PITTSBURGH – The Pirates currently rank 29th in the majors in home runs. Unless they see a tremendous power surge over this final week of play, that is where they will end up.
They haven’t really been a team that has been rich in home run power, even in their best years. They finished 26th in home runs last year, and finished 23rd the year before when they won 98 games.
The Pirates have long held the philosophy that power isn’t just home runs, and can also be expressed in the form of doubles and triples. This is true. However, it requires a lot of doubles and triples to make up for the lack of home runs. The Pirates aren’t getting anywhere close to that, with their .143 ISO also ranking 29th.
Neal Huntington spoke to reporters on Sunday, including our Alan Saunders, about the lack of power this year, noting they saw some key dropoffs from some of their top power producers.
“We certainly were counting on 40 to 50 home runs from Polanco and Kang and Marte,” Huntington said. “That didn’t result because of missed games. If we get those, then we’re in the middle of the pack offensively, which still probably isn’t good enough, but take those away and you have to rely on some other players and we didn’t do as well as we anticipated.”
Those three players combined for 52 homers last year, and 43 in 2015. Polanco and Kang had ISOs above .200 last year, while Marte was at .145. This year Kang couldn’t receive a visa, and missed the entire year. Polanco dealt with constant injuries, leading to ten homers and a .136 ISO. Marte was suspended for PED use, and has seven homers and a .111 ISO while he has been active.
So the Pirates did see a drop off from those players. That said, it’s not like they were considerably higher in home runs or ISO when those players were performing. Their ISO in 2015 was .136, ranking 26th in baseball.
The Pirates had the 23rd best home run total in 2015 and the 26th best ISO in 2015 when they won 98 games. So clearly home runs and power aren’t absolutely necessary to winning. We’re seeing more proof of that with the Red Sox this year, who rank 27th in homers and 28th in ISO, but are in first place in the AL East.
If you are going to go without power, you need to make up for it in other areas. The Red Sox this year rank 3rd in MLB in pitching WAR. The Pirates in 2015 ranked 2nd in MLB in pitching WAR. And unfortunately, the Pirates have not come close to the pitching needed to make up for the lack of power.
Let’s ignore the pitching side of this and just acknowledge that the Pirates don’t absolutely need to improve their power if they improve in other areas. We will also acknowledge that the best approach they can take is trying to improve in all areas, rather than focusing on specific areas and eschewing an important aspect like power. This raises the question: How can the Pirates increase their power going forward?
The first area would be looking for improvements on the team. I doubt they’re ever going to get Kang back, but it’s not out of the question that Polanco could bounce back. The same is true for Marte. That would be a nice boost for them, but it also wouldn’t necessarily put them above the bottom third of the league.
The next thing that would help would be internal additions. They got a nice boost this year from Josh Bell, who has a .207 ISO in his first full season in the big leagues. They’re also getting some power off the bench from young players like Jordan Luplow and Jose Osuna, who have ISOs of .206 and .198 respectively. Max Moroff showed some power for a middle infielder in Triple-A, but that hasn’t fully translated over to the majors.
Beyond those players, the Pirates don’t have much in the upper levels of their system. Austin Meadows has the most remaining power potential, but hasn’t been consistent with that production, and also has seen injury problems derailing his progress. Eric Wood shows power and defense at third base, but isn’t hitting enough to be even a bench option in the majors right now, and it’s unlikely the power would continue in the majors without the ability to hit for average.
Kevin Kramer would be the best prospect from the Altoona ranks, showing a lot of power potential from the middle infield spots, with the chance to improve the power from the second base position in a year or two. But that doesn’t help the Pirates in 2018, and no one else from Altoona on down would have much of an impact, even with a Jordan Luplow style leap from High-A to the majors.
The third way of improving the power would be to add someone from the outside. That’s not impossible. The Pirates did that in a creative way when they added Kang prior to the 2015 season. But home runs and power are very expensive on the open market, which means it might be extremely difficult for the Pirates to add power through that avenue.
This all puts a spotlight on the farm system, which is their best chance of developing power, and which largely hasn’t developed power. That is in part due to the Pirates’ focus on well-rounded players who can play defense, rather than guys who just hit for power. This went to an extreme during the 2014 and 2015 drafts, when they took a lot of college hitters who could hit for average, get on base, maybe add some speed, play a premium defensive position, and hit for power in the form of extra base hits.
That approach didn’t totally prohibit them from adding power hitters. After all, Jordan Luplow was the third round pick in 2014, and Kevin Kramer was a second rounder in 2015. And the approach they took works if the pitching and defense are working well enough to make up for the lack of power.
But now the pitching isn’t working for the Pirates. It might return next year. For now, it shows a glaring flaw with the passive approach to adding power hitters as amateurs. Fortunately, the Pirates made some adjustments during the 2017 draft, adding a lot of players with more power potential. The downside is that it will take those players several years to reach Pittsburgh, which means they’re going to either have to find a way to win again without power, or find a way to finally add some power without much help from the farm system.