Pittsburgh’s Contact Problem

The Houston Astros are well known for swinging, missing, and striking out at an extremely high rate. It should come as no surprise the Astros are currently leading the American League in strikeout rate, even in the early going, striking out 26.2% of the time. However, the Astros are not first in Major League Baseball in strikeout rate. That honor goes to the Pittsburgh Pirates who have struck out 26.8% of the time so far this season. Excluding pitchers, the Astros still hold the lead (26.2% to 26.0%), but the Pirates have swung and missed a lot to start the year.

The Pirates have struggled a little out of the gate, getting swept by the Cincinnati Reds to begin the season on their way to winning three out of their first eight games. The pitching has been mostly solid, with a 3.55 ERA and 3.21 FIP, although the bullpen has been credited with the loss in three of the five Pirates losses. In the early-going the Pirates have hit just .221/.270/.366 with a wRC+ of 80. Those numbers are not all that concerning this early, but the Pirates lack of patience is surprising even as strikeout rates across MLB continue to move upwards.

A deviation in the Pirates strikeout numbers in April is not unusual for the team. While the Pirates have switched out Russell Martin for Francisco Cervelli and given Gregory Polanco a full-time role, most of the team is similar to last season. The Pirates struck out more last April than any other month in 2014. As the chart below shows, the same was true throughout MLB last year, although the effect was not as pronounced for MLB as a whole.

pirates_and_mlb_k-rates_by_month_in_2014 (1)

Pedro Alvarez has been prone to striking out at high rates throughout his career with a career K-rate close to 30% and his 28.4% strikeout rate since the beginning of 2013 ranking sixth in baseball. However, Alvarez is not even among the top two on the Pirates this year despite striking out roughly one-third of the time. The Pirates two outfielders not named McCutchen have both struck out in more than 40% of their plate appearances early on. The chart below shows the eight everyday starters for the Pirates, their walk rate, strikeout rate, the ZiPS projected strikeout rate as well as the difference between the two rates thus far.

PA BB% K% Proj K% Difference
Starling Marte 30 3.3 46.7 25.7 21.0
Gregory Polanco 32 3.1 40.6 19.7 20.9
Pedro Alvarez 27 3.7 33.3 30.2 3.1
Francisco Cervelli 23 4.3 26.1 20.1 6.0
Neil Walker 33 3.0 21.2 16.9 4.3
Josh Harrison 31 6.5 19.4 14.6 4.8
Andrew McCutchen 31 9.7 12.9 18.0 -5.1
Jordy Mercer 28 7.1 7.1 16.2 -9.1

This early in the season, the rates are subject to constant change as players get more plate appearances, but at the moment, Starling Marte’s 46.7% strikeout rate is the worst in baseball. Polanco is seventh worst and Pedro Alvarez retains his expected place in the top-20. Alvarez did show some signs of improvement last year despite a down year and this season has already hit three home runs. Marte is a relatively high strikeout player with a 24% strikeout rate last season ranking 20th among qualified hitters on his way to an excellent 132 wRC+. As plate appearances pile up for Marte, his strikeout rate will still be high, but should stabilize to resemble something closer to 2014.

Of the Pirates hitters, Polanco’s troubles are perhaps the only truly worrisome issue. He came up to the majors last season and hit extremely well, with a .301/.393/.419 line and a 137 wRC+ through July 4th of last year in 108 plate appearances. However, Polanco struggled after the All-Star Break last year, eventually being benched for Travis Snider. Polanco has carried his struggles into this season and since his hot start last season is now .205/.261/.302 in his last 236 plate appearances. Polanco is still just 23 years old, ZiPS projects him as an average offensive player going forward this year, and he should be given plenty of time to show that last season’s struggles were simply part of the maturation process for a young player.

Matchups can play a key role this early in the season, but it does not look like the Pirates have faced an unfair assortment of starters thus far. Below are the starters the Pirates have faced, the starters’ projected strikeouts per nine innings and the number of strikeouts for Pirates hitters in the game started by the pitcher.

Starter SP Proj K/9 Pirates Game Ks
Johnny Cueto 8.4 13
Mike Leake 6.5 9
Anthony DeSclafani 7.2 11
Mike Fiers 8.8 12
Jimmy Nelson 8.1 11
Kyle Lohse 6.2 9
Anibal Sanchez 8.1 10
Shane Greene 6.9 3

Only Johnny Cueto and Mike Fiers have strikeout rates significantly above average, yet the Pirates had struck out at least nine times in every single game prior to facing Shane Greene who nearly shut out the Pirates with a Maddux (SO, under 100 pitches) due to the Pirates’ quick swings. Taking fewer pitches and swinging more appears to be part of the Pirates’ problems thus far.

The increased strikeout rates have also come with a lower than expected walk rate. Last season, the Pirates walk rate was 8.4% which ranked sixth in MLB. So far this season their 4.8% walk rate is higher than only the Chicago White Sox and Colorado Rockies. Even last April when they had their higher strikeout rate, the Pirates walk rate was steady at 8.4%. Last season, the Pirates saw 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, per Baseball Reference. This season, they are down to 3.6, worst in the National League and higher than only the Kansas City Royals and the White Sox.

The decrease in patience bears itself out in the Pirates plate discipline numbers. Last season, the Pirates were in the middle of the pack in nearly every different mark of plate discipline. So far this season, they are at or near the bottom (or top as the case may be), in almost every measure of plate discipline.

Pirates 2015 % Rank
SwStr 12.9 1
Contact 72.6 30
ZContact 79.8 30
OContact 58.5 26
Swing 50.9 3
ZSwing 71.0 2
OSwing 32.5 9

The Pirates start might be disappointing, and they have swung through a greater percentage of pitches than all other MLB teams, but the fact that they have been playing below their expected level of talent is a good sign for the Pirates. They are closer to the middle than the bottom when it comes to swinging at pitches outside the strike zone, but they are swinging more and missing more compared to the rest of the league overall. As the Pirates hitters get more patient and the strikeout and walk numbers get closer to their true talent, the rest of their offensive numbers should fall into line as the Pirates attempt to return to the postseason for the third straight year.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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7 years ago

As you note it’s still early to rely too much on K%, as these don’t even begin to stabilize until at least 70 PA. However, this early shouldn’t some of the plate discipline numbers that are measured per pitch rather than per at bat stabilize more quickly? Marte’s contact% is down about 10% from his career numbers, for example. Is this still small sample noise, or are there any numbers out there for when the per pitch numbers start to become stable?