Pirates Focused On Cutting Down Strikeouts and Transitioning From Power to OBP

BRADENTON, Fl. – It doesn’t seem like the Pirates acquire many players on a whim. Typically, you hear comments about how they’ve been watching a guy for a long time, and finally added him. In John Jaso’s case, the Pirates had been considering him for first base for several years.

“It’s been a thought that we’ve had. I think four or five years ago was the first time we approached this thought about John Jaso as a first baseman for us somewhere down the road,” Neal Huntington said today. “We chased him around a little bit. Weren’t able to get him. And then we were able to sign him as a free agent this off-season. So this wasn’t something we stumbled upon this off-season. This was something we’ve targeted in the past.”

The Pirates liked Jaso for the bat. As had been noted many times during the off-season, Jaso’s numbers against right-handed pitching have been some of the best in baseball.

“The bat has always intrigued us,” Clint Hurdle said. “To plug that bat into the lineup, to give a large volume of at-bats. The on-base percentage. The barrel to ball contact. The gap power. To plug that kind of guy in our lineup to try and help grow other guys in the lineup. The conversation has gone back many years.”

That on-base percentage is the driving factor of Jaso’s offense. And it might have played a role in a bigger plan for the Pirates’ offense this year.

When the Pirates added Jaso, it signaled a big shift in the type of production they would be receiving from first base. Last year they had Pedro Alvarez, who hit for a lot of power, but didn’t do much else. This year they will be getting much different production from Jaso, with his offense mostly fueled by getting on base. This shift is a microcosm for the entire team, as the power is expected to be down, but the ability to get on base is expected to be strong. But can the Pirates have a good offense with that approach?

“We’re comfortable with an offense that is going to generate baserunners,” Huntington said on the comparison. “It’s going to have some guys that are going to hit the ball into the gaps. It’s going to have multiple guys that should be able to run up double-digit home runs. The Cardinals have found a way to be the best team in baseball without hitting a lot of home runs. The Royals obviously won a World Series and lost a World Series. 28 other teams would have loved to have been in their spot without hitting a ton of home runs.”

Huntington noted that the Pirates want to focus on getting starting pitchers out earlier, and wanted to get to middle relievers, which the Pirates still feel is a weak spot across the game. Last year’s offense didn’t always accomplish this, and definitely struggled at times, especially with putting multiple guys on base in a row.

“We felt there were times last year we didn’t keep the chain moving like we wanted to, and we feel that Jaso is a perfect complement to this existing lineup,” Huntington said. “We feel like we have some guys that are ready to take some steps forward in their careers, and be a part of a hopefully one through nine that can produce base runners, that can produce some extra base hits, that can produce some balls in the seats, and most importantly produce enough runs to win games.”

The Pirates feel that the game is transitioning, and both Huntington and Hurdle used the Royals as an example of a team that won without power, but by getting on base. The idea of getting more guys on base leading to more runs is sound, as long as you have the right guys. Jaso definitely provides the right type of guy, and one of the best guys you can have for this approach. As for the benefits of this approach, and why the Pirates are going this direction, Clint Hurdle broke it down well.

“The game is transitioning a lot of different ways in a lot of different areas,” Hurdle said. “The nuts and bolts of it is, if you’ve got more on-base guys in your lineup, you’re going to have more guys on base to help create more runs. If we walk through the math together, every team is looking for a combination of dynamic power, dynamic speed. You want base on balls, you want all of those things to play out. The one thing our industry, in and of itself, is sliding into a bad place is the number of strikeouts, the strikeout frequency. It’s league-wide, it’s over 20%.”

Strikeouts have gone up in recent years, and a lot of people attribute that to stronger pitching in the game. But even with this strong pitching, there are still guys like Jaso who manage to get on base at a high rate. The Pirates are definitely making a good move to reduce strikeouts by switching from Alvarez (29% career strikeout rate) to Jaso (14.6% career strikeout rate).

“Every team talks about it. Elite teams were the ones able to do it right, and nobody did it better than the Royals, who ended up winning the last game of the season,” Hurdle said. “So you’re always going to find imitation with teams that have success, whether it be on the mound, on the base paths, or in the batter’s box. It’s one of those things we’ve talked about for a while, but it does come down to personnel in many areas. We’ve tried to look at some different personnel types to help us out.”

