Solving the Pittsburgh Pirates Power Problem

(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images)
(Photo by Justin Berl/Getty Images) /
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The Pirates have had a home run problem for two seasons in a row. Just how much has this problem hurt the club and is there any hope for improvement in the 2018 season?

October 13th, 1960. Forbes Field, Pittsburgh Pennsylvania. The Yankees had just embarrassed the Pirates 24 hours ago, winning game 6 of the World Series in Pittsburgh by a score of 12-0. How could the Pirates hope to a beat a star-studded Yankees team led by future Hall of Fame members Whitey Ford, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra in game 7? How about a miracle? Well, that’s exactly what the Pirates got. In the bottom of the 9th inning, with Game 7 of the World Series tied at 9, Bill Mazeroski hit a walk-off home run.

How important is it to hit home runs?

The home run is without a doubt the most exciting play in baseball – but exactly how important is it for a team to hit them? Could an on-base-percentage focused team really win a World Series? It depends on how you look at the question. The below table shows the top five teams from the 2017 season in regards to home runs and their corresponding post-season results.

This tells a mixed story at best. Maybe with some additional data some results will become a little bit clearer.

This figure shows the correlation between wins and home runs for the 2017 MLB season. Each point represents a team and their corresponding home run total, with the line representing the overall trend. It is easy to tell that the trend is positive, hitting more home runs certainly does not hurt a team. But, it is a little bit more difficult to say that hitting more home runs will indefinitely help your team. In fact, the r-squared value for the best fit line is only 0.185 – literally translating to: “home runs at best explain 18.5% of the reason why a team wins a baseball game.” Note the wording at best.

However, intuition sometimes trumps analytics in baseball, and there is one thing that I am sure Clint Hurdle, Neal Huntington, and most Pirates fans agree on. The Pirates did not hit enough home runs last year. If you need any more convincing, check out the figure below which shows the number of home runs each MLB team has hit since 2010. The last two years have been rough for the Buccos.

After 2014, there has been a sharp increase in home runs across the league, and the Pirates really have not been on board with that trend. This wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if the Pirates were leading the lead in other run producing or run preventing categories, but sadly they have not been.

The outlook for 2018

So just how many home runs will the Pirates hit in 2018? According to the main statistical player projection platform, Steamer, the 2018 Pirates do not have much to look forward to. The below bar chart shows the Steamer projection for 2018, 144 home runs, in addition to previous Steamer projections and the actual amount of home runs that the Pirates have hit in those given years.

144 home runs will not be enough to get the Pittsburgh Pirates anywhere close to the league average in 2018. However, there is a case to be made that the Pirates could easily surprise for an additional 20-30 home runs.

The below table shows the individual player projections from Steamer broken into how many home runs each player will hit. The table also shows the rate of at-bat’s that a player would hit a home run. This is simply calculated by dividing the projected at-bats by the projected home runs, which is a better indicator of how often a player is hitting a home run. This is especially helpful when looking in the past since it will account for injuries or missed at-bats.

As shown by the table above, the starting roster of the Pirates is projected by Steamer to hit 136 home runs (the other 8 out of the 144 are hit by various other players that would get called up to the Big League club throughout the year). Even though Steamer has historically been pretty close to estimating the correct number of home runs, I believe that this year has the potential to be an outlier. Let’s break down why and go over some important discrepancies.

Josh Harrison

Some of my largest discrepancies (in the far right column) with Steamer have to do with the projected amount of at-bats for certain players. Josh Harrison is not one of those players. I truly believe that the power Josh shower last year will continue into this year. Josh has always had good pop to his swing, but was has historically been more of a contact batter. However, according to Nate Werner in the recently published book Pirates Guide 2018, Harrison showed considerable plate discipline last season and this could be one of the main reasons he saw improvement in his power stroke. I don’t expect this plate discipline to decrease with time. Look for J-Hay to hit 15 home runs this season.

Colin Moran

Countless experts have raved about Colin Moran’s new swing and the power that comes with it. The 11 home runs projected by Steamer actually reflects this newfound power to a degree but falls short of reality due to the low number of at-bats they have projected for Moran, 374. This would assume Moran is in a 60-40 split at 3rd base with David Freese. I don’t believe this will be the case. The Pirates went after Moran because they believe that he can be their future 3rd baseman starting this year. I project him more in the range of 510 at-bats and 17 home runs.

Starling Marte

Starling Marte has looked seriously impressive so far this spring. If he can avoid injury, I don’t see why the Pirates would not play him every single day in center field, pushing his at-bat number closer to 600 than 500. I also expect that Marte will return to his 2015 success this season – watch for him to hit 20 home during 2018 and to start the season hot.

Gregory Polanco

Gregory Polanco is on this short list of discussed players for the wrong reason. Polanco is easily the most difficult player to project for the 2018 season and wouldn’t necessarily surprise anyone if he hit 20 home runs or only 5. I’m splitting the field and taking him at 12 home runs. To my very untrained eye, Polanco’s swing still looks long and lanky in Spring Training this year – look for him to be the one replaced by a hungry Austin Meadows halfway through the season.

Some other notable players include the catching duo, Francisco Cervelli and Elias Diaz. Cervelli’s consistent injury history and Elias Diaz’s strong Spring Training performance makes me believe that Diaz will steal more at-bats than Steamer has predicted. Diaz has actually not shown much power throughout the minors but has shown flashes of power in the Majors. I have him penciled in for a surprise 7 home runs. He already has two home runs in 14 at-bats in the Spring and I truly believe he can hit the mark of 7 during the season.

Sean Rodriguez has shown comfort and power at the plate during Spring Training and at PNC park throughout his career. I think that Clint Hurdle goes to S-Rod off the bench often this year leading to an easy 12 home runs from the passionate utility player. Heck, would it really surprise anyone if Sean hit 18 home runs again like he did in 2016 when he made hitting a home run look easy? He already has 3 this spring and isn’t showing any signs of letting up anytime soon.

Next: Kyle Crick's bread & butter pitch

In Conclusion

All of these projections put together leads me to believe that the Pirates starters will hit around 158 home runs instead of the 136 projected by Steamer. Throwing in extra call-up players, the Pirates could reach 170 home runs this year, which would still put the team below the projected league average, but would be a stark improvement on last year. It is important to note that the 2018 team has the potential to have four players hit 20 plus home runs this season. This would be a considerable accomplishment that the Pirates have not achieved since 1999.

Putting statistics and projections aside, this Pirates team on paper should have considerable power. Marte, Dickerson, Bell, and Moran through the top and middle of the lineup will provide more overall power than the Pirates have had for a long time. If Polanco joins the power mix, the lineup starts looking pretty scary to opposing pitchers and the Clemente wall seats will be taking home a lot of baseballs this season.

Let’s go Bucs!

*Data Courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball-Reference, and MLB.com

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