Photo: Jon Dawson
I don’t need to tell you the Pirates offense has been disappointing this season. You already knew that.
But just how bad have they been?
Believe it or not, the Pirates offense isn’t the worst in the MLB. That honor belongs to the Kansas City Royals. The Pirates are just ahead of them at 29th in runs score per game. Kansas City is averaging almost a full run less per game (2.57) than the Pirates (3.38). There is no doubt about it, Pirates fans have had to watch some rough baseball so far. But man, could you imagine the Pirates scoring a run less per game than they are now? That’s where the Royals are at, and they even have the benefit of a DH!
That really stinks for Kansas City. But I’m sure if you are reading this you only really care about Pittsburgh.
Before I go on, it’s important to remember that the Pirates have played just 21 games this season. That is just 13% of the season. In Steelers terms, that means they are just getting ready to begin week 3 of their schedule! There is still plenty of time left for the Pirates offense to get better.
It’s also important to keep in mind that last year the Pirates two best hitters were Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte. And, as time goes on, it’s looking increasingly likely that Kang will not be back this season. Things are moving slowly in his appeal process, and even when he does make it back he may face a suspension from the team. But even if he doesn’t get suspended, he hasn’t faced live pitching since last season. It’s going to take him some time to get back into game shape.
Last year, the Pirates were a league average offense. During the month of April, they had the best offense in baseball. Obviously, that was unsustainable. This years month of April has gone the exact opposite of last year. Now, the Pirates have one of the worst offenses in the league. However, just like last year, it’s very likely just a flukey month. They should be closer to league average throughout the rest of the season. But, losing your two best hitters one month into the season is a good way to continue being terrible.
The Pirates offense has been bad, as stated before they are second to last in runs per game. But what has made them so frustrating to watch is that their terrible offense has been paired with phenomenal pitching. Right now, the Pirates have a better than league average ERA at 3.99. However, the Pirates have the 4th worst RA/9 in the National League at 4.71. RA/9 is similar to ERA, however unearned runs are counted in RA/9 unlike ERA which just counts earned runs (full explanation of RA/9). So not only have the Pirates not hit, they’ve also made their pitchers give up around 18% more runs due to their poor defense.
Of course committing an ‘error’ doesn’t mean you made a bad play. A bad defensive play doesn’t always equal an error. The Pirates have certainly had some blunders this season that were no considered errors, so there RA/9-ERA differential really could be even higher.
Even after Glasnow’s rough month and Kuhl’s recent 9 run implosion, the Pirates starters still rank inside 8th in FIP. Hopefully the pitchers success continues and the offense can give them more run support. The Pirates will need their starting pitching to carry them again this season. But right now their offense has given them just the 28th most run support in the league. Last year, they gave their pitches the 13th most run support and they couldn’t even mange to finish .500.
The Pirates haven’t hit well really in any situation. Bases empty, loaded, in scoring position, whatever, they have been bad. But when runners get into scoring position the Pirates have been really bad. They have manged to hit just .209 with RISP, but to be fair, they still have a respectable .323 OBP. But when the Pirates manage to load the bases is when it gets really ugly. The good news is they’ve managed to load the bases the 4th most in the league. That is certainly a positive because getting players on base is typically a good way to score runs. But despite that, they have gotten only ONE hit with the bases loaded. That is 1-22. There are actually 3 teams right now who are hitless with the bases loaded, but those teams half has as many at bats.
Going 1-22 with the bases loaded is descriptive not predictive. Meaning, the Pirates going 1-22 absolutely does not mean that the Pirates are a bad hitting team with the bases loaded. It just means they have, so far, been a bad hitting team with the bases loaded. Fortunately, hitting that poorly in any situation is completely unsustainable. The Pirates in bases loaded situations are suffering from a very low batting average on balls in play of just .053, so they have definitely been a bit unlucky. Last year the Pirates had a BABIP of .311 with the bases loaded.
When you think of the Pirates lineup, you don’t really think of big power. They beat you by getting on base at a high rate and putting together long, stressful innings for pitchers. According to their Depth Charts projections, they are projected to hit a total of 118 home runs this year. The Pirates have only hit less than 118 home runs once since the steroids era, and that was in 2011. That season they had the 4th worst offense in the league. Out of all the teams since the steroid era, their 118 home runs would have them ranked 333 out of 360, easily in the bottom 10%.
Despite that, I do not think the lack of home runs will be an issue, as long as they start hitting with runners in scoring position, and especially with bases loaded. Home runs are a nice, quick way of scoring runs. Plus they are cool. But you don’t need to rely on the long ball to win games. Proof of that is the last 3 world series winners ranked either average or below average in terms of home runs hit.
At this point in the season last year the Pirates led the league in AVG (.293) and had a 124 wRC+. So far this season they have just a .233 AVG to go along with a 86 wRC+. The Pirates ended last year with a .257 AVG and a 99 wRC+. This year, the Pirates will most likely not end the season with just a .233 AVG, or a 86 wRC+. Just like last years flukey start, the Pirates will likely show that this month was also a fluke.
Losing Marte and Kang for extended periods of time definitely hurts. It’s unlikely that the Pirates make any significant trades since Marte and Kang will still be here long term. Adam Frazier, Jose Osuna, and David Freese will all need to step up to fill the massive holes those two left. The Pirates depth is already being tested, and so far Frazier and Freese have done admirably. But now that Frazier and Freese are both banged up, it could be trouble. There aren’t too many teams that can replace their good bench players with more good bench players. Gift Ngoepe and Jose Osuna aren’t exactly going to turn this Pirates offense around.
The most important thing to take from all of this is that one month is a small sample size. The Pirates have had a really tough schedule to start the season. Baseball Prospectus tracks the pitchers that hitters face over the course of the season. This allows us to see the quality of the pitchers that batters face. They do this individually, so unfortunately there is not a team stat for the Pirates, but we can look at McCutchen and get a pretty darn close copy of what it would be since he’s started every game this season. The slash line for opposing pitches is .222/.299/.372. The pitchers the Pirates have faced are basically turning the hitters they face into Clint Barmes. It’s safe to say the Pirates have had a rough schedule during April, but fortunately May’s schedule looks like it will be much easier.
I previously wrote about how Glasnow was not getting many favorable calls. As it turns out, neither are the Pirates hitters. On pitches taken around the strike zone, they have received the most called strikes out of any team. Part of this could be due to just a small sample size which should even out, and another reason could be since the Pirates have faced such high quality pitching, that pitchers are legitimately painting corners and getting favorable calls since umpires might give higher quality pitchers a wider strike zone.
Of course, the Pirates also have the 28th ranked exit velocity in the league at 85.7 mph, which is 1.4 mph below league average.
So, who knows. The Pirates offense hasn’t been good. They will probably be better. But they will have to do it with very little power, no remaining depth, and their two best hitters on vacation. They could certainly improve. But the small margin for error they had to start the season has shrunk to no margin for error. It’s looking like the Pirates will need to rely heavily on their pitching once again. I don’t think the Pirates offense will struggle this bad all season. April was likely a flukey month and Pirates fans should expect greener Meadows pastures ahead.