PITTSBURGH – The Pirates currently rank 29th in the majors in home runs. Unless they see a tremendous power surge over this final week of play, that is where they will end up.

They haven’t really been a team that has been rich in home run power, even in their best years. They finished 26th in home runs last year, and finished 23rd the year before when they won 98 games.

The Pirates have long held the philosophy that power isn’t just home runs, and can also be expressed in the form of doubles and triples. This is true. However, it requires a lot of doubles and triples to make up for the lack of home runs. The Pirates aren’t getting anywhere close to that, with their .143 ISO also ranking 29th.

Neal Huntington spoke to reporters on Sunday, including our Alan Saunders, about the lack of power this year, noting they saw some key dropoffs from some of their top power producers.

“We certainly were counting on 40 to 50 home runs from Polanco and Kang and Marte,” Huntington said. “That didn’t result because of missed games. If we get those, then we’re in the middle of the pack offensively, which still probably isn’t good enough, but take those away and you have to rely on some other players and we didn’t do as well as we anticipated.”

Those three players combined for 52 homers last year, and 43 in 2015. Polanco and Kang had ISOs above .200 last year, while Marte was at .145. This year Kang couldn’t receive a visa, and missed the entire year. Polanco dealt with constant injuries, leading to ten homers and a .136 ISO. Marte was suspended for PED use, and has seven homers and a .111 ISO while he has been active.

So the Pirates did see a drop off from those players. That said, it’s not like they were considerably higher in home runs or ISO when those players were performing. Their ISO in 2015 was .136, ranking 26th in baseball.

The Pirates had the 23rd best home run total in 2015 and the 26th best ISO in 2015 when they won 98 games. So clearly home runs and power aren’t absolutely necessary to winning. We’re seeing more proof of that with the Red Sox this year, who rank 27th in homers and 28th in ISO, but are in first place in the AL East.

If you are going to go without power, you need to make up for it in other areas. The Red Sox this year rank 3rd in MLB in pitching WAR. The Pirates in 2015 ranked 2nd in MLB in pitching WAR. And unfortunately, the Pirates have not come close to the pitching needed to make up for the lack of power.

Let’s ignore the pitching side of this and just acknowledge that the Pirates don’t absolutely need to improve their power if they improve in other areas. We will also acknowledge that the best approach they can take is trying to improve in all areas, rather than focusing on specific areas and eschewing an important aspect like power. This raises the question: How can the Pirates increase their power going forward?

The first area would be looking for improvements on the team. I doubt they’re ever going to get Kang back, but it’s not out of the question that Polanco could bounce back. The same is true for Marte. That would be a nice boost for them, but it also wouldn’t necessarily put them above the bottom third of the league.

The next thing that would help would be internal additions. They got a nice boost this year from Josh Bell, who has a .207 ISO in his first full season in the big leagues. They’re also getting some power off the bench from young players like Jordan Luplow and Jose Osuna, who have ISOs of .206 and .198 respectively. Max Moroff showed some power for a middle infielder in Triple-A, but that hasn’t fully translated over to the majors.

Beyond those players, the Pirates don’t have much in the upper levels of their system. Austin Meadows has the most remaining power potential, but hasn’t been consistent with that production, and also has seen injury problems derailing his progress. Eric Wood shows power and defense at third base, but isn’t hitting enough to be even a bench option in the majors right now, and it’s unlikely the power would continue in the majors without the ability to hit for average.

Kevin Kramer would be the best prospect from the Altoona ranks, showing a lot of power potential from the middle infield spots, with the chance to improve the power from the second base position in a year or two. But that doesn’t help the Pirates in 2018, and no one else from Altoona on down would have much of an impact, even with a Jordan Luplow style leap from High-A to the majors.

The third way of improving the power would be to add someone from the outside. That’s not impossible. The Pirates did that in a creative way when they added Kang prior to the 2015 season. But home runs and power are very expensive on the open market, which means it might be extremely difficult for the Pirates to add power through that avenue.

This all puts a spotlight on the farm system, which is their best chance of developing power, and which largely hasn’t developed power. That is in part due to the Pirates’ focus on well-rounded players who can play defense, rather than guys who just hit for power. This went to an extreme during the 2014 and 2015 drafts, when they took a lot of college hitters who could hit for average, get on base, maybe add some speed, play a premium defensive position, and hit for power in the form of extra base hits.

