Williams: The Problem With the Bats in Pittsburgh

The Pittsburgh Pirates have had the worst offensive in the National League this year.

They rank last in the NL in batting average (.221), on-base percentage (.288), and slugging percentage (.362). They also have the highest strikeout rate at 25.5%.

As we’ve covered on here before, this team also isn’t that aggressive with their swing rate. The Pirates rank 25th in the majors with a 45.5% swing rate.

Alex Stumpf at DK Pittsburgh Sports recently had a great interview with MLB hitting coach Andy Haines. In the interview, which you should check out here, Haines gives an explanation for the lack of swings.

“But if I give you a little glimpse of our process overall, we really want to match our swing rates with guys’ damage zones and play to their strengths. If you can match those two up, it’s a simple math equation over a larger sample that’s going to happen. If we can get them to swing more in areas where that’s their strength and they can do damage. I think that’s a pretty good formula for success over the larger sample of what a major-league season is. That’s what we spend a lot of time on. We have a lot of people working really hard at it.”

This is a concept that has been adopted all throughout the system. It makes sense as a “simple math equation.” The Pirates want their hitters being selective and only attacking the pitches in their hot zones. For example, if a player succeeds against pitches high in the zone, but struggles low, they would want him taking low strikes and hunting the pitches up.

From the pitching side, this opens up areas of the plate where the hitter won’t swing. The Pirates rank first in the majors in called strikes at 18.5%, which is trailed by Cleveland with 17.8%. I don’t think that is leading to the issue of the high strikeouts.

Targeting a specific hitting zone makes sense if the hitters have a swing designed to attack today’s pitching.

Today’s pitchers know how to tunnel the ball to make every pitch look the same, up until they split in different directions at the plate. A hitter can target a zone, but if the swing has flaws, the selective approach really won’t matter.

Last week I wrote about the hitting development approach in Altoona, after speaking with hitting coach Jon Nunnally. Each hitter has a unique swing, but there are tactics that every hitter can take unique to his game.

Targeting a specific zone is one thing. Swinging in a way where you can hit multiple pitches in that zone is another. The video below is a great visual representation of this approach.

The first swing is too steep, with the batter chopping the bat down into the zone. The on-plane swing sees the bat enter the swing plane much earlier, allowing the possibility to get ahead of that fastball deeper in the zone — which was missed completely with the first pitch.

In the Pirates’ system, Greensboro outfielder Sammy Siani has been undergoing this exact change, as detailed today by Jeff Reed, with video from Anthony Murphy.

Sammy Siani Shedding Steep Swing

There are two things that stand out from this article. The first is the issue above, where Siani’s swing was getting too steep, leading to him missing some of those deeper pitches. In the 2022 video in that article, you can see that Siani is missing those deeper pitches, before coming back from the Florida Complex with an adjustment to keep his swing on-plane. He’s shown mixed results since the latest adjustment, but is starting to catch up to those deeper pitches.

The second thing is that Siani has been working to get a comfortable stance all year, and you can see he’s made a lot of adjustments, as Jeff did a great job breaking down. One of the most important things is keeping his head still throughout the swing. This allows the hitter to focus on the pitcher and relax his eyes.

If Siani is targeting his zone, and if his swing is on plane, then a still head position will give him the best opportunity to recognize the pitches in his zone as early as possible — not to mention recognizing off-speed to allow for a mid-swing adjustment.

The swing of a hitter is a habit that is made over time, with so many moving parts. For that reason, it can take a long time to get into the habit of a new swing.

The problem I see in Pittsburgh is that Andy Haines is continuing a process that is being taught throughout the minors, but working with players in the majors who weren’t taught these approaches.

Several years ago, these new hitting methods swept the game, but they didn’t reach Pittsburgh. As these approaches were becoming wide-spread for MLB hitters, the pitchers were starting to react with tunneling, spin rates, and movement on their breaking pitches.

From the pitching side, the Pirates scoffed at the “launch angle” trend. They were late to adopt it on the hitting side, and were already working from behind. The people they have in place now seem to have a better understanding of modern hitting, and more importantly, how to teach that to hitters.

The way I see the current problem, the Pirates were last to adjust to the new hitting methods, and their hitters are now several years behind the best clubs.

Haines, Triple-A hitting coach Eric Munson (who is very close friends with Haines), and Nunnally in Altoona (who was in Indianapolis last year) are tasked with a very difficult assignment of rapidly teaching players the correct methods that they should have learned in A-ball.

It doesn’t matter if Sammy Siani takes a few years to adjust his swing in the lowest levels.

It’s not a good thing to see this process done in the majors. There’s a reason the Pirates are the worst hitting team in the NL. There’s a reason you see players bouncing back and forth between Haines in the majors and Munson in Triple-A.

Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that the Pirates are developing in the majors what should have been developed in the minors — still impacted by their resistance to adopt modern hitting techniques several years ago.

THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS

Williams: The Problem With the Bats in Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh Pirates 2022 Minor League Recaps: FCL Pirates

Sammy Siani Shedding Steep Swing

Tahnaj Thomas: Refocus On Slider Leading To Better Results

Strikeouts Are the Focus For Hunter Stratton

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AttyMike

The whole focus on area where can do damage thing seems like a homer or strike out approach. How about simply swinging at strikes and getting on base? The all or nothing approach is totally boring.

adicesa14

I agree with this except I would substitute exasperating for boring. I’m constantly amazed to watch Pirate hitters refuse to swing at strikes, get behind in the count, then strike out on a pitch that breaks way out of the zone. It’s like watching a gladiator bare his chest to an opponent’s blade! The disease is so pronounced, even the established players (e.g., Reynolds and Hayes) have dismal hitting stats. My only consolation is that two young pitchers, Keller, and Brubaker, seem to be figuring it out after several futile years in the majors. Hopefully, the hitters will follow.

NMR

League average wOBA for “edge” strikes is like in the .270’s I believe. That’s fucking awful.

You want hitters to swing at anything close, you’re gonna get really shitty contact and lots of outs.

TP

‘are tasked with a very difficult assignment of rapidly teaching players the correct methods that they should have learned in A-ball.’

How long does it take?

2020 -the Covid season- they should have developed a plan for every player and coach.
2021 and 2022 …work the plan. (and apply the modern hitting techniques)

AttyMike

My thought exactly. Its year three. It can’t take 3 years.

Sixdeuces

Still doesn’t explain why players who came in from other systems fairly recently can’t hit for average either.

chappy

I am convinced that only so much can be done to help a hitter, partly, mostly because it is reactive. I think pitching coaches can have a much more positive effect, if they know what they are doing, because they are initiating the sequence and there is more than can control. I still think we focus on coaching too much when analyzing players. Even if every player received the best coaching available, it is a competition based on skill, and some guys are going to be better, no matter what. I see it on here, when a guy gets thrown out running the bases and some get on the coaches for the out. It’s baseball! Guys are going to get thrown out. Some guys are better base runners because of judgment, speed, and other factors. If we have a bad base runner, it isn’t necessarily the coach. Start with the player and work your way back, not vice-versa.

leefieux

Why does the ‘approach, seemingly work in the minors but fails miserably at the MLB level? Asking for a friend.

zebug

Where is it working in the minors? Most hitters have taken a step back this year. Endy not included

leefieux

Bae, Madris, Mitchell, Gorski are four I can think of.

CTBucco

Maybe it’s because, as with most things, some people pick new things up and apply them faster than other?

leefieux

Or maybe they’re not as good (the ones who took a step backwards) as ballyhooed? I’ve seen it for the last 30 years. Hard to be optimistic any more.

roberto

Here’s a hypothesis: MLB pitchers are better than MiLB pitchers.

leefieux

Yes, but why do our prospects seemingly can never make that step? It happens over and over again. Reynolds is the only one to make a successful transition.

john_fluharty

Some of these guys started out in other organizations though. Where they taught the correct approach elsewhere, then when they got here we started teaching them incorrectly?

Last edited 1 month ago by john_fluharty
MB21

Swing at strikes and take balls. I don’t think it’s working too well to take strikes outside their “zone.” These guys are taking so many strikes that maybe their zone is too small? There’s nothing I hate to see than a hitter taking strike three except when they do it over and over again among multiple players in the same lineup day after day. Shelton, Haines and the rest – whether modern or whatever – simply are not helping this awful offense.

john_fluharty

Yep. If something is a strike but outside their zone, they need to learn to foul it off and not take strike three.

skliesen

So let me get this straight, the 1st two years BC was in this job he and his development team were teaching the wrong approach to hitting? And now in year 3, Haines/Munson have to fix it.

Unless BC has pictures of Nutting, he and everyone he has brought in, should be canned!

For the record, I don’t believe any of this cockamamie story. Personally, I think they’re all incompetent and that’s why we have an underachieving big league team and an underachieving minor league system.

Except for Endy and Gorski, who weren’t even upper echelon prospects in March, none of the top prospects have come close to improving this year.

RAS TN

I kinda like the Rod Carew approach hit the ball where it’s pitched, and be aggressive early in the count…if a batter gets down 0-2 that’s it stick a fork in him…

Last edited 1 month ago by RAS TN
gosteelers69

One of the worst hitting teams I have ever seen in my lifetime. Just historically bad. And I’m at the point now where I believe that Hayes isn’t that good of a player. Dude simply cannot hit. And so much for that great defensive value.

adicesa14

Hayes seems to be having difficulty. It seems to me he makes lots of contact but hit’s the ball on the ground right into the shift, which might be remedied by next years rule changes. Also, it seems he’s not making as much hard contact. I wonder whether his wrist injury is having a longer term effect on his power like a hamate bone injury does.

