The first week of April in Pittsburgh felt like a National League Division Series in the midst of October with tons of energy and excitement. Francisco Liriano threw six shutout innings with 10 strikeouts and led the Pirates to a game 1 win. In game 2, the Pirates revived some late-inning magic from 2015 and walked off in the 11th on a Jordy Mercer single down the first base line. In game 3, Juan Nicasio showed many that his spring training stats were not a fluke and led the Pirates to a 5-1 win. The Pirates started 2016 with a three-game sweep of the division rival St. Louis Cardinals and “yinzers” were ecstatic. FanGraphs’ very own Jeff Sullivan wrote a piece examining the changes in playoff odds after just one week of play. His chart had the Pirates’ odds increasing by seven percentage points, while the Cardinals’ odds decreased by almost five percentage points. While it was only the first series of the season between the two teams, it still meant something. However, since that series, the Pirates have faced many ups and downs. Let me elaborate.
Before entering the 2016 season, one major concern of a Pirates’ fan could have been the rotation that they decided to bring north, which consisted of Francisco Lirano, Gerrit Cole, Jon Niese, Juan Nicasio, and Jeff Locke. You will not mistake this rotation with the Mets’ fab four or the Indians’ top three anytime soon. The other night, Jeff Locke surrendered 11 hits and eight earned runs in just three innings against a Padres offense who struggled to score a run in their opening series of the season. On Tuesday night, Liriano returned from a “hamstring injury” by giving up two homers and walking five. However, there is light at the end of the tunnel with former number-two overall pick Jameson Taillon and top prospect Tyler Glasnow nearing their debuts. Believe it or not, pitching may not be the Pirates’ primary concern at the moment.
In the past three years, as an avid fan of the Pirates, I have noticed an ongoing inability to move runners and take advantage of any sort of small-ball approach. Therefore, I decided to take a look at the numbers. Through the first 15 games of 2016, the Pirates are last in the league with 9.33 runners left on base per game. Minnesota comes in a distant second with 7.93 runners left on base per game. Now, I am very well aware of the small sample size. It is very easy to be overwhelmed by early-season statistics, such as Gerrit Cole starting with an 0-2 record and a 4.22 ERA, but we are only 15 games into a 162-game season and there are many more important statistics than ERA. While the Pirates are leaving the most runners on base per game, they are also sporting the highest team OBP (.380) in the league. Coming in second is the St. Louis Cardinals with a .348 team OBP. Due to the small sample size, I decided to take a look at the past two seasons where I have also noticed their inability to move runners.
In 2015, the Pirates came in dead last in all of baseball with 7.22 runners left on base per game. However, they sported a top-10 OBP of .323, which was not far behind the league’s best OBP of .340 by the Toronto Blue Jays. Lets take another step back. In 2014, the Pirates finished 29th in the league with 7.35 runners left on base per game. The only team to leave more runners on base that year was the Tampa Bay Rays (7.36). Surprisingly, the Pirates finished third in team OBP (.330) trailing only the Detroit Tigers (.331) and the Los Angeles Dodgers (.333).
Interpret this however you may like, but it is apparent that the Pirates lack a very important skillset of moving runners, or executing successful situational baseball. In the past three years, the Pirates have finished in the top 10 in stolen bases. While this statistic is by no means the only measure of team speed, it is very clear that the Pirates have some speed and athleticism in their lineup among guys like Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte, Gregory Polanco, Josh Harrison, and Jordy Mercer. These are not guys that should be taken lightly on the base paths. According to Moneyball, Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s went after undervalued position players who had a knack for getting on base, thus, scoring more runs. So far, the Pirates are getting on base more than anybody this year. With better pitching performances from their rotation and moving runners more efficiently, whether that’s through more smallball or just better situational hitting, the Pirates could easily be one of the better teams in the league this year. Don’t lose hope too early, Pittsburgh.
I am currently a junior at Washington & Jefferson College in Washington, PA majoring in Economics with a concentration in Entrepreneurial Studies. Baseball is the love of my life.