This past off-season I wrote an article examining the supposed strength of last year’s team. Somewhat by default due to struggles from the pitching staff and the defense, the offense rose to the top. However, as I dug deeper, cracks in the foundation began to surface.
When a casual baseball fan is looking to judge the ability of their team’s hitters, batting average is more than likely the statistic that sticks out the most. The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates excelled in this category, posting a combined average of .265, good enough to be tied for 5th in all of MLB with the Rockies and Nationals. Their BABIP (batting average in balls in play) was even better at .304 (4th overall). They hit with runners in scoring position (RISP) to the tune of .273/.350/.460 and struck out at a rate of 19.5% (2nd). Unfortunately for the Pirates this is where the positives ended and the cracks I spoke about before began to show.
As a whole they ranked 18th with a .321 OBP (On Base Percentage), 19th with a 92 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), 20th with 722 RBIs, 21st with a .313 wOBA (weighted on-base average), 21st with 758 runs scored, 22nd with a .420 SLG (slugging percentage), 25th with a .156 ISO (Isolated Power), 27th with 163 homers, 27th with a 6.8% walk rate and 27th with a 33.9% hard hit rate. I realize that some of these statistics are ones that only stats nerds like myself pay attention to, but you can’t argue with the Pirates ranking in the bottom half or worse in every major hitting category except for batting average. And to top thing off the Pirates batters struggled in another area that had to be very clear to anyone that paid attention to even a handful of games last season. When the Pirates hitters came up with the bases loaded, they could not seem to get anything going, no matter the number of outs they had. Overall, they posted a .227/.267/.378 slash line in these situations. Their worst performance came with no outs (.200/.176/.333) and their best came with 2 outs (.250/.314/.391). Even a couple more hits in these situations and the team’s other numbers might not look so bad.
Looking backing on some of the statistics from the previous season and how they were potentially affected by a historic couple of months from Josh Bell, Kevin Newman outhitting what all of the advanced metrics said about him and loss of Starling Marte from the middle of the lineup, I am almost stunned by the bullish approach I took concerning the potential of this club to remain consistent or even improve offensively in the 2020 season. It must have been the hope of new beginnings clouding my judgement; that or nearly every Pirates hitter having the worst offensive seasons of their professional careers. Either way, at this point in the year we all know how things have gone.
Currently the Pirates have a combined batting average of .214, which has them tied with the Rangers for second worst in all of MLB; with only the Cincinnati Reds hitting slightly worse at .213. There BABIP is only slightly better, sitting at 28th (.264) and they raised their strike out rate to 24.4% (11th); although I feel Gregory Polanco’s 40.6% K rate might have someone to do with that. As far as RISP goes, they are slashing .223/.300/.339. Now, remember these were the areas that were considered strengths only a year ago. I was almost afraid to look at how the weaknesses measured up between this season and last.
In some ways it was worse than I thought as they rank dead last in MLB in so many areas; including OBP (.279), wOBA (.271), SLG (.338) ISO (.124) and HRs (46). And even when they weren’t the worst, it was close enough as they ranked 29th in wRC+ (68) and RBIs (182). Honestly the only area Pirates batters actually improved was concerning W%, going from 6.8% to 8% because moving up the rankings doesn’t alway equal getting better. Last year they were 27th in Hard Hit and moved up to 17, even though they dropped by a percentage point from 33.9% to 32.9%.
I knew it was probably a waste of time and would most likely be negated by a small sample size, but before I was done I had to find at least one positive. I wasn’t disappointed in either area as it truly was a waste of time, found in an extremely small sample size. With the bases loaded and one out, the Pirates are slashing .364/.444/.455 in 19 plate appearances. That’s 19 plate appearances over 1121 on the year. If you have to look this far to find anything remotely positive, chances are your team isn’t very good with the bat; which is clearly the case for the 2020 Pittsburgh Pirates.