PITTSBURGH — The Pirates offense got 2018 off to a red-hot start that impressed many, and on the surface, looked like it might be sustainable.
In the Pirates’ first 15 games, they hit .271/.343/.452 for a .795 OPS and scored the second-most runs in the National League, and they did it with a BABIP under .300, the usual benchmark for sustainability.
But the Pirates didn’t sustain that rate. In fact, they’ve gone the other direction. In the seven games following, they’ve hit .196/.251/.304 while dealing with the loss of starting second baseman Josh Harrison to a broken hand.
Harrison is a veteran leader, brings a ton of energy to the club and can be a menace on the basepaths, so his loss shouldn’t be discounted. But Harrison was hitting .263/.328/.351 when he was injured, so his absence alone can’t account for the Pirates turn in fortunes.
Gregory Polanco may also have dealt with some health issues. He fouled a ball off his foot on April 6 and missed the following game. Before that injury, he was hitting .310/.447/.759. Since then, he’s hit .157/.232/.353.
But even Polanco’s large change in outcomes doesn’t explain away all of the Pirates’ positive trend. Manager Clint Hurdle pointed to two factors: the Pirates have faced better teams with better pitching and they’ve gotten a bit out of the approach that led to them to the start.
That approach was working pitchers. In their first 15 games, the Pirates drew 55 walks in 590 at-bats for a 9.3 percent walk rate and a 17.2 percent strikeout rate, both above league average. Additionally, the Pirates had several games where they were able to work a starting pitcher out of the game and take advantage against the bullpen later.
Since then, the Pirates have walked 17 times (6.7 percent) and struck out 64 times
(25.5) percent in 251 plate appearances.
Hurdle broke down what he feels has been the cause of his team’s outcomes:
“There’s been three games where we’ve been pitched absolutely well,” he said. “We’ve had 14 really solid offensive games. We’ve had five games that I thought we should have been able to push more than we did.”
Hurdle uses both statistical and observational data in order to make that determination, starting by breaking down each game on film from a centerfield camera angle. Here’s what Hurdle is looking for:
“If we’re swinging at first pitches, what’s our degree of contact? Are we fouling first pitches off? Are they good first pitches? There’s a lot of different things that going into it and there’s a lot of things that go into the 14 games we performed really well on offense: what we do when we’re ahead in counts, what we do when we’re behind in counts, how many times did we work to get to two strikes and then have quality to that at-bat with two strikes?”
What he’s seen in that regard is a team that’s gotten a bit selfish at times.
“Sometimes, you will see guys isolate,” he said. “They want to be a guy leading off an inning with a big swing, quick strike on the board, instead of hunting in a pack mentality. They can turn into something of an independent contract from time-to-time and they lose that sense of connectedness that you had in the lineup.”
But he’s not panicking. Far from it. In fact, he thinks getting exposed in the trip to Philadelphia could be a good thing for the team long-term.
“The four-game series we had in Philadelphia we had, from my standpoint, as a coaching tool, could be one of the better things that happened to us and it happened to us in April,” he said. “Every facet of the game, we showed vulnerability in. All of those areas, we had strength in. … You either win or you learn.”