The Pittsburgh Pirates were once a team who thrived on finding innovative ways to have a step up on opponents. Now they are behind the curve in a key area.
In 2013, the Pittsburgh Pirates began implementing the infield shift at a higher rate than ever before in team history. The team coupled shifting tactics with ground ball pitchers. This worked well as both the pitching staff and overall defensive efficiency were a main factor in helping the team win 94, 88, and 98 games from 2013-15.
Now in 2017 almost every team uses infield shifts regularly. There is no longer a competitive advantage in using the shift. It is simply a norm to the game. Kudos to the Pirates for getting on board early, but there is no reward for innovation.
It is a copycat league. Once something is discovered, it gets exposed. We see this in all sports. The NBA is now a three-point shooting league thanks to the Golden State Warriors revolutionizing the three-point shot. You need to shoot threes well to have a chance. The NFL is a quarterback driven league that becomes more pass happy every year. You need a great quarterback to have a chance.
This is just one example, but if we look at some current trends around Major League Baseball, we see that the Pirates are
Chicks dig the long ball
In simple terms, the Pirates need to get with the times offensively
The MLB is currently undergoing a new revolution itself. The long ball is back. Last year, home runs were hit at an all time high. That number will most likely be eclipsed by the end of this year. But why?
Pitchers are throwing harder. Breaking balls are breaking more. 95 mph is the new 90. It is becoming increasingly more difficult to hit the ball. Why waste time trying to hit a single? Hitters now focus on keeping a good eye. They swing more selectively with intent to do major damage when swinging. A walk is as good as a single. Home runs are up. Hits are down. It is a three true outcomes league.
Then there are the swing planes. Hitters today are trying to elevate the ball. Fly balls are more valuable than grounders. The idea is to swing with an uppercut to create loft on the ball rather than swinging down to hit line drives and grounders. This has worked wonders for players such as JD Martinez, Daniel Murphy, and Yonder Alonso. While this approach hasn’t worked for everybody, it is becoming more and more prevalent in today’s game.
How the pitchers are adjusting
From a pitching standpoint, the Pittsburgh Pirates are doing just fine. As a team, they throw just 3.07 BB/9, fifth best in the majors. Less walks means less base runners. With hits down, walks are a big part of offenses. Limiting walks could be the difference between a three-run homer and a solo shot. The Pirates have a 45.5 percent ground ball rate, 13th in the majors. They still get their fair share of grounders.
With home runs up this year, the Pirates are giving up 1.09 per game. That is the ninth lowest total in the majors. A big reason for this could be new approach to pitch higher in the zone. It’s close to impossible to get on top of a high pitch with an uppercut swing. As a whole, the Pirates have an ERA of 4.19 this season, 14th best in the league. Going into the season, pitching was the question. It is now the most consistent unit on the team.
How the hitters are adjusting
The Pittsburgh Pirates hit fly balls at a rate of 33.4 percent, 24th highest in the majors. They hit grounders at a rate of 48 percent, fifth highest in the majors. With a hard-hit rate of 29.2 percent, the Pirates have to sixth lowest rate in baseball. Not only are the Pirates hitting the ball weakly, they are hitting the ball weakly into the ground. Their BABIP is .261, worst in the majors. Part of that is bad luck, yes. A bigger part of that is weak contact.
With that being said, the Pirates do draw their fair share of walks. With a walk rate of 9.4 percent, the Pirates are 11th in the majors. Overall though, the Pirates have not adapted to the new style of scoring runs in today’s game. Their 28th best 36 home runs this year highlight that.
Under the current regime, the Pirates have focused on pitching first and foremost. They have always been ahead or at least on the curve with finding new ways to help pitchers be successful and that still holds water today.
Hitting is another story. When it comes to drafting, Neal Huntington has largely failed to draft a big time hitter. Pedro Alvarez has been Huntington’s most productive draft pick on the offensive side. After that is Jordy Mercer. He has shown promise scouring the international market with players such Starling Marte, Jung Ho Kang, and Gregory Polanco but, yeah.
That being said, the new wave of positional talent shows promise. Josh Bell and Adam Frazier have been marvelous this year. Austin Meadows is still on his way as a top prospect despite early season troubles in AAA.
In simple terms, the Pirates need to get with the times offensively. They need hitters to start swinging for the fences. We saw this a little bit from John Jaso last season over the final two months of the season when he hit .307/.413/.568 with four home runs in 104 plate appearances. Where has that guy been?
One final stat: The PIttsburgh Pirates are 27th in the majors in strikeout rate at 19.5 percent. That may sound nice but in actuality it is not. Not when the contact you do make does no damage. Swing harder. Strikeout more. Hit with a purpose. The year is 2017. Seeing eye singles are dead. Drive the damn ball.