Pittsburgh Pirates must walk towards more potent offense
The Pittsburgh Pirates offense has crossed home plate only nine times in the last seven days spanning five games. Perhaps that’s not too surprising considering the team was on the wrong-end of a no-hitter. What is surprising is this – the Pirates have scored 31 runs over the last 14 days spanning 11 games. That is a 2.8 run-per-game average, and that number is actually buoyed by the 11 run outburst against the White Sox.
As we search for answers to the Pirates’ recent offensive ineptitude, invariably the answer comes to this: The Pittsburgh Pirates do not take enough walks. Ranking dead last over the last seven days in the National League in walk rate at 4.4%, the Bucs do not do themselves any favors at the plate. On the season they are decidedly mediocre in this regard, ranking 11th in the 15-team National League at 6.4% on the season (only 0.5% above the last place Phillies). Free passes can do so much for your offense. Some of the benefits aren’t so obvious, with driving up pitch counts being chief among them. Are the Pirates allergic to the walk? What is preventing the team from creating more offense in this way? If we drill down to the player level, we can see that some major cogs in the Pirates offensive attack being the chief culprits.
Before we get to an individual level, let’s look at how the Pirates have performed when it comes to walks and strikeouts.
Strikeout and Walk numbers – 2015 to date
Currently the league average for walk rate is 7.6% according to FanGraphs. After struggling to post a 5.2% BB% rate in April, the Bucs improved all the way up to 7.4% in May before taking a step back to 6.2% in June to date. There are surprising individual walk rates on the Pirates – Pedro Alvarez leads the team with a 10.3% walk rate despite also leading the team in K-rate % (23.3%). Andrew McCutchen of course is right up there at 10.2%. Yet some Pittsburgh Pirates who are counted on to create runs are nowhere near the average and are in fact well below that mark. And they reside towards the top of the order.
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Josh Harrison‘s 2014 breakout campaign was remarkable for many reasons. One of the most remarkable was the fact that Harrison took only 22 walks on the year – a 4% walk rate. Harrison has this unique ability to simultaneously avoid strikeouts and walks altogether. 2015 is no exception. Harrison currently walks at a 3.6% clip, by far the lowest on the team. He also strikes out the least with a 14.2% strikeout rate. On the season-to-date, Harrison has drawn exactly ten walks, putting him right on pace to duplicate his totals from 2014. Far be it from me to critique Harrison’s approach at the plate, but what if Harrison could inch that walk rate up to 6%? While not asking him to change his entire routine, those 2-3 extra base running opportunities per week could lead to better chances to score in tight games. Doing so could swing some one-run games in the Pirates’ favor. The Pirates were 31-29 in one-run games in 2014 and 12-11 in 2015. Project that incremental improvement in walks from your leadoff hitter over an entire season and the way becomes very clear to the Pirates gaining 4-5 more wins.
And we all know what even three more wins would have meant last year.
Starling Marte has firmly settled into the two-hole in the Pirates order, enjoying the warm fuzzy protection that batting in front of McCutchen provides. Let’s hope that it helps his walk rate, which clocks in at 4.9% for the year-to-date. Ever since his debut, Marte has owned the “free-swinger” label. Though his strikeout rate overall is high at 23.3% (tied for the “lead” on the team with Alvarez), his strikeout rate has steadily dipped in each month of the season, as one of our readers pointed out.
Marte and Harrison’s struggles to get free passes could boil down to their approach on the very first pitch. Marte and Harrison rank 1-2 on the club in F-Strike % (percentage of times the plate appearance started with a first pitch strike). With unwieldy percentages of 70.3% and 66.4% respectively, it could come as no shock that Jhay and Marte have low walk rates when they fall behind in the count so quickly. For some perspective, the league average is 61.1%.
If we put it all together it becomes obvious that Harrison and Marte – the top two in the Pirates lineup – need to improve their patience. With a small improvement in taking pitches and working counts, the entire Pittsburgh Pirates offense will benefit greatly.