Dear Pittsburgh Pirates: It's not too late to make a change, but a change is needed

It's not too late to shake things up, Pittsburgh Pirates.
Jul 14, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA;  Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines looks on
Jul 14, 2023; Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates hitting coach Andy Haines looks on / Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

It’s late April, and the vibes are not high amongst Pittsburgh Pirates fans. At the time of writing this, they are on a five-game losing streak. They are 11-10, and a big reason for those ten losses is the lack of hitting. They’ve lost too many close games. Something needs to be done, with many fans calling for the firing of Andy Haines, and rightfully so.

So as a fan (a passionate one at that), I am writing to the Pittsburgh Pirates that it’s not too late to make a change, but a change is needed.

They currently have not one, not two, but five hitters with an OPS below .600. The league average OPS this year is .701. They have the third most strikeouts in baseball at the time of writing this. More concerning is that they lead the league in called strike threes. Even though they’re seeing a decent amount of meatball pitches, they’re not swinging at them nearly as much as they should. They have the sixth-highest chase rate, which has led to a below-average barrel rate. Right now, three-run deficits feel like ten-run deficits. The Pirates have wasted multiple quality starts because the offense has been so poor.

But this isn’t out of nowhere for offenses led by Andy Haines. During his tenure in Milwaukee, the Brewers had the 5th highest strikeout rate. The Brew Crew was top ten in called strikeouts each year of Haines’ tenure. As a collective unit, the Brewers hit .235/.312/.396 with a .314 wOBA during Haines’ tenure. The average triple-slash in the NL from 2019-2021 was .247/.321/.419.

From 2019 through 2021, the Brewers did not have a single rookie who had sustained success under Haines. Keston Hirua is the closest. He had a good rookie year in 2019, but struggled mightily in both 2020-2021. 2022, his most recent season in the Major Leagues and out from under Haines, posted his best wRC+ at 115 since his ‘19 rookie season. Only one player truly broke out with the bat while Haines was their hitting instructor, and that was Luis Urias.

Nearly all of the batters who were good for the Brewers from 2019 to 2021 were already good. Only one player in these four seasons had a wRC+ of 100 or greater during this three-season stretch while previously never being an above-average hitter prior to their time in Milwaukee. That was Jace Peterson, who had a 76 wRC+ prior to arriving with the Brewers, then a 100 wRC+, on the dot, during the two seasons he spent with Haines.

It might be a big ask as to who will replace Haines mid-season. If they were to let him go in the first half of this year (which they should), the assistant hitting coach Christian Marrero would likely take over the primary duties, but manager Derek Shelton could also see an increase in responsibility. Shelton has an excellent resume as a hitting coach. Shelton’s first gig as a hitting coach was in 2003 with Cleveland in their minor league system. In 2005 he was promoted to Major League hitting coach and was in that role until 2009. From 2004 through 2009, they were one of the best offenses in baseball, hitting .270/.343/.437 with a 106 wRC+. Many players broke out and took steps forward in the Major Leagues during this stretch, including Shin-Soo Choo, Grady Sizemore, Jhonny Peralta, and Coco Crisp, just to name a few.

Shelton then moved on to be the hitting coach for the Tampa Bay Rays for the next seven seasons. The Rays were also a solid hitting team during that time, slashing .247/.320/.413 with a 102 wRC+. A lot of players did well under Shelton’s tutelage, like Wil Myers, Logan Forsythe, Kevin Kiermaier, and former Pirates including Matt Joyce and John Jaso.

Shelton departed Tampa to head North of the border to the Toronto Blue Jays for the 2017 season. He was brought in as a quality control coach. Between 2017 and 2018, the Blue Jays were ranked as the 20th-best farm system by Baseball America. Heading into 2018, they were ranked as the 7th best. But Shelton was in Toronto for one season. He then headed back to the USA to be the bench coach of the Minnesota Twins.

Shelty spent the next two years as the Twins’ bench coach. During that time, they produced a 179-145 record, a winning percentage of .552. The Twins were good hitters too, as they batted .260/.328/.450 with a 106 wRC+. In 2019, they broke the single-season home run record with 307 dingers and eight players with more than 20 home runs (ten with a dozen or more). Part of the power was because of 2019’s juiced baseball, but still an impressive feat nonetheless.

As a collective unit, Shelton’s teams when he is the hitting coach (so not including his tenure in Minnesota) have hit .256/.327/.470. They hit for a lot of power with a .214 isolated slugging percentage, while also striking out less than 20% of the time (19.9%, to be exact). They also had a respectable 8.9% walk rate with an overall wOBA of .327.

I haven’t seen this much dislike among fans for a sports coach who didn’t commit a felony crime since the Pittsburgh Steelers and their former offensive coordinator Matt Canada. It’s getting to the point where Pittsburgh fans are starting to make a comparison to the two. 

Pirates fans are beyond frustrated with Haines and the offense, and reasonably so.

The line-up has gotten torn to shreds the last few weeks. The Pirates are losing too many games where they are more than within striking distance, and are doing so while failing to take advantage of crucial situations. They now have seven losses where they took the L when trailing by four or fewer runs. Four of them happened where they had at least ten hits plus walks combined.

All I have to say is that I’m an extremely passionate Pirates fan who fully believes in this team. I think this team has talent and the potential to be one of the best Pirates teams we have seen in quite a while. It’s not too late to make a big change. Two years ago, I saw the cross-state Philadelphia Phillies go 22-29 before shaking things up and firing manager Joe Girardi. After that, they went on a run and made the World Series. It’s time to do the same in Pittsburgh because this 26-man roster and nine-man line-up have too much talent to let them keep doing what they’ve been doing in the first month of the 2024 season.