While they haven’t scored many runs they have been able to win games. The Pirates went into the game on Wednesday with a 17-19 record which outplayed their Pythagorean record by three games. The Pythagorean record gives you a rough idea of what a team’s record could be by the runs scored and runs against so you can understand why the Pirates probably should be worse than they are thanks to being the last team in the league to score 100 runs and being 18 runs short of the next closest team.
There are two ways you can look at the Pirates so far this season. One way is that you can say that the pitching has been outstanding and has really given them a chance to stay in games enough where the offense could get that one or two runs (literally) to earn the victory. It sure doesn’t hurt that the team ERA of 3.21 ranks third in the league while stranding 76.6% of runs and holding s respectable 3.77 xFIP. Obviously the pitching has been good, the hitting on the other hand, has not.
That is where I am going with this today. As you may know the Pirates have done a few things on offense than aren’t very good and the first of that is striking out a ton of times and taking very few walks. Combine the two and you don’t have a recipe for run scoring so you can understand where the Pirates trouble comes from. This is reflective in the team’s .273 OBP which is worst in the league. But, how bad is the team’s strikeout and walk problem? Actually, really big.
Thanks to the lovely plate discipline chart on FanGraphs you can just see how bad it has been for the Pirates. The first thing I want to look at is the Pirates inability to take the walk. While there are a few guys on the team that can take a walk (McCutchen, Walker, Alvarez) there are still many, many, more that are not able to do so. In a lineup with Clint Barmes and Rod Barajas there aren’t very many OBP guys but taking walks have been few and far between. The Pirates only have drawn 79 walks while the league average is around 115 walks.
To say that the Pirates have free swingers in their lineup seems like a pretty standard thing to say, but looking at the plate discipline stats really shows that. As a team the Pirates are the second most likely team to swing at pitches outside of the strike zone at nearly 34% which is 4% higher than the league average while they only make contact on those pitches 66% of the time which is a few percentage points below what is considered average. Translation? They are swinging at a higher percentage of pitches outside of the zone and not coming in contact proportionately with as many pitches as other teams. Barmes is one of the prime offenders of this as he is swinging at exactly 50% of pitches outside the zone which is second most in the league among players with 50 plate appearance or more. The worst part is that Josh Harrison, the guy who is backing him up in the field is swinging at 52% of those pitches. Both Barmes and Harrison also are making contact at a lower rate than the team average which makes those swings look even worse. It is no surprise that both Barmes and Harrison combined has drawn one walk on the season.
As a team the Pirates are just swinging and missing at way too many pitches which is a main reason for the large strikeout totals. They rank second in the league as they swing and miss on 10.3% of all pitches and is much higher than the standard 8.5% which is largely considered league average. Obviously some of this is going to overlap with swinging at a ton of pitches outside of the zone but the Pirates just aren’t putting the bat on the ball a lot. The Pirates have six players that have a swing and miss rate above 10% which includes five regulars (if you consider Garrett Jones a regular). There are just too many times that the Pirates are swinging and missing at pitches. It should go as no surprise that Barmes leads the charge in this at 14.8%.
Swinging and missing at pitches outside the zone and not even touching balls is one thing but not making contact with a ton of balls in the zone is another. The Pirates, as you can imagine, are pretty bad in this aspect to. They rank eighth from the bottom only contacting pitches in the zone 86.1% of the time. League average is about 88% but when you are swinging at a ton of pitches outside the zone and not making contact with them that puts even more importance on you putting the ball in play when you get a pitch in the zone. Now the Pirates do swing at their fair share of pitches in the strike zone (66.7%, third in league) but they need to do a better job of putting those in play. Even striking another one or two percent of balls in the strike zone can mean more than getting hits but it puts more pressure on the defense and can improve that league low OBP. Also when you have as low as a BABIP as the Pirates do (.267, third worst) you want to put the ball in play as much as possible because that number will come closer to league average (.290).
Just for an idea of how the Pirates look as a team here is the graph of the hitters:
|O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.||30%|
|Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.||65%|
|Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.||46%|
|O-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat.||68%|
|Z-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat.||88%|
|Contact%: The overall percentage of a batter makes contact with when swinging the bat.||81%|
|Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.||45%|
|F-Strike% – The percentage of first pitch strikes.||59%|
|SwStr%: The percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on.||8.50%|
While some on the team are busy swinging at baseballs outside of the zone there are some guys who are doing some good things. A guy who I consider a freer swinging hitter is Neil Walker but over the past couple of years he has really tightened up. This season Walker is one of the better Pirates and staying within the zone only swinging at pitches outside the zone 30% of the time while making contact with those pitches over 77% of the time. Walker has also been outstanding at putting the ball in play as his overall contact percentage of 88% leads the team and his z-contact % of 94.8% is best on the team among qualified hitters. Z-contact % refers to the number of balls he comes into contact with in the strike zone. Walker is swinging at pitches in the zone around 65% of the team which is around average but he is making contact at a really high rate during those swings. This is a huge reason why Walker has cut down his strikeout rate from 17.7% in 2010 to only 13.2% so far this year.
I know a guy that is getting a ton of play this year is Pedro Alvarez and when you look at his numbers they are kind of interesting. Watching the games I was of the mindset that Pedro was swinging at less pitches out of the zone and really making better contact on the pitches he was swinging at. That is half true. This season Alvarez is swinging at more pitches out of the zone than he did in his first two years (35%) and he is making contact at around the same rate on those pitches outside of the zone (45%). Where Alvarez has improved is actually in swinging at pitches in the zone and making contact with those pitches. In 2011 Alvarez set a career high swinging at pitches in the zone almost 64% of the time while making contact 84% of the time. Both of those numbers are below league average but this year is better than last as he is swinging at over 68% of pitches in the zone and making contact 87% of the time which is more in line with league average. The increased contact rate at pitches in the zone have upped his overall contact rate to over 72% and if he can start being more selective as he was in 2010 then he should get even better.
As you all know I am a huge Jose Tabata fanboy but he has had a pretty tough year at the plate and from looking at the numbers you can see why he is struggling. So far this season he is swinging at a ton more pitches out of the zone (34.7%) than he has over his career (28.7%). He is making contact at a much less frequent rate this season than he did the year before in terms of swinging at balls outside of the zone (63.2% this year and 67.2% career) while his overall contact rate is under 80% for the first time in his career. All of this isn’t helped by his 10.8% rate of swing and misses so it is just a puzzling picture to look at as he is significantly worse in most categories.
Not swinging at balls outside the zone and putting the bat on the ball when it is in the zone seems like an obvious thing but it is something that the Pirates are struggling with in a big way. I know the Pirates swing through a ton of pitches which is largely responsible for the league-worst 22.4% strikeout rate and the near league low 6.2% walk rate. While a lot of people are looking at the team and saying that they need to get more hits I would argue that having a better approach at the plate would be equally, if not more, important than having hits. The hits will come, you just have to put the ball in play.