First Pitch: The Other Black Hole in the Lineup

Last week I looked at the black hole in the lineup that is the 7-9 spots, specifically looking at how the Pirates have seen the worst offensive production in the league from non-pitchers. I wanted to continue that by taking a look at the top of the order.

Going in to this I expected the results to be bad. My focus was primarily on the on-base percentage, which is an area where the Pirates have struggled this year, especially at the top of the order. Their leadoff hitters have mostly been Alex Presley (.283 OBP) and Jose Tabata (.314 OBP). Starling Marte (.293 OBP) has taken over the leadoff role for most of the final two months of the season. Neil Walker has the most games at the number two spot, with a .339 OBP, but almost two-thirds of the games have been filled by guys with lesser on-base percentages.

Here is the chart, showing how the Pirates compare to every team in the league. I included runs created, but sorted by OBP.

What I found ended up confirming my belief that the Pirates would end up as one of the worst teams in this area. That’s not a hard guess, as all you need to do is look at the on-base percentages of the guys listed at the top of the lineup. The Pirates were 27th overall in the majors, and next to last in the National League in on-base percentage. What I saw next was surprising.

The 28th overall team, with a .289 OBP, was the Baltimore Orioles. The 29th overall team, with a .282 OBP, was Cincinnati. Both teams are having great seasons, with Baltimore at 88-66, and Cincinnati at 92-61.

It’s a problem to have an on-base percentage that low from the top of the lineup. But that problem doesn’t seem to be holding back the Reds or Orioles. So I did a rough comparison of the three teams and how they stood in other areas.

Looking at the middle of the lineup (3-6 hitters), the Pirates are dead average, coming in at number 15 in the league in runs created. By comparison, Cincinnati is up at the top, ranked third, while Baltimore is right behind Pittsburgh at number 16.

Going back to the bottom of the lineup, Baltimore ranks 5th in runs created, Cincinnati ranks 17th, and the Pirates ranked 30th.

From a runs perspective, Baltimore has given up 683 runs, Pittsburgh has given up 624, and Cincinnati has given up 566 runs.

All three teams rank near the bottom in on-base percentage from their top of the order hitters. But the difference is that the other two teams are making up for that in other areas. Cincinnati has better pitching, much better 3-6 hitters, and an improvement at the bottom of the lineup. So while the top of their lineup is weak like the Pirates, every other aspect of their team is stronger.

Baltimore is frustrating. They’ve given up more runs this year than they’ve scored. They’ve also given up more runs than the Pirates. Their middle of the order hitters are just below the Pirates. Their top of the order hitters are just below the Pirates. The only advantage they have statistically is that their bottom of the order hitters are much better than the Pirates. But that shouldn’t account for a massive difference in record, especially playing in a tougher division.

Focusing just on the Pirates, they have a good but not great middle of the order. However, their top of the order and bottom of the order both rank near the bottom in the majors. The issues with the bottom of the order are philosophical. The Pirates prefer defense and sacrifice offense at the catcher and shortstop positions. That’s not the case with the top of the order. The team was relying on Alex Presley and Jose Tabata to hold down their corner outfield spots. Both players had horrible seasons, and now the focus is on Travis Snider and Starling Marte.

Marte isn’t your typical leadoff hitter, but he can get the job done once he adjusts to the majors. He has a career .361 OBP in the minors, which is in part due to a .303 average. The numbers dropped in Triple-A, but even his .286 average and .347 OBP would be fine for the big leagues.

The Pirates need to upgrade one of those areas next year. They can’t go in to next season with two holes in the lineup. The best bet for an upgrade is probably the top of the lineup, since they would still be focused on defense at the catcher and shortstop positions. The answer might be Marte. It might be finding a spot for Gaby Sanchez in the lineup. It might be a healthy Travis Snider. Or it could be someone who isn’t in the organization right now. Whoever it is, that person needs to do a better job of setting the table for Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, and Garrett Jones.

