Andrew McCutchen stepped to the plate in the fourth inning of last Friday’s game and promptly fell behind in the count 0-2. Milwaukee right-hander Jimmy Nelson threw a called first strike and induced a swing and miss with a high slider that started inside but ran out of the strike zone.
There were men on first and third with no outs, and the Pirates trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 1-0.
The Pirates also hadn’t scored since the seventh inning of that Monday’s home-opener when Corey Hart hit a two-run home run in the team’s 5-4 win against Detroit. The scoreless skid spanned 22 innings.
McCutchen proceeded to work the count, fouling off four pitches and taking two out of the strike zone. He put the ninth offering from Nelson into play, a ground ball that found its way to shortstop Jean Segura who threw McCutchen out at first base.
But Francisco Cervelli scored from third to tie the game at 1-1 for the Pirates first run in four days. Pittsburgh went on to win the game 6-3.
McCutchen didn’t explain his at-bat in any ground- or game-breaking terms. As per usual, the center fielder saw himself just playing the game.
“I’m just up there looking to get a hit,” McCutchen said. “I’m not really thinking about how many pitches I see in the at-bat…I’m just thinking about getting a hit.”
For some, it’s just baseball.
But McCutchen’s at-bat, even though he or others may not realize it, cast light on another aspect of the Pirates offense they hope can elevate their run-scoring to heights previously unreached.
IDENTIFY AND IMPROVE
The Pittsburgh Pirates finished the 2013 season with a .313 on-base percentage, the National League’s eighth-best mark. The Pirates made their first run to a winning season and the playoffs in 20 years with a team based off a strong pitching staff and defense, but continued success hinged upon building an offense to match.
So, the Pirates resolved before the 2014 season to improve their offense by starting at the bottom: on-base percentage. One doesn’t need to be a sabermetric whiz or know the ins and outs of Moneyball to understand the more men a baseball team gets on base, the more chances that team will have to score.
Pittsburgh’s 2013 team finished eighth in the National League with a .313 on-base percentage. The mark wasn’t terrible but it’s one that wouldn’t help the Pirates win the number of games they desired if the pitching took a step back. The next season’s focus of improving the on-base percentage began in Spring Training and was executed throughout the season.
The offense and its adjusted philosophy in the batter’s box took lumps at the beginning of the season. But as Clint Hurdle likes to say, pitching is always ahead of hitting and that’s backed by Pittsburgh’s offensive woes in each of the last few Aprils.
But the Pirates stayed consistent in their approach of staying consistent in their approach at the plate and finished second in the National League with a .330 on-base percentage in 2014. That translates to putting nearly one man on base in every inning played last season, although not perfectly.
As the Pirates move into 2015 with expectations swirling for them to make deep postseason runs and/or unseat the St. Louis Cardinals at the top of the division, expectations or predictions that really don’t matter to the team, the Pirates already identified what it needs to improve in order to take the next step up from being a Wild Card team: hitting with runners in scoring position.
Pittsburgh’s improved on-base percentage last season gave the Pirates many chances to score, and they did. The offense finished fourth in the National League with 682 runs scored and its 108 wRC+ ranked only behind the Dodgers.
But the organization feels it left more than enough runs on the table to justify a focus on improving the way the Pirates hit with men on the bases. General manager Neal Huntington wants to see this year’s team maximize its run opportunities better than the 2014 Pirates did.
“We had a lot of guys on base last year,” Huntington said. “We didn’t create the number (of runs) that ideally you’d like to out of that.”
The Pirates finished 2014 with a weighted Runs Created (wRC) of 733, meaning that’s how many runs the offense should have been worth to them. Note that a team’s run production rarely equals its wRC but the 51-run gap between the Pirates wRC and real runs underscore the opportunity for Pittsburgh’s offense to capitalize on more opportunities.
At a base level, the Pirates left 7.35 men on base per game in 2014–the worst of any NL club. San Diego led the league by leaving 6.38 men on per game and while the gap between the Padres and Pirates is less than a man per game, the difference adds up over the course of a season.
But a lot of that number has to do with the Pirates on-base percentage
Hurdle envisions more than a few Pirates on the 2015 roster hitting 40 doubles, driving in 100 runs and/or scoring 100 runs. More than anything, he doesn’t want as many men left on base this season — especially when they’re in scoring position.
“If you do look at the teams that succeed on offense normally they have more men left on base. But you don’t need to be at the top of that list,” Hurdle said. “We have not been as efficient as we need to be to take the next step on getting runs in when we have runners in scoring position.”
The Pirates posted a .249/.345/.371 slash line and drove in 473 runs with men in scoring position last season. Their RBI total ranked fourth in the National League and their wRC+ of 99 showed Pittsburgh’s performance in such situations was one percent below that of the league average.
|2014 Category w/RISP||Stat||NL Rank|
|Runs Batted In||473||4|
|Weighted Runs Created||99||5|
|On-base plus slugging||.716||7|
But, take into consideration the American League has more to do with setting the bar than the National League for what league average is in many of these holistic offensive categories.
