By: Noah Wright
Aaron Doster-USA TODAY Sports
The Pittsburgh Pirates have fallen to a 40-45. Far from the 26-17 record they started the season with through the first month and a half. They’re last 2 series wins were against The Padres and The Mets. It’s even gotten so bad that they can barely even put up a fight against good teams, as shown by the depressing 1-17 loss to The Dodgers last night, and 3-8 loss tonight against The Dodgers. Their last series win against a team above .500 was against The Giants back in early/mid-May. I’ve previously pointed out flaws in their roster, however there are tons of problems with the way they play their players. The Pirates refuse to evolve to the new game, and not only does this affect their overall play, but also hurts their players.
The main problem I want to mention their pitching strategies. In the book, “Big Data Baseball”, which is mainly about how The Pirates made the playoffs for the first time in 20 years in 2013, mentioned how they used the shift, and pitching to the shift/contact to win games. According to the author, Travis Sawchik, The Pirates 494 times in 2013, with only 2 teams (The Cubs and Brewers) shifting on batters more often than The Pirates that season. While the shift is still a large part of the game today, The Pirates still rely on the shift more than the K in an era where strikeouts and overpowering the batter is king, at least when it comes to their starters. This is evident by The Pirates 7.51 K’s per game rate, with only The Royals below them in K’s/game. The Bucs’ K/9 rate ranks just 17th of all MLB teams at 8.42. The only team that is in a playoff spot with a lower K/9 ratio is The Cubs at 8.35 K/9. Their pitching to contact strategies are also hurting some of their young pitchers. Nick Kingham had an amazing 2 first games in the majors, and had 16 K’s in his first 12 and a third innings pitched. And he pitched great in those 12 and a third innings. However since then, Kingham has struck out just 21 batters in 26 innings played. Jameson Taillon consistently had K/9 numbers near or above 9 K/9, but hasn’t recorded a K/9 above 8.4 since reaching the majors. While Joe Musgrove’s K/9 numbers haven’t really changed, his spike from 30.2% hard hit rate last year to 33.1% hard hit rate this season, and .7% ground ball rate increase it shows that they want him to pitch to the shift/contact. In today’s game where hard contact and the long ball are the norm, pitching to contact over avoiding can hurt a team.
So who’s really to blame here? I’d say coaching. The Pirates coaching can sometimes be extremely stubborn. Multiple times you will watch Clint Hurdle let a pitcher let a game get out of hand before pulling him. Hurdle also marched out Gregory Polanco on a regular basis, even when he was struggling mightily, and had much better options in Corey Dickerson and Austin Meadows. Their stubbornness leads to multiple games lost, and this is no exception. Coaching refuses to move on, which is their biggest downfall.
The Pirates are still using strategies that worked in 2013-2014. However, that was 4-5 seasons ago. The game has evolved. It’s a hard contact and home run game for batters, and the 95+ mph fastball and high K rate game for pitchers. With The Pirates’ strategies to continue to pitch to contact, and refusal to change anytime soon, they will continue to lose, and affect their starters in a negative way until they change. Either The Pirates evolve with the game, or the game evolves and leaves them behind.
(If you enjoy baseball and/or any kind of statistical analysis, then checkout the book I mentioned in this article, “Big Data Baseball” by Travis Sawchik: https://www.amazon.com/Big-Data-Baseball-Miracles-20-Year/dp/1250094259/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1530685272&sr=8-1&keywords=Big+Data+Baseball )