So is this a new trend in the game, with other teams trying to model the successful Cardinals and Royals approach? As far as the Pirates go, this isn’t a new approach to focus on good hitters, even if it sacrifices power. You can see that in their drafting approach. They’ve gone heavier in recent years on the approach to draft strong hitters who get on base, add speed, add gap power, but don’t have strong overall power. But that’s not new. They took that approach when they gave seven figures to Harold Ramirez in 2011. They took the approach when they drafted players like Max Moroff, Adam Frazier, and others before the 2014-15 drafts. They’ve taken the same approach at the MLB level by adding guys like Francisco Cervelli and even attempts that didn’t go so well like Ike Davis.

“It’s always been part of our philosophy is to generate base runners,” Huntington said. “We believe in good hitters. We want good hitters. Good hitters that have power, those are the ideal. Power hitters who aren’t good hitters, they create holes in the lineup. They create easy outs in your lineup at times. The threat is always there. We want a balanced lineup, one through eight. We don’t want a pitcher to be able to take a deep breath.”

And as far as the game changing, Huntington could see a scenario where the entire league adopts this trend.

“Five, ten years from now, we’ll be talking about where did the power go, and we’ll have a generation of bat handlers,” Huntington said. “We’ll be lamenting the good old days when guys could hit the ball, and 5′ 8″ guys would hit a ball into the right-center field gap and go 437 feet. It’s a beautiful part about the game and the part about getting older is you recognize cycles, and we’re in one of those cycles.”

  • I am curious how many three pitch outs Pedro made. It does seem to me that he often came up in a pressure situation only to swing at a slider low and away, watch the second pitch, and then flail at the third pitch outside the zone.
    I am also curious if Pedro has considered early retirement. I don’t really think he needs or wants baseball. I think he has been doing it because he had talent, it was expected, and people have been throwing money at him. Teams don’t seem to be doing that now so I wonder if he just walks away.

  • Nobody cares that this vaunted Royals offense, with historically low strikeout rates and the benefit of the designated hitter, only scored 27 more runs than the Pirates last year and actually had a slightly lower OBP?

    Yes, teams can win this way and its good that the Pirates clearly have a defined strategy in place, but it does worry me a bit that they’re at least publicly buying so much into this narrative.

    If the Royals didn’t match amazing run prevention with this low strikeout offense, there would be exactly zero people talking about emulating them right now because they wouldn’t have won a thing.

  • This is a damn good piece of sports journalism, capturing the GM and manager explaining the makeover of their team and their strategy in doing so.
    It sure puts the pressure on Mr. Jaso, though.
    “Power hitters who aren’t good hitters….create holes in the lineup…they create easy outs.”
    Boras and Pedro will love that quote as Pedro still scrambles to find a team.

  • I think that the approach they’ve taken to drafting and developing the last few years have made it pretty clear this is their strategy and has been for a while now. All the talk about the Royals winning last year just confirmed it can work

  • After the 2015 season ended I had a few areas of play to which I hoped the Pirates would dedicate time and energy to in 2016 –

    *Putting the Ball in Play more often (less K’s)
    *Improvement on Situational Hitting

    Last year Jeff Livesey, who had been the Pirate’s Minor Leagues Hitting Coordinator a few years ago, was added to the staff as a Coach. This year he is now identified as the Assistant Hitting Coach. I think that will help, and may lead to a system-wide approach to hitting the same as we have a system-wide approach to developing Pitchers. That approach will emphasize K/W Ratio’s and improvement of the mental and physical aspects of situational hitting. The players being drafted lately would indicate a move in those directions, but there still has to be a system in place to assure that everyone knows what is expected.

    The Pirates have been hamstrung by not having a “classic” leadoff hitter. IMO, Harrison is not the answer, and unless Alen Hanson shows up at 2B/leadoff, Gregory Polanco will have to continue as our leadoff hitter. I view him the same as I did ‘Cutch when he first came up – leadoff for a few years and then a move to the middle of the order. Hanson and Polanco would be my optimum 1, 2, especially against RHP’s.

