First Pitch: No Worries About RISP With the Pirates’ Strong Hitting and OBP

When the Pirates made the switch to focus on OBP over power, one debate I was not looking forward to having was the classic “The Pirates are bad with runners in scoring position” argument. And it only took until the second series of the year for that to really break through.

There was no talk about runners in scoring position (RISP) the first four games of the year, when the Pirates started 4-0 on the season. You only heard it after their weekend against the Reds, and especially on Sunday, when they left 14 guys on base and lost by one run.

The RISP argument always comes around in the same form, with the idea that it’s a skill. It’s not.

Different players are used each year to prove that RISP is a skill, and something where the Pirates can improve. Allen Craig was that guy in 2013, when he hit .454 with RISP. He was called “clutch”, because his numbers in that scenario were much better than his season average of .315. But there was no explanation as to why he suddenly wasn’t “clutch” in those situations the following two years.

Starling Marte was one of the Pirates who wasn’t “clutch” and couldn’t hit with RISP in 2013, with a .238 average in that scenario. That continued in 2014, with a .243 average. And yet, last year Marte had a .294 average with RISP. Marte has been pretty consistent in the .280-.290 range overall during those years. So did he suddenly become “clutch”?

No.

The reality is that batting averages can fluctuate greatly from year to year. So when you’ve got a small sample size stat like RISP, you’re going to see massive fluctuations. You’re going to see huge seasons from some players, and it’s just a reflection of how they performed that season, rather than a representation of a skill. You want to attach a reason and a skill to the numbers, but then you get into the process of trying to guess what is going on in a player’s head. From my experience, that always leads to an over-exaggeration that makes the player seem like Brave Sir Robin.

If a team wants to be good at hitting with RISP, then they need good hitters. It’s as simple as that. We’re still only a week into the season, but right now the Pirates look like they will be a good hitting team. And that will translate to every situational stat, even RISP.

You’ll have those games when the team leaves a full lineup or more on base, and loses by a run. That’s baseball. The better hitting teams have fewer of them, but they still have them. One night after that performance, the Pirates went 6-for-15 with RISP. They currently lead the majors in average (.312) and OBP (.401).

While the Pirates might not be this good all year, there’s no reason to look at the players on this team and question whether they’re a good hitting group. The 2015 team wasn’t even bad at RISP, ranking 7th in the majors. That’s not a surprise, since they had the 9th best average overall in the majors. Over the off-season, they upgraded the offense to get much better hitters for average, and guys who would get on base more often. They’re a stronger hitting team this year, and that hitting will extend to situations with RISP more often than not.

The Reds series was frustrating. But the takeaway from that series, and that game on Sunday, was that it’s just the way baseball goes sometimes. It’s not a sign or anything predictive of how bad the Pirates are at RISP, but a sign that over 162 games, you’re going to have really bad nights. You’re also going to have some really good nights, and I think that’s what we’ll see more of this season from the Pirates’ offense.

**Prospect Watch: Mitch Keller Puts on an Impressive Show in West Virginia Debut. Great outing from Keller tonight, and John Dreker broke it down after watching it. It was amusing getting reactions from John all night after seeing Keller for the first time. He’s definitely a guy you can get excited about when thinking about his upside.

**Pirates Release John Holdzkom. I wouldn’t be surprised if they try to bring him back, as the only reason they released him was due to the rule book.

**Trevor Williams Confirms No Structural Damage to His Shoulder. Good news for Williams, as Ryan Palencer reports there is no structural damage after he left Sunday’s game.

**Top Performers: Newman, Kramer, Hayes, McGuire, Polo, Glasnow, Waddell. Reports from week one in the farm system, with live reports from Altoona and Bradenton, and 18 prospect reports total.

**Morning Report: A Crowded Lineup in Bradenton. John Dreker breaks down how there are too many interesting prospects in Bradenton, leading to some guys not getting a lot of time so far.

**Pirates Are Challenging Their Speedy Outfielders With Shallow Positioning. A look at the new approach the Pirates are taking with their outfielders this year, playing them shallow, rather than the deep approach from previous years.

**Jon Niese Has a Home Run Problem. Wrote this on Saturday, and it held up today, as Niese gave up two more home runs in six innings of work.