Links and Notes

**The Pirates lost 6-2 to the Mets today.

**Pirates Notebook: Offense Struggles to be Consistent.

**Prospect Notebook: Farm System Evaluation, Instructional League Reports.

**Victor Black Headed to the Arizona Fall League.

**McPherson Ready to Make an Impact in the Majors.

Tim started Pirates Prospects in 2009 from his home in Virginia, which was 40 minutes from where Pedro Alvarez made his pro debut in Lynchburg. That year, the Lynchburg Hillcats won the Carolina League championship, and Pirates Prospects was born from Tim's reporting along the way. The site has grown over the years to include many more writers, and Tim has gone on to become a credentialed MLB reporter, producing Pirates Prospects each year, and will publish his 11th Prospect Guide this offseason. He has also served as the Pittsburgh Pirates correspondent for Baseball America since 2019. Behind the scenes, Tim is an avid music lover, and most of the money he gets paid to run this site goes to vinyl records.

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Comparing anything to Baltimore is fruitless. Nothing about that team makes sense other than they’ve got a great manager. They’re horrible in RISP situations and dead last in production with bases loaded. They do get a lot of leadoff HRs. But it’s Showalter more than anything.

I’ve been harping on the top of the order all year. It’s why I thought getting Choo or Headley was much more important than Pence. Pence wouldn’t do a thing for the Bucs as he’d be going from a situation where 52% of his ABs were in RISP situations to only 42-43% with the Bucs. If Jones or Alvarez had as many RBI opportunities as Pence, both would be well over 100 RBI.

Ian Rothermund

I’m really interested to see where the Pirates go in the offseason. Will Huntington have a job? Will Hurdle?

One thing is certain, Marte is not a lead off type of guy. That being said, with the current lineup, there doesn’t really seem to be a natural spot for him to fit in. Then, as far as upgrading, you’d really hope that either Sanchez or Snider hits the ground running next year, and that will tell you what position Jones will move into. I realize the FA market is always low in SSs, but maybe this offseason is the one to go for the home run trade as far as a young up and comer that could fit into the nucleus of the club and be a lead off type.

Ian Rothermund

To finish that thought, simply upgrading at the catcher and/or SS position might be huge considering the vast improvement at the corner outfield spots that are already set up for next season. Not to mention, if we’re ok with Barajas hitting around the Mendoza line, we should be ok with handing the gear off to Sanchez next season. If anything makes me angry about the way the Pirates have gone about the rebuild the last few years, it’s their hesitancy to hand the team over to the kids, a la Tampa Bay, or Detroit a few years before that.


I can’t see Marte ever being a leadoff hitter either. There is nothing in his skillset that screams table setter. He would be much better in the 5 hole where his power woudl lead to RBI and his speed could still be a benefit.

Somehow, unrecognized, Tabata has been the answer since June 1st. His OBP is .364 in the last 4 months with 19 walks in 176 plate appearances. As much as I like Snider’s potential the OF should be Tabata in RF/leadoff to open 2013. Tabata has shown over two plus seasons that he is the best choice, I wouldn’t throw that away due to two bad babip driven months to start 2012.

F Lang

Tabata is in the mix but we need to go looking for leadoff hitters elsewhere in the offseason via trade or free agency. Tabata by no means deserves to have anything handed to him. Especially when you see that 8-20 in stolen bases.


about Marte: the talent is there. but I dont believe he’ll ever be the kind of leadoff hitter that we all hope for. at worst, he’s a quality 5-6 hole hitter, which from what ive seen of him in person for 3 years now is exactly his ceiling.
and this is not a bad thing.

John Lease

Philosophically, the Pirates lost to the Mets last night for #78 . 4 more to a 20th consecutive losing season. That, as they say, is a record.


meh. pirates already have the record at 19.

Ian Rothermund

Lol, yeah, idk if it’s as impactful when you break your own record from the year before.

F Lang

Yes. Now they are just slowly putting themselves in the most unbreakable records in sports territory.

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