A couple of recent Pirates’ at-bats that occurred in key situations have generated a little attention in some quarters for what didn’t happen.
Specifically, the bat didn’t get swung.
On Thursday, with nobody out in the seventh inning, runners at the corners and the Pirates trailing 1-0, Dan Vogelbach chose not to offer at any of the five pitches he saw, three of which were called strikes.
On Saturday, with two out in the ninth and representing the tying run, Josh VanMeter watched six straight pitches go by and three of those were called strikes.
These had to be two of the worst at-bats all year on a team that churns out terrible at-bats like McDonald’s churns out french fries.
The Pirates under hitting coach Andy Haines aren’t real keen on swinging the bat. This year, they’re swinging at fewer pitches in the strike zone than any other team, by a sizeable margin. (These stats, from FanGraphs, are all from before the Saturday game.) They’re not as selective with pitches outside the zone, ranking 23rd in how often they swing.
Overall, the Pirates and Arizona are tied for last, swinging at fewer pitches than the other 28 teams. One result of this is that the percentage of pitches the Pirates face that end up as either a called or swinging strike is the highest in baseball, again by a comfortable margin. (FG calls this “CSW%.”)
It’s not like any of this is producing useful results. The Pirates are 28th in the majors and last in the NL, again by a comfortable margin, in runs per game. (What saves them from being last in the majors in this and other categories is Oakland’s extreme tear-down and Detroit’s inability to pull itself out of a bungled rebuild.)
Taking all those pitches isn’t leading to walks; the Pirates rank 16th there and, again, are 28th in MLB and last in the NL in OBP. They also strike out more than all but two other teams, so it’s not like they’re doing a good job of laying off pitches they can’t hit.
This extreme reluctance to swing the bat is new. Last year the Pirates were the 19th most likely team to swing at pitches in the strike zone. They were 21st in CSW%.
Personnel changes other than Haines have certainly contributed. The leaderboard in not swinging the bat is littered with Pirates.
Vogelbach is the most likely player in MLB to take a pitch in the strike zone. Oneil Cruz is third, Roberto Perez ninth, Hoy Park 11th, VanMeter 12th, Kevin Newman 14th and Diego Castillo 18th. That’s seven of the top 18.
Vogelbach is also the least likely to swing overall, with VanMeter ninth and Park 18th. (At the other end of the spectrum, you’ll be glad to know it wasn’t your imagination; Michael Chavis really does swing at everything.)
Of course, it’s possible that reluctance to swing isn’t the reason the Pirates’ hitting is among the worst in the majors. But when you’re terrible overall and you’re an outlier in an important area, you have to question whether the two phenomena might be related.
THIS WEEK ON PIRATES PROSPECTS
Having followed the Pirates fanatically since 1965, Wilbur Miller is one of the fast-dwindling number of fans who’ve actually seen good Pirate teams. He’s even seen Hall-of-Fame Pirates who didn’t get traded mid-career, if you can imagine such a thing. His first in-person game was a 5-4, 11-inning win at Forbes Field over Milwaukee (no, not that one). He’s been writing about the Pirates at various locations online for over 20 years. It has its frustrations, but it’s certainly more cathartic than writing legal stuff. Wilbur is retired and now lives in Bradenton with his wife and three temperamental cats.