Throughout the whole season we have been talking about how great the Pirates pitching staff has been, and with good reason. Despite giving up ten runs last night they rank tops in the league with a 3.15 ERA, are sixth with a 3.60 FIP, and also sixth with a 3.67 xFIP. They are striking out over 7.5 hitters per game and while they walk a good bit of batters (3.2 per nine) they are able to get out of it with the top ground ball rate (52.2%) which with an outstanding defense turns a lot of those balls in play into outs (76.7% LOB).
So with all the talk on the pitching staff the offense has been under a little bit of heat. They have had their really good streaks where they are putting up runs and they have gone through streaks where they have struck out 15 times and looked like they were never going to score a run again. All of this really has created a stereotype that the Pirates offense isn't very good and while it is a bottom-five offense it still isn't nearly average enough to be a factor.
It really has me questioning why. I mean the Pirates have a premier middle of the order hitter in Andrew McCutchen and a leadoff hitter that comes into the day with a .283/.342/.440 line and despite a better than 23% strikeout rate can change at bats for the hitters behind him with his speed on the bases (33 stolen bases). Pedro Alvarez lead the National League with 27 home runs and Russell Martin has been worlds better offensively than the black hole that the catcher position has been since Jason Kendall.
Furthermore of the players who have at least 200 plate appearances (ten players) only two of them have below a 100 wRC+. Basically wRC+ is a scale where 100 is league average and each point above or below is a percentage better than league average a player is. The only two below are Clint Barmes (53) who was replaced by Jordy Mercer and Travis Snider (69) who is on the disabled list. So how can there be the stigma that the Pirates are just a pretty bad offense? That is what I wanted to look at with some free time.
First we have to just flat out say what the problem is, the Pirates strikeout, a lot. They are second in the league with a 22.3% strikeout rate (determined by plate appearances) and that just isn't that great. The Pirates are right at league average for batting average on balls in play (.299) so if the Pirates just got to the league average in strikeout rate (19.7%) then some of those batted balls will get through and thus make the offense better. That is the big problem. The Pirates have a lot of guys who strikeout a lot (Marte, Alvarez, Barmes, Garrett Jones, Snider) and that is just the way it is going to be.
The other underlying problem is that the Pirates pitches are just awful at hitting the baseball. The pitchers are hitting .102/.121/.102 average which is well below the league average of .136/.165/.177 with an OPS+ of 105 (100 is league average) with the Pirates pitchers posting an OPS+ of 34. You might sit there and look at the slash line and think that it doesn't make a big difference, but it does when you are the Pirates this year. Watching Francisco Liriano go up there and half-heartedly take at bats makes me really wonder why so many people are on this "ban the DH" kick that Bob Walk loves to preach during the broadcast.
Anyways, when you look at ranks of the offense you really have to look at them in the context of just the National League. The American League does not have their pitchers hit (except interleague games on the road which doesn't give us enough of a sample size) so comparing the Pirates among the entire league will skew the Pirates offense a bit.
Before we start here are some standard definitions via FanGraphs for a couple of statistics that some of you might not be overly familiar with, but are some of my more favorite Sabermetric stats.
wOBA: Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is one of the most important and popular catch-all offensive statistics to measure a hitter’s overall offensive value, based on the relative values of each distinct offensive event. Not all hits are created equal. Batting average assumes that they are. On-base percentage does too, but does one better by including other ways of reaching base. Slugging percentage weights hits, but not accurately (Is a double worth twice as much as a single? In short, no). On-base plus slugging (OPS) does attempt to combine the different aspects of hitting into one metric, but it assumes that one percentage point of SLG is the same as that of OBP. In reality, a handy estimate is that OBP is around twice as valuable than SLG (the exact ratio is x1.8). Weighted On-Base Average combines all the different aspects of hitting into one metric, weighting each of them in proportion to their actual run value. While batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage fall short in accuracy and scope, wOBA measures and captures offensive value more accurately and comprehensively.
wRC+: Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) measures how a player’s wRC compares with league average. League average is 100, and every point above 100 is a percentage point above league average. For example, a 125 wRC+ means a player created 25% more runs than league average. Similarly, every point below 100 is a percentage point below league average, so a 80 wRC+ means a player created 20% fewer runs than league average. wRC+ is also park and league-adjusted, allowing one to to compare players who played in different years, parks, and leagues. Want to know how Ted Williams compares with Albert Pujols in terms of offensive abilities? This is your statistic.
