The regular season is finally here and with it comes a new series focused on all those little things the Pittsburgh Pirates must do in order to win a baseball game.
The Pittsburgh Pirates are a more talented ballclub than many people realize, but their talent level is not staggering enough for them to not have to consistently do the little things that lead to winning games. Over the course of the 2017 season, we are going to keep an eye on how this team is going about executing these keys to winning in an informal series.
Little things don’t show up in the box score
I’m not talking about clutch hitting or getting the strikeout when you really need it. Those things are critically important, but they are already very visible. That clutch hit in a tie game with a runner on second is great, but how did that runner get to second in the first place? When you make an out, is it a productive out? Are you hitting to the correct side of the field based on the position of your baserunners?
Are the Pittsburgh Pirates hitting it in the air or on the ground when you need to? Are you making contact versus swinging for the fences when the situation calls for it? When someone leads off an inning with a double in a close game, are the next two batters able to score that runner? Some of these little things require a hitter to sacrifice his own personal stats for the overall team goals – no small thing in an era of free agency.
On defense, are you in the correct position for the cutoff? Are you making a good choice on when to throw it and when to eat it? Are the outfielders getting the ball to the correct bag. This is the baseball equivalent to basketball’s “moving without the ball” and it is the difference between a W and an L in many games. In a game that many feel is left to random chance, these are the more “controllable” things that a player can do to help his team win. It is a contributing factor to certain teams winning more often, even though their personnel go through dramatic changes. Those teams are bought in to doing the little things well.
Positive Examples from Opening Day
The Pittsburgh Pirates need to be one of the teams that does the little things well. In the opening game against the Boston Red Sox, there were many encouraging examples of the Pirates’ doing exactly that.
In a game that many feel is left to random chance, these are the more “controllable” things that a player can do to help his team win.
In the first inning, Adam Frazer lead off for the Bucs. He took the first pitch and eventually had a 5-pitch at-bat before flying out to left field. Having your leadoff hitter see a lot of pitches is important for the two and three hitters that follow. It gives them a sense of the pitcher’s windup, delivery and overall timing. It is especially valuable if the leadoff hitter can force the starting pitcher to show more of their pitching arsenal than just a fastball.
Beating the shift
Later in the first, Polanco laced a ground ball to the left side of the infield, beating the defensive shift. In today’s game, where shifts are used prodigiously, this is a must-do for any professional hitter. If the defense is going to purposely open a huge hole for you, then you must hit it through that hole. The Red Sox’ Sandy Leon did the same thing later on in the third inning, bunting for a base hit against a defensive shift.
At-Bat for the team
Another great example was in the fifth inning where Josh Bell popped out on a relatively-quick 5 pitch at-bat. This was followed by trigger-happy Josh Harrison grounding out on the first pitch. Up comes Jordy Mercer knowing that he needs to buy some time for his own pitcher to rest, and also make the opposing pitcher and defense work a little harder to get out of the inning. He watched two strikes go by, and then worked a 5 pitch at bat for himself, eventually striking out looking. Mercer could have easily gone after the first pitch – it was right down main street after all. It might have gone for a hit, but it also might have ended the half inning after only 7 pitches. This at-bat was for his team and not for himself.
An example of not doing the little things came in the 7th inning with Andrew McCutchen at the plate, representing the go-ahead run. He worked the count to 2-0 only to have a pitch called a strike that was low and out of the strike zone. Not by much, but clearly a ball. Next, with the count 2-1, the hitter should be sitting on the fastball and taking anything off-speed. This is especially true in that situation where a walk would move the tying run into scoring position.
Sure enough, McCutchen got a curve ball that was right on the upper edge of the strike zone, but he swung and fouled it back. He should have been taking this pitch as soon as he saw it was a breaking ball. In this situation, you want to force the pitcher throw that pitch for a strike. Worst case – it’s 2-2. Best case – the umpire calls it a ball and you’re hitting with a very favorable 3-1 count. In my mind, that 2-1 offering was the crucial pitch of the at-bat, not the next pitch that almost bounced twice before Cutch half-swung at it and struck out.
Weekly team player
At the end of every week, we will sum up the best examples of the Pittsburgh Pirates doing the little things right and the resulting impact on the game. These are things that can be done by making good decisions and smart choices that help the team score runs on offense and prevent runs on defense. This is the mental side of the game. Again, I am not talking about making a great catch or getting a clutch hit. In that vein, we will also analyze examples where the Pirates failed to do what could have been done to further the team’s chances of scoring or preventing runs. I hope the positive examples are much more numerous than the negative ones.
Pirates Breakdown will also name a “team player of the week” as a tribute to the Pirate that was the best example of doing the little things right that week.