Pirates Offense Blossoming in Spring

PITTSBURGH — The 2018 Pirates lineup might be really, really good.

After eight games, they’ve scored 54 runs, the second-most in the National League, behind only the Atlanta Braves.

As Clint Hurdle would say, “I didn’t have that.”

What most people did have was a Pirates lineup that, at least on paper, looked deeper than it has in the past, with many players that had the potential to become stars.

Friday night against the Cincinnati Reds, the Pirates put that depth on display. The team’s No. 7 and No. 8 hitters Colin Moran and Jordy Mercer went 7 for 8 with three doubles as part of a 14-run outburst. But there’s more to it than one random outburst powered by an above-average night from the bottom of the order.

“You’re not going to score 14 runs every night,” manager Clint Hurdle said. “You’re not going to get 15 hits every night. However the quality of the at-bats overall, the focus and the preparation is in a good place and a very consistent place.”

Facing Reds starter Luis Castillo, the Pirates were confronted with an opponent they hadn’t had much success against. In two previous appearances, they had a .502 OPS against him. The solution? Get him out of the way. The Pirates worked deep into many counts, Josh Bell drew three walks, and the Pirates had Castillo at 78 pitches after just three innings.

“It was one of the keys to success we talked about,” Hurdle said. “If we want to have success against this team, we have to push the starter better. We haven’t done it in the past. Castillo’s been tough for us to hit in the past the few times we’ve seen him.”

The Pirates also don’t seem particularly reliant on one part of their lineup to produce offense. Gregory Polanco has been crushing the ball. Those are some of the players that are expected to drive the offense this season.

“I’m in a good spot right now,” Polanco said Thursday. “I’ve got to stay right there.”

Josh Bell, hitting cleanup, has had the fortune of both coming up with a lot of players on base, and also having the players behind him hitting well enough for him to not worry about what happens after his at-bat. That patience has Bell sporting a 15.6 percent walk rate.

But on Friday, Bell and Polanco combined for just three of the Pirates’ 15 hits. There was more than enough to pick up the slack with Starling Marte going 2-for-5 with three RBIs and Corey Dickerson going 3 for 5 with two RBIs.

“I feel like it makes it a lot easier when the rest of the team is putting pressure on the starting pitcher or whoever is on the bump,” Bell said. “In regards to runs scored or RBIs, I think pitchers feel that pressure when they have their ERA on the line. If you put that pressure on them, I trust Dicky behind me. I trust Marte and Polanco in front of me. They’re also base-stealing threats. That makes it really fun baseball.”

At the bottom of the lineup, Moran came into the season as one of the legitimate question marks. A rookie with just 16 MLB games under his belt, Moran showed plenty of promise in Triple-A in 2017. But there was no guarantee that would carry over.

Early indications are very positive, and again, it’s about more than just the results. He’s hit for power (.200 ISO) and average (.320), hit the ball to all fields, and has driven in eight runs, tops among NL rookies.

“Moran is a good hitter,” Hurdle said. “You got to see a guy do different things and use different parts of the ballpark. Again, it’s early, but I like the lineup, I like the way it’s stretched out, I like the way it sets up, because we’ve got some different looks for you and some guys that can do some different things. … They’re complimenting one another really well right now.”

Obviously, RBIs aren’t a perfect metric for evaluating a player’s talent, but the fact that the Pirates seventh hitter is raking them in is a good sign for the health of the lineup.

“It’s been nice there’s a lot of guys on when I’ve been getting up there,” Moran said. “It’s just a credit to those guys working good counts. … It just gets contagious. I think one through eight, we can put up some really good at-bats.”

That, more than anything might be the identity of the 2018 Pirates lineup, according to hitting coach Jeff Branson.

“It’s about battle at-bats, every night, every time you get in the box,” Branson said. “It’s about not trying to be a hero. Just be a good hitter. It’s not trying to be the guy. Everybody in the lineup, no matter who it is, they’re all in there with one mindset: to put a good team at-bat together. … It’s about trying to leave the guy behind you in a better spot.”

That mindset seems to have caught on quickly with the Pirates new additions, with Branson adding that he feels like Dickerson and Moran have “been here for years.” With a battling approach and a lengthened lineup, the Pirates’ offense has laid the groundwork for success that could extend well into the summer.

Of course, as with all April numbers, it’s early, and while the Pirates offensive outburst and 6-2 start has many in the clubhouse and the fanbase feeling good, there’s still a long way to go. But the Pirates feel that they’ve established a repeatable path to success.

“I do think this is sustainable,” Branson said. “We’ll just keep going about our business. We know the game of baseball is like a roller coaster. It goes up and down. You’ve got to stay steadfast. Whether it’s good or bad, high or low, you’ve just got to fight through it. You roll when it’s good and you keep working when it’s not.”