PITTSBURGH – The Pirates pitching staff has allowed 14 home runs so far in 2016, good for fourth worst in the National League. It is almost a complete one-eighty from last season, as the Pirates were easily the most stingy pitching staff in the league when it came to giving up home runs, only allowing 110 on the season with the Cardinals being second best with 123.
This tides have turned this year, with ten of the 14 players who have pitched this season for the Pirates allowing at least one homer. Only Gerrit Cole, Mark Melancon, A.J. Schugel, and Rob Scahill have yet to give up a long ball so far.
Worst on the staff, Jon Niese has given up three home runs so far in 11 innings pitched, while Juan Nicasio and Kyle Lobstein have both given up two homers.
Clint Hurdle was asked about the unfortunate run that his pitchers are having, and he provided the best possible insight that any of us could have asked for.
“Doesn’t it drive us crazy as men when we don’t have answers right now when we want to?”
Fortunately, Hurdle dug deep to give us a little more something to work with.
“As I went through [the home runs against] today, they aren’t all elevated pitches. Some hitters have hot zones that aren’t high; they are low. Some guys are hot down-and-in. Some guys are hot down-and-middle. It’s a combination of missed locations, and we’re running some balls in some really hot zones. Normally they are red and blue, and when they are purple, those are the ones you really want to stay out of.”
I wanted to take a look at some of the examples that Hurdle was speaking of, and I only had to go as far back as Friday night to get an idea of what Hurdle was referring to. In the 8th inning, I’m sure you all can recall Ryan Braun absolutely destroying a baseball off of Neftali Feliz into the bushes in center field. In case you forgot, here you go.
If you don’t want to watch the video, you can see below where exactly that pitch from Feliz came in on Braun. It was a 95 MPH fastball that was at the bottom of the zone and a little inside.
Now, let’s take a look at a few heatmaps from Fangraphs to get an idea of what Neftali was trying to accomplish with that pitch to Braun. I captured Braun’s career SLG/P heatmap to see where exactly Braun has typically driven the ball for extra base hits. As you can see below, Braun regularly has capitalized on pitches in the middle of the plate and pitches that are up and inside in the strike zone
Braun’s career isolated power numbers versus right-handed pitchers (below) support the graphic above, showing that if you were going to miss anywhere against Braun, you want to miss down in the zone.
With all of this information, it made sense for Feliz to try to attack Braun down in the zone. Combined with the fact that batters only had one hit off of Feliz’s fastball this season before that inning began, and there is no arguing the pitch selection, either. Unfortunately, Feliz needed to either work that fastball a few inches further inside or more towards the outside of the strike zone.
In another example, Jeff Locke’s lone home run given up on the season was to the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez on April 10th. Though Locke missed his spot to the glove, he missed low in the strike zone and middle-away. The pitch was not one that is typically driven out of the park for a home run, but the hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark provided the opportunity for Suarez to slap one the other way that got out of the park.
As the hot ticket discuss of hitting with runners with scoring position goes this season, as does the continued talk of pitchers allowing home runs. I believe both of these discussions are on a similar playing field where the norms of a long season should come around sooner or later. As the Pirates will surely improve upon their .228 AVG with RISP, they will more than likely improve upon their home runs given up numbers if they continue to pitch to their strengths. Especially with playing 81 games at PNC Park, it simply doesn’t make sense for them to continue on the track they are currently on.
Also, not all pitchers need to get ground ball outs to be successful. Hurdle spoke specifically of Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio, saying that they are not ground ball pitchers, but they will need to pitch to their strengths for success.
“Sometimes you bring in individuals that don’t have those skill sets, and they’re not at a point in time when you want to take away strengths and training to create something that is not there,” Hurdle said. “I don’t believe that Neftali is a ground ball pitcher. I don’t believe that Nicasio is a ground ball pitcher. We knew that going in, and I think that you want to try to stay consistent with your philosophy where it fits and where it makes sense as far as using the fastball, pitching inside, and creating a downhill angle.”
There are a few instances where some pitchers may have a problem with giving up home runs, but that is against the norm for the majority of the pitching staff. For now, let’s table this discussion for a few more weeks, not revisit it especially when the Pirates are at Colorado in a week, and see where this ship sails in about a month. I’ll bet that things will eventually even themselves out.