Pittsburgh Pirates: New Approach Needed With Runners in Scoring Position

The Pirates need to change their approach with men on base and RISP

Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals
Pittsburgh Pirates v Washington Nationals / Mitchell Layton/GettyImages
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The Pittsburgh Pirates are struggling mightily with runners in scoring position. There needs to be a change in their approach and philosophy in the games' most important situations.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are not scoring enough runs. That’s a pretty oblivious statement and one that doesn’t take a genius to come up with. But the major reason for that is because their current approach when it comes to men on base or scoring position is not getting the job done. Even though they’re not struggling to get men on or in scoring position, they have a horrible approach at the plate with moving them over and driving them in.

The Pirates aren’t bad with getting runners on base, which is the big thing. Even since falling into this massive low in mid-June (June 15th), they’re still around the middle of the pack in terms of plate appearances with men on base and with men in scoring position. Getting guys on base has not been the problem the Pirates have faced. But it’s getting those runners in that is giving the Pirates a whole heap of trouble.

Since June 15th, the Pirates have the 5th fewest hits and the 6th fewest RBIs in situations with men on, even though they’re 17th in plate appearances with 526. The teams below them in terms of hits are the Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, Oakland Athletics, and New York Yankees. All of said teams (aside from the Pirates) are bottom five in plate appearances with men on base.

The Pirates look pretty similar with runners in scoring position since June 15th. They have 304 plate appearances with RISP, the 17th most in baseball during this time. Heck, they have the fourth most plate appearances with the bases loaded. They rank 26th in hits and RBI’s. The only teams with fewer hits with RISP are the Mets, Rockies, Athletics, and Yankees. Said teams also have far fewer plate appearances with RISP, so it makes sense why they’re at the bottom of the leaderboard.

The Pirates are almost taking a three-true-outcomes approach, minus the power when it comes to men on base or men in scoring position. They still manage a strong 11.8% walk rate with RISP, which is still one of the best marks in the league. But they’re striking out 23.7% of the time (10th highest rate) with an isolated slugging percentage of just .115 (23rd in the league). It’s the same story with just men on base in general. Solid 9.3% walk rate, but a mediocre 23.6% strikeout rate, and one of the lowest isolated slugging percentages when it comes to men on base at .127.

The one thing I do notice is that the Pirates hit a lot of ground balls, both with men on base and in scoring position. Since June 15th, they have a 46.3% ground ball rate with men on and a 47.9% ground ball rate with RISP. Those are both very high and rank top ten in the league during said time frame. Now granted, having a high ground ball rate doesn’t automatically mean bad with runners on, but most among the top in ground ball rate do not score many runs.

The Blue Jays have the highest ground ball rate with RISP, and they’re 24th in baseball in RBI with men in scoring position. The Chicago White Sox have the highest ground ball rate with runners on base, and they rank 20th in hits with men on (only 11 more than the Pirates in a similar amount of plate appearances).

Line drives and fly balls are the best batted balls to score runners. With runners on, the Guardians, Marlins, and Reds have the three highest line drive rates. The Guardians have the most hits with men on, with the Marlins having the 4th most and the Reds ranking 10th. The Rangers, Dodgers, and Tigers rank top three in flyball rate with men on, and all but the Tigers rank top ten (they rank 11th) in RBIs.

I am not saying that drawing walks isn’t important or not worthwhile. It avoids an out, which you do want. As Earl Weaver once said, “Your most precious possession on offense is your 27 outs.” But the Pirates are basically doing the bare minimum of passing the torch to the next guy. It’s this overly passive approach where they’re almost hoping the other team walks in a runner for them. They work the count, but they also work themselves into a corner and strikeout or hit a ground ball, two of the worst possible things they could do with a man on base or, even worse, with a man in scoring position.

I don’t know what Andy Haines or the rest of the coaching staff is telling the Pirates hitters. I am not in the clubhouse or dugout, I am not on the field when they’re practicing, and I don’t talk to the players or coaches personally. For all I know, Haines might be the smartest man alive, and the players aren’t taking his advice. While I doubt that’s the case, the point of the matter is I am not a hitting coach, and I don’t know what approach the Pirates’ hitting coach is telling the players to take when they come to the plate with a chance to score a runner or move them into scoring position.

But what I do know, based on the statistics I have available to me and are publicly available for anyone else to view, is the Pirates’ current approach when it comes to trying to score men who are on base is not working. The current approach only gets half the job done. They’re middle of the pack when it comes to getting men on or in scoring position, and they’re one of the worst teams when it comes to moving those runners over and driving them in.

As I said earlier, I am not a hitting coach, but what changes would I make (aside from the obvious, like moving on from Haines) if I had a say in it? The first thing is to lift the ball more often. That doesn’t mean go fully Joey Gallo, flyball or bust, but just figure a way to hit more line drives and fly balls. The league average line drive/fly ball rates with men on base and with RISP is 20.2%/37% and 20.1%/36.3%. The Pirates are at 19.5%/34.2% and 19.7%/32.4%, respectively.

The second thing is to be more aggressive at the plate. That doesn’t mean swing wildly and don’t ever take a walk, but this has been the first summer since my last year of high school, and going into college, I’ve had a chance to watch Pirates baseball almost every single day. It feels like the team is overly passive at the plate, and many of their strikeouts are called strike three. They’re 9th in the league in called strike rate, and many of those felt like they came in a chance to score a runner and ended with a K. Again, that doesn’t mean be afraid of taking a walk or working the count. But two-strike counts are not friends of the Pirates, especially with RISP (43.9%/9th highest) and men on (46.1% strikeout rate/4th highest).

Knowing how to protect the plate is something every single player at this level should know how to do. The Pirates aren’t a team who goes up there and flails at the plate. Their 11.1% swinging strike rate is exactly league average. They’re also not a team who can’t identify pitches. They have the lowest chase rate in all of Major League Baseball. So why does it feel like that ability to swing at good pitches suddenly goes out the window with men on/RISP?

My closing statement is this: something needs to change. What is currently being done when the Pirates have chances to score is not working. I don’t know where the root of the problem begins (although many want to say Andy Haines, and I 100% understand why), but wherever it starts, the Pirates need to nab it in the butt right now, or at least by the end of this year. This team is starting to form a solid Major League roster. I want to see guys like Oneil Cruz, Bryan Reynolds, Jack Suwinski, Nick Gonzales, Henry Davis, and so on and so forth, improve. I want them to make the playoffs, and I want them to do good. But in order to do that, there needs to be a change in philosophy when the Pirates have a chance to score.

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