  • Hurdle rarely moves runners, thus lots of DP’s. Contact hitters and pitch recognition are the the two keys to RISP. When the Pirates had Pedro Alvarez he had no idea what he was doing at the plate and couldn’t tell a fastball from a curve (why anyone would throw him a fastball is odd to me) Contact hitters allow the manager to move the runners which creates opportunities.

  • 10 games in and the Cubs have the division locked up. Yeah I know its a ridiculous statement. Really I don’t think so. The Cubs look even better than advertised and the Pirates will be lucky to finish 3rd. They just cannot get their butts in gear until around june especially Cutch. Bullpen is a mess right now and hitting well its great that they can get 14 hits but cannot score runs.

  • Ryan Tempalski
    April 13, 2016 4:35 am

    Ok here is the problem I have. These arguments do not factor in this, and it’s the simple fact that the pitcher pitched differently when there are 2 runners on vs bases empty. That’s a QUALITATIVE trait that numbers can’t answer. So I believe pressure situations do dictate RISP. And any argument can be debunked by the simple fact that 22 of 28 homers from Pedro last year were solo. And IMO, that’s because Pedro was pitched differently in each scenario.

  • To proclaim “no worries” I would have liked to seen some real analytics on this one. In 2013 I needed the feel good stories. This new perception that if the front office thought it up, it has to be genius, doesn’t sell with me. One good thing is that it does seem to chase starting pitching faster by running up the pitch count. Pirates will still be good because they have good pitching. However, all the ducks left on the pond will be very frustrating.

  • BuccosFanStuckinMD
    April 12, 2016 4:58 pm

    Well, after today we can stop the Nicasio for Cy Young campaign! 🙁

    • Would be nice if we had a major league second baseman to make a simple play…

      • BuccosFanStuckinMD
        April 12, 2016 8:47 pm

        I didn’t see the game….did Harrison or someone else boot a routine play that opened the flood gates?

    • You are the only one that I saw make that comment. Besides Nicasio has a much larger upside than Locke and Voglesong combined.

  • Well Timed Tim! Right after my rant yesterday. You are a tad off-base though, because I wasn’t complaining the first 4 games because I knew i’d get yelled at for complaining when we are winning. Everyone would just tell me to shut up (they still will). From what I can see It IS a problem and it WILL haunt us all year….. I again do not believe that high on base percentage works when you are relying mostly on singles hitters to knock those runners in, you need a really high volume of runners just to be league average in runs. League average in runs will not get us to the playoffs this year. Again, my prediction is that we lead the league in two categories: 1. double plays hit into and 2. Men left on base. If I’m right, I’d like an article to be written that this lineup doesn’t work 🙂 If we finish top third in runs scored, i’ll be very happy to be wrong and i’ll admit it! 🙂 Yesterday really changes nothing, still horrible from the perspective of maximizing innings…. I do believe that lineup maximizing can work, I do not believe that this lineup is optimized.

  • The real story here is Tim’s Monty Python reference. My friends and I still make jokes about knowing people with “huge……tracks of land.”

  • Looking good so far even without Kang. For whatever reason, Cincinnati is not kind to the Pirates. They seem to play down to the Reds there.

  • Joyce hitting lead-off today?

    What the F?

  • Tim – any chance PP will be taking a look at why Cole sucks vs. Reds? Certainly this is somewhat SSS (7 games, 37.1 IP), but as a whole, Cole does statistically significantly worse vs. sub-.500 teams than >.500 teams. Vs the Reds this is amplified tremendously:

    VS W/L ERA WHIP OBA OOBP OSLG OOPS
    Reds 0-5 5.06 1.607 .308 .380 .490 .870
    Others 40-16 2.93 1.157 .240 .287 .335 .621

  • I do agree that BA with RISP is not anything to get worked up over–too much data to back that up. However, I also believe there is a mental factor. There still is no doubt that some hitters do better “in the clutch” (sorry) than others. We have all accepted the fact that not all great relievers are cut out to be closers. Why? There’s a certain mentality necessary–call it Hurdle’s “slow heartbeat,” if you want. But there is ZERO correlation for hitters when the game is on the line? There has to be. There is a little something to BA with RISP…just not a whole lot.

