Barnett: The Pirates Are Doing What You Want to See With Their Approach at the Plate

While the Pirates continue to rank among the league’s worst offenses this season, one area where they have thrived is in providing a balanced approach at the plate. In fact, they rank in the top ten in both walk rate and strikeout rate for the season, further highlighting that the reason they’ve struggled is because the haven’t consistently been able to drive in runs or make strong contact.

As such, I wanted to do something a bit different in my column this week. Rather than focus on a wide range of stats or breakdown mechanics on video, I thought I would simplify things and focus on examining how discerning Pittsburgh players are at the plate.  Obviously, there is much more to hitting than that, as their record proves, but the ability to control the zone and recognize pitches is essential to putting yourself in the right place to succeed.

Below, you’ll find a chart featuring the percentages of swings in the zone and outside of the zone as well as the difference of the two. After that, we’ll take some time to cover some of the highlights without doing anything too exhaustive.

Andrew McCutchen

Even in the doldrums of last year, McCutchen still maintained a strong approach at the plate; it was just that the quality of contact became such a growing issue that it obscured McCutchen’s strong plate discipline.  This year, McCutchen has responded by not only repairing his swing but by being even more selective at the dish, chasing a mere 20% of pitches outside of the zone compared to 24% last year.

Dave Cameron Fangraphs recently wrote a piece about McCutchen being back, as did our own Alan Saunders a week earlier, in which he displayed a chart of the most disciplined hitters in all of baseball, and McCutchen settled in at fifth best in the league despite a dismal first two months of the season.

For those who were concerned about McCutchen’s ability to keep performing, this is an incredibly encouraging sign that if he focuses on just hitting the ball instead of trying to pull it, then he should help the team make a playoff push or render it easier to find a trade for him. After all, since May 27th, McCutchen has been the most productive offensive player in baseball, posting an insane 223 wRC+ and a .511 wOBA.

Cameron also offered some commentary on McCutchen’s placement, saying, “That’s a list of really good hitters, because controlling the strike zone is a huge chunk of good hitting. McCutchen has always had a good eye at the plate, but perhaps realizing that he’s not as physically gifted as he used to be…By taking balls and swinging at strikes, McCutchen has a high floor as a hitter, and really just needs to spray enough line drives to still be a high-level offensive player. ”

Josh Bell

For years, the Pirates management preached patience when it came to Josh Bell, who was supposed to develop quality power but continued to post sub-par numbers. Neil Huntington even spent time this offseason discussing this, saying:

“You go back in time, and pre-artificial enhancements, there was a natural maturation process to most power hitters. Most natural power hitters didn’t hit 30 home runs in the minor leagues. The first time they hit 30 home runs was in the big leagues. The first time they hit 25 home runs was in the big leagues. Most of your guys that hit a lot of home runs, but struck out a lot in the minor leagues, didn’t really hit a ton of home runs in the big leagues. Our eyes are skewed based on what we’ve seen over the last 15-20 years. There is some recurrence of what worked in the 80s and what worked in the 90s working again as the game gets back to baseball. And Josh is, in our minds, a guy who projects to mature into his power.”

Well, apparently Huntington was on to something because, at about the halfway point of the season, Josh Bell has almost more home runs than he did all of last season and is on pace for 25-plus. As you might expect, the increase in power has been accompanied by an increased strikeout rate and decreased walk rate, suggesting that he has modified his approach to emphasize power.

He’s not chasing a ton more balls outside of the zone, but he is offering at less in the zone.  Some of that is bound to be the product of pitchers adjusting to Bell in his rookie season, but it also indicative of Bell recognizing that pitches in particular areas of zone can be more easily hit for power than others.

Even though he’s been able to use the approach to keep his home run output constant, he struggled mightily in May to do much else. Regardless, I wanted to find a good comparison for Bell in terms of approach and production had some of May not happened.

As he continues to develop, I’d expect the chase percent to decrease, transforming him into the offensive monster the Pirates were hoping for and even one that play a decent first base. If May is taken out, Bell’s wRC+ ends up being around Abreu’s and his contact percent closes the gap, giving the Pirates an Abreu-esque quality offensive player. It isn’t a perfect comparison because Bell does typically hold a lower launch angle, but it still provides a glimpse of the level of impact Bell is capable of giving the Pirates in the heart of the order.

John Jaso

While Jaso has been difficult to watch at times, he’s still a decent bat to have off the bench because he’s going to bring a strong approach to his at-bats. He regularly avoids swinging at junk and, just as McCutchen does, Jaso finds himself among the elite in plate discipline. I realize that the strikeout rate is up over twenty percent; however, that rise isn’t because of a flaw in his approach but an increase in swinging strikes.