  • I’ll believe it when I see it. Recent history shows this current cast struggling with the bats early, while the pitching carried them.

    I understand HRs have all of a sudden become taboo around here but I think during the course of 162 game season you got to win a variety of ways. Including the instant offense route, when you can’t string together the hits.

    And the lack if power in the system bothers me still, especially the mythical LH kind.

    • With the ML lineup, i dont think its purely scoring one way. They have power, but seem to be now targeting new additions that bring more OBP than pure HR totals. I think a meshing of enough power and some quality OBP types is the idea, as opposed to just ignoring power at the ML level.

      Now if Kang were to see his ISO and HR totals be a bit sapped going forward, they do need more power in the middle between Cutch and Marte. I do think a major part of this that isnt getting talked about is purely trying to work a starting pitcher more early in a game. Instant offense surely is a need for any team, but the ability to at least force a SP to get to his 3rd time through the order sooner rather than later helps every hitter.

      • Like I said, I’ll believe Marte and Harrison will work a pitcher when I see it.

        • One or two guys who don’t comply doesn’t mean it can’t work, Perez never walks for the Royals but they’re the poster children for the approach.

          • I think a lot of people are forgetting how bad the offenses were at times the last three years.

            Keeping my expectations in check on this 2016 squad.

            And the Royals bats have become a red herring in the Pirate blog world.

            • I mean, 162 games in a year, show me the team that doesn’t go through some dry spells. I’m not totally sure what the numbers show but I think that overall our offense has been pretty good the last 3 years.

              • I said it struggled at times.

                I think it’s also fair to say the help won’t come at the deadline this year, but from Indianapolis. No telling what you get from Bell or Hanson.

                • I think that depends on where the help is needed. No reason to think they’ll balk at adding a relief arm or bench bat from a trade if its a big need.

                  I doubt they bring up Bell to be a pure bench bat and start his service clock.

        • Thats ignoring the point. They arent asking guys like that to change who they are as hitters, but supplant the lineup with guys different than them. Jaso is an attempt to bring more OBP into the lineup, not ask Marte to change his approach and just get on base.

          Balance in all things. J Hay will always be a free swinger, but Jaso and Cervelli help a lineup with Kang and Cutch have a depth of OBP guys to go along with a few J Hay types.

  • HartHighPirate
    February 20, 2016 1:18 am

    Bunting seems to be a lost art for the Bucs. Drag bunting with speed, bunting to advance runners avoiding double plays. Last year it was disappointing for Cutch hitting into double plays. The LOB was very high in many games. Suicide squeezes to score a runner from third were never attempted. Marte, Polanco, Florimon have the speed to drag particularly when over shifted. Any comment on this?

    • I thought the Pirates bunted a lot over the years. They just suck at it.

    • Drag bunting for a hit isnt as easy as people tend to assume, and 2 of those guys have good enough hitting skills that them bunting a ton purely to get on base isnt really a guarantee to be a high probability thing.

      I suppose if they practiced drag bunting a ton more than currently, but with Marte and Polanco id rather they focus on their swing in general and sac bunts.

      • Marte can and did, beat out a lot of slow ground balls. I can’t remember him beating out a bunt. It probably happened but being old puts limits on your recall memory.

        • Im not questioning the speed of those guys, im questioning the statistical value of trying to bunt more often vs their overall chances of getting on via swinging away.

          They have the speed, but for an increase in drag bunting to make sense it has to be likely that bunting offers them a higher chance of getting on than a regular at bat. Im not sure thats clear at all, and bunting would actually take away some of those unplanned infield hits.

          • Only Polanco can drag bunt, righties cannot drag bunt, unless their running to third base.

    • drag bunting is a lost art…if Polanco became proficient at it he could really help his BA, OBP and the team. Marte and Polanco should work at it and execute because their speed is special out of the box and down the line.

      • Polanco is a stud. Asking him to become a drag bunting on base artist would be giving up on his potential. Of course you might think less of what he might become than someone else would, but there is no reason to artificially limit that by making him into Matty Alou.