That approach didn’t totally prohibit them from adding power hitters. After all, Jordan Luplow was the third round pick in 2014, and Kevin Kramer was a second rounder in 2015. And the approach they took works if the pitching and defense are working well enough to make up for the lack of power.

But now the pitching isn’t working for the Pirates. It might return next year. For now, it shows a glaring flaw with the passive approach to adding power hitters as amateurs. Fortunately, the Pirates made some adjustments during the 2017 draft, adding a lot of players with more power potential. The downside is that it will take those players several years to reach Pittsburgh, which means they’re going to either have to find a way to win again without power, or find a way to finally add some power without much help from the farm system.

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86 COMMENTS

  1. It’s funny how I got hammered by everyone in the comments when they moved on from Pedro and Walker and asked where the power was going to come from moving forward. The Royals win without power everyone said. Hmmm pretty sure Moose crushed it and they still are nearly ten spots ahead of us in hr rankings. Their gap to gap hitter drafting strategy the last few years have created a bunch of future utility players at best in a now power driven league. The top prospects are missing in the bigs as well. It looks like a long road for the fans again!

  2. Random fact of the day:

    in the 2nd half, Adam Frazier is hitting .323 / .380 / .491

    there’s some pop in that .491! baby steps!

  3. I think the Bucs are pretty much sold on Tucker either being the starter at SS or
    3rd with Kramer at 2nd. That is at least some power-too bad it will not happen
    until 2019

  4. I think they need to start taking a few chances with big bats in the draft. Unfortunately no one is raving about Will Craig after the season he just had.

  5. Why are we so certain Kang won’t ever play again? Did I miss a piece of information or is it simply because he didn’t get approved this year?

    If he is done, I really wish the Bucs would shell out the cash for Moose Tacos. Put Jay-Hay back at 2nd base, trade Vita Bella and put Diaz as the starting catcher, and trade Nova. Sign Moose Tacos for 5yrs/$85MM and let Glasnow/Kingham compete for the 5th spot in rotation. My dream would be for the Bucs to sign Arrieta but that will never happen in a million years. Even Moose Tacos is a reach unfortunately.

  6. I think hitting in general is a big problem that needs addressed. The Pirates team batting average of .244 is tied for 25th in the majors. The team average in 2015 was .260. This amounted to a hit per game.

    Interestingly, OBP dropped from .323 to .318 when comparing these two years. The Pirates have walked about 40 more times this year compared to 2015.

    The Pirates are 28th in runs scored this year vs. 11th in 2015. There was a drop of approximately 50 runs.

    Finally, the Pirates are 29th in slugging this year and was 21st in 2015. There was not much of a drop in terms of % – .396 to .388.

    The Pirates hit more HR’s this than 2015. However, they are down by 50 doubles.

    In conclusion, it appears that the Pirates OBP was boosted by an increase in walks, but they are down in XBH’s as shown by the large drop in doubles.

  7. Tim I believe wrote an article two years ago how the Pirates were drafting for gap power (I vaguely remember Huntington talking about it with Kramer and Newman).

    Doubles and triples are fun, exciting even. I am not a huge fan of the long ball. Especially in our park. Double and triples are good, IF, you construct a line up that drives in those runs. You also have to eliminate the errors on the bases and develop or produce solid defense.

    I wish we could take the team this year, with the pitching and personnel, and combine them with the mentality of those 2011-2012 teams, where they knew defense and small ball was the only way they could compete

  8. I just don’t see this team and think “man. if only it had more power.” it needs a few things. It needs a few better players and it needs a few existing players to get a little better at a tool they’re bad.

    Heck, let’s look at the guy on the team who has the *most* power!

    Bell has 0.5 WAR in 600 PA because of his defense. the only regular with less is Polanco, but Polanco has 200 Fewer PA. Fix his defense, and add like 2 wins to this team.

    • defense at first base is way overrated when it comes to WAR. It values range and that isn’t that important. Heck those same metrics say Rod is a GG 1!B and we all know that’s not true

      • Huh? why is a ball 1 foot out of a 1b’s glove any less damaging than a ball 1 foot past a SS’s glove?

        If most 1bs make a play that our 1b doesnt make, then why is that something that we just cast aside as “isn’t that important”?

        would you rather have a 1b that gets to 90 pct of the balls hit to him or one that gets to 97 pct of the balls hit to him?

        please explain why 1b range is something i shouldnt care about. i’d love to be convinced because i’d love to think that Bell is better than i do now.