Eight AL teams finished with wRC+ marks above 100 (league average) last season while only four NL teams were over 100. The Dodgers 124 wRC+ counts as something of an outlier as the next closest NL team, San Francisco, finished at a 105 wRC+ with runners in scoring position.
With regard to the small sample size, the Pirates focus seemed to pay dividends early in the season. Through 15 games, the offense has posted a 107 wRC+ and .802 OPS in plate appearances with men in scoring position.
|2015 Category w/RISP||Stat||NL Rank|
The Pirates haven’t had many opportunities to hit with men in scoring position but, so far, are making the quality of their chances more important than the quantity. Their 43 RBI with men in scoring position is tied with the Dodgers for fifth, but Los Angeles owns 37 more plate appearances in such situations.
While the on-base percentage is a tick below last year’s mark, every other number is up for the Pirates early on this season and their 107 wRC+ indicates their offense is performing well with runners on second and/or third.
Another tangible improvement? After leaving 7.35 men on base per game last season, the Pirates lead the majors with only 5.2 runners left on per game early in 2015.
ALL IN YOUR HEAD
Pittsburgh’s offense seems to be improving already with runners in scoring position, but a sample drawn from only 15 games isn’t enough to draw concrete enough conclusions. Until then, how exactly can a team improve the way it hits with runners in scoring position?
The area is one that arises out of circumstance and hitting in such circumstances cannot be justly replicated in any environment outside of a game. Second baseman Neil Walker goes so far as to call hitting in the situation the hardest thing to do in baseball.
As a result, the adjustments cannot merely be made in a technical sense akin to changing a pitcher’s release point or how a hitter holds a bat. The improvements to be made when hitting with runners in scoring position aren’t ones that can be done easily. They take time.
From the general manager down to the coaches and players, each first says hitting in the scenario has to do with a mindset, an approach.
Hitting coach Jeff Branson says the mentality begins with batter’s slowing themselves down and “not what we call letting your (behind) tighten up.”
“This is discipline,” Branson said. “Mental discipline, hard-headedness. We always talk about that all the time, getting pitches we can do something with.”
The Pirates emphasized stubbornness in their approach as a way to improve their on-base percentage last season. One year later, that focus is simply being transposed onto another area.
The mental state which allows hitters to succeed in game-changing situations isn’t one that comes easily. It might sound easy to simply relax in the batter’s box, but that’s far from the truth. Then to press in those times makes things worse.
“We have guys that try to do more and more is not better in many situations,” Huntington said. “When you get runners in scoring position, trying to do more is not the answer.”
Huntington says players must trust what got them into a key situation to also help them succeed in that situation.
Branson likens hitting with men in scoring position to preparing for and taking a test. As a student will study for a test then trust the knowledge to do well, players must trust the abilities that got them to the majors.
“You’re confident in the task you’re going to do,” Branson said.“When you allow that trust to take over when you get in the box the confidence goes way up.”
But baseball isn’t an easy game and there’s always the chance for things to interfere with a hitter’s plans, from the situation of a game to the way a pitcher’s performance can improve when certain pitches need to be made. When hitters try to control much of a given situation, that’s when they struggle.
“You have to just kind of back off as much as you can and try to do less, not more,” Walker said. “It’s really knowing yourself, knowing what you’re good at, knowing how you’re being pitched and what your plan of attack is to ultimately hit a barrel.”
If players even try too hard to develop the mindset necessary to successfully hit with runners in scoring position, then they won’t succeed. To lighten the load, Hurdle likes to remind his players that hitting with the chance to score runs isn’t something the team has to do, but is something the team gets to do — the situation is an opportunity.
Like Branson, Hurdle — who has also spent time as a hitting coach during his career — uses the notion of sight as a way for players to maintain their focus in the box, regardless of situation.
“When you see a lot from the batter’s box you’re really not seeing what you need to see,” Hurdle said. “When you see a little, you see a lot. When you see a lot, you see a little. So it’s just the focus of, again, funneling it down to what it is. You’re trying to square up a baseball and hit it hard where it’s pitched…at that particular point in time.”
STAY IN YOUR LANE
Look back to McCutchen’s at-bat against Milwaukee. The center fielder displayed key elements of will allow the team to improve the way it hits with men in scoring position.
Even as he fell behind McCutchen continued to work the count, fouling off pitches until he was able to find one he could put in play and move the inning along. Many players, especially in today’s game, would’ve submitted with a swinging third strike.
Rather, he stayed “stubborn” in his approach, put a pitch he liked in play and drove in a run. Hits are obviously ideal in any situation but they’re not always necessary to deem a plate appearance a good one.
McCutchen did what he had to do and got the run home, regardless of any adverse circumstance. It’s what Branson wants each one of his hitters to do, whether there’s a man on second with two outs in the second or eighth inning.
As Branson puts it, “It’s just a matter of them saying ‘you know what, screw it. This is what I’m going to do and I’m not going to waver, I’m not going to change lanes.’”