During the two-year power surge in Major League Baseball that has led to record-setting home run totals across the board, the Pittsburgh Pirates have largely been left behind.
The Pirates finished the 2017 season with 151 home runs, the second-worst total in the majors. Over the last two seasons, they have 304, third-worst in that time span.
Part of the problem for the Pirates in that regard is always going to be PNC Park. In 2017, the Pirates’ home ballpark was the 23rd least friendly to hitters when it came to home runs.
It’s particularly sapping to right-handed hitters with a 410-foot notch in left-center field, a 383-foot power alley and 399-foot drive to center with an 8-foot tall wall to clear.
If there’s a weakness in the park’s formidable dimensions, it’s down the right field line, where the 21-foot high Clemente Wall sits just 320 feet from home plate.
Over the years, that Pirates have had some left-handed power hitters that have taken advantage of the short porch down the line. Players like Pedro Alvarez, Garrett Jones and Adam LaRoche all had varying degrees of success.
But they never had a lineup with the kind of top-to-bottom power they have right now. With Wednesday’s addition of left-handed hitting left fielder Corey Dickerson, the Pirates added 28 home runs the left side of the plate and the potential for even more with the wall in right beckoning.
When added to returning starters Josh Bell and Gregory Polanco and fellow off-season addition Colin Moran, it seems that the Pirates have an intention on taking advantage of their ballpark’s built-in weakness.
“As long as the hitter can continue to be the type of hitter that he is and doesn’t get swayed or influenced and try to do too much and get outside what his strengths are, it can be a distinct advantage,” general manager Neal Huntington said Thursday night.
“With Polanco and with the additions of Moran and Dickerson, we should be in a position to capitalize on that short wall. At the same time, we want our guys to be good hitters and do damage and be able to use the whole field and not be pitched to easily, but left-handed power certainly does play in our ballpark. I can’t say we go out of our way to find left-handed power, but we are certainly cognizant of the advantage left-handed power can have in our park. We do try to find it when it’s available.”
One of the downsides of a lot of left-handed hitters is when the Pirates have to face a left-handed starter, but it seems like there should be less of them to face in 2018.
Jon Lester and Jose Quintana of the Chicago Cubs, Brandon Finnegan of the Cincinnati Reds and Brent Suter of the Milwaukee Brewers are the only pitchers in the division currently listed as the member of a starting rotation on a team’s MLB.com depth chart.
That means that the Pirates should be able to roll out their lefty-heavy lineup most nights within the division, and that’s a good thing for its power potential.
OUT IN SPACE
Of course, the spacious left field that challenges right-handed hitters also challenges left fielders when it comes to range, and Dickerson hasn’t always had the strongest reputation as a fielder.
His career UZR/150 as a left fielder is -1.2, but he’s shown dramatic progress as of late. It was 14.5 in 2016, his first year in Tampa, after being negative all three years in Colorado. In 2017, it was 4.5.
His defensive runs saved went from -1, -2 and -6 his three years with the Rockies to 2 and -1 with the Rays.
Huntington attributed Dickerson’s improved defense to being in better physical shape, and said he’s continued that progress this spring.
“(He’s) a talented player that recreated his body last off-season,” Huntington said. “He was in the best shape of his life a year ago and it showed defensively. We did see improvements. Again, a different body with difference athleticism. He still hasn’t played 120 games out there in a given season, but we did see a player that was more athletic, a player that had committed himself, and in our reports so far this spring, is that he might be even in better shape and be even a little bit leaner while still being able to do a ton of damage in the batter’s box.”
Dickerson’s arrival presents something of a departure for the Pirates in that they’ve preferred a left fielder that was above-average with the glove to acknowledge PNC Park’s big left field. In this case, it seems the hope is that Dickerson’s bat can make up for anything that’s lost with his glove.
“We recognize that it’s a big left field,” Huntington said. “We’ve talked repeatedly about wanting two center fielders out there, but we do think that Corey is going to be able to come in, be an offensive weapon for us and play solid defense.
THE OTHER GUYS
The move will push Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez into bench roles, where each player’s versatility will be able to shine. They’ll also be able to be used as defensive replacements if Dickerson’s lack of range in left becomes an issue. But there don’t seem to be any thoughts of a platoon or any other type of formal time share at this point.
“We see (Dickerson) being our primary left fielder,” Huntington said. “This gives us another layer of depth, another quality (player) to protect our major-league club in case of injury. It was a tough decision to drop somebody in over Adam Frazier or Jordan Luplow or Sean Rodriguez. For the most part, they will continue to play important roles. We’re going to get a lot of guys at-bats.”
TALE OF TWO SEASONS
Dickerson was an MLB All-Star in 2017 and had a .903 OPS at the break. But things tailed off after, and had a .690 OPS the rest of the way. It’s been speculated that the cool second half is what made Dickerson available from the Rays in the first place, but Huntington feels the Pirates will be able to address whatever issues arose.
“Obviously, he had a tremendous first half, recognized some struggles in the second half,” Huntington said. “We look forward to finding out how we can help him be closer to the player he was in the first half. But overall, a very productive player the last two years in the big leagues.”
GIVE TO GET
Huntington addressed both of the players that the Pirates traded away to get Dickerson. When it came to Daniel Hudson, who was not only traded, but saw the Pirates pick up $1 million of his salary, it was more about creating an opportunity for one of the other bullpen arms the Pirates have acquired this off-season.
“We’ve been able to acquire a few arms, whether it’s the Rule 5 Draft, whether it’s trade, whether it’s some of our own guys developing and taking steps forward, whether it’s an openness to having some of our young starters pitch out of the ‘pen,” Huntington said. “We’ve created a nice quantity of quality arms and we felt that we were dealing from an area of strength.”
The move is good news for the hopes of A.J. Schugel, who is out of options and Rule 5 pick Jordan Milbrath, who could both replaced Hudson as a right-handed option. It also seems likely that Michael Feliz and George Kontos will filter into the late-inning role that Hudson owned in 2017.
Infield prospect Tristan Gray, on the other hand, was not a player the Pirates were looking move.
“Tristan Gray is a guy that our development people liked a lot,” Huntington said. “Tampa did a very nice job of identifying him and making sure that he was a part of the deal. We worked hard to get Tristan out of the deal and Tampa just wouldn’t let us. So, we’ve given up a quality young player, a quality major-league reliever, but in return we feel like we’ve acquired a quality left-handed hitting power outfielder.”
A NEW ENERGY
The move got widely positive reviews on social media, but it didn’t make a big swing in the Pirates likely fortunes this season, and most Pirates fans seemed to recognize that.
Does the Dickerson trade change improve your outlook for the 2018 season?
— Alan Saunders (@ASaunders_PGH) February 22, 2018
But it does give some more credence to Huntington’s assertion that the team is trying to win in 2018. He was asked if he thought, in that regard, the move would gain him and the club some points with the fans.
“We feel like it made us a better club, a deeper club,” he said. “As we win games and as we play the game the right way, we’ll draw our fans back out, because they want to cheer a winner. We work hard every day to bring them another a winner and get deeper in the postseason than we were the first three times.”