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.