    • There still is no doubt that some hitters do better “in the clutch”

      And you have the data to back that up? I think it is a myth and so do lots of other people. There may be an AB or two or 3 (or rookies becoming over anxious, etc), but it is VERY SSS.

      Most batters, if the sample is large enough have a RISP average similar to their BA. There’s been LOTS of articles on that fact.

      • Right, MOST batters…that’s all I’m saying. The stats are clear on that. The exceptions are rare, no doubt, but we give Cole credit for bearing down with runners on, hold up LaTroy Hawkins as the poster child for why not everyone can close games, but pressure plays no role with hitters? I think that’s where we go a little far. Is RISP a big deal? NO! Anything even to worry about? Nope. But we talk all of the time about pressure facing a pitcher, for example, with runners on. “Got out of that jam!” “Got that DP just when he needed it.” “That hanging breaking ball sure came at the wrong time.” On and on….
        A poor hitter doesn’t get better with RISP, obviously, so I’d rather not anybody try to slap that label on what I’m saying. But can some hitters hold their BA better than others with RISP? The wild fluctuations due to small sample size year in and out clearly help show how crazy random baseball is, but the idea that pressure could affect pitchers, but not hitters is bizarre.

        • Even that poor hitter (say .225) wlll hit .225 with RISP if given enough chances.

          There have also been studies on Pitchers’ performances with Men on Base or RISP and the same thing applies. If the league hits .250 against them, their RISP average will also be around that figure.

          Sorry to bust the myth. 🙂 🙂

          • Right, but that doesn’t really add anything new to the argument. And good grief, did I say I subscribed to any clutch player “myth?” This is exactly what I as hoping to avoid in commenting on this controversial topic. There are pressures on both sides of the ball. And by acknowledging that postseason pressures can affect performance, doesn’t it stand to reason that things in the 162 could, also?
            Not only can you see differences from day-to-day (I liked the J-Hay example above), but anyone who saw Stargell 1971 vs. 1979 or Bonds 1990-92 vs. 2002 could SEE the difference–they got better at handling it. Listen to Lynn Swann talk about his very specific mental adjustments for big games. Marc Andre Fleury, anyone? I’ve now got myself pushed way over into a corner I wanted to avoid from the start, because over 162 MLB games, things tend to even out. I just find it weird to openly accept pitchers’ nerves as issues (Tyler Glasnow???), but not hitters.

      • Alex Rodriguez comes to mind. Folks call him a bad clutch hitter; it’s the reputation he gained in New York. I remember during the season when the narrative was at its pinnacle, I looked up his late-and-close numbers and his RISP numbers, and his OPS in those situations was around .900.

        These narratives seldom reflect reality. They’re far too selective.

    • I absolutely understand feeling that way, and some hitters do seem to be able to compete at that high level even with his pressure.

      But i think hitting with RISP is a bit different than the intense “clutch” situation of a late game must win, or playoff game.

      We’ve seen Josh Harrison look like shit one day with runners on, and the next day have a shockingly professional at bat and be clutch with RISP.

      I think hitting with the game on the line and hitting with RISP is similar, but not always a 1-1 thing. All runs matter, but you face inherently more pressure in the 9th of a tie game than the 2nd of a scoreless game.

  • Bucs on a pace for 46 HRs. I doubt we end up with that few. 🙂

  • Tim….NMR and I already knew that RISP is not a skill.

    Yawn……………………. 🙂 🙂 🙂

    • Risp not a skill but I have had complaints about hurdle’s ability to manage baserunners and not knowing when to play for a run or then sometimes bunt a guy already on second with less than two outs in the past. I’ll refrain from attacking hurdle because I just haven’t seen them play live much the last 3-4 years. I am about to start watching them a lot again soon and I will report back once I can see how old Clint is managing his offense. The argument to fans is “sure, you know more than an mlb manager” but a lot of us nerds have watched 1000+ games the last 10 years and played enough simulations to make their wife wonder if she made a huge mistake.

