One day after the Atlanta Braves held the Pirates to just five hits in a 5-4 defeat win over Bucs and the day of Julio Teheran twirling a no-hit bid into the 8th inning, it seems appropriate to ask when Pittsburgh’s offense will begin to turn it on.
Start with the basics: the Pirates are 10th in the 15-team National League in runs scored, 12th in batting average, 12th in OPS and 12th in wRC+. Now to my underlying stat of choice, Batting Runs, which is FanGraphs’ hitting component for Wins Above Replacement. In this stat, the Pirates are once again 12th despite being 7th in RE24, which adds in the context of at-bats. Dave Cameron explains the concept of sequencing here.
Translation — Although the Pirates are already below average in producing runs this season, the underlying stats actually project they will be somewhat worse than that moving forward. This discrepancy is probably due to lucky sequencing of hits and quality baserunning more than anything else. The baserunning will likely stay in the Pirates’ favor, sequencing will not.
Now let’s take this a step further by looking position-by-position at how the Pirates rank in the National league in Batting Runs. It means I get to use more bullet points!
- Catcher: 4th
No surprise. Russell Martin has been one of baseball’s best offseason signings, and Michael McKenry continues to provide a solid bat.
- First Base: 7th
Both ends of the Pirates’ platoon of Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez are holding up, and the Bucs have been about league average as a result.
- Second Base: 8th
Neil Walker’s injury gave a few too many plate appearances to Brandon Inge, bringing down the numbers. But they are still at about league average, and I like Clint Hurdle’s idea of using Jordy Mercer against left-handed pitchers, against whom even the switch-hitting Walker struggles.
- Shortstop: 13th
Okay, first red flag. Clint Barmes’ plate production remains dreadful (.218/.255/.296), as was that of John McDonald in his few plate appearances. But Jordy Mercer has provided pop in his limited opportunities.
- Third Base: 13th
Another trouble spot. This low ranking has a little to do with Brandon Inge getting reps at third base, but also Pedro Alvarez starting slow once again and continuing to maintain a lowly .267 OBP plus striking out in one of three at-bats. Alvarez, as Hurdle will say often, can still “change the game with one swing of the bat,” but those swings need to also provide something beyond the occasional home run.
- Left Field: 6th
Starling Marte’s walk rate remains dreadful as he swings at way too many pitches outside the strike zone. But other than that, he is providing better-than-decent production out of the corner spot, using his good-looking swing to reach base in many different ways from the leadoff spot.
- Center Field: 5th
Andrew McCutchen didn’t exactly tear baseballs a new one like he did in May’s of previous seasons. But he is still a player primed for a summertime surge if he can get his timing right and see some more left-handed pitching.
- Right Field: 9th
This platoon has not been as successful. Travis Snider reaches base pretty often, but his power is still coming in drips rather than buckets. Jose Tabata was swinging well before his recent injury, but his absence has required the use of such replacements as Russell Martin against lefties.
- Pitchers: 14th
The Pirates’ honored tradition of having terrible hitting pitchers is still alive because that’s the way we like it. James McDonald and Wandy Rodriguez are the only pitchers with more than one hit all season.
One stat that pops out to me for the Pirates is that the team ranks dead last, and by quite a bit, at hitting balls outside the strike zone. I don’t know if there is a specific approach that is causing the Bucs trouble at hitting non-zone pitches. Perhaps the number is simply being brought down by the frequent at-bats of Pedro Alvarez and Garrett Jones, who have trouble making contact on pitches not in the zone. Either way, putting the bat on the ball would serve the Pirates (4th-highest strikout rate in the NL) quite well.
Okay, so now we see the three positions where the Pirates have been at their worst offensively: shortstop, third base, right field and pitcher. None of the names I suggest are necessarily advocating for certain players, just trying to raise the discussion. These are the areas where the front office can bring in the greatest improvement to the offense:
1. Get a platoon partner for Pedro Alvarez
There has been a lot of discussion on this site about whether or not Alvarez is a platoon player. I will not pass judgement either way. Still, if we get to late July and Alvarez is still not hitting left-handers (.636 career OPS) nearly as well as he is right-handers (.765 career OPS), the final two months of the season could use a third-base partner.[If you’re not familiar with wRC+ or Weight Runs Created Plus, it is an all-encompassing offensive stat with 100 set as league average.]
- Trevor Plouffe, Twins: 137 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
- Danny Valencia, Orioles: 127 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010, hit .281 vs. lefties in AAA last year (but Biogenesis link)
- Michael Young, Phillies: 125 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010, Leadership™
- Alex Rodriguez, Yankees: I mean could you imagine?
2. Find a better hitting shortstop? Or try?
Getting a Major League shortstop is tough any time of the year, so maybe a triumvirate of Barmes, Mercer and Chase d’Arnaud is about as good as the Pirates will get.
However, all three are right-handed hitters, so perhaps the Pirates can look at some shortstops who can hit right-handed pitcher better? Let’s throw out the options.
- Jimmy Rollins, Phillies: 107 wRC+ vs. righties since 2010
And that’s all.
3. Add a better right-handed hitter to match with Travis Snider
Snider’s career numbers against lefties are bad, but still a smidge better than those of Alvarez: .231/.279/.372 for a .651 OPS. But that’s still rather horrendous, and there might be a selection bias involved; if managers know Snider is bad against lefties, they may only play him against more hittable southpaws.
Here’s the trouble: Snider’s usual partner in right field is Jose Tabata, who has no platoon split. He is merely average (around a .710 OPS) against both lefties and righties. There should be other options out there for a corner outfielder that has some pop against left-handed pitchers. You know, besides Russell Martin.
- Corey Hart, Brewers: 161 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
- Chris Denorfia, Padres: 145 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
- Josh Willingham, Twins: 134 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
- Alfonso Soriano, Cubs: 129 wRC+ vs. lefties since 2010
Let’s end with a chart that should give the Pirates some optimism. It compares Batting Runs across the National League this season (which is, again, the hitting component of WAR and does not take into account when at-bats occurred) with RE24 (which is a run expectancy stat based on the context of runners on base or not on base).
The Reds have been a fairly lucky team with run production: they have a 103 wRC+ with the bases empty and a 115 wRC+ with runners in scoring position. The Cardinals’ luck has been even more dramatic: a 78 wRC+ with the bases empty and a league-leading 139 wRC+ with runners in scoring position.
You think these teams are clutch? Go ahead. I’ll just bet that it has been good luck with the sequencing of base hits, and both teams will face some regression to the mean. They are both above-average offensive teams, but perhaps not the two best run-producing teams in the NL. That is a bit of good news for the Pirates, the team in competition with them.