Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate against pitcher Alfredo Simon in the third inning of the Pirates’ April 23 game against the Cincinnati Reds with his team locked in a 1-1 tie. In his first at-bat, McCutchen lined out to center field after three pitches.
The MVP’s second plate appearance of the night lasted ten pitches and culminated in a line drive home run into the left field bleachers that traveled over 400 feet before it reached its final destination. He finished 2-for-4 with a walk that night, and saw a total of 32 pitches over his five plate appearances.
That at-bat by McCutchen wasn’t just an example of his elite hitting ability, but also a focus at the plate that general manager Neal Huntington calls being “intelligently aggressive” as the Pirates hone their focus upon on-base percentage this season.
“We want our guys to attack their pitch,” Huntington said. “When they see that first pitch fastball that’s in the zone that they’re looking for, we want them to hit it hard into a gap somewhere and so we want to be intelligently aggressive.”
Priority Number One
The emphasis of on-base percentage is a concept foreign to few in the modern baseball world, and one popularized by the release of Michael Lewis’ Moneyball in 2003 and its move into theaters nine years later. Hitting coach Jeff Branson says that on-base percentage has been a focus for the Pirates for a while, but “it just hasn’t been as prevalent as it is now” at all levels in the organization.
“The biggest thing people look at now is the OPS,” Branson said. “Like in the minor leagues when you get a box score, it doesn’t have the average on it, it has OPS so obviously that’s looking at your on-base plus your slugging to see how much damage you’re doing.”
The value in evaluating players with OPS and on-base by extension is that it gives the organization a better read on what exactly a hitter is able to do at the plate, and what he might be able to do one day in the future.
“[It’s about] how many balls you’re driving, rather than just singles,” Branson said. “It’s about trying incorporate a complete guy as far as driving the ball but having quality at-bats and being able to get quality pitches to drive.”
Now, this isn’t to say the Pirates have never cared about on-base percentage but that the efforts to emphasize it are just being ramped up because, as manager Clint Hurdle says, the team needs to “get on base more.”
“That has been the priority number one through the winter and into spring training,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “For everybody. Fight, find a way to get on base.”
An important facet of on-base percentage is drawing more walks. The Pirates were in the middle of the pack among National League teams last year, ranking seventh with 469 walks in 6,135 plate appearances (a 7.6 percent walk rate, tied for eighth in the league).
As a result, the Pirates also finished in a similar position (ninth) among N.L. teams with a .313 on-base percentage last year.
“The easiest way to say it is if you put the ball in play, you’re out seven of 10 times when you’re really good,” Huntington said. “If you walk you get to first base 100 percent of the time. So anytime you draw a walk it’s a good thing.”
And, the more runners on base, the more there are to score which would help an offense that, coincidentally, finished ninth with 634 runs scored. But that’s also not to say that the Pirates’ general manager necessarily wants his players looking for a free pass each time they step in the batter’s box.
“We don’t want guys to go look for walks but if we are commanding the zone, we’re attacking our pitch when we get it, letting pitches that are challenging for us go, we’re going to get better pitches to hit,” Huntington said. “We’re going to hit the ball harder on a more consistent basis, we’re going to get into more fastball counts and when they throw the ball wide four times we get a free base.”
On the opposite side of drawing more walks, though, the Pirates also want to cut down on their strikeouts. Pittsburgh hitters struck out 1,330 times last season which landed them the league’s third-worst strikeout rate at 21.7 percent.
“We’re a team that can hit a lot of home runs but on the contrary, we’re a team that will strike out a lot too,” McCutchen said. “So we’re trying to change that up and having a two-strike approach, doing something a little different when we get to two strikes so we can have a good at-bat to at least make good contact, have the chance to get to first base or whatever else from there.”
Hurdle wants to see his team improve its approach with two strikes more than anyone, a situation that is an integral part of baseball for the man.
“To choke up and battle the at-bat, for me, that’s what this game and sport is all about,” Hurdle said. “There comes a time when you just do the best you can with what you with where you are and that’s what two-strike hitting is all about.”