        • Point taken but how many more balls are hit to ss than 1b. But I agree. Bells d has to get better. I think it has and will continue to. Never be a Votto or Goldschmidt though.

    • “Heck, let’s look at the guy on the team who has the *most* power!”

      This is the *problem*.

      Almost 50 players are on pace to hit 30 home runs. More than 120 players will hit at least 20. League-average ISO is up to .175.

      Josh Bell’s value is low because of his bat, not his glove, as evidenced by his 22nd ranking in offensive production among first basemen. 108 wRC+ is below average for the position (113 wRC+ this season). No player in the game has added two wins of value defensively.

      • yeah, two win improvement was arbitrary haha.

        his value is low because of both his bat and his glove. with your information, he’d still probably be below 2 WAR (league average WAR) if his defense was average.

        average defense probably gets him up to 1.4ish, and improving the bat to average probably gets him to 2 WAR. cuz then he’d be, by definition, average.

        • It’s a weird time in baseball right now!

          Just in these last two threads we have people lauding Bell’s power and bemoaning Kuhl’s ERA, when the comparative reality might actually be flipped! An ERA in the 4.3’s might be more impressive than 25 dingerz in this environment.

          • yeah, i think Kuhl and Williams are probably the most underrated Pirates (i’ll throw freese and frazier in that ring too), and Bell is, *by far*, the most overrated. Not saying that Bell is a lost cause or anything. I have high hopes for the future still.

    • They need an Ace. Indians have Kluber. Dodgers have Kershaw, Darvish, and 3 more that would be better than our 3-5. Nationals have Strasburg and Scherzer. Yankees Severino. Red Sox have Sale. Bucs can’t touch any of those guys. They get an Ace and a power hitter at 3b and we have a legitimate contender.

      • Surprised you’re already crowning Severino an Ace. i like it 🙂

        their only shot is Cole getting back to 2015 Cole, and the 5% chance that Glasnow figures out what the hell he’s doing.

  9. You finally figured this out. OBP went out, pitching to the bottom of the strike zone only sets up hitters to golf the ball over the fence. Bucs are behind the curve yet again.

  10. 2018 lineup:

    Frazier LF
    Donaldson 3b
    Marte CF
    Bell 1B
    Kang SS, because hey we’re being optimistic here 😛
    Polanco/Luplow RF
    Harrison 2b
    Cervy C

    you heard it here first, folks.

    If no kang, then trade harrison, and use harrison+mercer money to make a trade for a good SS. Take chances with Moroff (who is probably more powerful and better at D than Harrison, anyway) at 2b.

  11. Remember, I am not very knowledgeable about this,
    but there are two questions I have

    1) Do you draft power hitters or do you develop them?
    =
    2) I remember Bryce Harper being drafted.
    At the time, everyone said, “Oh, he’s going to
    be a great power hitter. With that in mind,
    when was the last time the Pirates drafted
    a player and everyone said, “He’s going to
    be a great power hitter.”

    (the only player I remember being close
    to someone saying that was Pedro.
    I cannot remember anyone else. Why?)

    • well, i guess the only players you place *great* expectations on are first rounders.

      theyve taken Pedro, Sanchez, Taillon, Cole, Meadows, McGuire, Tucker, Newman, Craig, Baz.

      So yeah, basically every position player other than pedro has been a pick where you’re looking for contact, obp, and defense as opposed to elite raw power. Which is fine, as long as a good chunk of them become good major leaguers.

      • I give them credit for the Craig pick in this context. I don’t think there’s any doubt they drafted him for power, to say nothing of the *quality* of that evaluation.

      • The only pick I question besides Sanchez is Newman. Newman seems redundant if they picked Tucker the prior year, notwithstanding the age difference. If Newman had been replaced by a power bat (3B maybe) then the whole series would have a much different flavor.

        • okay, but what power bat taken after Newman in the first or early second round of that draft is the one that would change the whole flavor for you?

          the job of the draft is to produce major leaguers, period.

          if they have to trade Newman or Tucker down the road, then so be it. Take the guys you think will be mlb players, period.

  12. It likely gets worse before it gets better. Cutch is all but gone and we will likely replace him with upside minor league players. maybe the Bucs can get a McMahan or a player like him who has huge minor league numbers but is totally blocked at the Major league level. Maybe its time to punt on Polonco, Tim mentions he needs to bounce back I would just like to see him bounce period. I would think the Pirates are probably at or near the bottom in Power from the corner OF positions. We should also explore the catcher market because what we have is not working right now.

