Patience Key to Improvement in Hitting with Runners in Scoring Position

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.”

  • What I have noticed is that Mercer will almost always take the first pitch right in the heart of the plate and then swing at the next pitch low and away and he is immediately down 0-2… Marte will also get down quickly 0-2 and when he does you can bet the next 3 or 4 pitches will be in the dirt or nearly in the dirt. He will take the first 2 but then almost always lose his patience and strike out on the third unhittable pitch. Alveraz has been showing improvement but that horrible call by the umpire that got Hurdle tossed messed him up bad. The umps have been really bad this year at least it seems more so to me than ever.

  • A timely subject especially watching the Pirates look befuddled by pitchers like Kevin Correia and Sean O’Sullivan – 5 total runs in 21 innings? The team struggled early in 2015 with guys like Harrison, Mercer, and McCutchen getting off to slow starts, but they now seem to have a huge hole at Clean-up.

    Walker is hitting .214 in June and that is good compared to his 1 for 16 in the most recent games. He hit 23 HR’s in 2014 and is at just 3 so far this season, and teams are starting to pitch around ‘Cutch to get to Walker. Can Alvarez do any worse? His W/K ratio is better than Walker’s, and teams fear that power that can put a game out of reach with one mistake.

    I would go into hitting with runners in scoring position, but that is something that has to be instilled at every level of the minors if it is to be expected to get better in the majors.

    • Maybe this is Walker making himself untradeable 🙂

      Pedro has had a very decent last 30 days by Pedro standards and he’s been going against the shift more often and more successfully lately, but honestly, I just don’t think you mess with him anymore.

      fwiw, Cutch has only been IBBd twice so far. And his runs scored is tracking to career norms. So maybe things aren’t as bad as they feel.

      Hopefully Walker picks it up. If Clint is set on using Marte at #2, then there aren’t many other options, considering Clint also wants space between his LH batters, so Walker at 5/Pedro at 6 won’t fly.

      • bucs: Sometimes they are not identified as IBB. I read your interaction earlier about pitch locations, so you and I know ‘Cutch will get many “unintentional-intentional walks” during the season, and I see that starting to get more prevalent now that he has started hitting.

        Pedro is presently on a 25-30 HR pace this year, and the advance scouts of other teams have already zeroed in on Neil Walker. Just the fact that St Louis pitched around Pedro is reason enough for me to have him batting No. 4 backing up our best hitter.

        Last night Clint had JHAY in between Walker and Pedro. Remember when the No. 2 guy was the “set the table” guy like Jack Wilson? The Pirates are playing Earl Weaver ball now – get somebody on and then hit a HR.

        BTW, what position did you play?

        • I was an OF and junkballer reliever. I used my offspeed pitch to set up my even slower offspeed pitch 🙂

        • Pedro Alvarez is not and never was a number 4 hitter. And Mike Mathney isn’t a very good manager.

  • Nice to see the patient approach paying off once again, my only question is why in the he double hockey sticks does it take them so long (at least the last three years) to start doing what they know works instead of trying to go yard on every pitch, most notably with two strikes. Guess I should be happy they pulled head from posterior before it blew out on them.

    • Pirates had the best OPS with two strikes in the NL last year.

      • Didja ever see a before and after picture andrew, you know one side fat one side skinny, kinda what I’m talkin bout here mi amigo. In other words you and I both know they had a high ops at the end of the last season and probably will this year, what I’m pointing out is why does it take them two months to figure out that getting on base is better than not getting on base.

        • I don’t think there was some Saul on the road to Damascus moment. In April McCutchen and Harrison, the Bucs number 1 and 3 best hitters from last year were very poor, Martin and Davis were gone and the guys taking their ABs weren’t getting on base as much.

          McCutchen and Harrison starting making better contact, Cervelli figured some things out. McCutchen seemed to get over his knee issues, as for the other hitters, sometimes there isn’t a reason, it is just variance.

          • That’s what I said only mine was funny and not so wonky. No need to involve saul or the sword of damacles or the gordian knot for that matter. Heck why not use the oracles at delphi or the great library at alexandria, heck let’s not forget heracles or gods forbid we leave out the mighty achilles, so by the power of hera’s left breast I can now say the greeks and persians played the first world series around 2k years ago, wow who knew! Gotta go tempus fugit and all that.

  • There are two parts to scoring runs, getting runners on and then getting the runners home.

    One of these is a skill the other isn’t.

  • I’m not sure about the timing of this article. Lol. If I can erase the last 4 games where the offense has been pretty much like a magician I’d probably agree more favorably with this though!

  • Patience is nice and all, but when you’re well into the opponent’s bullpen in a 0-0 game heading to extras, and they’re throwing you first pitch meatballs because they know you’re taking, it would be nice to surprise us all by swinging. Marte, Cutch and Pedro were the most egregious offenders last night. That game should’ve been over when any one of them crushed one of many first pitch mistakes.

    What did they call it in your Keon Broxton article… being “hitterish”?

    • That assumes that the first pitch strike you are talking about actually is a “meatball”. I see fans regularly discuss this and act as if taking a first pitch for a strike is always taking a good pitch. Which isnt what coaches teach, because you dont go up looking for a first pitch strike if it isnt in your hitting zone. I can see a pitch inside on the edge and know its a strike but thats not what i want 0-0.

