 5 1.198 228

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.

Andrew McCutchen might be setting himself up for another MVP Award. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Andrew McCutchen might be setting himself up for another MVP Award. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

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.

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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  • John

    Great article Nate!

  • freddylang

    Unfortunately the more patient approach really hasn’t meant much in the way of runs per game. 0.19 runs per game equals out to about 30 more runs per season. Hopefully the better obp will lead to even more improved output in the 2nd half.

    • StevePegues

      But it’s an improvement from less than 4 runs per game to more than 4. Crossing that 4-run per game barrier is kinda significant.

      • freddylang

        It’s a nice improvement from an obp perspective but a disappointment from a getting guys in perspective. Pedro & Ike Davis’ inconsistencies are definitely part of the problem though. But the entire team has to be better with guys on. A lot of guys getting left out on the paths.

        • StevePegues

          According to ESPN’s sortable stats, the 2014 Buc’s are 6th in the NL w/ RISP. That’s way up from the 13th rank of the 2013 season.

          So doesn’t that mean they’re driving in more guys on base?

          • freddylang

            That’s good to know they have improved with RISP. I have only gotten watch about 10-12 games this season ad I have seen a lot of games where they had 12 base runners and scored 3 runs or results similar to that. A jump from around a .315 obp to a .335 obp is only a little over a 0.5 extra base runners a game so I guess the obp improvement isn’t as extreme as I thought and the runs scored improvements not so glaring. I still definitely think they could be even more effective. Being a top one or two obp team, you’d like to see them in the top 5 at getting those runners across but the improvements are a start.

        • Lukas Sutton

          Russell Martin leads the NL in hitting with RISP for catchers with over 20 at bats in that scenario. Neil Walker is hitting juust under .300 in that scenario, Cutch is Cutch like, and Harrison is hitting an absurd .400 with RISP. So while guys like Pedro and Mercer have struggled (near .200) and guys like Ike and Marte are slightly below average (near .240) the pirates have made improvements thanks to some guys carrying the team.

          • freddylang

            …and Mercer has started to even these stats out over the weekend and his recent tear. Hoping for an adjustment in the second half which could make the Pirates a top 5 offensive team.

  • Mike C.

    I wondered what the team #s would be if we took out our best player (Cutch) and our worst player (actually the #s say (looked at woba and wrc+) Ike, Polanco, Snider were very close with Ike being the best and Mercer being the worst).

    Did a very very basic quick calculation (just added top 9 #s with 150+ PAs, minus Tabata and divided by 9) and our team without Cutch and Mercer comes out to about

    326 woba (5th in MLB) and 109 wrc+ (4th in mlb).

    I know these are just basic #s, but I was personally surprised. I thought the Monster #s Cutch was having was inflating the team #s and he was carrying this mediocre team by himself but not apparently so. Seems like the Buccos overall have been doing pretty well offensively.

  • IC Bob

    Thanks Nate. I am a big OBP guy. The Yankees in their hay day would wear teams down and win games late. I am seeing this from our Pirates right now. Its a reason I am also a fan of Ike Davis. he has not been great but he really makes pitchers work and he always seems to be in the middle of a lot of big innings