  • It is hard to argue that at least to a degree things are working for the Pirates. Here are their ridiculously way too early MLB rankings:
    BB: 2nd–to the Cubs
    K: 18th–would be nice to lower this as well
    AVE: 1st–doubt that this team carries a .312 average over the whole season
    OBP: 1st–a ridiculously high team OBP, unsustainably high but still a good sign
    SLG: 12th–higher than you would think, maybe b/c they are 4th in 2B and tied for 3 in 3B
    OPS: 6th
    R: 14th

    That last one is telling, at least for the moment. The Pirates put more men on base than any other team in baseball, but are only 14th in runs scored…behind the Cards, Cubs, and Reds in our own division.

    • I’ll place money i havent even made yet on the likelihood of the Cubs being anywhere near the top of the league in BB come September.

      No chance.

      • I think a lot of this will change bi remember that they have Rizzoli and Heyward who both walk and Rizzoli gets hit a ton…and they got rid of a big K machine at 2b.

    • Very early and Very SSS – but the good parts of the above story is largely the result to the hot starts of Polanco and Cervelli. Hot starts are nice – but both will cool down – they have BABIP over .400.

      The bigger issue is how will the experiment of ignoring power – deciding to minimize HR/power work out.

      After the Bucs game yesterday I flipped over to the Red Sox – Orioles and saw almost the exact opposite – The Orioles too have gotten off to a fast start – 5 and 0. The got the early lead with a Trumbo three run dinger – the Sox tied it – and then Chris Davis won it with his own three run dinger. They have 10 HRs in 5 games vs Pirates 1 in 8…

      Personally – I love the long ball and the run HR is an awesome weapon – too bad the Bucs chose to not use it this year.

  • Tim … Agree with the article but there has to be something to explain this team’s consistently bad performance against bad pitchers. I cringe every time I read that some 32-year old minor league journeyman will be pitching his first ever MLB game against us – we all know it will be a loss. I can’t believe it is some weird karma, it’s got to be something that can be statistically proven

    • Rich…someone, somewhere did an article about that myth, exposing it for what it was……..a myth.

      I just wish I had the link.

      • Yeah this likely is lost in the internet but I also remember someone delving into this a bit and looking at about 10-15 of the guys like this.

        If memory serves, we had a few that we shelled, a few we scored some runs off, and then the ones that we all remember. Maybe a few too many where we did get stymied, but not every time.

        • We just remember the ones we don’t hit.

          I vividly remember on the PBC Asylum blog where someone complained about us ‘not hitting’ some rookie and we had scored ‘only’ 3 runs in 5 IP……. 5.40 ERA. I’ll take my chances with that line against us every time out.

  • I completely agree with you. Again, the talking heads on the radio have been blasting the Pirates for the Reds series and saying that they need to change the lineup etc…I think what has been missed is that the team has put a TON of runners on. That is the strategy for success. Again, in baseball, you fail much much more frequently than you succeed but if you put enough runners on consistently throughout a year you’re going to score runs. The Pirates have also have to be quite happy with the power–the gap power that is–with 4 regulars having a SLG over .440 and 5 having a SLG over .370, with McCutchen the lowest of this group at .370 (and you know that wont continue all year). And 6 regulars have an OBP over .350.

    Now…with that said, I will say I would make some small lineup changes. McCutchen is having another subpar start to the season–at least compared to his normal production–but I would leave him at #2. I would reconfigure the lineup something like this:

    1. Jaso
    2. Cutch
    3. Polanco
    4. Marte
    5. Cervelli
    6. Freese
    7. Harrison
    8. Mercer

    Freese is a pretty big issue hitting in the #3 hole. He leads the team in k’s by, essentially, double and has the worst OPS of all the regulars. Putting him behind two OBP players like Jaso and Cutch really is inefficient.

  • Tim: The Pirates have solid hitters throughout the lineup and added some OBP guys over the off-season hoping that their habits at the plate catch on with others. On Sunday we got a one run game pitched through 6 innings by our No. 5 SP. We were facing a Cincy pitcher who would possibly be our No. 17 SP, and we managed only ONE RUN. We have too many hitters in the lineup for that to happen.