AdministrativeSky236

Hayes will be fine, he is a better hitter than he showed this year with some tweaks and his defensive value is as advertised. Even if he’s not a 7 win player, he will have multiple seasons above 5 imo

CTBucco

Hayes is the poster boy for the steep swing plane. His hands are constantly coming down through the point of contact. It’s amazing to me that he hits LDs and as hard as he does as often as he does given his swing. He needs to work with Mark McGwire to compensate for his natural swing.

Wilbur Miller

Historically bad — that’s a point that shouldn’t be ignored. It’s extremely difficult to be this bad. This isn’t just “a few guys are figuring things out” bad. It’s “these guys don’t even seem to be playing the same sport as everybody else” bad.

clemo83

Yeah, something they’re doing has to be wrong. Granted the lineup being a hodgepodge of nothingness doesn’t help. But even the players with talent are really struggling.

If we are to assume that they are teaching the correct philosophy (which is debatable), then there has to be a disconnect with the way it’s being taught to the players. Which is ultimately just as bad.

Wilbur Miller

Can’t really buy this. If the actual problem, which I flat don’t believe, is that Haines has to make up for five years or whatever of lost development, then he should be the minor league hitting coordinator, not the ML hitting coach. His job should be to help these guys get better now, not five years down the road when they’re all playing for the Brewers and Cards. That’s the difference between a coach and a development coordinator. If he has no answers for the now part — and it couldn’t be more obvious from the team’s performance that he has none — he shouldn’t be doing the coaching part.

This IS, however, consistent with everything we’ve seen from Hodge ‘n Podge. Some day, in the far far future, the lost continent of Atlantis will rise above the waves, and we’ll sail our little Pirate ship there and pick up all the diamonds lying on the shore, and THEN we’ll be ready to start trying to win games. We’ve been hearing that since long before Hodge ‘n Podge came along.

Atlantis doesn’t exist. There are no diamonds lying on the shore. And Haines isn’t helping.

clemo83

The flaw in your argument is that I don’t think you can prove conclusively that Atlantis doesn’t exist. National Geographic tv show said that it could conceivable be possible. “Could conceivable be possible” is way too much hope for a Pirates fan.

chappy

So how does this work? Is everyone “taught” this? B-Rey has had 2 seasons above .300 with power. Other than helping someone solve a slump, what does Haines offer an accomplished hitter? Is Reynold’s attempting to please a coach when he should have just continued what was working? I am bit dubious that changing the lingo of how one approaches hitting, which does change over the years, means everything else is changing. The strike zone is still the strike zone and there have been bad, decent, good, and great hitters in every generation. Velocity is definitely up, but honestly, what else is different about pitching? The ball can only do so many things and the hitter ultimately has to see the ball and hit it. There is only so much that can be coached.

Last edited 1 month ago by chappy
roberto

Right on. The guys who can hit 200 in MLB are amazing athletes. The ones who can hit 250 are better. Ones who can hit 250 with power are phenomenal. Talent is essential and really expensive, unless you draft it or sign IFAs.

NMR

NMR

Jokes aside, this should inspire a lot of confidence in the coaching and dev staff.

Just today FanGraphs dropped an article on the Cards latest developmental success story, Lars Nootbar, who hit the ground running based on a selective approach at the plate and a major swing overhaul from the guys at Driveline. Precisely what Haines seems to be talking about.

What’s missing from Haines’ explanation is also what I’m afraid is the real problem with the Pirate bats.

An ironclad approach is only effective if you have the inherent ability to recognize the right pitches to target. How do you teach that, because it sure seems like many if not all the young bats need an awful lot of help.

roberto

Nootbar went to Driveline. As a player in the Cards vaunted development system.

redwards60

Although Cruz has struggled making the necessary adjustments – as expected with most rookies and young players – the raw talent is undeniable. He can clearly do things in the field and at the plate that very few humans can do. If he can make the necessary adjustments at the plate – especially with off speed stuff – he could be a franchise type player. Of all the young players who have seen time in Pittsburgh so far this year, he and Contreras have that high of ceilings – in my opinion. I think guys like Suwinski, Castillo, Maracano, Castro, Madris, Mitchell, and de Los Santos have shown enough to be optimistic that some of them could be become successful and significant contributors. I don’t see any of them being star players, but they could be significant contributors in the line-up or off the bench. I really like CSN and still believe he will surpass Suwinski, Swaggerty, Mitchell, and Madris as a major league outfielder – it is a shame he got hurt so soon in his time in Pittsburgh. There isn’t enough to field a contender in 2023 – since we all know this team sits out free agency – but if the management stops blocking the young players and lets them play and learn, 2023 could be a year of some improvement. Given their ages and college background, guys like Davis, Triolo, Sabol, and Gorski should all be given real opportunities to earn a spot on the team next Spring….Peguero has a ways to go…he is too up and down in AA – in the field and at the plate.