    • The hate on Polanco has gone too far. Yes, it was a disastrous season for him in 2017. I had high hopes for him after he dominated the (small sample size) WBC. No way this front office gives up on him though with his upside and given he just turned 26. There were 11 players his age or younger in 2016 that had a higher OPS than Polanco, even though I think most of us would agree he didn’t play anywhere close to his ceiling last year. And those 11 players are guys you build your franchise around (ex. Seager, Harper, Bryant, Lindor, Machado, Correa, etc…). No way we give up on him after this mess of a season.

      • Agree on the Polanco hate. If he could stay healthy and get 500+ ABs he would be 25 /90, and we’d be more tolerant of the fielding/baserunning. There are so few alternatives to fill the power void that he almost has to be part of the answer.

              • For those of you who are “done” with Polanco, you’re either basing that on one bad injury plagued 2017 season, which shows zero patience. Or I would assume you are also “done” with Josh Bell. Polanco’s 24 year old season: .258/.323/.463; Bell’s 24 year old season (through yesterday): .252/.331/.460. So if Bell suffers through injuries and has a poor season next year, should we give up on him too?

        • If he could hit 25HRs and drive in 90 that would be great. So far he has hit 250-260 and hit a dozen HRs a year. he has had three years now and he is playing a power position. I doubt he ever stays healthy so maybe now is the time to cut bait especially of everyone would still want him. One more crappy year and he starts heading towards Tabata value

          • You cant project Polancos stats to 500 ABs and say that is what he is. Seems like every time he comes off DL he struggles for a few weeks, then gets hot for a week or two, then gets hurt. Rinse, repeat. And it would be foolish to trade him when his value is so low and there is obviously potential upside.

  13. My only addition would be to add accountability to the development staff.

    There are two undeniable facts to power hitting; one must hit the ball hard, and one must hit the ball in the air. Nothing else matters without both of these factors, and all indications are that the Pirates take a laissez faire approach to the latter. The league has indisputably shown the error in this philosophy.

    The need is blatantly obvious. Without more fly balls, the Pirates will not hit for more power.

    • doesnt it seem like over the past year they are ramping up power to several prospects later in their development?

      Bell, Luplow, Moroff, Kramer come to mind.

      i’ll give you that they were probably laissez faire in the past, but to me it seems like that could be kinda reversing now in their development schemes.

      the most important thing a player can do is get on base and put the bat on the ball. doesnt it kinda make sense to get that base down early in development and then kinda worry about power later when a player starts to gain mass in their early 20’s? just thinking out loud more than arguing.

      like i’m half expecting Kebryan Hayes to just pop a .500 SLG in Altoona next year to be honest, haha. and become a breakout top 25 prospect in MLB

      • It’s hard to place a cause and effect.

        *Bell didn’t add loft until his second year in the Majors, and is also benefiting from changes to the ball, so I’m not exactly sure where the influence came from there.

        *Luplow was drafted as a fly ball hitter and has produced good power numbers relative to the league since his first full season. Not discernible change.

        *Moroff has generally trended toward more fly balls, and I’m not familiar enough with his swing to tell you if and what changes were made. Could be some signal there.

        *Still waiting for an actual attempt to explain Kramer. He saw a big jump in fly balls and pulled balls, both clearly would be power indicators, but I haven’t seen an analysis of the swing that argues the changes are intentional and sustainable.
        “Kramer is up to .382/.500/.636 now. While he isn’t likely to continue hitting for anywhere near this kind of power, he has terrific bat-to-ball skills. He was one of several advanced college bats Pittsburgh selected in the 2015 draft (Kevin Newman and the underrated Mitchell Tolman were the other two) but was likely to move off of short and lacked the power for second or third base. He’s hitting the ball in the air more often this season than last, so perhaps some of the improved power is real, but I haven’t spoken with anyone who has seen a mechanical tweak that may have unlocked it.
        https://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/instagraphs/daily-prospect-notes-425/

        I’ll see your Ke’Bryan Hayes and raise you a Cole Tucker. It would be an absolute shame not to develop his length, leverage, and capacity for strength into a power hitter.

  14. Off the top of my head Todd Frazier has a bunch of homers, a terrible BA & poor
    OPS. He’s 31 and a free agent for 2018. Maybe a 1 year rental?

    • exactly. i dont really understand why we are focusing on Homers.

      half of what we’ve learned about baseball over the past 15 years has been about summing up the contributions of all of a player’s characteristics.