        • He is a stud…who can fly. I heard an interview with Omar Moreno last year (special consultant and coach with the Bucs) who stated that he was trying to get Polanco and Marte more confident and proficient at bunting because it would help them realize their potential. How?
          OBP. More steals. Defense positioning, particularly for Polanco would open up more holes for his shots to the SS, third base side.
          Matty Alou he is not….nor does anybody want him to be.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    February 19, 2016 10:08 pm

    Given PNC Park’s dimensions, it only makes sense to build a team on speed, defense, pitching, and gap power. High OBP obviously plays into that. And, the Cardinals and Royals are two examples of teams that have learned to build teams based on what works best given their ballparks and using that to their advantage.
    The Pirates have done a good job with building pretty good pitching staffs over the past 3-4 years, and in developing guys who fit this model – McCutcheon, Marte, Polanco, Harrison. The biggest area that is still lacking is defense – namely the infield and behind the plate. Our defensive liabilities in those areas cost us the division last year. Will Jaso be better than Alvarez at first base? Well, he better be – because that is a very low standard. He needs to be above average, not just better than Pedro. Harrison should be better than Walker at second base. Although Mercer and Kang are adequate at SS and 3B, they are difference makers defensively. Cervelli/Stewart may call good games, but make a lot of errors and runners steal at will on them. Hopefully, we don’t lose as many games as we did last year because of errors.

  • Maybe this is why Pedro has yet to find a team?

  • I am completely in favor of this philosophy. And with the speed they already have in guys like Marte, Polanco, McCutchen, even Harrison, and eventually Hanson, home run power becomes less necessary. Gap power is enough to produce runs. And if there’s gap power, if the line keeps moving because guys keep getting on base, they’ll take full advantage of those wheels, and guys will scamper across home plate with regularity.

    Kang, Cervelli, Mercer and Jaso aren’t terrible baserunners, either. Cervelli’s pretty athletic on the bases as catchers go, Kang’s smarts and aggressiveness might be the best on the team even though he’s not truly fast, and Jaso’s been below-average as a baserunner for his career, but most seasons has sat right at about average. If they get guys on base with regularity, they’ll be dynamic enough on the bases to turn those baserunners efficiently into runs without having to hit a lot of home runs.

    • The approach works especially well when starters are protected with low pitch counts. Lots of baserunners leads to early exits by starters and dependence on the long pen, for many teams perhaps the weakest part of the club.

    • And gap power IS home run power sometimes, when a guy swings a little early or late but still catches all the ball with the bat. Gap guys will give you 10-20 home runs a year.

  • Fascinating article. The hidden gem is this line: “Huntington noted that the Pirates want to focus on getting starting pitchers out earlier, and wanted to get to middle relievers, which the Pirates still feel is a weak spot across the game.”

    • I’m afraid that 3 out of 5 of our starting pitchers will take it upon themselves to insure that they get out of games earlier….sigh….

      • Which is why we loaded up on strong middle relief. Somehow I think this guy NH knows what he is doing. Pretty sure he thought this through.

        • This. A middle reliever is just a starting pitcher who can only go 3 innings. We had two of the best a couple years ago with Vin Mazzaro and Jeanmar Gomez. Joe Blanton last year was another. Charlie Morton would have been another, but he was worth more in a trade than he was as a middle reliever, because those guys are so undervalued you can get them on waivers. But you can see who those guys are, and you don’t have to pay them. You watch, Jeff Locke is going to be a great middle reliever in those games where Glasnow and Taillon can’t pull it together. All you need is someone who can stop the damage and give you two-three innings; twice around the order, then Hughes/Watson/Melancon.

          • Bridgevillebuck
            February 20, 2016 9:14 am

            The middle relievers are the fringe guys on pitching staff. They are probably 9 and 10 on a 10 man staff. The home series against the Dodgers last year showed that once the Bucs got around the top flight starters, they got into the Dodgers soft bullpen.

            • Yep, but there are lots of guys like that who can get through a lineup once, or one and a half times. That’s why they can be a dime a dozen yet still valuable; someone has to keep 4-0 in the 4th games from becoming 7-1 in the 6th games. I think the Bucs have identified a market inefficiency here, and are trying to exploit it.