First Pitch: Pirates Offense Will Recover, But Red Flags For McCutchen

A quick look over the Pittsburgh Pirates offensive numbers this year shows a few concerning trends. Aside from the fact that Sean Rodriguez leads the team in OPS, and Starling Marte is the only regular with an OPS over .737, there are concerns with a few specific players. Andrew McCutchen has a .623 OPS, Josh Harrison has dropped to a .574 OPS, and Jordy Mercer is down at a .498 OPS. Then there’s Neil Walker, who is below his career norm and well below last year’s career season, posting a .713 OPS.

It’s obviously concerning to see the entire offense struggle. It’s also frustrating, especially when this offense was largely one of the best in baseball last year, and the struggles this season helped lead to three straight one run losses against the St. Louis Cardinals.

I don’t think the offense will be a concern in the long-run. They started off the same way last year. This year the offense combined for a .640 OPS through the end of April. Last year it was a .647 OPS. By the end of the season they were regarded as one of the best offenses in the game. And some of the same players were off to slow starts.

As an example, the early season struggles for Jordy Mercer also happened last year. He had a .404 OPS in April, and a .594 OPS in May. He ended up having the fourth best OPS among 22 qualified shortstops in the second half of the season, falling right behind Ian Desmond. The hope was that his early season struggles weren’t a trend. That hope disappears a bit with another slow start.

Then there’s Josh Harrison, who had a big breakout season in 2014. But before that breakout season came, Harrison hit for a .641 OPS in April, which is still higher than his current number. There is a concern here that Harrison is going to revert back to the hitter he was for his entire career, outside of 2014. He benefitted last year from a big drop in ground balls and a big increase in line drives. The numbers for each have gone down a bit, but are still better than where they were prior to the breakout season, which leaves hope that he’s just facing some poor luck. The fact that his BABIP is down at .225 (career .306) also points to poor luck.

Neil Walker had a career year last year, but it started very similar to this one, with a .722 OPS in April. Walker’s season was hot and cold, with three months featuring an OPS over .850, and three months with an OPS of .722 or less, with two of those months below .700. The hope this year is that he will be more consistent, and be closer to the good months last year.

Finally, the biggest concern would be Andrew McCutchen, who is off to the worst start of his career. An April slump isn’t unusual for McCutchen. Throughout his career, he has a .764 OPS in April. Every other month is over .850, with May-July over .900. The big concern here is that McCutchen is only hitting 7.6% line drives, and his ground ball rate is way up at 48.5%. That’s not a good thing for someone dealing with a knee issue, and displaying visible limitations. The injury and the drastic change in hitting trends (although in a small sample size) leave more concern about McCutchen than anyone else.

I’m not concerned about the Pirates’ offense going forward. I think most of their players are off to bad starts, but will get better. I do think it’s a concern that most of the players on the team seemingly get off to bad starts every season, although at this point the main thing is just hoping those players bounce back as soon as possible. The one big player concern is McCutchen, who doesn’t look right on the field, or in the numbers. I think the combination of good pitching and the rest of the offense bouncing back would normally be good enough to contend, even with McCutchen struggling. But the Pirates currently find themselves 6.5 back, and in fourth place in a tight NL Central race, which means they’re going to need McCutchen to return to normal in order to have a good shot at winning the division.

**Prospect Watch: Josh Bell Continues Hot Streak With Two Triples

**Pitch Clock Enforcement Goes Off With No Hiccups Yet

**Big Innings Continue to Doom Nick Kingham

**Morning Report: The Minor League Pitchers Continue to Pitch Inside

**Draft Prospect Watch: New Rankings and a New Mock Draft

**Charlie Morton Shows Progress With His Pitches in Rehab Game

**Barrett Barnes Returns on Monday, Hopes to Continue Strong Hitting

**Updates: Connor Joe, Adam Frazier, Stephen Tarpley, Clayton Richard


  • The good news…

    -Gregory Polanco is making quality contact. After a disastrous first week of baseball, he’s posted a slash line of .303/.343/.439 and is striking out just 17% of the time.
    -Starling Marte is tapping into his power; of which he has a lot. Also has seen his plate discipline numbers stabilize back to career norms after a first week similar to Polanco.

