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Pittsburgh Pirates improved run creation fueled by efficiency, patience

Josh Taylor

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The Pittsburgh Pirates’ hitting patience and efficiency through the team’s first nine games has been startling. What has been the catalyst for the club’s new approach at the plate?

It started off like any other game on a Sunday afternoon at PNC Park. Pittsburgh Pirates leadoff hitter and second baseman Josh Harrison stepped into the batter’s box against the Cincinnati Reds’ Tyler Mahle and fouled off the first pitch he saw, an 89.1 mph fastball on the outer half of the plate. Mahle then threw two sliders: one breaking outside for a ball, and Harrison swinging through the other for strike two.

Faced with a situation that rarely goes well for the hitter, Harrison and Mahle engaged in 13-pitch war of attrition that continued with two fastballs outside of the zone to run the count full. Harrison then fouled off seven straight pitches before watching the final one drop into the dirt and earn him a base on balls.

In a true moment that just smacks of an obligatory explanation of that’s just baseball, Gregory Polanco followed Harrison with a line drive single to right field on the first pitch he saw. With runners on second and third and no outs, Mahle threw 15 more pitches among the next three batters he faced, but Starling Marte lined out to right field, Josh Bell popped out to second basemen Scooter Gennett, and Corey Dickerson struck out swinging to end the threat. Mahle had won the battle, but the war was just beginning.

After throwing 29 pitches in the first inning, Mahle’s labor resumed in the second with an eight-pitch strikeout of Francisco Cervelli and a groundout by Colin Moran. But then Jordy Mercer lined a 3-1 fastball over Billy Hamilton‘s head for a double, bringing opposing pitcher Jameson Taillon to the plate. In another twist of fate, Taillon slapped the first pitch he saw into right field, bringing Mercer around from second base and giving the Pirates a lead they would never give back.

Mahle made quick work of the Pittsburgh Pirates in the third and fourth innings, retiring six of seven batters faced on 21 pitches. But in the fifth, the going got tough again. After Taillon grounded out back to the mound on five pitches, Harrison and Polanco both worked full counts and took advantage of their respective opportunities. Harrison pulled a fastball on the inside corner into left field for a single, and Polanco lifted a changeup over the Clemente Wall in right field for a two-run home run that extended the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lead to 3-0.

Staying Ahead is key

Having fun again

“It’s fun to watch Polanco right now,” said Dickerson after the game Sunday. “He’s a good hitter. He’s got a real good eye. He’s very athletic, and it’s fun hitting behind him.”

The next three batters Mahle faced would be his last: Marte laced a 1-1 slider to center field for a double, Bell lined a 1-2 fastball into left for an RBI single that scored Marte and Dickerson belted an 0-2 fastball belt-high and on the inner half of the plate into the right field seats for the second run of the inning and a 5-0 deficit.

“All I like to do is hit the ball hard and get my timing down,” Dickerson said. “If my timing’s there, I’m not really worried about the home run. I just look to drive the ball, and it was good to get the first one out of the way.”

By the time Reds manager Bryan Price came to remove Mahle, his turmoil was unmistakable in his stat line: 100 pitches, 68 strikes, 10 baserunners allowed and two home runs in less than five full innings.

“A fun fifth inning for us,” said manager Clint Hurdle after the game. “The barrels [of the bats] showed up, so it was a pretty clean game all around.”

It was just one example of several in a small, yet colorfully-painted sample size of carefully-calculated at-bats. The Pirates’ 7-2 record might seem like an aberration to some, but the offensive numbers that have contributed to it make the story quite clear: they’re scoring runs at a rate we have never seen in the Neal Huntington/Clint Hurdle era, and in a manner it hasn’t been done before.

Historically not great

Since 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates’ offense has been in the top ten in runs scored only once (2014), and only twice more were they in the top half of Major League Baseball. Their high watermark was the 4.5 runs per game they scored in 2016, and that was only good for 13th overall that season. Nine games into the season, the Pirates are averaging 6.44 runs per game, third-most in MLB. That average is highly likely to drop over time, as six runs per game is considered remarkably high.

Not only are the Pirates among baseball’s best in runs scored, they are also in the top five in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (on-base plus slugging), weighted on-base average (wOBA) and weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Perhaps the explanation to the early offensive surge is tied into the events that lead to those specific numbers, namely, getting on base and hitting for extra bases at very high rates.

The Pirates’ 37 walks are currently 10th in Major League Baseball as of Monday morning, and their walk percentage of 10.3 percent is eighth. An overwhelming efficiency at putting the ball in play also tells the tale, as their 15 percent strikeout rate is the best in MLB. In addition, they have seen the lowest (read: best) percentage of pitches while behind the count in baseball (23.77%), as opposed to 16th-best a year ago (28.65%).

The ability to work from behind in the count into favorable hitting counts has also been shown in some of the most productive at bats of the season thus far. On Opening Day at Comerica Park in Detroit, Polanco came to bat with two runners on and two outs in the top of the 13th inning with the game tied at 10 apiece. Polanco took two Alex Wilson sliders and a fastball for a 3-0 count, then lifted a 92-mph fastball in the heart of the strike zone out and over the right field wall for the eventual game-winning three-run home run.

Moran adds length

Three days later during the Pittsburgh Pirates’ home opener, third baseman Colin Moran was ahead in the count, 3-0, against Minnesota Twins’ starter Lance Lynn, and then took two fastballs for strikes to even the count. Lynn’s payoff pitch was a 95-mph fastball belly high and down the middle, and Moran hit it 405 feet over the Clemente Wall for his first career grand slam and first home run as a Pirate. He got another opportunity with the bases loaded later in the week against the Reds, and once again he cashed in with a quality at bat.

Friday night in the bottom of the third inning, Moran faced Luis Castillo, taking his first three pitches for a 2-1 count. After a swing and miss on a changeup down in the zone, Moran saw a 95-mph fastball down the middle and lined it into center field for a two-out, two-run single that was eventually the game-winning hit. Twice in one week, Moran had RBI opportunities with the bases loaded, and they resulted in a combined six runs driven in.

Dickerson praised his teammates’ willingness to communicate and share information on pitchers and at-bats, as evidenced by the three most strenuous innings of work by Mahle on Sunday.

“Every guy has a lot of energy here,” he said. “Just because they get out, they still carry a lot of energy, and they’re able to make adjustments from at bat to at bat and relay information. You still stick with your approach, or your swing is different than the next guy. But the way he may be attacking you might be different, and somebody on the team may see something. I think everybody’s doing a good job of it.”

“I think they’ve talked about it and shared some thoughts,” Hurdle said. “You watch the guy hit in front of you. I think we’re doing a better job of watching the game. We’re doing a better job of watching each other. We’re spending more time in the dugout in conversation, running to video and checking out their individual swings from time to time. But them hunting each other’s at bats, sharing the information as they go has definitely helped.”

The Pirates have found multiple ways to take advantage of opportunities to score runs, and the early results have prove useful in helping to propel them to the top of the division in the first two weeks of the season. If they’re able to use those same methods consistently over time, they could become the most productive offense the organization has seen in a decade.

 

Josh Taylor is an award-winning sports broadcasting personality appearing on KDKA‘s sports coverage and programming. Josh can currently be heard on 93.7 The Fan and seen on KDKA and The CW networks.

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.

Continue Reading

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