The obvious change needed for the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense

The Pittsburgh Pirates were an offensive wasteland in 2017.  The driving factor in the lack of offense was a lack of power.  The squad ranked 29th in the MLB in home runs (151), slugging percentage (.386), and ISO power (.142).  *Record scratch noise*

These low totals led the Pittsburgh Pirates to a wRC+ of 85, good for 28th in the majors.  The Pirates were in the lower third of the league in just about every offensive category in 2017.

They need more power in 2018.  Is that even possible?  Andrew McCutchen led the Pirates in most offensive stats including home runs in 2017 with 28.  He’s now in San Francisco.  The only bat signed this offseason has been Daniel Nava.  That really doesn’t move the needle if you ask me.  It is more likely that the offense will be worse in 2018 than it is better.  But hey, you never know.  One thing needs to happen to the Pirates’ offense in 2018 for them to be more productive.

A change in philosophy

In 2017, the Pittsburgh Pirates went with the approach of getting bat to ball and hoping for the best.  As a team, they struck out 19.8 percent of the time.  That was eighth lowest in the majors.  Not bad at all, right?  Well, in today’s MLB, that means basically nothing.  Putting the ball in play consistently did not do much for the Pirates as their BAPIP was .286, 28th in major league baseball.

A key reason for this is because the contact they did make was not great contact at all.  The Pirates ranked second in the majors in soft contact rate at 21.2 percent.  They were 25th in hard contact rate at 29.9 percent.  The Pirates were third in the majors in hitting ground balls at a rate of 46.9 percent.  They were 28th in fly ball percentage at 32.5 percent.  Those ratios are abysmal.

The Pirates as a team were sixth in the majors in hitting the ball to the opposite field at 26.5 percent in 2017.  That’s great.  Hit the ball the other way and find gaps.  Pull those hands in.  That is the way of hitting.  Home runs are just mistakes you know.  Don’t get too pull happy!

In 2017, no team that ranked in the top ten in hitting oppo ranked in the top ten in home runs.  The Yankees, Rangers, and Cubs all ranked in the top five of pulling the ball.  Those teams ranked first, third, and ninth respectively in home runs hit in 2017.

The Pirates need to swing for the fences more often.  Take the risk of hitting the ball a mile.  Clear those hips.  Get the bat head out.  Look foolish occasionally on a breaking ball.  Strikeout more.  That is how baseball works today, like it or not.

The Jeff Branson effect

Jeff Branson is still the hitting coach.  He is entering his fifth season with the Pittsburgh Pirates.  The Pirates’ team website boasts that, “In his three seasons as the Hitting Coach, the Pirates have produced the highest on-base percentage (.329) among National League teams and the fourth-highest in the Major Leagues behind Toronto (.331), Boston (.330) and Detroit (.330).”  This was written last season.

In Branson’s first season as hitting coach in 2014, the Pirates offense was great.  They ranked fourth in the majors in wRC+ at 108 and seventh in slugging percentage at .404.  That said, it was a perfect storm for the club.

McCutchen was still in his prime. Russell Martin, Starling Marte, and Neil Walker all had career years.  How much did that have to do with hitting philosophy and Branson’s guidance?

In Branson’s four years total as hitting coach, the Pirates are 16th in wRC+ at 97 and 25th in slugging percentage at .397.  They are also 25th in home runs at 600.  As we know, the offense were terrible last season.  2014 was the peak.  The team has trended downward offensively in every year since.

Can change be expected?

Will this be the year the ship turns?  Can the Pittsburgh Pirates be more than a team that just tries to get on base and not strikeout?  Will they slug? Will cannonballs be a comin’?

Probably not.  The Pirates have a lot of questions this season.  Can Josh Bell progress into a 30 home run guy?  Will Gregory Polanco and Starling Marte stay on the field?  Can guys like Colin Moran, Max Moroff, and Jordan Luplow be productive consistently enough at the major league level?

Is Daniel Nava actually going to be the Opening Day right fielder?  Will the combination of Adam Frazier, Jordy Mercer, and Francisco Cervelli hit more than 20 home runs total?  Will Harrison even be here?

It’s not crazy to think that the Nava question is the only yes of that bunch.  It’s also not crazy to think it’ll be the only no.  The Pirates offense is young.  It is a mystery at this moment in time.  Everything went wrong last season.  2017 was an outlier personnel-wise.

The Pirates still need to be selective of the pitches they swing at.  Walks are still key.  But when there is a pitch worth swinging at, try to kill it.  Do some serious damage.  It’s okay.  It really is.  The home run is king.  It is also the key to great offense in today’s game.

Just try it.

Nathan Hursh

Nathan is a graduate of Duquesne University with a degree in journalism. He has been a lifelong Pirates fans and loves watching baseball. Along with baseball, Nathan also has a passion for watching football and basketball. When he is not sitting on his couch indulging in sports, Nathan likes to be active outside. Along with Twitter, he can also be found on Instagram at nathan_hursh.