    -Pedro Alvarez might, might be learning a bit. Currently sporting a swinging strike rate 3% lower than last year along with a career low rate of swinging at balls and a career high overall contact rate. Best of all, the power is still clearly there.

    The bad news…

    -This team isn’t going get on base much. None of Harrison/Polanco/Marte/Cervelli/Mercer have demonstrated an ability to take a walk at the big league level and none have really done anything to change that so far.
    -Jordy Mercer still can’t hit RHP. He’ll reach 1000 PA against RHP for his career by the All Star break and is sitting at 76 wRC+.
    -Francisco Cervelli probably isn’t going to hit much. There isn’t much power in his swing due to getting very little out of his lower half and his plate discipline has been poor. Performance could crash once his BABIP regresses.

    This club still looks to have middle-of-the-pack offense, which will be just fine as long as the pitching holds up. I just don’t think at this point there’s much value in comparing last year’s club to this one. Just not the same.

    • BuccosFanStuckinMD
      May 4, 2015 2:40 pm

      So, lets look at worse case scenario for a second with regards to catcher….lets assume Cervelli/Stewart continue to be light weight hitters – getting some singles and not much more – and runners continue to run on us at a pre-Martin clip, are we stuck with these two or will the team be willing to do the right thing and bring up Diaz and waive one of these guys?

      • With Tony Sanchez a mess, I really don’t think you see the club getting rid of anyone at the position. Not with as big of a risk as Cervelli’s history says he may be.

        Wouldn’t surprise me to see Diaz get a chance with a second half injury to one of the guys in Pittsburgh, but seems like next June is more realistic.

    • Cervelli has poor plate discipline? News to me, he takes EVERYTHING

      • Francisco Cervelli? The guy with the 2.9% walk rate and the 3rd highest swing rate among starters?

        Although to be fair, pitchers are also throwing him more strikes than anyone else, with the next closest being Josh Harrison. That tells you right there how much other clubs respect their skills at the plate right now.

        • The first week of the season every at bat he was falling behind 0-2 taking. You’d be swinging too if that was the case. Problem with Josh is that he just isn’t barreling up the ball like he did last year, and I still think his funky long distance away from the front of the batters box has something to do with it. Still haven’t heard anyone talk about it…..

          • If I’ve noticed any adjustment on the part of opposing pitchers, it has been to force Harrison to hurt them the other way. He hasn’t.

            Harrison was exceptionally productive on inside pitches last season, in part due to the positioning you note in the batters box. Pitch him on the outside third of the plate and you negate that.

            • NMR- you make a valid point. He crowded the plate, and crushed anything on the outside part of the plate into the opposite gap. Now he is having to lunge at those same pitches and is making very weak contact. I just have no idea why he is farther away from the plate- it can’t possibly be by accident that he made the change, but he’s having trouble with everything now, he NEVER got jammed last year, but now he is having to sell out to reach the outside pitch that he is having trouble keeping his hands inside on everything else. Can someone send Harrison a tweet and make him aware? I don’t use twitter 😉

        • Cervelli also has one of the best line drive percentages in baseball….

    • “I just don’t think at this point there’s much value in comparing last year’s club to this one. Just not the same.” I agree, and it won’t be until Cutch becomes recognizable and Harrison gets his act together.

      On the other hand the starting pitching has been heroic, and unfortunately due for regression.

      • And that’s my only worry. That the offense and pitching won’t sync together.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    May 4, 2015 1:41 pm

    If we fail to win the division again by a small margin, we can look back at this past weekend as a very costly missed opportunity. We should have won all three games, if we could just get someone to hit when there are runners on base. That was a very painful series – pitching was outstanding (outside of Liz), but the hitting is pathetic. Plus, teams are running on us now like it was pre-Martin. If it continues, I think a callup to Diaz would be worth it just for his defense and arm.

  • If yesterday’s game was in Great American, maybe Cutch has 2 HRs and 2 triples. IMO, he was making solid contact. That said, if taking six weeks off to make his knee good as new, I’d say take the time off. Give Lambo his make or break opportunity.

