To start the season, the NL Central is one of the worst divisions in baseball. Although it’s not even a month into the season, every team is faced with its own struggles. It is the only division that has all but one team under the .500 mark. Only the Cardinals have a winning record thus far:
(as of April 26th)
Not surprisingly, the Pirates are producing the worst offense in the division. They have the lowest totals in the following categories: HR (tied with Houston), Runs, RBI, AVG, OBP, SLG, etc. To summarize it, the Bucs are last in every category. One surprising category is stolen bases. The Pirates need to utilize their speed to get runs, but have stolen just 11 bases so far, which is second lowest in the division. They have decided to heavily rely on sacrifice bunts to get runners over, which is not always the best option. The Pirates also have the worst walk rate in the division at 5.30%. According to FanGraphs, a BB% below is consider poor. The Bucs have the highest O-Contact% in the entire MLB, which is the percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat. They are making contact with 73.8% pitches out of the zone that they swing at, which could translate to their low BABIP (batting average on balls in play) of .267.
Analysis: Since the Pirates lack power throughout the lineup, they must take advantage of their speed (particularly at the top of the order). While Clint Hurdle and his staff like to rely on the bunt, it can only be executed in the proper situations. Sacrifice bunts are becoming extremely predictable. One idea that the Pirates could toy with is a hit and run. Alex Presley boasts a .320 OBP and often gets on base as the leadoff man. Instead of Jose Tabata consistently bunting, a hit and run is not out of the question. Tabata hits a high number of ground balls (31 ground balls vs. 6 fly balls this season) and often hits the ball to the right side. With Presley running and the second baseman covering, a hole should open up on the right side for Tabata. Instead of giving the other team one of your 27 outs, you could end up with runners on first and third and nobody out for your best hitter, Andrew McCutchen. If Jose cannot execute, you still have a good shot at a stolen base with Presley’s plus speed. Also, the Pirates need to show more discipline and patience at the plate, especially at the bottom of the order. Guys like Rod Barajas and Clint Barmes, who have never held down a high OBP, need to take advantage of their opportunities and try to create offense.
After a solid 2011 campaign, the Pirates pitching staff is once again keeping them near the .500 mark. Although they hold the lowest strikeouts per nine innings (6.54 K/9) in the division, they still hold their opponents from scoring a lot of runs. The staff has a division-leading ERA of 2.58, as well as a home run to fly ball rate of 7.90%, which is considered between “great” and “above average” by FanGraphs. They also possess a Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) of 3.41, which is second in the division (behind the Cardinals) and also considered between “great” and “above average” by FanGraphs. The Bucs staff has a Left On Base Percentage (LOB%) of 78.90%, which once again places them behind the Cardinals and is considered “great”.
Analysis: The pitching staff has simply kept the Pirates in games. Although the offense hasn’t produced many runs, the pitchers have held the games close enough to give them a chance. The LOB% is a good example of this because the runners that do get on-base are often being stranded. Only the Cardinals have a higher rate at 79.30%. Since they have a more threats in their lineup, it gives them a better chance to win, and it’s reflected in the standings. Despite the low K/9 rate, the Pirates pitchers are doing a good job with command, walking just 2.87 per nine innings. The defense has held up behind the pitchers as well, as the staff has a BABIP of .256, the lowest in the division. Although BABIP could code for luck for pitchers (i.e. balls hit right at the defense, luck, etc.) it still shows that hitters do not have a high AVG vs. Pirates pitching. If the Bucs want to remain close to .500 for deep into the season, the pitching staff needs to keep its consistency.
If the Pirates pitching staff can continue their success and the offense can get past their struggles, there is a lot of potential to win some ballgames. Although the Pirates seem to be a few strong players away from being consistent, there are still many pieces in place. McCutchen has played well so far, but has yet to show much power. Neil Walker needs to find his stroke but has played well defensively. Pedro Alvarez has struggled but looked good the past few days with some homers. The additions of A.J. Burnett and Erik Bedard look good for the rotation, but the offense needs to provide some run support. The bullpen has looked solid so far, with Joel Hanrahan closing out games and Juan Cruz, Jason Grilli, Tony Watson, etc. being the set-up men. Hopefully everyone can put it together at once and we’re in for another enjoyable midsummer run.