The Pittsburgh Pirates need to change their approach with men on base, right now

Despite giving themselves nearly as many plate appearances with runners on base and RISP as the Los Angeles Dodgers, the Pittsburgh Pirates are having an extremely difficult time driving those runners in. Something drastic needs to be done, and fast.
Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers
Pittsburgh Pirates v Milwaukee Brewers / Dylan Buell/GettyImages

The Pittsburgh Pirates lost another infuriating game, this time against the San Francisco Giants. It marks the tenth loss where the Pirates have taken the L by three or fewer runs. 

I am not expecting the Pirates, or any team for that matter, to win 100% of close games. That's an impossible task. But here’s the thing: the Pirates aren’t bad at getting runners on base. As of right now, they have the third most plate appearances in baseball with runners on with 501. They are only behind the Los Angeles Dodgers and the NL Pennant title-defending Arizona Diamondbacks in times stepped to the plate with a man on base. Third in baseball: that’s more than the Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies, Chicago Cubs, Milwaukee Brewers, and all 15 American League teams.

But here’s how the Pirates perform once they get runners on. They are batting just .241/.337/.352 with a .311 wOBA, and 94 wRC+ in these situations. The only number that is within the top 15 teams is their on-base percentage. Despite the amount of times the Pirates have given themselves a chance to score a runner, they just seemingly cannot come through. They have just the 22nd most runs scored. Meanwhile, the only other teams who have more plate appearances than the Bucs with runners on, the Dodgers and D-Backs, lead the league. Four of the top five teams in plate appearances with men on also rank top five in runs scored, except for the Pirates.

Their numbers are even worse with runners in scoring position. The Bucs are slashing a meager .221/.336/.307 with a .294 wOBA, and 83 wRC+. They’re still walking at a high 14% clip and their 23.3% strikeout rate isn’t much worse than the league average, but their on-base percentage and walk rate are the only two numbers in this paragraph that aren’t in the bottom ten among all 30 teams. What's even more frustrating is that they once again rank third in plate appearances, this time with RISP, surpassing all teams in baseball other than the Dodgers and Diamondbacks.

So what can be done to alleviate some of these struggles? Some drastic changes need to be made in the way the Pirates approach the plate, especially with batted balls. They have just a 16.8% line drive rate with men on base. That’s the 24th lowest in baseball. A line drive goes for a hit 70% of the time this year. The lowest single-season batting average on line drives across MLB was in 2018 at .680. Sure, you can be a decent scoring team without many line drives. The Philadelphia Phillies are top 15 in baseball in runs scored despite a 13.3% line drive rate.

But the other issue is they also don’t hit very many fly balls. Fly Balls are the second most productive batted ball. While they don’t go for as many hits as ground balls, pretty much every home run is a fly ball. The Pirates have a fly ball rate of just 35.5%, the 7th lowest in the league. Meanwhile, they have the 4th highest ground ball rate at 47.7%. Their lack of hitting any batted ball that typically results in an extra-base hit has resulted in a dismal isolated slugging percentage of .111, the 5th lowest in baseball.

They’re even worse at lifting the ball with runners in scoring position. They have a ground ball rate of hair over 50% at 50.5%. The Pirates and Miami Marlins are the only teams with a GB% over 50% with RISP. They also have just a 14.8% line drive rate in these situations. The only team with a lower LD% is the Philadelphia Phillies. Their 34.9% flyball rate is the only number here that isn’t in the bottom three. However, it’s still not good and is the 9th lowest.

The Pirates are walking at a high 11.8% BB% when there is a man on base. That’s the second-highest in baseball. Their 22% K% is about league average, but the fact that they still lead the league in strikeouts looking and nearly have the highest strikeout looking percentage in baseball suggests that they’re still being very passive at the plate. 

Sure, drawing walks are good, as is working the count. But the current approach has resulted in a massive left-on-base rate of 17.22%, the second highest in baseball, and the most runners left on base per game on average at 8.33. That’s going to happen when you’re great at getting runners on, but can’t drive them in. The only way I can describe it is "Hurry up and wait." We get the runners on quickly, then we just wait and hope the opponent walks in a runner, not make any damage ourselves.

What’s even more frustrating is that this team wasn’t this bad at leaving runners on base last year. They only left 6.86 runners on base per game, on average, with a LOB% of 14.52%. That might not seem like a massive difference, but when you have lost ten games by three runs or fewer this early into the season, it’s a massive gap. If the Pirates go 4/6 in these games, the team would look a lot better, and when you're leaving this many runners stranded, going 4/6 in these ten games when you give yourselves this many opportunities to score should not be that high of a bar.

There is no other adjective to describe the Pirates offense other than frustrating.

I’m a super passionate Pittsburgh Pirates fan, some might say even to a fault. I just want to see this team do good, and they have given themselves plenty of opportunities to do so. They just haven’t and it’s frustrating me beyond belief. They just haven’t and it’s frustrating me beyond belief. When you’re giving yourself nearly as many opportunities to hit with a man on as the LA Dodgers, you absolutely have to be higher than 22nd in runs scored. The top half of the league in runs scored has to be the minimum if you rank third in plate appearances with men on base and at least the top ten has to be the expectation.

I’m not giving up and it’s not too late to change things, but please Pirates, for the love of my sanity and the sanity of many other passionate Pirates fans, make some changes, because it’s clear as day that whatever we’re doing right now with men on base is not working and we’re wasting too many good outings by starting pitchers, as well as chances to score.