Where is the Pittsburgh Pirates' hitting going all wrong?

At what level is to blame for the Pirates' offensive struggles this year?
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

The Pittsburgh Pirates have not done well with the bat this year. Even though their pitching has given them plenty of chances to win games, they are now five games below .500 and have 14 losses where they have taken the L while only being behind three or fewer runs. It’s getting to a ridiculous point, but where is it truly all going wrong?

For one, I don’t think it’s a talent recognition organizational philosophy problem, both of which correlate more to Ben Cherington than anything at the Major League level. Let’s look at two years ago: Henry Davis, Liover Peguero, Nick Gonzales, Endy Rodriguez, and Oneil Cruz all entered the year as top 100 prospects. Four of them were acquired by Ben Cherington. We’re also not just talking about being listed as a top 100 prospect by only one or two lists: we’re talking about four guys who were consensus top 100 prospects across most or all major prospect outlets.

They were all ranked this high because they were outstanding in the minor leagues. Davis had a .852 OPS, .385 wOBA, and 136 wRC+ in his first extended look against pro pitching in 2022. He upped that to a .974 OPS, .434 wOBA, and 164 wRC+ prior to getting promoted in June 2023. Meanwhile, Liover Peguero owns a .846 OPS, .375 wOBA, and 128 wRC+ in the prior 306 plate appearances before his call to the bigs in 2023.

I’ll give Endy a pass for now because of an elbow injury that happened early into the 2023 season and eventually having to undergo Tommy John surgery that off-season. I’ll also cut the Pirates some slack with Oneil Cruz because of similar circumstances with his ankle injury. Plus it looks like Cruz might be heating up again. The jury is still out on Gonzales, given he has struggled, but he has made some significant strides this year.

But it’s beyond just the top prospects who come to the Major Leagues and look lost once they get an extended look. Jared Triolo never once had a wRC+ below 110 at any level in the minor leagues. He is in the Majors and looks like a completely different hitter. Ji-Hwan Bae hits .295/.376/.440 with a 121 wRC+ in the minors during the 2020s. He reached the bigs last season and registered a .231/.296/.311 line and 66 wRC+.

Now, prospects coming up and doing poorly are one thing. If this were the only case, I might be inclined to believe this was a talent evaluation/overall organization problem and more of a GMBC problem. But now we have guys who had a good year last year or multiple good seasons suddenly looking like they’ve never played above A-Ball. 

Jack Suwinski has a 51 wRC+, .539 OPS, and .240 wOBA. Last year, he had a 112 wRC+, .793 OPS, and .341 wOBA. Ke’Bryan Hayes had a 101 wRC+, .762 OPS, .321 wOBA, and an outstanding summer. Now he’s sitting at an 86 wRC+, .640 OPS, and .292 wOBA. Bryan Reynolds’ worst seasons have been since Haines took over in 2022. 

On top of that, guys are completely changing their approach. Hayes finally learned that pulling the ball in the air would lead to more hits and extra-base hits. Now he’s returned closer to his 2021-2022 look, going oppo more frequently, leading to fewer hard-hit batted balls and fewer hits overall. Suwinski embraced a three-true-outcomes approach and hit 26 home runs with a 112 wRC+. Now they’ve made him a contact hitter, and he’s been one of the worst batters in the league. Bryan Reynolds has become much less aggressive on pitches in the zone since 2022. Last year in late July, he started to make swing decisions that were more akin to his 2021 numbers. It led to a 127 wRC+ through his final 251 plate appearances.

The best way I can describe this is like Ray Searage’s pitching instruction. The Pirates would try to make every pitcher fit a cookie-cutter mold, and that was typically a pitch-to-contact strategy. It led to the Pirates not getting the most out of guys who were power arms like Gerrit Cole, Tyler Glasnow, and even Charlie Morton. Sure, this worked with guys who didn’t have powerful stuff, like veterans they brought in with diminished velo or others like Trevor Williams, Steven Brault, or Jeff Locke. But not with guys who were meant to sit in the upper 90s and strike guys out.

It’s the same thing for the Major League hitters in 2024 rather than during the late-2010s with the pitchers. Suwinski is a three-true-outcomes power hitter, and he should be hitting for power. Hayes is a pull hitter, and he should be a pull-side hitter. So it only makes sense that the Pirates try and make Suwinski more of a contact hitter and make Hayes go the other way. Reynolds should be swinging at pitches inside the zone, and he’s not.

Another reason I believe this is more likely an issue with Andy Haines rather than the Pirates and the whole organization is that many of the things the Pirates are suffering from now were things the Milwaukee Brewers suffered from when Haines was their hitting coach. 

Many have criticized the Pirates for being overly patient at the plate. They lead the league in strikeouts, looking with 104. They’ve ranked in the top three every year during Haines’ tenure. Even though Haines claims that they’re not being taught an overly passive approach, the Brewers ranked at least 8th in strikeouts looking during each of the three seasons Haines was their hitting coach. Since Haines was let go by Milwaukee, they’ve ranked within the top ten of K’s looking once. 

The Pirates don’t swing outside the zone too frequently and only have a 27.1% chase rate since Haines took over, which is the 7th lowest. But when they do swing outside the zone, they miss quite frequently. They have the second-worst out-of-zone contact rate since 2022. Similarly, the Brewers had the 10th lowest out-of-zone swing rate yet had the third-lowest chase contact rate. The Brewers now have the second-lowest chase rate and only the 12th-lowest chase contact rate over the last three years. Never once has an Andy Haines-led offense posted a wRC+ of 100 or greater. The highest was with the Brewers in 2019 at 97. 

At this point, I’m honestly scared that even if they acquire proven hitters, they might do poorly because of the way they’ve handled Suwinski, Hayes, and Reynolds. Each found something that worked, but the Major League hitting instruction has said no, let’s try this instead, and it’s all led to poor production at the plate. How do we know this wouldn’t happen if they did bring in someone who is a proven MLB batter with success across multiple years?

In my unprofessional opinion, this is an issue that stems primarily from what’s being taught at the Major Leagues. Guys who do great in the minor leagues come up and look lost at the plate. Others find stuff that works for them and are then told to take a different approach.

The Pirates are suffering from many of the same issues the Brewers had when Haines was their coach.

Now, that’s not to say that Cherington is completely innocent here. Part of the reason we are in this offensive deficit is that he hasn’t added much to the organization to improve it. Cherington’s draft classes are mostly built around pitching. He’s taken just eight position players in the first five rounds of each of his four drafts and has yet to make a significant addition, either via free agency or trade. Plus, he is the guy who hired Haines and kept him around. But still, Haines has yet to truly improve any hitter, and he’s made good hitters worse, both with the Pirates and with the Brewers.