Here are the Pirates rankings in a few categories as they stand right now in the 15 team National League:
Average: .245 (10th)
On Base Percentage: .313 (8th)
Slugging Percentage: .390 (10th)
wOBA: .308 (8th)
wRC+: 96 (5th)
BB%: 7.6% (8th)
K%: 22.3% (15th)
Just for reference here are the National League averages:
On Base Percentage: .314
Slugging Percentage: .390
So looking at just the National League averages and where the Pirates stand you can really see that they are probably around a league average offense but probably a little below average. Probably what most people think of when they are talking about the Pirates. This is where I wanted to bring up my above point of how awful the Pirates pitchers have been hitting. While we can't play arbitrary games and say that "if pitchers didn't hit they would have scored x number of more runs" we can look at how the actual Pirates hitters have done and see what it looks like.
Here is the National League average for all hitters, pitcher excluded:
On Base Percentage: .322
Slugging Percentage: .405
Now here are the Pirates numbers and where they rank in the National League with all teams having their pitches excluded:
Average: .254 (10th)
On Base Percentage: .323 (8th)
Slugging Percentage: .407 (8th)
wOBA: .320 (7th)
wRC+: 105 (4th)
BB%: 7.9% (7th)
K%: 21.1% (13th)
Now, that we have taken the pitchers out of the equation here is the league average with all 30 teams included with pitchers excluded:
On Base Percentage: .322
Slugging Percentage: .405
Now, here is where the Pirates rank in MLB with all 30 teams included:
On Base Percentage: 14th
Slugging Percentage: 16th
Here are a few more interesting tidbits I found when looking around. This is where the Pirates rank in MLB with pitchers excluded and the league average after the ranking:
Line drive rate: 21.6% (7th, 21.1%)
Ground ball rate: 44.6% (14th, 44.3%)
Fly ball rate: 33.8% (18th, 34.6%)
HR/FB rate: 11.3% (12th, 10.7%)
O-Swing % (pitches outside of the strike zone swung at): 31.7% (20th, 30.6%)
Z-Swing % (pitches inside the zone swung at): 65.7% (13th, 65.6%)
O-Contact % (pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swung at): 62.6% (29th, 67.1%)
Z-Contact % (pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swung at): 86% (25th, 87.3%)
SwStr% (percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on): 10.3% (28th, 9.1%)
Just for a little context here is how FanGraphs describes the rates:
A line drive produces 1.26 runs per out, while fly balls produce 0.13 runs per out and groundballs produce 0.05 runs per out. In other words, batters want to hit lots of line drives and fly balls, while pitchers generally want to cause batters to hit groundballs.
Also the bottom portion of those stats just echoes what I talked about above in that the Pirates are going to strikeout. A lot.
What does this tell us overall? Well, for one, it tells us that the Pirates pitchers have really brought this team down. They are a below average offense with the pitchers hitting but when you look at just the hitters then you see that the Pirates have been at worst a league average offense and actually probably a little bit better than that. Maybe I am way off base with the stigma of the Pirates offense but within the National League they have the hitters that are performing and while the strikeouts are bad it is something that we as fans have to deal with. The Pirates have struggled horribly in getting on base in the recent past but their hitters are right at league average and right in the middle of the pack. Now, this isn't saying that the Pirates offense is great but when you break it down and look at it they aren't as bad as you might think if some stranger on the street pull you aside and said to describe them.
The Pirates pitching staff as been one of the best in the league this year, that is a fact. The fact also remains that the Pirates offense, at least the hitters that are paid to hit, have done their job for the most part. Where is the DH when you need it?