Of course, the other main problems are that Jaso doesn’t hit for much power and has struggled against southpaws his whole career, but that is a story for another day.

Adam Frazier

It’s easy to look at Frazier’s chase rate and think  he could use some work there, but the reality is that he is one of the best bad ball hitters on the team. And unlike Harrison, who holds a similar O-Contact%, he doesn’t chase a third of the balls out of the zone.

Anyways, while Frazier has only an average difference in zone and outside percent, he’s one of the unique guys that hovers around there because he like to wait for his pitch.  Think a poor man’s Ben Zobrist, who has never posted more than a 60% zone swing rate in his career. Now, Zobrist may not be the player he once was, but the Pirates will be content if Frazier can continue to use his approach to put out a Zobrist level average and  on-base percent.

Gregory Polanco

Oddly enough, pitchers have continually pitched Polanco outside of the zone more than others, tossing merely 38-41 percent of throws in the zone the past two seasons. They’ve likely attacked him way because he has chased more and more pitches each season he’s been in the league.

Considering Polanco has a large reach, it’s not necessarily alarming that he would reach for some pitches, especially if he’s swinging at a lot of pitches just outside of the zone; although, the fact that he’s swinging at four percent more pitches total and floundering offensively suggestion some correction to his approach may be in order.

Jose Osuna

It’s been a curious but auspicious debut for Osuna, but it is encouraging that he’s rebounded from a horrid May, where he slashed a miserable .169/.234/.373 (that could be partially attributed to bad luck with a .152 BABIP). Nonetheless, his approach at the plate remains the worst on the team as he’s chased over 37 percent of the pitches thrown outside of the zone. He’s been able to make decent contact even on bad balls, but look at his walk and strikeout rates by month:

It seems that as pitchers have taken notice of how Osuna approaches the plate and how he is prone to chase balls outside of the zone, and they’ve managed to keep him off-balanced. With that being said, he’s flashed more than enough to build off his surprising spring, but there is a lot of work to be done if he hopes to be a regular and keep from being exploited at the plate.

Final Thought

There are plenty of other observations we could make (e.g. Francisco Cervelli’s incredibly discerning eye at the plate), but these were some of the snapshots that proved to be more useful in understanding what role plate discipline has played this season for some of Pittsburgh’s struggling players and young players.

And overall, I would say that the numbers are exactly what you want to see out of a team in their approach; now, if they can keep some of the quality contact momentum going, they might just have a shot at moving up in the division.

  • Plate discipline is insignificant when you’re not scoring runs. Mil, Col, Wash, LA and Ariz. are in the top 5 for strikeouts and runs scored. The Pirates have the lowest amount of Ks, 5th most walks but are 12th in runs scored in National League. I’d gladly trade more Ks for runs scored. Runs scored wins games not plate discipline.

    • Amen, Brother!

    • Joe Nastasi
      June 27, 2017 5:36 pm

      I’ve been saying the same thing, Hurdle has taken the aggressiveness out of the line-up. All pitchers are out there trying to get ahead in the count, not just Pittsburgh. Once your behind especially with men on base your hard contact dwindles. If pitcher tries to get ahead with FB on 1st pitch outer half, set on it & attack

  • Darkstone42
    June 27, 2017 3:42 pm

    I hope moving him down in the order helps Polanco start to sort out what’s wrong with his approach and swing. But I love watching Bell hit, awkward swing and all, and if he can start finding ways to get more batted balls to fall in for hits, he’s going to be some kind of productive. His strength is incredible.

  • Great article Travis. Loads of good info to digest.

    I’m certainly pleased w the progress being made by rookies (Frazier, Bell & Osuna) as Spring has turned to Summer. All three have shown glimpses of being above average, or better in Bell’s case, ML hitters.

    Clearly the biggest disappointment is Polanco. It appears he has let his frustration modify his approach. From what I’ve seen he has a hard time laying off the high hard ones. Unfortunately the Rays are one of the teams who throw a lot of high fastballs, so I don’t expect him to breakout of his slump in the next few days.

  • I, absolutely, love Huntington’s take on power hitter progression.

    The Pirates would do well to lock Bell up ASAP…the kid is going to be a monster in another year or so.

    • I think he’s a Boras client. Aint happening.

    • I’d probably wait until next year to make an offer, but I agree he appears to be an ideal candidate for an extension.

      • I can see waiting a year…but I can also see him having a monstrous 2018. His BABIP is killing him this year…once that corrects, I think his numbers are really going to take off. That, plus progression, might quickly put him outside the Pirates budget.

        Even as is, he’s on a pace to hit 30 HR with just 112 Ks this season.

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