David Freese and Adam Frazier are both back from short stints on the disabled list and the Pittsburgh Pirates are back in the win column.

Given the offensive struggles of many of the Pittsburgh Pirates regulars, Clint Hurdle has some options for constructing a batting order that includes both Freese and Frazier.

Replacing the Irreplaceable

Starling Marte and Jung Ho Kang were the Pittsburgh Pirates’ best offensive players last season as measured by wins-above-replacement (WAR).  As the Marte suspension broke, it was becoming clear that Kang may not even suit up in 2017, dealing a double punch to the collective guts of Pirates fans.  Marte had an offensive WAR of 3.1 and Kung an oWAR of 2.5 and their contributions have proven to be impossible to replace on short notice.

Adam Frazier and David Freese were key pieces that manager Clint Hurdle wanted to use to get through the first half of the season.  However, after starting off strong, both players went on the disabled list near the end of April with similar hamstring injuries.   Now that both players are back, Hurdle has some options for constructing his lineup.  Will Hurdle stick with the same lineup approach he’s used the last two seasons or will he mix it up?

Hurdle’s Number 3 or Bust

Hurdle has been especially stubborn with regards to batting Andrew McCutchen in the 3rd spot.  McCutchen has hit 3rd the entire season, despite slashing .212/.288/.401.  His numbers this season and last do not warrant continued exposure to the most important spot in the order.  By way of comparison, the 2017 version of McCutchen does not hold a candle to the other 3-hole hitters in the NL Central Division.

Player Team 2017 Batting Average 2017 On Base Percentage 2017 Slugging Percentage 2017 Home Runs
Andrew McCutchen Pittsburgh Pirates .212 .288 .401 6
Joey Votto Cincinnati Reds .291 .399 .582 10
Matt Carpenter St. louis Cardinals .252 .410 .523 8
Anthony Rizzo Chicago

Cubs

.213 .351 .383 6
Ryan Braun Milwaukee Brewers .287 .384 .574 7

Statistics through games played as of May 14th, 2017.  Ryan Braun went on the disabled list May 11th.

The other number 3 hitters have delivered good on-base percentages, good slugging power, or both.  Even Anthony Rizzo, who is struggling at the plate right now, is still posting a .351 on-base percentage.  He is contributing by getting his walks and getting on base.  Andrew McCutchen is not delivering in either category.

Cleaning up Clean Up

Things don’t get much better at the number 4 spot.  Gregory Polanco has hit in this position for most of the year and has groped his way to a .252/.336/.370 slash line with a single home run.  Polanco is doing a much better job of limiting strikeouts this year, however he has been hitting the ball on the ground much more often.  Polanco had a breakout season in 2016, clubbing 22 home runs and you can bet opposing pitchers changed their approach against Polanco.  He is seeing an increased percentage of off-speed and breaking pitches and these pitches are ending up on the ground.  Actually, this pitching approach against Polanco started last September and continued in 2017.   Polanco has the opportunity to adjust-  and hopefully he will – but until he does, his results do not warrant continued trips to the plate at the clean-up hitter.

Narrowing the Alternatives

So if not McCutchen and Polanco in the #3 / #4 spots, then who?  There are two approaches to figure this out.  The first is the pure numbers approach.  The second is the “gut feel” approach.

If you go purely by the numbers, the Pittsburgh Pirate with the best combination of on-base percentage, power and durability is Josh Harrison.  However, Harrison is needed as the leadoff or #2 hitter due to his ability to create on the base paths and put the ball in play.  Adam Frazier also has a compelling slash line at .317/.379/.433, but he has only logged 60 at-bats due to injury.

If you bring gut feel into the equation, then some combination of Frazier and Harrison are the best fit at the top of the order, not at #3 or #4.  If you need an argument for one versus the other as leadoff hitter, look no further than Harrison’s career average as leadoff – he hits .306/.342/.455 in that role and relishes the assignment.  Frazier would be an excellent choice for the #2 spot.

3 and 4: Freese and Bell

With Harrison and Frazier are at the top of the order, there are still have openings at #3 and #4.  The best choice for these spots are David Freese and Josh Bell.  Freese owns a higher on-base percentage at .387 versus Bell’s .336, but the two are much closer in slugging percentage – Freese .484 and Bell .478.  Both have similar home run per at bat ratios.  Each is striking out at about the same rate although Bell is on the high side of his professional average while Freese is on the low side.   Some regression for both would tip the scales towards Bell.  Freese is a veteran player that has handled the burden of being the team’s number three hitter before whereas Josh Bell is essentially a rookie who is learning a new defensive position.  Because their numbers are close, the #3 hitting assignment should go to Freese.  This makes Josh Bell the new clean-up hitter.

5 and 6: Cutch and El Coffee

McCutchen and Polanco are still important parts of the Pittsburgh Pirates offense and, as the #5 and #6 hitters, they will get every chance to put up numbers that would warrant moving them back to their original positions in the lineup.  Gregory Polanco will likely not mind where he hits as long as he is in the lineup.  Andrew McCutchen may be a tougher sell.  McCutchen has been a class act all through the 2016 season and offseason where it seemed like he would be traded any day.  He did not complain when the Pirates moved him to right field even though his shallow positioning likely contributed to his terrible center field defensive metrics.  However, something tells me that McCutchen might take a move down in the order a little more personally.  I view it a different way.  The Pittsburgh Pirates management owes it to Andrew McCutchen to do something to try and reverse his decline at the plate.

Completing the Picture

Francisco Cervelli and Jordy Mercer slot nicely into the #7 and #8 spots.  One could argue that Cervelli deserves to bat higher than 7th, but with his injury history and position at catcher, less at-bats is not necessarily a bad thing.  Cervelli’s keen eye and good plate discipline could also be used well as the 8th hitter.

With the approach outlined above, the Pirates batting order would be:

Order Player Name On Base Percentage Slugging Percentage
1 Josh Harrison .354 .455
2 Adam Frazier .379 .433
3 David Freese .387 .484
4 Josh Bell .336 .478
5 Andrew McCutchen .288 .401
6 Gregory Polanco .336 .370
7 Francisco Cervelli .305 .421
8 Jordy Mercer .310 .276

All statistics through games played as of May 14th

If Clint Hurdle is willing to take a few risks, the above batting order might help the Pittsburgh Pirates climb out of 28th place in runs-scored and post a few more wins.

Photo credit – Flickr Creative Commons

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.
  • Barry Bonds Fan

    Pirates, Optimal Batting order
    1. Adam Frazier ss
    2. Gregory Polanco RF
    3. Josh Harrison 2b
    4. Josh Bell 1b
    5. David Freese 3b
    6. Francisco Cervelli c
    7. Jose Osuna Lf
    8. Andrew McCutchen Cf
    9. Pitcher

    Scenario two: example 1 of Pirates Optimal Batting Order with Gift N Ngoepe as a Every Day Starter at SS (Awesome Defender- Mercer should not be on the field at all)…
    1. Adam Frazier Every day starter used as Supper utility man relieving all infield positions and all outfield positions except 1B. Plays in LF when McCutchen
    (Polanco to Cf)and Osuana take a break. Plays in Rf When Plolanco takes a break. This Particular day he Is Giving Osuna as rest. Lf
    2. Gregory Polanco RF
    3. Josh Harrison 2b
    4. Josh Bell 1b
    5. David Freese 3b
    6. Francisco Cervelli c
    7. Andrew McCutchen Cf
    8. Gift N Ngoepe SS
    9. Pitcher

    This is as of today. The order May/should change over the coarse of the season as players Prove themselves in their consistency.