Which Pittsburgh Pirates hitters are primed for hot starts in April? The club has a clear Fantastic Four that can fit that bill.

The Pittsburgh Pirates have a ton of talent in their everyday lineup. That much is clear.

What is also clear – as proven last season – is that the talent that they do have must get off to good starts for the club to be successful. Does the 2017 version of the club have the horses to start hot out of the gate?

How Hot is Hot?

What constitutes a hot April start?  For many Pittsburgh PIrates fans, this comes down to clutch hitting early in the season.  A player that drives in the winning run or hits a timely homer will often get a “halo” effect early in the season.  However, what we really want to see is consistent performance above and beyond what is expected.

For purposes of definition, we consider either 20 points above a player’s career batting average, 40 points above career OBP or 50 points above career slugging percentage as a hot start.  Any average above .300 also would qualify as would any OBP above .400 and any slugging percentage above .500.  So Jordy Mercer, who has a relatively weak career slash line of .257/.313/.377 would need to have either an average of .277, an OBP of .353, or a slugging percentage of .427 to be designated “hot”.  Alternatively, a player like Andrew McCutchen would be shooting for the .300/.400/.500 bar.

Given this definition, there are four players that are likely to start the season with a hot bat.

Starling Marte

Pittsburgh Pirates CF Starling Marte is a lifetime .289/.345/.447 hitter and his career slash line in March and April is in line with these numbers at .284/.348/.408.  In 2017, he will have a new position in center field to contend with but this should not overly distract his hitting performance.  He started the 2016 season on a hot streak, hitting for a .323 average in April, but his 2014 and 2015 seasons did not start off as well.  His April average in each of these seasons was .225 and .247 with a total of 64 strikeouts against only 12 walks. Not that Spring Training is a good leading indicator, but Marte is 4 for 8 with three walks and only one strikeout through seven games.  It’s not obvious from these numbers how we should handicap Marte’s bat early in the 2017 season.

One other factor to consider is the Pirates will play a quarter of their April games against Inter League opponents.  Marte has always risen to the occasion in Inter League play, slashing .317/.378/.551 and this is likely to continue.  This will add to his overall performance at the plate and push him over the top into our “hot start” category based on a projected batting average above .300.

Gregory Polanco

Pittsburgh Pirates LF Gregory Polanco started off the 2015 season on a tear, hitting for an average of .302 and an OBP of .404 through April.  Early in the season, Polanco was leading the League with 16 free passes.  Unfortunately, his performance dipped in the second half as he was noticeably fatigued and struggled with minor injuries.  However, in April, he is the optimist’s dream – hitting for a .291 average over his first three seasons (in 2014, he was not called up until June).  He comes out of the gate as a choosy hitter who does strike out a lot, but also hits a lot of balls right on the button.  Polanco is an April explosion of extra base hits.  His April slugging percentage is .455 as compared to his career number of .404 and he put an exclamation mark on this by slugging .500 last April.

Polanco is an April explosion of extra base hits. 

Polanco’s ability to distinguish balls from strikes also seems at its peak in the first month of the season.  Driving this point home, his OBP in April is .360, over 40 points higher than his overall OBP of .318.  There is every reason to believe Polanco will come out of the gates strong and beat his career OBP by a significant margin.  The issue for the new left fielder is keeping it up over the second half of the season.  His first half career OBP is a respectable.341 – his second half mark of .292 leaves a lot to be desired.

Jung Ho Kang

Most fans and analysts expect Pittsburgh Pirates 3B Jung Ho Kang to ease slowly back into baseball after an offseason where he plead guilty to his third DUI and couldn’t be blamed for not thinking much about baseball.  This was the story line last season as well, but instead of offseason legal troubles, it was offseason surgery / rehab which was supposed to hold him back.  It didn’t and Kang hit two home runs in his first MLB game off the DL.  In 2015, he was supposed to take time to get used to the MLB, having freshly come over form the KBO.  Instead, he was in the running for rookie of the year honors.  Kang appears to be the rare player who can leave it all behind when he steps into the batter’s box.

One other factor to consider is the Pirates will play a quarter of their April games against Inter League opponents.

The numbers back this up, but you have to dig a bit to get the story.  His April slash line is only .268/.310/.346, but this represents only one season in the MLB – his first.  In June, his numbers leap to .282/.351/.523, which is a better representation of what you can expect from a distracted, but otherwise healthy, Jung Ho Kang in his first month back.  In addition, he has destroyed American League pitchers in his two seasons with the Pirates – slugging .571 against those clubs.  For these reasons, a hot-hitting Kang will eclipse the .500 slugging benchmark we set as the bar for April.

Josh Bell

The last candidate for a hot start is one of the newer Pittsburgh Pirates – first baseman Josh Bell.  Bell is coming off knee surgery and will not get a full complement of Spring Training reps, but it is still unknown how much of an effect that will have on his performance.  Since Bell is a switch hitter, and a very evenly balanced one at that, he will have to see how his knee feels from both sides of the plate before any real determination can be made.

Assuming the knee is not a factor, we can still estimate what Bell is capable of in early action this season.  Bell does not have a large body of work to draw from, having logged only 128 at-bats in his first season.  However, he has several things going for him as he kicks off the 2017 campaign.  First, he has a very good eye for a young hitter with 21 walks against only 19 Ks last season.  This is not a new phenomenon for Bell as his 2015 and 2016 minor league efforts produced 123 walks against 139 strike outs.  Bell already holds a .368 OBP in the majors and a .382 OBP from his last season at Indianapolis. Any hitter who can walk as much as they strikeout will have a very good chance to achieve the elusive .400 OBP standard, especially early on in the season

April’s Fantastic Four

Based on our analysis, there are four Pirates who have good odds to break out early in 2017.   These players have demonstrated the ability to start hitting from game one of the season.

Hitter April 2017 Benchmark
Starling Marte BA  >  .300
Gregory Polanco OBP  >  .358
Jung Ho Kang SLG  >  .500
Josh Bell OBP  >  .400

Next week, we will discuss the rest of the anticipated starting Pittsburgh Pirates lineup and project who will get off to a slow start come April.

Sean Riley

Sean Riley is a lifelong Pirates fan who now resides in Portland, OR. He is a former executive of several major companies and a published author. His current passion is balancing statistics and good old-fashioned “feel” to provide insight into the game of baseball. Sean is married to a great gal and the father of two amazing boys.