ArkyWags

Wut

NMR

christ sake

TNBucs

I appreciate the fact that the Pirates’ batters (e.g., Siani) may have started from behind and it will take awhile for the new staff to help them catch up (though in Siani’s case, his first full season was the same as the new management team’s first full season). But there are many examples of where our draftees and IFAs are outhitting those acquired from other teams in Ben’s first couple of years who shouldn’t be working from behind.

So the talk and logic sounds good, but I also have this gnawing feeling that it’s another example of this management team trying to place blame for their failures on their predecessors, which is not a good look.

agent00

another example of this management team trying to place blame for their failures on their predecessors, which is not a good look.”

truth hurts i guess? previous management had distinct failings, and now they have to play catch up. i fail to see how acknowledging that is a bad thing.

TNBucs

But why are the players who were here with the previous management team performing as well or better than the players acquired since then who, presumably, did not have to catch up?

agent00

cause not all baseball players are the same? players can do well under previous management while acknowledging they had serious developmental flaws.

and this isn’t even a defense of current management. they still have serious developmental questions that need to be answered.

TNBucs

Yes, of course all players are different and development is nonlinear and so forth. I’m not arguing against the need to be leaders and not followers of the latest trends. It was being ahead of the curve that led to 2013-2015, but we either didn’t identify the next trend or didn’t have the right people to carry it out (probably some of both).

It just seems odd that players who started their careers with organizations not known for being behind the curve, or even known for being ahead of the curve, are struggling this year at least as much as those who started their careers with us. Similarly, players that this staff has had from day one of their professional careers (e.g., Gonzales) aren’t progressing like their peers in other organizations. That says to me that the struggles we’re seeing aren’t only due to the previous developmental staff being behind, and that the current developmental staff don’t have it all figured out.

tventimiglio

Funny, I didn’t see any quotes attributing blame anywhere.

TNBucs

Hard to talk about how great the improvements you’re making are without implicitly laying blame on those who came before. But if you’re a fan of this staff, then I’m happy for you and I hope you end up being right. I’m skeptical though.

When I read things like this quote from Haines in response to his friends asking if he knew what he was getting into:

 ‘Do you understand the challenge that you’re undertaking?’ And I said, ‘Of course I do. That’s part of the intrigue.’ We can’t back away from that right now. You have to embrace how challenging this is and tackle it head on.”

I read that as setting the bar low–look at this challenge I’m taking on! So why is it so challenging Andy? One answer is the players lack talent. Another is that the previous coaching was poor. I doubt he’s referring to the talent…there are subtle ways to lay blame and he’s doing that here.

ArkyWags

Or you’re just looking for insults when the current team is looking for results.

I’m skeptical of this development team, but let me ask you this: should they be looking to do exactly the same as the development team they replaced? That sounds colossally stupid, doesn’t it?

TNBucs

Obviously not, but there are more classy ways to go about their business.

tventimiglio

No excuses once again. The question was asked. What was he to say. “Duh, I thought every thing was great?” If you read Alex’s column here is the question that was asked, “ One more for you. You know what this business can be like and that when a team isn’t clicking offensively, your name is going to be brought up. Do you hear those calls? Do you prefer that? ‘Yeah, go after me, don’t go after the rookies?’ How do you handle when that comes up?” Nothing wrong with that part of the response and perhaps you should read the entire response which is too long to post.

TNBucs

I’m sure Haines is a nice guy and yes, there’s nothing wrong with the part of the question that you highlighted. We’ve both focused on different parts of the story and it’s fine if you’re a fan of Haines and Shelton.

tventimiglio

Not a fan at all. Just don’t see any problem in his response to the questions.

RaisetheJollyRancherGirl

Hayes and Cruz are both great examples of NH’s rejection of launch angle. They both sit around 5-6 degrees and can’t get to their power nearly as often as they should (I know that sounds crazy in Cruz’s case but it’s true). Reynolds, for example, doesn’t hit the ball nearly as hard as either but he hits it _hard enough_ averaging just under 90 mph and comes in at nearly 12 degrees of launch.

roberto

A flat swing (a low launch angle) gets more contact and less power. An uppercut swing (a high launch angle) gets less contact and more power. The solution is to draft Ted Williams.

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