Since the day PNC Park opened dreams of power hitting lefties pounding balls over the Clemente wall has populated the dreams of much of the fan base. The Pittsburgh Pirates have certainly tried to fill the role and at the same time have done little to minimize the same effect on the lefty stars of opposition lineups.
Brian Giles, Pedro Alvarez, Josh Bell, Gregory Polanco. These are all examples of players the Pirates have enlisted to fill the role of power hitter since opening the gates for the first time in 2001. Last season Josh Bell put 37 over the fence for the Pirates and bested Pedro’s 36 in 2013. Rarely have the Pirates been near the top in the league in home runs hit.
In fact since 2001 here's how they've ranked out of all 30 clubs:
- 2001: 22
- 2002: 25
- 2003: 16 – Remember Reggie Sanders and Matt Stairs?
- 2004: 26
- 2005: 22
- 2006: 29
- 2007: 22
- 2008: 21
- 2009: 28
- 2010: 25
- 2011: 27
- 2012: 12
- 2013: 14
- 2014: 6 – Seeing a pattern here?
- 2015: 23
- 2016: 26
- 2017: 29
- 2018: 25
- 2019: 27 – Even with what Bell did.
The game of baseball is unique in that there are more ways to win than you can count. That doesn’t change the fact that there are certain factors that make it a whole hell of a lot easier, pitching, defense and the long ball. The likelihood of a thumper running into one is far greater than stringing together two or three base hits at any given time. You know as Earl Weaver said, "the best play in baseball is the three run homer."
This would all lead one to ask, Why? Why would any club spend the better part of two decades devoid of such an essential skill? The simple answer is the same reason the Pirates have struggled to field a top tier pitching staff, power costs. It is often said there are two things teams not named the Yankees should internally develop rather than buy, power and pitching.
Enter the scene, Derek Shelton, former bench coach last season for the out of nowhere number one ranked power hitting Twins of the American league central division.
Here is some of what he has had to say on hitting philosophy:
“In terms of hitting, the way the game has changed… everybody looks at hitting a little bit different. But I think that when you’re constructing a lineup, you have to make sure you have different kinds of swings, and different kinds of people. You need to have variety. You don’t want to be a team that relies solely on home runs, because there are going to be stretches where you don’t hit home runs. You need to be able to find other ways to create runs. I look at it not just as hitting, but rather as team offense. For instance, what are you doing on the bases? An important thing for any offense is getting to third base with less than two outs as much as possible. It’s not just a function of, ‘Hey, we’re going to focus on hitting.’ It’s more about focusing on how you’re going to score runs."
So, maybe some answers there on how the Twins approached last season, and it starts with the individuality in instruction. Not asking everyone to be the same is great, especially if it leads to pacing the league in home runs.
But surely that can’t be it. If it were there wouldn’t be so few players who consistently capitalize on the raw power they possess. We’ve all heard about the juiced baseball featured in 2019 (it's only a legend to us here in the 'Burgh), and the emphasis on launch angle has absolutely accounted for an increase in power numbers as well.
So why can’t the Pirates identify and develop power? Well, they have at times. Pedro hit the cover off the ball, but he struck out damn near 200 times to do it. During his time with the Bucs, that was still an unforgivable sin in MLB. Today, what Pedro produced and the way he did it would be considered admirable. Things like this are cyclical in our game, think back to Rob Deer and Cecil Fielder (Prince’s dad for you young guys and gals) with the Detroit Tigers.
Perhaps power is worth having, even if the player is a one trick pony. We often look for players who produce everything, average, power, contact, speed, and that’s all great, it would be incredible if you can get it, but how many five tool players really exist? When building a baseball roster its important to harken back to something Mr. Shelton said just above, you need different types of swings and different types of players.
The Pirates have some players in the system that have this mystical element in their game, Will Craig, Mason Martin, Oneil Cruz, perhaps the Pirates will think about the benefit of power and not hold them back waiting for all the other skills they want to develop to present themselves. That’s much of what helped make the Cubs so successful so quickly. They drafted and traded for a litany of prospects, developed them all with position flexibility and put them all on the field. Remember Kyle Schwarber the catcher, yeah me neither, but that’s exactly what he was when he was a prospect called up to help the Cubs by adding his unique gift to the lineup, power.
The importance of power can’t be understated, and the Pirates need it almost as bad as pitching. Even something as simple as fan excitement can balance on this one element of hitting. Josh Bell’s first half last season absolutely electrified the fan base, it was ultimately in a losing effort but still created more of a buzz since 2015 in the city for baseball.
Power is a commodity not often enjoyed for the Pirates, when they have identified it, they need to use it. When they develop it, they need to try mightily to keep it. Almost more important than anything else, they need to create a steady stream of it throughout the system. It’s not everything, but it is a truly important talent and can be a quick path to making every aspect of your club look stronger.
Follow Gary on Twitter: @garymo2007