In today’s game, when Hurdle says players arrive at major-league organizations after having personal hitting coaches since they were 12-year-olds, “there doesn’t seem to be that battle” at the plate.
“Many times, we consider it a walk of shame to come back,” Hurdle said. “And sometimes it looks as though they get four strikes. There is an adjustment made with two strikes, [but] it still is a big hack.”
Huntington agrees with his manager’s philosophy that Pirate hitters need to cut down on their strikeouts.
“You’ve gotta expand with two strikes and battle and make pitchers throw more pitches, be tougher outs,” Huntington said. “But we also want to make sure we attack our pitching and put it in play hard.”
A step to improving their approach at the plate for the Pirates is being “stubborn” according to Branson, which will lead to hitters finding themselves in more hitters’ counts and seeing better pitches to hit and drive.
“You’re up there looking to drive balls and this year we’ve put more emphasis on being stubborn with our approach,” Branson said. “Putting balls exactly where we want them, not swinging at pitchers’ pitches, swinging at balls we want to swing at that we know we can do damage with.”
For McCutchen, patience is critical to his approach this season as pitchers now treat him differently after his MVP season.
“I’m not getting a lot of pitches,” McCutchen said. “I’m not getting pitched to a lot, I’m not getting a lot of fastballs or whatever it may be. I’m getting one, maybe two pitches an at-bat.”
Even though he has already become a household name, McCutchen himself acknowledges there is still more he can learn about the way he plays and approaches the game. Especially now that his name garners the most attention from opposing pitching staffs among those in the Pirates’ daily lineup.
“You get a little wiser the more you play, so the biggest thing with me is taking what they give me,” McCutchen said. “And if they don’t give me anything, it’s just having confidence and faith that the guy behind me is going to be able to pick me up.
As he fine tunes his approach, better seasons at the plate should be in store for the star center fielder. Not to mention his on-base percentage will inflate.
“It’s just going to make me a better hitter and when I start getting those pitches, those one or two pitches, and I start hitting them, then it means there’s not going to be much more to stop me after that,” McCutchen said.
Two nights before McCutchen’s aforementioned home run, Branson referenced a late-game at-bat as one scenario when the team’s stubborn approach paid dividends. McCutchen stepped up to bat with his team down 5-4 in the eighth inning and hit the second pitch he saw from reliever Manny Parra out of the ballpark to tie the Pirates’ game against Cincinnati.
“He got a changeup out over the plate,” Branson said. “Again, stubborn with his approach, putting the ball where he wanted it and did damage with it so if there’s probably one instance, that would be the one. A game-tying, damage home run that kept us in the game and gave us a chance to win the game.”
Next to their superstar, one of the Pirates’ newest additions brings a similar approach to the plate. Ike Davis, who spent the first four years of his career with the New York Mets, says that on-base percentage was all the organization would “preach.”
“That’s the whole thing is work the counts and look for a pitch you can hit,” Davis said. “It’s kind of been my thing really since playing professionally, is trying to get a good pitch to hit and not swing at stuff in the dirt or outside the zone.”
From Branson’s perspective, Davis not only “elongates” the Pirates’ lineup but also fits right in to the revamped approach in the batter’s box.
“[Ike]’s a very simple guy and again it goes back to what we’re preaching to our guys,” Branson said. “He falls right into the same category of getting pitches where I want it and doing some damage with them.”
For now, the team’s approach is still working itself out and Huntington calls it an “ongoing process” that Branson, Hurdle and assistant hitting coach Jeff Livesey will work with players on all year to improve execution. When looking to improve one of baseball’s worst offenses from a year ago and so far early in this season, making improvements in the team’s on-base percentage is the first step.
From there, everything else will fall into line.
“That’s been kind of the stress point this year from spring training all the way up to now and it will be all year,” Branson said. “It’s about us getting pitches that we can drive, that we can do damage with, according to our approach and not going along the lines of what the pitchers want to give us.”