The Pirates scored 10 runs in a Tuesday night’s series-opening victory over the Chicago White Sox, so if this seems like a strange time to harp on about the offense, bear with me.
As a team, the Pirates are humming right along. They’re second in the NL in runs scored, third in wOBA and second in wRC+.
They’ve been such a dominant offense because they don’t strike out very much (19.6 K rate is second in the NL) and their .299 BABIP suggests that their hot start is at least somewhat repeatable.
So what’s the rub?
Despite the hot start, it wasn’t all that long ago that the Pirates’ offense was in a pretty rough slump. They scored just nine runs total in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Washington Nationals from April 30 to May 3.
I’ve written a good bit that the Pirates pitching staff seems pretty average, which means that maximizing runs scored will be important to the Pirates’ fortunes. They’re 17-2 when scoring five runs or more this season and 3-14 when scoring four runs or fewer.
In that regard, the Pirates have made a mess of the top of the batting order.
Pirates leadoff hitters this season have a .673 OPS, their No. 2 hitters have a .659 OPS and their No. 4 hitters, which have been almost exclusively Josh Bell, have a .661 OPS. Outside of the pitcher’s spot, those are the Pirates three worst hitting places in the batting order — and they’re getting all the at-bats.
The Pirates’ most productive spot has been No. 6, usually Francisco Cervelli, which has a 1.050 OPS. That spot has 149 plate appearances. The Pirates’ leadoff hitters have 171. Just 22 percent of the way through the season, the leadoff spot already has 22 more plate appearances. Projected out, that’s 100 fewer plate appearances for hitters that have an OPS that is over 1.5 times better than those above them in the batting order.
Perhaps ironically, the Nationals, while sweeping the Pirates, also showed them the way forward. Washington has batted top hitter Bryce Harper first eight times this season, including three of the four times they played the Pirates.
It’s not like the fact that the player that hits first gets the most plate appearances is breaking news. The Chicago Cubs hit Anthony Rizzo first 14 times last year.
The biggest drawback to putting a team’s most talented hitter in the top spot for an NL team is that they’ll frequently be hitting behind the pitcher. The Nationals found their way around that by batting their pitcher eighth and Wilmer Difo ninth. Difo went 5 for 7 with four walks for the Pirates while hitting ninth, providing Harper with plenty of opportunities to drive in runs.
“We’ve talked about it,” Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. “It’s not something that just got invented. As you model it, they have the personnel that falls right into place and give them the credit for putting it in. Give the manager credit for setting it up that way and give the players the credit for performing in their skillsets. It can be challenging, as we’ve just gone through and seen.”
Hurdle is right that the Nationals deserve credit for setting their lineup in a fashion that takes full advantage of their personnel, but the Pirates have the personnel to do something similar. Starling Marte is one of the best hitters on the team, if not the best hitter, and has the speed to be a prototypical leadoff hitter. He’s hit leadoff 242 times in his career, more than he’s hit anywhere else, and this year, he’s on pace to triple his career walk totals.
He is, in a nutshell, a pretty much perfect leadoff hitter, but he’s spent most of this season batting third. Meanwhile, Cervelli and Corey Dickerson, who have been the team’s two best hitters, have been hitting fifth and sixth.
The Pirates don’t currently have a high-OBP, low-power hitter like Difo, but Adam Frazier would certainly better suited for that role than his current role getting the majority of the team’s at-bats hitting leadoff. When Josh Harrison returns, he would also be a good fit for that spot.
The Pirates offense has been doing pretty well this season, but they’re also leaving runs on the table by refusing to optimize their batting order.