After three straight seasons of at least 88 wins, the Pittsburgh Pirates suddenly recorded their 21st losing season in the last 24 seasons. To reverse course, the team must focus on improving these five pivotal factors in 2017.
The Pittsburgh Pirates went through a lost season in 2016. It was a long, trying season that offered myriad reasons for the team’s 20-win dropoff from 2015. A closer look reveals five key factors that the 2017 version of the club will absolutely have to improve upon to avoid a second consecutive losing season.
Batter Strikeout Percentage
2016 was undeniably Andrew McCutchen’s worst season in his eight-year career. Aside from posting career-worsts in WAR (-0.7), batting average (.256) and on-base percentage (.336), McCutchen also recorded a career worst 21.2 strikeout percentage.
It wasn’t just McCutchen swinging and missing regularly: David Freese (28.9), Sean Rodriguez (29.8) and Gregory Polanco (20.3) also whiffed too often. All in all, the Pittsburgh Pirates finished 12th worst in MLB in K%, which calculates how many strikeouts a hitter records per at bat, with a 21.3-percent mark. Of the 11 teams below the Pirates, only three made the playoffs.
Rodriguez is gone, but the best way for the Pirates strikeout percentage to decrease would be by shortening swings and getting a bounceback year from McCutchen. Power was not Pittsburgh’s speciality in 2016 and will not be in 2017 either. The Pirates need to just get on base and focus on advancing runners instead of trying to bring them all home on one swing of the bat.
Batter Ground Ball Percentage
In order to cut down on strikeouts, the Pittsburgh Pirates have to put the ball in play. However, those balls need to turn into hits. Pittsburgh hit more ground balls than 21 other teams in 2016, finishing with a 44.3 GB%. A stat like that explains why the Pirates finished third-to-last in MLB with 3.80 runners left in scoring position per game.
Take Starling Marte, for example. Prior to 2016, his GB% dipped below 50-percent just once (2014). Last season, Marte’s 48.3 GB% was the second-lowest of his career and in turn, he hit a career-best .311.
That said, Marte only hit nine home runs in 2016, his fewest in the four seasons that he’s made over 200 plate appearances. This means that Marte’s changed approach at the plate meant focusing on contact instead of power. However, Marte still generated his second-best career fly ball percentage (28.4) and hit more balls into the opposite field than any other year (25.1-percent of balls hit).
In his rookie season of 2012, it seemed like Marte was swinging out of his cleats at every pitch after homering in his first MLB at-bat. It resulted in career-worsts in K% (27.5) and GB% (57.0). He’s far from that player now.
Freese (60.7 GB%, .270 AVG) and Cervelli (56.0 GB%, .264 AVG) finished first and second, respectively, on the Pirates in ground ball percentage and must get the ball in the air and out of the infield as lineup regulars in 2017. Freese did collect 16 infield hits last season, but is not the most fleet of foot to expect to extend his career with that stat.
If the Pittsburgh Pirates are truly committing to improving launch angles, this problem may correct itself. Launch angles are all the rage these days, and the Pirates are buying into it as well.
We’ll now turn our attention towards pitching, fielding and defense.