      I knew many college level coaches that described it as having an idea of what you want and going green, yellow, or red. Green is a count in your favor, such as 0-0, and you want your pitch in your location. Yellow is stuff like 1-1, you arent as picky but arent totally protecting on anything close. Red is obviously 2 strike approach.

      Its more of a rarity to see a true first pitch “meatball” that is directly middle middle. Hitting is way more complicated than fans care to admit, as we try to simplify it into “you took that strike, it was in the zone you bum”.

      • Thank you for sharing your encyclopaedic wealth of baseball hitting knowledge.

        • I surely didnt act like i had a wealth of knowledge, but im certainly not gonna act like i dont have a firm grasp of hitting basics. Not all first pitch strikes are the same, and taking and going down 0-1 is absolutely not always a poor move. You’d rather be down 0-1 than swing at a pitch that isnt in your prime hitting zone and make a first pitch out.

          In a hitters count, you look for a hitters pitch. On the edges isnt that for many hitters.

          • Yes, you did. Very patronizing, IMO.

            As I watch >140 Bucs games/year and have done so for several years now (and I don’t believe I’m alone in that), coupled with having been coached myself and having a very good understanding of hitting, I think I have a pretty decent idea what to look for from specific players as to where their hitting zones are and where they have the greatest success. And the pitch locator graphic usually confirms what I’m thinking – the pitches I’m talking about aren’t clipping the black nor are they moving much (as Bob Walk would say, “Straight as a string”). They don’t have to be middle/middle to be a meatball. Inside half works just fine. I can also read heat maps.

            A reliever’s job is to usually to simply have one successful inning and not walk anyone. By definition they’re going to be more aggressive at getting ahead in the count than a starter. Almost every team stresses getting an out within three pitches and almost every reliever has a limited arsenal to use to achieve that – otherwise they’d be starters.

            And this is especially true when you’ve faced a reliever before. If you were watching the same games and at-bats as I was on Friday night, there’s pretty much no reasonable way you can come away with any thought other than the Bucs I mentioned were basically giving away at-bats by not being more aggressive with RISP.

            Now, to be perfectly fair, it’s hard to overcome a patient approach if that’s all that’s been drilled into your head (see: Hatteberg, Scott), but that’s about the only benefit of the doubt I’ll cede in this situation. I have no issue with waiting out starters. But waiting out relievers – unless they have noted control issues – from a mediocre or worse bullpen is folly, IMO.

            • Which is fair, but im always gonna be wary of “it generally is this” before actually seeing the data behind that. Absolutely may be true, but it can also be true that 2-3 times makes anyone think its happening a ton when its happening 2-3 times. I’ve seen them take good pitches, i’ve seen them take good pitchers pitches. I dont think its clear either way that they regularly are taking overly hittable pitches early in counts against relievers.

          • I wonder what the Pirate’s average is on first pitch balls in play. And the league average. We always think when a player get a first pitch hit, that always happens. Don’t know where to find this infomation.

            • Not totally finding the exact thing you are looking for, but ML total for average when a hitter swings at 1st pitch in at bat (though it looks like the stat i found isnt saying 1st pitch swinging and putting it play, just when a player swings in the first pitch of an at bat, and then the outcome of that at bat) is .270 vs .245 when taking 1st pitch. OBP is higher when taking the first pitch, avg and slg are higher for swinging early.

              Fangraphs wrote a few articles over this issue in recent years, looking at the percentages and comparing to many years ago. Overall, all of baseball has seen a trend of less swinging in hitters count (0-0, 1-0, 2-0, 3-0) yet less swinging in those counts has also led to better averages (this was written in 2012). The data looked at in this comparison of 1988 vs 2012, hitters were indeed taking far more 0-0 but also hitting better in that count in AVG, SLG, OBP, OPS+.

              So this year im finding it tough to find results to this point, but there is a bit of evidence from previous years that hitters are being more selective early in counts than in past baseball decades, but it may be resulting in better outcomes overall.

            • Not to write a book here, but Grantland also wrote an article over it finding similar results of 2014 total average. in 2014, hitters were selective on first pitches and only going after high quality stuff. Making the contact high when they do swing due to being selective. Grantland also, in interviewing players/scouts/FO guys/coaches, made it clear that the situation in the game also seems to change how they look at taking 1st pitch. context is big.

              Basically, Grantland looked at totals and saw that hitters hit .300 or better in every count but 1-2. So the overall goal would be go to to work and avoid that, but not always by swinging early at a ton of stuff.

      • I agree luke, more concerning to me is the amount of convincing it has taken to get these guys to go into a defensive approach with two strikes. At least they tend to get the message before the horse leaves the barn.

        • Bases load, two out, game on the line. Cory Hart was out in front of ywo 93mph fastballs. I’ll bet the heels of his cleets are worn out. You cannot score if you don’t hit the ball.

  • Hitting with runners in scoring position seems to be a problem. I hate to see Alverez up with his practice uppercut swing. He seems to come through when the game is out of reach or the team is far ahead. If Marte would only swing at strikes instead of every ball thrown to him, he could become the best hitter in the league.

    • Marte .284 with RISP, well above league average. Not to say thats predictive, because none of the SSS that is RISP hitting is predictive of what is to come. As a team, PIT is hitting .263 with RISP, middle of baseball level and the same as STL at .264. Hitting with RISP has actually not been a big problem overall, but its absolutely a situation that fans always readily remember the bad and forget the frequency of the good.

    • I agree. Marte has been a beast when he swings at decent pitches.