The Pittsburgh Pirates and Minnesota Twins needed 13 innings to decide their game Wednesday night and the Twins took home a 4-3 win on the strength of Joe Mauer’s first home run of the season. The game ended as Pedro Alvarez struck out attempting to check-swing with Andrew McCutchen on second base.
Pittsburgh is now 0-6 in extra-inning affairs this season and 5-10 in one-run contests, having already played 15 of them just 40 games into the 2015 season.
“We haven’t been able to have that knockout punch or find that separation punch when we have a little bit of a lead to stretch things out,” Hurdle said.
The big focus for the Pirates since the beginning of Spring Training was a commitment to improving the way they hit with runners in scoring position, the same as they looked to improve their on-base percentage in 2014.
In Wednesday’s game, the Pirates went 3 for 9 and drove in a run with men on second and/or third. But as Hurdle mentioned, they couldn’t get the big hit when they needed in order to claim victory.
That’s been an issue for Pittsburgh of late, and not just in Wednesday’s game. On Saturday, in a 4-1 loss to the Chicago Cubs, the Pirates scored just the single run despite recording 11 hits. They went 1 for 14 with runners in scoring position that day.
If one can’t tell, the Pirates’ record in close games, and the low run totals contrasted with high hit marks, highlights their inability to capitalize at the plate in situations Hurdle and others in the organization call “tipping points” in ballgames.
Pittsburgh’s opportunities to drive runners home are increasing, as Andrew McCutchen and the rest of the offense emerges from its early season drought. The Pirates’ on-base percentage has finally eclipsed the .300 mark, standing at .301 a quarter of the way into the season.
As more men reach base, that’s reflected in the higher quantity of plate appearances with runners in scoring position. Last month, the Pirates ranked near the bottom of the league in the category, but have risen into the middle of the pack with 379 such plate appearances.
In those situations, the Pirates have driven in 119 runs and hit .264 — seventh and eighth in the National League, respectively. Their .741 OPS also ranks eighth.
Pittsburgh has performed below league-average with runners in scoring position, though, seen through their 95 wRC+ that ranks ninth in the league.
The goal of an enhanced focus on hitting with runners in scoring position was obviously to improve performance in that aspect of the game. Through that metric, in which the Pirates finished just a tick under league-average with a 99 wRC+ in 2014, the focus hasn’t paid dividends yet.
Not to belabor the point, but as McCutchen and Josh Harrison at the least continue to break out of their slumps, the offense and all metrics surrounding it will improve as two of its best hitters do. McCutchen has actually been the team’s best hitter with men in scoring position, hitting .360 with 20 RBIs in 36 plate appearances.
Behind McCutchen, Starling Marte has driven in 19 runs and batted .318 in 50 plate appearances with men in scoring position. Jung-ho Kang and Harrison have each driven in eight runs to round out the rest of the Pirates hitting .300 or better in at least 20 plate appearances with men in scoring position.
Per FanGraphs’ data, the Pirates have hit 30.2 percent of balls hard when they’ve put pitches in play with runners in scoring position, ranking fifth in the N.L. Although a small sample size thus far, that number is better than their 27.1 percent hard-hit rate in the same situation last season. As Tim Williams wrote Tuesday, the Pirates’ hard-hit rate indicates their offense will not remain dormant for long. The same logic can be applied to this secondary area of the offense.