Examining the "Strength" of the Pittsburgh Pirates

The Pittsburgh Pirates' lineup is looks like the clear strength of the team, but some deeper numbers show issues.
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If you asked Pittsburgh Pirates fans to talk about the strength of their team for the 2019 season, almost everyone of them would more than likely begin telling you about the batters and how well they performed. It seems like a pretty easy answer seeing as how Josh Bell (.277/.367/.569, 37 HRs and a 135 wRC+) exploded on to the scene in the first half of the season and Starling Marte (.295/.342/.503, 23 HRs and a 119 wRC+) remained a consistent performer. Add in surprise seasons from newcomers Bryan Reynolds (.314/.377/.503, 16 HRs and a 131 wRC+) and Kevin Newman (.308/.353/.446, 12 HRs and a 110 wRC+). Finally, top it all off with a solid season from Adam Frazier (.278/.336/.417, 10 HRs and a 97 wRC+).

Of course, you would say that batting/hitting was the strength of the 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates. How could you argue with this fact considering the impressive performances of these 5 players? Just for “fun” let’s consider for a second that the reason why the Pirates batters looked so impressive was because of how poorly they produced in every other aspect of the game; especially pitching and fielding. In order to test this completely ridiculous theory we first must delve into the areas in which the Pirates struggled the most this past season. 

The perceived strength of the Pirates prior to the 2019 season was their starting rotation and the depth of their bullpen, particularly due to the way many of the Pirates’ pitchers finished their 2018 season. After a strong start to the season, things couldn’t have gone much worse for almost every single hurler wearing a Pirates uniform. The ever-changing starting rotation posted a 5.40 ERA (26th in MLB), allowed 139 HRs (12nd), walked 305 (16th) batters and struck out 756 (21st). The bullpen ranked higher/better in some areas: 4.91 ERA (23rd), 102 HRs (9th), 304 BB (4th) and 687 Ks (7th) but struggled in others: 57 holds (28th) and 24 blown saves (15th). For the most part it was a complete disaster. 

If you can believe it, fielding was worse or at least at the same level of disarray as the poor pitching. Individually the Pirates have some defensive standouts that prevented the situation from being more dire than it could have been. Gold Glove nominee, Adam Frazier, produced 11 outs above average (OAA) but couldn’t prevent the infield from having a total of -8 OAA. In the outfield Starling Marte (2 OAA) and Bryan Reynolds (2 OAA) did the best they could to hold down the cavernous grassland of PNC Park, but as a whole the Pirates' outfielders also ended up with a -8 Outs Above Average. If you look at some of the other major defensive categories in the MLB, things only get worse. The Pirates finished in the bottom third in defensive runs saved (DRS) -53 (26th), ultimate zone rating (UZR) -54.0 (30th) defense (DEF) -51.0 (30th) and pitch framing (FRM) -7.1 (21st) and errors 121 (28th). Anything that the Pirates batters did would end up looking other worldly compared to the pitching and fielding, but was it really a strength? To answer this, you must compare the Pirates batting numbers against the rest of the league. 

The first thing that the average baseball fan will look at to judge the ability of their team’s hitters would probably be batting average. The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates excelled in this category. They posted a team batting average of .265, good enough to be tied for 5th in all of MLB with the Rockies and Nationals. Their BABIP (batting average in balls in play) was even better at .304 (4th overall). They hit with runners in scoring position (RISP) to the tune of .273/.350/.460 and struck out at a rate of 19.5% (2nd). Unfortunately for the Pirates this is where the positives for their team batting statistics ended. As a team they ranked 18th with a .321 OBP (On Base Percentage), 19th with a 92 wRC+ (weighted runs created plus), 20th with 722 RBIs, 21st with a .313 wOBA (weighted on-base average), 21st with 758 runs scored, 22nd with a .420 SLG (slugging percentage), 25th with a .156 ISO (Isolated Power), 27th with 163 homers, 27th with a 6.8% walk rate and 27th with a 33.9% hard hit rate. I know that some of these statistics are ones that only stats nerds like myself pay attention to, but you can’t argue with the Pirates ranking in the bottom half or worse in every major hitting category except for batting average. And to top thing off the Pirates batters struggled in another area that had to be very clear to anyone that paid attention to even a handful of games last season. When the Pirates got the bases loaded, they could not seem to get anything going, no matter the number of outs they had. Overall, they posted a .227/.267/.378 slash line in these situations. Their worst performance came with no outs (.200/.176/.333) and their best came with 2 outs (.250/.314/.391). Even a couple more hits in these situations and the team’s other numbers might not look so bad. 

So, all in all was the Pittsburgh Pirates strength for 2019 their batting? Of course, it was. Just look at many of the numbers and individual performances. Was it as good as it originally looked on the surface and especially against the rest of the league? Absolutely not! However, there was a lot that the Pirates did well that can be built upon and if they get a couple more hits in critical/crucial/clutch situations last years numbers could look a lot better 2020. 

 Follow Craig on Twitter: @BucsBasement