Which Pittsburgh Pirates hitters could be headed for a cold April?

Last week we ticked off the reasons that Pittsburgh Pirates regulars Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang and Josh Bell will start the season with hot bats in April.  This week we turn our attention to the other end of that spectrum.

Based on our analysis, there are two players who are more susceptible to slow starts than others.  To be sure, these are talented players and should be expected to contribute throughout the season; however, their April numbers may not impress.

April Cold Spell

What constitutes a cold April start for these Pittsburgh Pirates?  For our purposes, this is performance below historical career averages for the entire month of April. For instance, a batting average 20 points below a player’s career average or an on-base percentage 40 points below career OBP would qualify.   We won’t consider slugging percentage in our calculations, mainly because this varies dramatically in the first month.  Some players don’t see their power come into form until the season is well underway.  A few home runs (or not) has an outsized impact across only 50-75 at-bats.    Considering our example from last week – Jordy Mercer, who has a career slash line of .257/.313/.377 would need to hit for an average less than .237 or and OBP less than .273 to be designated as a “cold” start.

Given this definition, there are two players that are likely to start the season wishing there were less days in April.

Josh Harrison

Pittsburgh Pirates UT/2B Josh Harrison is a lifetime .284/.316/.410 hitter and his career slash line in April is in line with these numbers at .289/.316/.410.  However, this is skewed by his 2016 season where he hit for an average of .333 in April.  In his 2014 breakout campaign, where he finished the season with a .315 average, his April average was only .227.  In 2014, his April average was even worse at .214.

Harrison doesn’t walk much, but he really doesn’t walk much in April.

Although Harrison is much maligned, he is a good hitter.  Even though many thought he underperformed last season, he was still the Pirates’ second best qualified hitter by batting average.   His biggest weakness is his OBP, which was only .311 last season.  Harrison doesn’t walk much, but he really doesn’t walk much in April.  That month is almost always his worst for taking a free pass, amassing only 8 career walks against 41 strikeouts.  Harrison is so eager to put the ball in play that he sometimes swings at pitches that are more than a foot out of the strike zone.  If Harrison becomes the Pirates leadoff man in 2017, he must become more selective at the plate, but this is change is unlikely to take effect in the first month of the new season.  Therefore, this April expect Harrison to produce below his career averages.

Jordy Mercer

Until 2016, Jordy Mercer was the definition of slow starter.  Consider his slash lines from April of the two previous full seasons against what he did last year

Mercer

AVG

OBP

SLG

April 2014*

.175

.232

.190

April 2015

.197

.275

.197

April 2016

.318

.394

.412

*Includes one game played in calendar March

If you were using 2014 and 2015 to predict his start in 2016, you would have got it completely wrong.  So what changed last year?  For one thing, Mercer performed inordinately well against starting left-handed pitching last April.  In a six game span, he faced four lefty starters and went 10-19 at the plate.  His batting average before this six game span was sitting at .250 and afterwards, it was .311.  This was an aberration of the early schedule last season and elevated Mercer’s performance.

Unfortunately, once Mercer mixed in a normal amount of starts against RHP, his hot start turned out to be a pretty average full-season for him at the plate.  He ended 2016 with a .256/.328/.374 slash line, in line with his overall career averages.  Even though we know the 2017 schedule, it’s unclear what kind of pitching Mercer will face in April as most of the Pirates’ opponents have not yet announced their starting rotation.  Still, we can make some educated guesses and estimate that 4 out of the 24 games Mercer will play will be started by lefties.  Given this, Mercer is likely to start out slowly.

Rounding out the Lineup

We didn’t talk about Francisco Cervelli or Andrew McCutchen as either a hot or cold starter.  This is because the analysis predicts both players to hit around their career averages early in the season.  Cervelli is very consistent at the plate when he is healthy.  There is no reason to assume that will change in April 2017.  McCutchen has a reputation as a slow starter.  However, there are just too many unknowns to make a prediction that is well above or below his career numbers.  His 2016 offensive statistics were significantly south of his career averages, which makes it even tougher to predict how April will go for him.  The World Baseball Classic may give us a glimpse of what to expect from Cutch in 2017.

In summary, Mercer and Harrison will start off more slowly and round into form as the season progresses.  Even with a slow start form these two, the team has the horsepower to score a lot of runs.  If Polanco, Marte, Kang and Bell get out of the gates quickly as predicted, it should be more than enough to make the Pittsburgh Pirates extremely competitive in the early days of the 2017 season.

Image Credit – Daniel Decker Photography

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.