  15. If the Pirates have really focused on drafting good all around players who can play defense, they haven’t done a good job of that either. Frazier, Bell, Polonco, Luplow, and Osuna all posted negative defensive WAR numbers this year. So did Cutch and Jaso.

  16. I disagree with the proposition “But home runs and power are very expensive on the open market” – are they really? Look at what Chris Carter, Khris Davis, Justin Smoak, Logan Morrison or Eric Thames got in FA, or what JD Martinez, Jay Bruce, etc. fetched in trades. The key is that power is expensive at premium defensive positions, which where is the Pirates are sorely lacking. And as mentioned in the comments, the Bucs will be lacking even more in the power department if Cutch is traded.

  17. Team is in trouble. Power is definitely part of the problem but this team is also below average in terms of getting on base.

    Put those factors together and you have the 28th ranked offense out of 30 MLB teams excluding pitchers.

  18. The obvious place to improve is third base, where the Pirates got only 10 HRs (to go along with a .250 average and shaky defense) this year from Freese.

    Hopefully Cutch will be traded in the offseason for a third basemen with some legitimate thump — and I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking we’d just be trading our most prolific power threat for another playing a different position.

    Wrong. Assuming Cutch can be swapped for someone capable of 25-30 homers, the question becomes whether, say, a platoon of Meadows and Luplow in the outfield can surpass Freese’s production.

    Yeah, they can.

    • I could not disagree more with this proposed approach. They have no adequate replacement for Cutch at this time. Not even close. And if they don’t pick up his option or they trade him, they’ll stuff the savings in their pockets.

      • The other part of it is that for as meh as he might appear Freese is one of only 3 starters with a WRC+ above 100 this year. He’s going to be worth 2 WAR which isn’t great but isn’t a black hole either. What sort of meaningful improvement at 3b are you going to get in a trade for 1 year of Cutch.

        Does anyone think a team is going to trade a 3-4 WAR 3b for one year of Cutch?

            • well, earlier on i said Freese, McCutchen, Kuhl for Donaldson and a prospect. Cutch gets you 90% of the way there.

              • All signs point to Toronto trying to contend next year so it makes little sense for them to trade Donaldson until the trade deadline if they become sellers and even less sense for them to take Cutch as the centerpiece who’s free to leave after the season anyway therefore just replacing Donaldson with Cutch.

                • Correction: theyd be replacing him with Cutch and freese and kuhl.

                  They’ve said they’d deal donaldson if it makes them better. I think that deal makes TOR better.

                  Any trade of donaldson for prospects does not make TOR better.

                  The logical conclusion of *your* argument is… trading one major leaguer for another is pointless.

                  Not every trade has to be exchanging future for present and present for future. It can be present for present.

                  • Understood but in this scenario present for present is irrelevant because Toronto needs to win now or start rebuilding so trading now for now is pointless to them. Very little reason for Toronto to make that deal unless they really believe in Kuhl. Toronto has enough aging players without positional flexibility that Freese doesn’t move the needle and probably not at all what Toronto wants and Cutch and Freese both being at the end of their contracts is something an all-in type of team would want which negates dealing Donaldson in the first place. A true package for Donaldson would probably be something like Polanco, Clay Holmes and a throw in or high risk/reward low A player in my opinion.

        • Cutch will be here until the trade deadline. Then the standings will decide if they keep him. They should resign Pedro for a bench bat and hope he can play a little 3B. It would be cheap. Hope Kang comes back and add a SP. Honestly they need a #1 because Cole is a #2 as is Taillon at least right now.

    • I can’t see trading Cutch as i don’t think the return will be great. Plus the starting pitching is coming around at the end of this year, so you could see how the team does next year assuming all the other pieces come back. The only hole would be 3B. You have to allow for Marte and Polanco to play. We lost numerous games this year 2-0,2-1,3-2 due to a poor offense without Marte and Kang.

      The big hole would be 3B. IDK if trying to pick up a Todd Frazier (Declining) or other would be in the pirates check book, but that’s a hole that Freese doesn’t fill well enough. As a Bench player Freese is fine.

      Relief pitching needs a major overhaul as well.

      If the Pirates can’t stay in it, or aren’t in the race in 2018, then at trade deadline trade cutch.

  19. Assuming Kang never comes back, is there any way for the Bucs to add legit power at third? Who could they reasonably target?

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