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Why it’s time for the Pittsburgh Pirates to put Marte back in the leadoff spot

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The Pittsburgh Pirates offense has hit its first speed bump of 2018, getting shutout twice in the last four games. This dropoff has come at the same time as Josh Harrison hitting the disabled list.

While losing any starter is a blow for any team, the Pirates at least have the most depth at second base. What they don’t have is another leadoff hitter to replace Harrison.

Clint Hurdle has put Harrison’s defensive replacement Adam Frazier in the leadoff spot in his place so far. That way, everyone else can stay in their traditional spots in the order. Frazier has the look of an old school leadoff man, but he only has a .321 OBP in his career when batting first (and a fairly pedestrian .342 OBP overall). If the role of the leadoff man is to get on base, he doesn’t do it enough to justify that spot in the order.

Meanwhile, Starling Marte is off to the best offensive start to his career, slashing .282/.386/.521 for a 152 wRC+. He’s been far more patient at the plate, offering at far fewer pitches out of the zone, leading to him drawing 12 walks already this season. His previous career high for walks in a month was nine, so this is a seriously paradigm shift for him. (I previously wrote about this for The Point of Pittsburgh.)

But those walks haven’t meant as much to the offense as they could have. Five of Marte’s 12 walks have come with two outs and nobody on. Two out, nobody on has become a common theme for him this year. In fact, no player has batted in that situation more this season than him.

Number of plate appearances with two outs and nobody on this year. Courtesy of Fangraphs.

12 of those 26 appearances have come in the first inning. So while the Pirates offense has done much better this year than they have in the past, their best hitter has come to the plate in the first inning with the worst offensive opportunity possible in 12 of their 19 games.

Enter the (Run Expectancy) Matrix

Four of Marte’s five two out, bases empty walks have come in the first inning. Let’s compare if he had drawn those walks to leadoff the game instead.

Going by Baseball Prospectus’ run expectancy matrix (through Apr. 20), teams are expected to score, on average, 0.1032 runs when the bases are loaded and nobody out. When there’s a runner on first and one out, the figure jumps to 0.2249. So Marte’s four walks in the first inning with two outs and the bases empty have effectively added, in total, .4868 expected runs. Let’s round that to an even half.

On the other hand, league wide run expectancy is .4808 when the inning starts. If the leadoff man winds up at first, it jumps to .8303. Obviously it would not be a one-to-one transition, but let’s assume Marte would still walk in those four previously mentioned plate appearances if he opened the inning. Those four free passes would total an additional 1.398 expected runs.

So through 19 games, batting Marte third instead of leadoff has cost the Pittsburgh Pirates about one expected run. If this trend was to continue throughout the whole at the same pace, it would cost them roughly 7.8 runs. And that’s just through first inning walks ALONE.

Time to shuffle?

Now obviously there is no guarantee that Starling Marte could draw a walk just as often to start an inning than when there’s two outs and nobody on. Pitchers could attack him differently, he doesn’t get to watches pitches from the dugout, and so on. But between Marte’s higher OBP, his ability on the basepaths and just getting more plate appearances by batting higher in the lineup, it stands to reason that he could create more offense for this team batting earlier than third.

The Pittsburgh Pirates had a similar situation in 2016 with Andrew McCutchen. He too came up with the bases empty too many times in 2015, so he was moved to second in the lineup. The experiment didn’t last because he faltered in the new spot, but seeing how he is struggling in the early goings for a fourth straight year, it probably wasn’t the lineup change that caused the problem.

Hurdle expressed earlier this year that he wants more consistency in his lineup construction. That’s fair, and moving Marte from a spot he has so far thrived in could cause a drop in production. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, right?

But Harrison is going to be gone for six weeks. They need a permanent solution for his spot in the order. Marte has experience batting first, and now he has has the look of a brilliant leadoff hitter.

If Hurdle wants to get the most out of his best hitter, he probably won’t get it batting Marte third.

Alex Stumpf is a Pittsburgh Pirates beat reporter for the Pittsburgh Sports Report. He has two weekly podcast shows on Locked On Pirates: "Clear the Deck" with his co-host Jarrod Prugar and "The Locked On Interview", where he brings a guest from the national or local baseball writing community to discuss Pirates baseball. He also contributes to The Point of Pittsburgh and Sporting News. You can follow him @AlexJStumpf.

Pittsburgh Pirates

Interview: Pittsburgh Pirates announcer Joe Block

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Today I had the pleasure of talking to Joe Block for the latest Locked on Pirates podcast.

The Pittsburgh Pirates found a good one when they brought in Joe Block to their announce team prior to the 2016 season. He graciously granted me some time for the Locked on Pirates podcast today while the club is in San Francisco. It was a lively talk that was very eye-opening in many ways. Here ya go:

 

 

Hear Joe’s thoughts on:

  • The role of analytics and advanced stats in his broadcast.
  • The maturation of Gregory Polanco
  • The “creaminess” of the current Pittsburgh Pirates bullpen,
  • And much more!

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

LOP’s Jason Rollison on ESPN Radio’s Adam Crowley show

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Locked on Pirates host Jason Rollison joined Adam Crowley of ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh to talk all things trade deadline. Listen in as they both try to process how the hell the Pittsburgh Pirates got Chris Archer

 

 

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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Pittsburgh Pirates

The Corey Dickerson Dilemma

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The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is LIVE. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ nine-game winning streak has re-fueled a few hot topics going around in Pirates circles.

The latest episode of Locked on Pirates is here:

 

 

Today we talk:

  • The Corey Dickerson Dilemma
  • GM Speak and why it is sometimes necessary
  • Left-handed relievers that could be available

Pittsburgh Pirates fans – Subscribe, Rate, Review!

Locked on Pirates is the semi-daily Pittsburgh Pirates podcast of choice for discerning Pirates fans.

Jason Rollison from Bucs Dugout and others will help you through the 2018 Pittsburgh Pirates season.

You can help chart the podcast’s success by subscribing to our podcast and writing a review!

We are on every podcast app that ties into iTunes, so search for us! Or, if you’re on an Android or iOS device, please just click the links below to subscribe, and while there, why not leave a review?

Using something other than these three? Just search for “Locked on Pirates” in your podcast app of choice.

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