Finding a path to more power for Pittsburgh Pirates hitters

Pittsburgh Pirates hitters hit the second-fewest amount of home runs in all of Major League Baseball in 2017. Barring any outside acquisitions, is there a path that leads to more power for the club in 2018?

The Pittsburgh Pirates are a power-strapped team.

This is not news.

In fact, over the past three seasons, the club has ranked 27th in total blasts with 444.

Barring a major acquisition for a slugger — which is highly unlikely — the Pirates will have to rely on internal options to increase their home run totals, lest the club continue to fall woefully behind baseball’s surging power trend.

So, how can the Pittsburgh Pirates organically grow some power? There are a few clear ways for the team to do so. Some are obvious, some not so much.

Hunt the fastball, but perhaps don’t sit on the offspeed. Maybe.

If we compare the Pittsburgh Pirates home run totals — and how they accrued those home runs — to the top five homer-happy clubs in baseball, some interesting tidbits start to form.

TeamTotal HRHR on FBFB HR %HR on Off-SpeedOff-Speed HR %Off-speed Swing %

Here we look at how these five clubs came about their homers. The New York Yankees were simply a very capable power club, equally adept at hitting home runs off of fastballs as they were at attacking offspeed pitches, as classified by Statcast. Their swing percentage against off-speed pitches was right on the MLB-wide average, yet they connected on them at an impressive clip.

Swinging at more offspeed does not necessarily equate to hitting more taters off of slower pitches. In this admittedly small cross section of clubs, the Astros and Athletics swung at more slower pitches than the average yet connected at a far lower clip, while the Orioles swung at off-speed the most, rewarded by a solid percentage of connection.

The Pittsburgh Pirates swung at a far fewer amount of off-speed pitchers — nearly two full percentage points lower than the MLB rate — and while the team’s percentage of homers hit on offspeed pitches is more or less in line with this group, the club’s relative patience certainly does not set its hitters up for a high number of home runs.

Our own Nate Werner recently studied the effect of patience and aggressiveness as it relates to a team’s overall run-creation efforts. Please do yourself a favor and check out his work, but here is a relevant passage on what aggressiveness actually means for home run totals:

Aggression has no statistically significant impact on overall power as measured by ISO; meaning that teams that are more aggressive and hit more home runs, do not see their overall extra base numbers improve. As such, increasing aggressiveness, which has an overall negative impact on offensive production, has only a marginal benefit of more home runs hit but at the expense of doubles and triples, so it doesn’t make much sense for the Pittsburgh Pirates to increase their aggressiveness at all.

Even considering Nate’s points, Pittsburgh Pirates hitters might be better served to swing at a bit more offspeed stuff — if only to keep pitchers honest. The Pirates are a fastball hitting team, and one of the ways to get pitchers to throw you more fastballs is to punish the offspeed offerings.

Got the launch angles down-pat; favorable counts not so much?

When it comes to home run hitting, the Pittsburgh Pirates are in line with the recent launch angle craze.

2017 Launch Angle Comparison

2017Avg LA On HRsAvg LA on HRs hit off FBAvg LA on HRs hit off Off-speed

Pretty much right on the mark. 25-35 degrees is pretty much the “sweet spot” for fly balls which can easily turn into big flies. So, there may not be as much opportunity here for Pirates hitters to see more pop as there would be in, say, getting to favorable pitch counts.

In 2017, Pittsburgh Pirates hitters saw the 15th-highest — or, the 15th-lowest if you prefer — percentage of pitches when behind in the count at 28.65 percent. That figure is actually right in line with the mlb-wide rade of 28.5 percent, but is compounded by the fact that the Pirates simply were not able to generate much power when behind in counts.

The club hit just 27 home runs when behind in the count, next to last in the majors to the Giants. This may very well be a function of hitting the second-fewest home runs overall, but getting into more favorable counts can do nothing but help team home run totals. In case you were wondering, the Milwaukee Brewers led baseball in this hyper-focused scenario with 59 home runs. Of the top five home run totals listed above, Oakland was the only club in the bottom half of home runs hit when behind in the count.

Good hitting teams not only slug the ball when a sluggable pitch comes their way. They also work to see more of those types of pitches to begin with. The Pittsburgh Pirates have some talent in the batter’s box, and working to get into favorable counts and attacking off-speed pitches — combined with a continued focus on launch angles — should see them improve upon their woeful 2017 home run totals.

Photo credit – Daniel Decker Photography

Jason Rollison

Jason Rollison has been analyzing baseball and the Pirates in one way or another for 4+ years. Jason's previous stops include, Pittsburgh Sporting News, Call To The Pen and several print publications. He also covers the State College Spikes for the Centre County Gazette (State College, PA) When it comes to analyzing baseball, he likes to take a middle-of-the-road approach, with one foot on the analytics side of the fence and the other on the old-school side. Having said that, he is a sucker for pitchf/x. Jason has appeared as a phone-in and in-studio guests in numerous outlets, including Trib Live Radio and 93.7 The Fan (CBS Sports Radio)