The Pittsburgh Pirates struck out 185 times in April to tie for the highest mark in the National League with Washington and Chicago. They posted the second-highest strikeout rate, going down swinging (or looking) in 23.3 percent of their at-bats–the NL’s second-worst rate.

Anyone who has watched the Pirates in recent seasons knows their offense starts slow every year. Last year’s team hit .211 in April, posted a league-worst .296 on-base percentage and scored 3.7 runs per game before going on to finish as one of the National League’s best offenses.

Manager Clint Hurdle and general manager Neal Huntington are quick to remind that pitching is often ahead of hitting at this point in the season, which the Pirates have been an excellent case study of in recent seasons. Pittsburgh finishes this April above .500 at 12-10, scoring a tick over four runs per game, but an unsightly .280 OBP that is only ahead of the hapless Brewers.

While the April stats of Andrew McCutchen, Josh Harrison and others certainly won’t transpose over to an entire season, watching the first month of Pirates baseball underscores the negative impact of so many empty at-bats on the offense so far.

Offense overall is down across the league and the .251 average of last season was the lowest since major-leagues batted .253 in 1954. The strikeout aren’t helping anything.

“We’ve not done a good job managing at-bats to this point in the season,” Huntington said. “We have guys that will strike out. We also have a group of guys that struggled a little bit in April and for the next five months were one of the best offenses in baseball.”

In a relative sense,  the Pirates finished 2014 as one of the National League’s better teams when it came to avoiding strikeouts. Pittsburgh finished with 20 percent strikeout rate and 1,244 punchouts total, the fourth-lowest marks in the league. To boot, the Pirates trended in the opposition direction of the collective as they struck out less last year than in each of the three seasons prior.

The strikeout woes are not unique to the Pirates. The number of punchouts has risen each season since 2006 and the 37,441 strikeouts recorded last season were the highest total among 106 seasons tracked by FanGraphs.

Eight of the top 10 seasons containing Major League Baseball’s highest strikeout totals are every year from 2007 on. After 2014, the next six highest spots are held by the 2007-13 seasons with each year surpassing the last’s number of strikeouts.

Obviously, the effects of the Steroid Era’s bubble bursting have positively impacted pitchers’ numbers but the overall phenomena of this increase in strikeouts can’t be only be explained in that manner. Prior to 2007, there were only seven years in which major-league hitters struck out 30,000 times or more. That’s happened in each of the last eight years, with each year’s total topping the one before.

As one can guess, the strikeout rates match the totals as last year’s 20.4 percent mark was the first to top 20 percent in major-league history. 2015 is on pace to make that two seasons in which hitters struck out in at least one-fifth of their at-bats with a 20.1% strikeout rate.

If the Pirates hope to replicate their work of swimming against the rising tide of strikeouts as they did a year ago, the at-bats must begin to clean up. Ideally, as the rates at which players like McCutchen and others get on base increase, those at which they strike out will decrease.

“Sometimes we lose sight of how hard this game is and it is a great game of adjustments,” Huntington said. “We believe our guys will make the adjustments and get back on track.”

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16 COMMENTS

  1. I believe that spring training is devoted to prospects and not enough to getting the position/hitter players ready for the start of regular season.

  2. Clint needs to take a page out of the Bill Belichick book. About 6 or 7 years ago they got off to a bad start and got their butts handed to them by the Miami Dolphins. Bill took them to the practice field where he had a shovel. He had each player take one shovel of dirt until there was a big hole. He then told them that’s where they were going to symbolically throw the terrible games they just played and then they put the dirt back in the hole. Needless to say its all physiological stuff but it worked for them as they went on to win the Super bowl that year. Clint should try something similar. I was thinking like having a whiteboard with all the bad losses listed and then all of their terrible batting averages. He would then wipe the board clean and say something like “its all in the past and gone” Now we are going to keep batting averages from this day forward as well as all the great wins we are going to have.

  3. Hasn’t the average fastball velocity crept up recently, compared with earlier decades? Willie Mays used to say that the fastball was the hardest pitch to hit because it’s hard to hit what you can’t see.

