Saturday, May 7, 2011

Whassup With The Bats?

What exactly is wrong with the Bucco bats? Hey, when in doubt, go to Fangraphs; they have the story.

For Pittsburgh, it's not very pretty. The good news is slim; the Pirates' walk rate is 9.7%, which rates fifth highest in MLB. And their batting average for balls-in-play (BABIP) is middle of the pack, at .291. After that, it's all downhill.

Both those OK stats are offset by the rest of Fangraph's numbers. The BABIP is misleading even being average because the Pirates lead the majors in strikeout percentage at 25.6%. That means that only 3/4's of the Bucco at-bats result in a ball in play. That's shown by the team's overall .234 BA, 26th in the majors.

And there's a double whammy in effect when Pittsburgh gets a runner aboard. The first is an abysmal .110 ISO, a power stat. What it means is that the Pirates are 25th in homers, last in triples, and 26th in doubles in the show. So it takes a lot of guys on base to produce a run.

That's a particular disappointment because the Pirate lineup was thought to be studded with guys that had gap power, and maybe as the season goes on there will be a few more doubles. But it's a slow team without a real home run threat (unless Pedro finds his groove), so the extra-base knocks may be hard to find in 2011.

The second part of the problem is that Pittsburgh ends up with a lot of guys on first base because of the walks and lack of power. The Bucs' ground ball rate is 47%, sixth highest in baseball. You can see where this is going, no? Their 32 double plays are also sixth highest, even with a mere .311 on-base percentage.

Blend together a lack of power, a high strikeout rate and the ground balls, and you can see why the Pirate bats have been muffled so far this season; it's really hard to put together a consistent attack without runners.

But there is hope. Andrew McCutchen is off to a dismal start, largely because his BABIP is a lowly .247; lifetime, it's .312. McCutch is also off on extra base hits; he was a double machine last season.

He's been creating some of his own bad luck; this is the first season that he's hit more flies than grounders. His infield hits and line drive % have remained steady, so once his swing levels out, he should be back to the same ol' disruptive McCutch.

Jose Tabata is a little harder to read because he doesn't have much of a track record. Last year his BABIP was .339, and that's not really sustainable. But this year it's just .266, and that's bound to rise.

His red flags are that his strikeout rate is a little higher and his line drive rate is way down. So is his infield hit rate, although he hits the ball on the ground as much as he did last year. We look for him to regress and pick up his average as the year goes on, although not to his 2010 level (.299). One bright sign is that his OBP is .333, just a few points below last seasons because his walk rate has almost doubled.

Chris Snyder's average won't hold up - his BABIP is .353 - but he's hitting more line drives and his other stats are all in order, so he may have a good year in store. Likewise Ryan Doumit; Dewey is hitting pretty much along his career lines.

Garrett Jones looks like he can sustain his numbers; platooning him has resulted in the resurgence of the 2009 Jones. Neil Walker may have a hard time keeping his start going; his BABIP is .364, and it has to be high to overcome his 26% K rate. The good news is that nearly quarter of his balls in play are liners, so if he can cut down his strikeouts, he can still put together a solid season at the plate.

We're not gonna dig into Pedro's start; except for a hot September last season, he's yet to establish himself as a major league threat. For him, this year is his trial by fire; we'll see how he develops as a hitter. Power guys almost always have a steeper learning curve than contact hitters.

Matt Diaz's line drive rate has taken a big dip and his ground ball rate a corresponding jump; ditto for Lyle Overbay. Ronny Cedeno is...well, Ronny Cedeno. He's hitting pretty much as he always had, though with a little more bad luck than normal (.250 BABIP), probably because of the balls he's put in play, 73% have been grounders or pop-outs. Que sera, sera.

This is a team in transition, with its core players learning the hard lessons of MLB. McCutch and Jones each have one full season under their belts, while Pedro, Tabata and Walker are going through the 162 game grind for the first time.

And at the dish, it's been a grind. And it may be all season.

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