    And fwiw, IMO, their best lineup at the moment current features Kang. I think the guy is proving he can hit. Get him in the lineup more and Mercer/Harrison less until they get their acts together.

    • I just watched that Carpenter home run and paused it just when he was at the peak of his jump, by the way his entire forearm was over the top of the wall. Any way he missed catching that ball by about 3 or 4 inches maybe even less. Its another example of how lucky the Cards were in this series and how unlucky the Pirates were.

  • What exactly is the nature of McCutchen’s injury?
    Can rest help the situation?
    We talk about our depth, might as well use it if
    we can get him healthy for the rest of the season.
    I’d play my Hernandez card here for a few weeks
    until we get McCutchen healthy.
    May lose him if we have to send him back, but
    if we are going to have him, might as well play
    that card now.
    In the meantime, send Lambo to Indy to help him
    remember how to hit and he can come back later.
    Bring up Sanchez to be the designated PH guy for
    a couple of weeks while Lambo figures it out.

    • Certainly not against sitting Cutch down for a while to heal. I’d hope this experience taught him a bit of humility; no, sir, 80% is not good enough. This game is too damn hard for that kind of attitude.

      However, I think this is the perfect time to give Lambo a string of at bats. I obviously don’t have the numbers in front of me, but I believe Huntington when he says no player on the team has hit the ball better while getting such poor results. .059 BABIP is laughably due for regression, especially when considering he’s posting line drive rates above 20% and has yet to pop a ball up. A few of those liners fall in so far and you’re looking at a wildly different stat line with only 24 PA on the season.

      And before anyone snickers, fans were mocking him a week and a half ago when he was the only guy sticking up for Kang; now we’re talking about Jung-Ho earning starts over Jordy Mercer.

      • I am all for giving Kang a series of starts split between 3B and SS letting Jay Hey clear his head and letting Jordy spend time in the cage. Kang is relatively hot at the plate, play him until he cools off, and see if he can play MLB SS. Kang couldn’t do worse than either Harrison or Mercer right now.

        I’d put Cutch on the 15 day just for the chance to rehab his knee and get his vision and swing back against minor league pitching.

  • Two things 1. the pirates in general need to stop twisting themselves into pretzels on every swing. 2. The cards are in the pirates heads they were so tight during that series they squeak when they walk. I was really hoping for a good start so the pirates would not be playing catchup all year. They really need to change their approach once in awhile against division opponents these teams know the pirates well and have them figured out so throw a curve in once in awhile to keep them guessing intead of the same vanilla swirl give a chocolate vanilla swirl.

  • Tim: The Pirates are very fortunate to only be 1 game under .500, thanks mostly to our starting pitching. Some of the folks we hoped would help the offense – Polanco and Alvarez – have been better than expected.

    This team went through a very relaxed and laid back Spring Training and, IMO, were not ready to start the season. ‘Cutch has looked bad at the plate, but is still providing a surprising number of RBI’s for only hitting sub .200. He was injured through ST and is someone I do not worry about. Harrison is 3 for his last 32 AB’s with ZERO Walks and 7 K’s – not top of the lineup stuff. Mercer makes contact, but needs to have a few drop in.

    The bats will improve; we just have to hope that the Rotation can continue to give the effort they have provided through the first 25 games. Possibly 2 bad starts in the first 25? I’ll bet that flight back from St Louis was very, very quiet. It will be interesting to see the reaction from the club – I have already given my opinions on a couple of moves I would make, so no need to repeat today.

    • You should worry, because if Cutch was hurt in ST, he’s still hurt now….and will likely be hurt all year. We need him healthy. If he needs surgery get it now, if he needs a DL stint, now is the time

  • Pirates are in a stretch of bad luck. I’m confident their luck will change soon enough and will even out. Be interesting to see video breakdown of Cutch’s swing from when he’s healthy compared to now. I’m sure Greg Walker and Cutch and lots of other people in the organization are trying to unlock the mystery why Cutch has all of a sudden forgot how to hit a baseball.