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Pittsburgh Pirates Under Clint Hurdle: The Offense

Pirates OF Andrew McCutchen
Pirates OF Andrew McCutchen

Aug 22, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen (22) hits an RBI single against the San Francisco Giants during the first inning at AT&T Park. Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Last week we announced that we would be taking a closer look at the Pittsburgh Pirates under current manager Clint Hurdle as we try to gauge the Pirates’ chances of making the playoffs for the first time since 1992. This was inspired because since taking over as manager, Hurdle has brought in an exciting brand of baseball and his teams have gotten off to hot starts only to falter and sputter late in the season. Currently as of this writing, the Pirates hold a single-game lead over the more talented St. Louis Cardinals.

The first phase I wanted for us to look at was the Pirates’ offense since 2011. One quick look at their roster and there appears to simply not  be enough talent to produce enough runs over a period of 162 games. Is 2013 any different? Let’s find out.

PITTSBURGH PIRATES

STATISTICAL OUTPUT

Year

R/G

AVG

R

HR

RBI

SB

SB%

SH

GDP

2011

3.77

0.244

610

107

580

108

68%

75

123

2012

4.02

0.243

651

170

620

73

58%

62

98

2013

3.91

0.245

489

119

465

85

72%

53

87

2013 Projections

N/A

N/A

634

154

603

110

N/A

69

113

As you can see, the Pirates don’t score many runs. In fact, even though they’re ahead of their 2011 pace, they’re still behind last season’s team. Through 125 games, they were ranked 22nd in runs/game.

IMPROVEMENTS IN THE LAST THREE YEARS

  • Batting average is climbing higher, but really, it’s about the same as it has been since Hurdle took over.
  • Stolen bases and stolen base percentage; the first two years under Hurdle, they were atrocious when attempting to steal bases. This year, they’re closer to league average.

So in terms of stats, there are slight, but unspectacular improvements in offensive output. The stolen base attempts, along with the high number of sacrifice hits (SH) seem to be the Pirates’ best way to manufacture runs. As our research in stolen bases would indicate, attempting to steal bases is a very inefficient way to score runs. As we’ve mentioned before, the Pirates don’t really have the talent to be a top run producing team and it seems as if Clint Hurdle is very aware of this. Before Pirate fans begin to recite all of the marginal Pirates’ players not named Andrew McCutchen, let’s take a look at the more, skill-based team stats:

ADVANCED DATA

Year

BB%

K%

BB/K

obp

slg

ISO

wRAA

wOBA

wRC+

2011

8.1%

21.6%

0.37

0.309

0.368

0.123

-87.90

0.299

88

2012

7.4%

22.5%

0.33

0.304

0.395

0.152

-59.10

0.304

90

2013

7.7%

22.3%

0.34

0.313

0.392

0.147

-20.10

0.309

97

Not much has changed in walk and strikeout rates over the past three seasons. Along with being one of the most untalented hitting lineups in baseball, they just so happened to be one of the most undisciplined in terms of walks and strikeouts.

Despite not being able to draw many walks, at least they can say that this season, their on-base percentage is over .310. Even with the slight improvement in OBP, they still have one of the worst OPS in the league. Other advance metrics like wRAA have been better this season under Hurdle, but they still fall below league average in all of those statistical categories.

WAR, BASE RUNNING, AND BATTED BALLS

Year

WAR

UBR

wSB

BABIP

LD%

GB%

FB%

IF/FB%

HR/FB%

2011

9.9

-11.4

-4.0

0.301

20.4%

44.8%

34.8%

7.3%

7.5%

2012

15.1

8.1

-12.1

0.291

19.5%

45.3%

35.1%

10.0%

11.9%

2013

18.6

4.4

0.5

0.298

21.4%

46.0%

32.6%

10.0%

11.5%

If there’s one stat that undermines the Pirates’ lack of offensive production, it’s WAR. Under Hurdle, the team has seen noticeable progression and currently are in the top 10 in that category. One of the reasons the team’s WAR is up is because their base running has improved from being woeful to becoming a top 10-team in the “Base Running” portion when calculating for WAR (the Pirates are also a top-10 “Fielding” team when calculating advance data for WAR. More on that for a later article). It’s worth reiterating that the Pirates’ lack of offensive talent has forced Hurdle to sacrifice bunt and gamble more on the base paths. The team is a hustling team and from the looks of it, have gotten smarter too.

For what it’s worth, the Pirates’ BABIP as a whole is on that break-even point. The Pirates are a ground ball hitting team as they can utilize their speed and hustle to get on base and score runs in this manner. But they don’t hit enough ground balls to raise their BABIP to more favorable levels. One aspect that makes this team sort of fluky is that they may not hit many fly balls, but when they do, they have hitters that can drive the ball out of the park. Their HR/FB% would make them a top-10 team in that category. Then again, to balance that good luck out in terms of the fly balls they hit, they are also a top-10 team in pop-ups. Their line-drive rate is the highest it’s been under Hurdle and that would place them in the top-10 in that category as well.

So solid contact may not always be there with this team but they can drive the ball with authority from time to time and don’t go outside their capabilities. Yes, they’re an impatient bunch but will strike without warning with their speed and sneaky power. Still, the team is just too dependent on luck and overcoming deficiencies by masking them with hustle and unnecessary risks on the base paths.

CONCLUSION

So in this particular case, it’s good to have a manager like Hurdle who has major league experience in winning these tight ball games the Pirates will continue to see for the rest of the year. They’ve also had Hurdle the last two years and have seen their fortunes go from one extreme to another. For the most part, this is basically the same batting lineup as one will notice from the numbers in the preceding tables. The team stats from 2011 are similar to the 2013 version. The difference is that the Pirates are driving the ball with more authority this season and they’re not running themselves into costly outs like they have in past years. Which leads us to bring up the intangibles that cannot be quantified such as experience, intelligence, luck, and maximum effort–just to name a few.

Even with all of the positives being laid out, these improvements are not overly drastic and they’re only a few losses here and there from chasing the Cardinals and even the Cincinnati Reds who one could easily argue are the more superior team over the Pirates. The Bucs still rely too much on “small ball” to manufacture runs, are not a very efficient, run producing team, and are incredibly impatient at the plate.

It is impressive that they have competed for this long despite the lack of run production, but eventually, the Pirates’ luck will have to run out. They cannot keep winning in this manner if they are to capture the division, especially if their offense is putting up similar numbers that they have posted in the last two seasons. Even if they make the playoffs as a wildcard, I find it hard to imagine a scenario where the Pirates beat the Reds or Cardinals in a one-game, “win or go home” scenario. Nevertheless, with a weak National League, the Pirates are in a perfect situation to not only put their season meltdowns behind them, but to also make their first playoff appearance since 1992.

Up next, we will focus on the pitching.

All stats are courtesy of fangraphs.com and baseball.reference.com and are good through 125 of 162 games of the 2013 season.

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