The Pittsburgh Pirates had a horrendous performance at the plate in 2020. However, a small sample means this team can bounce back significantly in 2021.
After a so-so 2019 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates watched their offense crumbled in the 60-game 2020 regular season. The Pittsburgh Priates ranked 30th in MLB in OPS and runs scored, as well as 27th in home runs and 28th in batting average. Needless to say, the Pirates were the worst offense in the MLB for the COVID-19 shortened season, with many players failing to improve after decent 2019 seasons.
Most notable of those was 2019 top-four National League Rookie of the Year finisher Bryan Reynolds, who struggled mightily in his sophomore season in the majors. In 2019 Reynolds batted .314 to go along with a .880 OPS and .371 wOBA in producing one of the finest rookie seasons in Pirate history. On the contrary, in 2020 he batted just .189 to go along with a .632 OPS and .278 wOBA, a near 100-point drop in production.
Before going any further let’s take a dive into some of his peripherals. Reynolds actually improved in several key areas. His barrel rate increased from 6.7% to 10.1% and his walk rate jumped from 8.4% to 10.1% while also limiting soft contact to just 10.9% of the time, compared to 16.4% last season. So was he just getting unlucky? Maybe.
One negative for Reynolds was a decline in his hard hit rate from 42.9% to 37.5%, which helped increase his medium hit rate from 40.8% to 51.6%, meaning Reynolds had average contact more than half the time. This could have translated to less balls finding grass in the out field, or more balls finding glove in the infield. After all, his batting average with balls in play (BAbip) fell over 150-points to .231, well below the major league average.
This falls in line with a lot of the Pirate offense last season. The team as a unit only produced a .268 BAbip after producing a BAbip of .309 in 2019, which ranked 4th in all of baseball. Strangely, the respective hard hit rates for 2019 and 2020 were 33.9% and 33.0%, which begs the question: were the Pittsburgh Pirates just unlucky as a whole?
The answer is each of these guys experienced a drastic reduction in their BAbip of at least 50 points, while their peripherals did not see much of a substantial change. Polanco saw the largest drop on the team from .316 to .193, a whopping 123-point drop. Frazier saw his rate drop from .306 to .246 and even Moran, who was the Pirates’ best full-season hitter, saw a drop from .341 to .291.
Now it goes without saying that a reduction in BAbip doesn’t always mean the team is unlucky. Sometimes it can result from a decrease in quality of contact, but for the Pirates it seems probable that luck was just not on their side for 60 games, especially when multiple players hit well beneath their historical level of play.
Without Josh Bell the team will likely suffer a drop in power. Yet that doesn’t mean this team will once again be the worst in all of baseball, instead its foreseeable that they will rise to the numbers they produced in 2019. With the addition of Hayes to the lineup and improvements from guys like Reynolds and Frazier, the Pirates have a chance to significantly improve on offense in 2021.