    • I think this misses the point- this can and will happen from time to time (scoring one run with high LOB), but will happen less often with more OBP prioritized batters top to bottom. The sample sizes in baseball get so large that you can say with a high confidence interval what will happen most often- not all the time. More often this year- the Pirates will score more runs than their opponents and leave less RISP.

    • Welcome to baseball, where good hitting teams will have crappy days at times and make fans shake their heads.

      Averaging over 4 runs per game thus far. Bad hitting days will happen.

  • The Pirates will also hit into more double plays and I’m sure ppl will complain about that. They still have 4 guys that have 20 HR power Cutch, Marte, Polanco and Kang which is very good. May not happen especially Kang he may only play 120 games, but when Kang comes back the line up will be a lot better. Also who tracks productive outs w RISP? Small ball and playing more fundamentally sound baseball will equal a division title.

    Flip side when all these young guys come up, BA will go down.

    Once the weather gets a little warmer I would like to see them steal more bases. J Hay & Polanco especially w them batting lower they should run a lot more.

    • I dont know that young guys would bring batting average down all that much…look at Bell’s career batting average and OBP. A career .306 hitter with a career OBP of .371. You are essentially getting an even better Jaso who is younger and has huge power potential.

      • While i agree with the idea in this post, it is a bit much to assume Bell would be a better Jaso if he came up this year.

        Any transition period would make that unlikely, even with his clearly quality abilities.

  • Scott Kliesen
    April 12, 2016 5:29 am

    This lineup is relentless from top to bottom in professional hitters. I’ll be surprised if they’re not at or near the top of NL in runs scored at end of season if they stay healthy. Could care less where they finish in HR’s.

    • The Cardinals have won for years without being a home run hitting team. The Royals road their lineup lacking power to two straight world series and one world series title. I am fine with it…I do hope we continue to see GAP power and I would like to see, at the end of the year, 25 HRs a piece from Marte and McCutchen with another 15 from Polanco.

  • BallHeadWonder
    April 12, 2016 2:06 am

    What’s our team avg. with RISP?? And where does it rank?? Plus we have had issues with the Reds no matter how good or bad we are!! Just trying to see if we have those same issues with Milwaukee!! And we will find out this week!! Horrayyyy!!

  • It seems to force opposing pitchers to Pitch from the stretch more often. The Pirates can still be agressisive at the plate and drive up the pitch count.

  • There should be a stat on base running errors. If the Pirates are going to depend on OBP they need to make better decisions on the base paths.

    • Scott Kliesen
      April 12, 2016 5:20 am

      There is, it’s called TOOTBLAN.

    • I could not agree with you more, PieRat. If this team is to go deep into October, they are going to have to become more intelligent and functional on the base paths. This has been a problem for this group for several seasons now. With all of their team speed, they not only need to be better base runners, but they need to use the stolen base, hit and run, run and hit, and first to third, with regularity.

  • Paul Newmeyer
    April 12, 2016 12:15 am

    I can’t remember who said it during the broadcast, but basically he said there will be more guys left on base this year because more guys will get on base this year. I will take that trade off any day. I will not miss all the Pedro solo shots and seeing him strikeout with guys on and/or in scoring position.

    • Less power doesn’t bother me…in theory.

      The Pirates tied with Billy Hamilton for HRs after 7 games? Yeah, that makes me a little uneasy.

      • Scott Kliesen
        April 12, 2016 5:24 am

        It shouldn’t. Putting the Pitcher under pressure by constantly having to work with men on base should embolden you though.

      • Yeah, but McCutchen, Marte, Polanco, Kang, plus the bench guys. There are going to be a few home runs. Maybe if they have the chance to play when it’s warmer than 45 degrees, that’ll help too.

        • piraterican21
          April 12, 2016 12:02 pm

          Luck too, few balls that Polanco hit in the opening series would had been gone at cincy, Fenway, Yankees stadium, etc

      • piraterican21
        April 12, 2016 12:00 pm

        The high OBP is great, the fact that the team is not stealing bases to go along with the high OBP is not so great.

    • Men left on base isn’t that terrible IF you are scoring more runs. Last year we were 4th I believe in runs scored…….I could be wrong I think I heard it on the broadcast….. so if we are worse than 4th this year, quite honestly…….it didn’t work.

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