PITTSBURGH — Everywhere we turn in Major League Baseball media coverage these days, we see repeated references to two large-scale phenomena: Optimized launch angle and increased strikeout rate.
As a team that constantly seeks every inefficiency available in its quest to win on a budget, the Pirates have likely considered the possible benefits of swimming against the various currents existing in the modern game.
So, it’s easy to point to the Pirates’ low strikeout rate this season — their 19.5 percent ranks 28th in the majors and 14th in the National League — and say, ‘A-ha! That’s why their lineup has been outstanding.’
“We’re trying to be pesky up there,” said Corey Dickerson, whose 10.7 percent ‘K’ rate is lowest among Pirates regulars. “Put the bat on the ball. When you do that, things are going to happen. It’s about trying to put the bat on the ball when you can.”
The problem with that theory is that the Pirates struck out a mere 19.8 percent of the time last year, ranking 23rd in the majors and 13th in the NL. Overall, the 2017 version of the offense was awful, as the prominent context-neutral production stats (wOBA, wRC+) both had the Pirates 28th in MLB and 13th in the NL.
In the context of their big-league peers, the Pirates have been slightly better at putting the ball in play over the first couple months of 2018, but their production metrics are way up. Both wOBA and wRC+ say they have the third-best attack in the NL and the sixth-best in MLB.
Clearly, avoiding strikeouts didn’t help them much last year, so it’s hard to say that’s been especially important to this point. This might sound obvious, but least we can say that steering clear of whiffs hasn’t hurt.
“We’ve been a productive offense,” Neal Huntington said Sunday at PNC Park. “We also need to be able to score that big run, and the best way to score that big run is to put the ball in play. It’s easy to find holes (in the defense) when you put the ball in play.”
So what has gotten better, specifically, if the contact rate has stayed constant? It’s remarkable, but there’s no easy answer to that. Their on-base percentage is up to fifth from 21st last season, while their isolated slugging (ISO) has been lifted to 10th from 29th.
“Our guys are hitting with power and doing damage,” Huntington continued. “They’ve found a nice balance between trying to hit a seven-hopper to shortstop so they don’t strike out versus looking to do damage.”
Dickerson is probably the perfect poster boy for the character of the Pirates’ offense to date. The newcomer has the smallest walk rate (5.4 percent) among full-time Pittsburgh position players, but he’s been able to combine a strong contact rate with enough pop to post a .187 ISO that ranks fourth on the team.
He also looks like a battler in the batter’s box. His habit of gripping a few inches up on the bat handle in two-strike counts has been one of the more indelible images of the 2018 Pirates so far.
“Corey’s been a great (guy) to lead the way,” Huntington said. “Corey’s still looking to do damage despite choking up with two strikes.”
There’s been plenty of talk in that clubhouse about Dickerson’s leadership impact, simply by being himself. The 29-year-old Mississippian certainly speaks softly, but the way he wields his stick has made an impression.
“I’m going to test you and try to be the hardest out,” Dickerson said. “If the guys want to follow along and they think what I’m doing is good, then awesome. I’m just trying to play the game the right way.”
The big-swinging Sean Rodríguez (career ‘K’ rate: 26 percent) might have the opposite hitting profile of Dickerson, but that doesn’t mean he can’t appreciate the commitment to contact.
“That’s perfecting your craft,” Rodríguez said. “It’s something unique. Obviously what he’s bringing is special, and it’s needed and appreciated.”
What’s a little more interesting is that Dickerson’s career strikeout rate in the majors is 22.1 percent. He was over 20 percent last year in his All-Star season with the Rays, in fact.
Knowing those numbers, could it be that the Pirates’ team-wide aim to add aggression to their existing contact-heavy approach has rubbed off on Dickerson?
“Our group has taken it upon themselves to have a better battle in the box, based on what we’ve gone through over the last two years,” Clint Hurdle said in the midst of last week’s homestand. “We’re experiencing the difference now. Those extra opportunities (for balls in play) … it does add up over the course of the season.”
On an individual basis, no one has cut their strikeouts year to year more than Dickerson, but Colin Moran has shown to be a decent contact-oriented stick, with a 15 percent strikeout rate as a Pirate. Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer have reduced their 2017 whiff frequency in the early going, too, although nowhere near as dramatically as Dickerson has.
“I just believe it’s a contagion,” Hurdle said, “Now guys would rather hit the ball and get down the line hard than take that walk back (after a strikeout).”
Hey, it’s a good thought at least, as long as Pirates’ hitters aren’t simply trying to slap the ball in play when they could wait for a pitch to drive.
Huntington said Sunday the organization doesn’t necessarily teach its hitters to “lift the ball,” but it considers the ideal ball flight a “high line drive,” so that tapper on the infield or pop fly to the shallow outfield isn’t ever going to be considered a success.
“We want our guys to understand what they hit well and then go hunt those pitches,” Huntington said. “Get a pitch we can drive and understand what that means.”
That’s why saying strikeout avoidance is the secret sauce powering the Pirates’ bats would be way too reductive. Generally, better offenses don’t whiff too much — witness the Astros’ MLB-low strikeout rate last year — but in this era of increased power, simply putting the ball in play won’t be enough to keep the pace.
The Pirates learned that last year, but this year appears to be different.
“This offense,” Dickerson said, “has been unbelievable.”