Pardon Our Progress: Is There Anything Different About the Pirates’ Hitting?

I thought I’d try to write something — probably sporadically — as the season goes along about how things are, or aren’t, changing with the Pirates this year.  With the team rebuilding, I wanted to look from time to time at whatever indicators may emerge to show whether the team is, or isn’t, doing things differently and/or better.  With a rebuild, what’s happening on the field, at least in theory, isn’t the most useful measure.  Too much construction dust.  Hence the title.

Then again, what happens on the field does matter, as we’re seeing with the Pirates’ mostly good play over the past week.  A big factor driving that play has been the team’s position players.

In 2020, the Pirates’ position players were a hapless bunch, to put it mildly.  In total fWAR, they ranked 29th in MLB, last in the NL, and they weren’t even that close to 28th place Colorado.

You wouldn’t necessarily expect much improvement.  Josh Bell has effectively been replaced by Ke’Bryan Hayes, but Hayes has played only one and a fraction games.  The other most notable change up front has been two new center fielders, and they’ve been a disaster so far.

Yet, in the tiny sample size we have so far, the Pirates’ position players rank a respectable 16th, 8th in the NL.  That’s in spite of some early defensive tomfoolery, which seems to have ceased.  (Adam Frazier, for instance, has been a defensive liability by FanGraphs’ reckoning.  That’s entirely because of a pair of errors.  There’s no reason to think Frazier in the end won’t be a plus defensive player once again.)  And, of course, the team’s best player has been out.

So is there anything to this other than a small sample size?  Well, maybe.  If you broke down their hitting in 2020, the inescapable conclusion is that the hitters, as a group, had fundamentally flawed approaches.  The Pirates were the eighth-most likely to swing at pitches outside the strike zone, which is especially distressing for a team that had less power than Texas in a snowstorm.  They were the fifth least likely to make contact on pitches outside the zone.  Probably for those reasons, they saw the sixth-fewest pitches in the zone.  That all added up to the fourth-highest rate of swings and misses, again on a team with no power.

A lot of that has changed.  The Pirates this year are 14th at swinging at pitches out of the zone and 10th at making contact with those pitches (i.e., 20 other teams swing and miss more often at pitches out of the zone).  The team’s overall swinging strike percentage is now the 10th lowest in MLB.  They’re 24th in swing percentage (i.e., they swing more often than only six other teams).  Some of that is probably because they see fewer pitches in the zone than any other team in MLB; you wonder whether the book on the Pirates is lagging behind the performance on the field.

It’s not that everybody is following the same approach.  Going by the numbers at Baseball Savant, Colin Moran is taking dramatically more pitches.  His swing percentage has dropped from 49.9% last year to 38.5% this year.  His chase rate has dropped from 35.7% to 25.8%, and he’s making contact more often when he does chase.  He’s even taking a much higher-than-average pitches in the strike zone, which probably accounts for his high K rate so far.

Bryan Reynolds, by contrast, has gotten more aggressive in the zone.  He’s swinging at strikes 76.4% of the time, up from 70%, but he’s not chasing more often.  He’s also making a little more contact when he does chase.  It looks like Reynolds is choosing better pitches to go after.

Whether it’s Rick Eckstein or some other factor, there’s reason to think, with the limited data we have so far, that the Pirates are addressing some of the problems that led to their historically awful offense last year.  It’s not just the hitting, either.  So far, they’re no longer TOOTBLAN Champions.  By FG’s reckoning, they rank 7th in runs added above average through their baserunning, with 1.2 BsR.  Last year they ranked 21st.  So that’s progress.