For years, the Pirates went with a strategy when drafting pitchers, taking tall right-handers who have easy arm action, room to add muscle to their frames, and the makings of a good breaking pitch. The plan was to draft a lot of these guys, put them through a strength building program that allowed them to add muscle, and hopefully add velocity in the process, and become a top of the rotation arm in the future.
So far that process has yielded Tyler Glasnow, Nick Kingham, and Clay Holmes, among others. None have reached the majors yet, although that’s not a big surprise, since they started going heavy on the approach in 2009, and that draft class turned out to be a big bust. The 2010 draft class turned out to be interesting, but unfortunately the Pirates didn’t sign many from that class, leaving Kingham. The 2011 group was clearly the best group, with the best result in Glasnow.
During all of this, the Pirates went so heavy on pitching, that they didn’t draft many hitters, and as a result, didn’t really establish many trends when taking hitters. This changed the last few years, with a new trend emerging. That trend? Draft athletic players who might have a shot at playing well at a premium defensive position, all while showing great contact, plate patience, and lacking home run power, but hitting for some gap power.
From 2009-2011, it seemed every pitcher profile was the same. Lately, it seems like every hitter profile is the same, and that has drawn one concern in the future — the Pirates don’t have many prospects who can hit for big power. This is true in the upper levels of the minors, with Josh Bell and Austin Meadows both displaying great raw power, but neither having that power showing up on the field. Guys like Max Moroff and Adam Frazier both had breakout years in Altoona, but neither hit for much power. And when these guys do hit for power, it’s usually in the form of extra base hits, rather than what people typically think of as power — home runs.
Too often I get questions and comments that are focused on home runs alone. This makes sense, because for the longest time home runs were treated as the best stat you could have. They can provide the most impact of any hit, can make big changes to a score in a short amount of time, and let’s face it — a solo home run is much more exciting than a double that scores a runner from second, even if they have the same impact on the score.
As you might expect, I got some comments about the lack of home runs after yesterday’s articles, when I wrote that Michael Morse should be the first baseman in 2016, and that Josh Bell is the first baseman of the future. Morse hit well with the Pirates, but didn’t show off his power (although in last night’s article, I explained why I think that power is still there). Bell made strides with his power in Triple-A, but really hasn’t tapped into his raw power to his full potential. That combo, in contrast to Pedro Alvarez, leaves concern that the Pirates won’t have home run power from the position that typically has the most home run power.
Not to single anyone out, because several people have made this argument, but Justin Heilmann summed it up perfectly on Twitter.
— Justin Heilmann (@Jheilmann8) October 15, 2015
I’ve spent this week getting the Prospect Guide set up, and in the process I’ve been thinking about that future full of guys who can hit for gap power, but don’t hit many home runs. I’m not counting out Bell, Meadows, or anyone else from increasing their power in the future, but when you add those guys to the recent draft picks, you get a lot of players who can hit and get on base, but not many who can hit for a lot of power, or get those coveted home runs.
Justin’s comment got me to look up something I’ve been wondering in the process: How important are those home runs?
I decided to take a look at the standings this year, and compare the win totals for each team to their home run totals, just to see what kind of correlation existed. The results were low. There was just a 30.7% correlation between the amount of home runs and the amount of wins a team had. And this wasn’t a one year thing. In 2014, the correlation was 21%. It was 28.3% in 2013.
This year saw the St. Louis Cardinals finish with the most wins in the majors, all while finishing with the sixth fewest home runs. The Pirates and the Royals also finished in the bottom third in home runs, while finishing with 95+ wins. There were good teams at the top of the home run standings, like the Blue Jays, but there were also bad teams in the top ten, like Seattle and Colorado.
To put this in perspective, I ran a few other offensive stats with the 2015 win totals to see the correlation of those individual stats to the team win totals.
Offensive WAR: 69.2%
What this means is that if you want to raise your win totals, you’re better off trying to increase your walks and OBP, rather than your home runs, ISO, and SLG. Home runs don’t hurt, but the idea that a team can’t survive with low home run totals runs counter to the actual numbers.
Using the Alvarez and Morse comparison, if you want home runs, you’ve got a much better shot at sticking with Alvarez. If you want OBP, you’ve got a much better shot with Morse. And the numbers above show that a higher OBP will lead to an increase in wins more often than a higher home run total.
Down in the minors, Josh Bell didn’t hit many home runs, but he did hit for some power, and he had an amazing .393 OBP. Austin Meadows had a .360 OBP. A lot of new draft picks saw great results, including Ke’Bryan Hayes (.408), Mitchell Tolman (.407), Logan Hill (.402), and Kevin Kramer (.375). Those breakout players in Altoona also had big OBP numbers, with Moroff posting a .374 and Frazier putting up a .384.
Since I’ve started covering this team, Pirates officials have said that they don’t believe power is limited to just home runs, citing extra base hits as power. They haven’t seemed concerned with going after big home run hitters, instead trending towards the more complete players who can do it all, at the sacrifice of home run power and great power in general. And while this leads to concern about a future lack of home runs, the numbers seem to be in their favor when it comes to focusing on the stats that correlate with a team winning more often, and ignoring the stats with a lower correlation.
I’m a person who does like to see power, and traditionally I’ve limited guys like Max Moroff to future utility roles due to their lack of power, and despite the high OBP. I don’t know if this research will totally change that approach, but it does give me more appreciation for the current draft trends, and more confidence that the Pirates will keep winning, even if their home run totals are low.
**2015 Second Base Recap: Neil Walker’s Days in Pittsburgh Seem Numbered. Today’s recap took a look at Neil Walker’s season, and the options for the 2016 season, which could still include Walker at second for one more season.
**Elias Diaz Named Best Defensive Catcher in Minors by Baseball America. Not a huge surprise here, as Diaz is a very strong defender, and his defense is a big reason why he’s the catcher of the future in Pittsburgh.
**AFL: Meadows Continues to Struggle, Glendale’s Bullpen Implodes in 9-2 Loss. John Dreker recaps today’s AFL action.
**Winter Leagues: Luis Heredia Debuts in Mexico. Not a great debut for Heredia, who struggled with control problems.