  4. I thought this swing for the fence mentality was a pirate thing until I watched a few other teams and realized it’s a baseball wide epidemic. My first thought on this was, what the heck happened to a defensive swing with two strikes? Baseball players are swinging so hard on every pitch it’s a wonder they don’t tear themselves a new one. I think nate hit on the crux of the problem when he mentioned steroids. Maybe players and coaches feel they need to make up for the lack of power by having a mighty hack at every pitch instead of making contact and heaven forbid getting on base for the next guy to drive him in. All I know is somethings gotta give the only question is what and when. Thanks nate for a great article.

  5. Nate: Excellent and very timely – nothing good happens when a batter strikes out. If the ball is put into play, at least one and possibly 2 defensive players have to make plays to record an out. And, sometimes just putting a ball in play in the right direction can move another runner into scoring position.

    I commented to Tim about 2 weeks ago that the Pirates have a singular developmental system in place from bottom to top for pitching, but not for hitting, or maybe I am just not aware of one. We all know the names of Searage and Benedict, but how many average Pirate fans can tell you who the present hitting coach is for the Pirates?

    • I often wondered this myself. Jim and Ray are really sharp when it comes to fixing mechanics, control, etc. I wonder if it’s just harder to fix a hitter so to speak. Can you teach plate patience?

      • Many guys will tell you that patience, as in an eye for balls and strikes, can’t really be taught at the big league level.

        • I was hoping Polanco’s eye would rub off on Marte. Marte did walk in a run the other day. Never thought I’d see that.

          • Ha!

            Marte is probably the poster child for inability to teach patience. Kid has flashed “improvements” every season since 2011, but it just never sticks.

            • Patience NMR, it’s only April. Marte’s SO performance so far is atrocious. But I think he’ll adjust. His SLG % is up. Maybe he’s taking Hurdles comments about being a run producer too seriously and is trying to kill everything. Or maybe he’s seeing an overabundance of spin versus fastballs. But he’ll get better as the season moves on.

              • You’ve mistaken my comment, sir. Marte most certainly will be just fine, but this is who he is.

                Flashes improved discipline every year in small samples before reverting to inconsistency. Baseball is really, really hard; and plate discipline may be one of the single most difficult skills to improve.

    • Jeff Branson got a bit of love last year, but yeah, certainly not of Searage/Benedict quality.

      The Pirates pretty clearly do not have the ability to improve hitters mechanically as we’ve seem them do so many times with arms. But what bothers me most of all is the lack of seemingly any plan of attack at the plate, what-so-ever. They clearly have the analytic ability to track pitcher tendencies, but it doesn’t seem like they have the slightest amount of success translating that to on-field performance.

      • They have had a lot of turnover at the MLB level hitting coach position the last few seasons. No way to establish any continuity.

        But maybe there isn’t as much known about what really makes a good hitter beyond superlative eyesight, quick wrists and a slow heartbeat and the biomechanics of a sweet swing.The Pirates are known to hunt fastballs, and now see a lot of spin. Do they look for spin now, and just try to foul off the fastball? What really is the “Book” on how to always be successful at the plate other than to be continually ready to make adjustments?

        Hitting’s not like pitching that way. When you think about pitching there is common knowledge of what works: work fast, change speeds, change location, pitch inside, pitch down in the zone etc. for the mental part of it and bio-mechanics on the pitching motion to enhance consistency and velocity. But the pitcher is in control of the at bat. The hitter has to be reactive, and is always at that disadvantage.

        • piraddict: This is Branson’s 2nd year as the hitting coach, and he has been in the Pirates system for years. On Base Percentage tells a lot about a team. Last year was the first time the Pirates were in the Top 10 in MLB at #3. Previously – 2013 – #17, 2012 – #27, 2011 – #24, 2010 – #28, 2009 – #27, 2008 – #27, 2007 – #25, 2006 – #26.

          In that same period, the Cardinals have been in the Top 10 in just about every year.

          • emjayinTN: Interesting! Do you ascribe the 2014 turn around to Branson’s effect on the legacy MLB players or the change of mix of the players with the addition of players Branson had an impact upon? Do you know what Branson’s core philosophy is?

        • Your last two sentences summed it up perfectly, piraddict.

          Hitting a round ball with a round bat remains the single most difficult skill in sports. At it’s core, the game of baseball is and will always be inherently dominated by pitching.

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