After the Pittsburgh Pirates identified their on-base percentage as a necessary area of improvement leading into the 2014 season, then successfully improved it, the next area requiring development was the team’s hitting with runners in scoring position.
The early returns didn’t indicate the focus was working out well as the Pirates posted a 95 wRC+ with men in scoring position in their first 40 games of the season. The mark was worse than the 99 wRC+ with men in scoring position last season, which was already below league-average.
But the Pirates also hit .264 with a .741 OPS in such situations, both higher than their respective marks from 2014.
Pittsburgh’s offense was hampered overall by its slow start in which the Pirates spent most of their first 40 games with a sub-.300 on-base percentage. As a secondary offensive category, the Pirates’ numbers with runners in scoring position were naturally bruised as well.
As the offense has turned around in recent weeks, so has the hitting with runners in scoring position.
The difference? Patience, also a key factor in the success of the 2014 offense.
“Last year we set the bar in a very high spot,” Hurdle said. “Our last three weeks have been more indicative of that type of team than obviously the first five weeks were.”
Meaning, the Pirates team averaging 4.7 runs per game has been more “stubborn” and “patiently aggressive” in recent weeks.
Through 59 games, over a third of the way through the season, the Pirates own a 101 wRC+ and are hitting .267/.345/.414 in 575 plate appearances with runners in scoring position — all of which mark improvements in each respective category. Pittsburgh has driven in 181 runs in these situations, the fifth-most in the National League.
“Across the board guys have done a much better job of putting better at-bats together and fighting,” second baseman Neil Walker said. “Particularly with runners in scoring position.”
Among hitters who own at least 30 plate appearances with runners in scoring position, Andrew McCutchen leads the Pirates hitting .400 with a 1.316 OPS. He and Starling Marte, hitting .281 with a .820 OPS, are tied for the team-lead with 28 RBIs.
Walker ranks behind them with 21 RBIs hitting .280, while Jung-ho Kang is hitting .325 as he’s collected 18 RBIs with runners in scoring position. Francisco Cervelli and Pedro Alvarez round out the top group with 16 RBIs apiece.
The Pittsburgh native said earlier this season he suspected hitters were trying to do too much in the batter’s box, especially with men on second and/or third base. Lately, the Pirates have been more consistent in their approach.
Hurdle compared it to a good golfer off the tee.
“It can be like that guy hitting off the tee that you play golf with Sunday,” Hurdle said, “Just how boring it is seeing him hit that ball down the middle of the fairway all day long. That’s no fun. You want to be like me, you want to be right, you want to be left, you want to be underneath a tree.”
The consistency may not be particularly exciting, but it’s helped the Pirates hit better.
“Those good at-bats where we’re just hunting pitches, we’re seeking pitches, we’re working hard to get on,” Hurdle said. “Hitters hit what they hit.”
As a byproduct of the improved approach, the Pirates are trying to hit better with two strikes and see more pitches. Pittsburgh is a hair’s length below league-average (3.79) at 3.77 pitches per plate appearance and have struck out in 40.8 percent (462 times) of their plate appearances with two strikes.
“All those things kind of go hand-in-hand,” Walker said. “When you’re having battle-it-out type of at-bats and you’re fighting with two strikes, putting good at-bats together with men in scoring position it makes the pitcher’s life a lot harder.”
While the improvements of late have shown promise, seeing more pitches and hitting with two strikes will take the Pirates’ hitting with runners in scoring position to the next level.
“The on-base percentage is starting to spike,” Hurdle said. “Our runs per game is starting to spike so we’re in the right lane, we’re headed in the right direction but we still have a lot of improvements we can make.”