The Pittsburgh Pirates have had the worst offensive in the National League this year.
They rank last in the NL in batting average (.221), on-base percentage (.288), and slugging percentage (.362). They also have the highest strikeout rate at 25.5%.
As we’ve covered on here before, this team also isn’t that aggressive with their swing rate. The Pirates rank 25th in the majors with a 45.5% swing rate.
Alex Stumpf at DK Pittsburgh Sports recently had a great interview with MLB hitting coach Andy Haines. In the interview, which you should check out here, Haines gives an explanation for the lack of swings.
“But if I give you a little glimpse of our process overall, we really want to match our swing rates with guys’ damage zones and play to their strengths. If you can match those two up, it’s a simple math equation over a larger sample that’s going to happen. If we can get them to swing more in areas where that’s their strength and they can do damage. I think that’s a pretty good formula for success over the larger sample of what a major-league season is. That’s what we spend a lot of time on. We have a lot of people working really hard at it.”
This is a concept that has been adopted all throughout the system. It makes sense as a “simple math equation.” The Pirates want their hitters being selective and only attacking the pitches in their hot zones. For example, if a player succeeds against pitches high in the zone, but struggles low, they would want him taking low strikes and hunting the pitches up.
From the pitching side, this opens up areas of the plate where the hitter won’t swing. The Pirates rank first in the majors in called strikes at 18.5%, which is trailed by Cleveland with 17.8%. I don’t think that is leading to the issue of the high strikeouts.
Targeting a specific hitting zone makes sense if the hitters have a swing designed to attack today’s pitching.
Today’s pitchers know how to tunnel the ball to make every pitch look the same, up until they split in different directions at the plate. A hitter can target a zone, but if the swing has flaws, the selective approach really won’t matter.
Last week I wrote about the hitting development approach in Altoona, after speaking with hitting coach Jon Nunnally. Each hitter has a unique swing, but there are tactics that every hitter can take unique to his game.
Targeting a specific zone is one thing. Swinging in a way where you can hit multiple pitches in that zone is another. The video below is a great visual representation of this approach.
The first swing is too steep, with the batter chopping the bat down into the zone. The on-plane swing sees the bat enter the swing plane much earlier, allowing the possibility to get ahead of that fastball deeper in the zone — which was missed completely with the first pitch.
There are two things that stand out from this article. The first is the issue above, where Siani’s swing was getting too steep, leading to him missing some of those deeper pitches. In the 2022 video in that article, you can see that Siani is missing those deeper pitches, before coming back from the Florida Complex with an adjustment to keep his swing on-plane. He’s shown mixed results since the latest adjustment, but is starting to catch up to those deeper pitches.
The second thing is that Siani has been working to get a comfortable stance all year, and you can see he’s made a lot of adjustments, as Jeff did a great job breaking down. One of the most important things is keeping his head still throughout the swing. This allows the hitter to focus on the pitcher and relax his eyes.
If Siani is targeting his zone, and if his swing is on plane, then a still head position will give him the best opportunity to recognize the pitches in his zone as early as possible — not to mention recognizing off-speed to allow for a mid-swing adjustment.
The swing of a hitter is a habit that is made over time, with so many moving parts. For that reason, it can take a long time to get into the habit of a new swing.
The problem I see in Pittsburgh is that Andy Haines is continuing a process that is being taught throughout the minors, but working with players in the majors who weren’t taught these approaches.
Several years ago, these new hitting methods swept the game, but they didn’t reach Pittsburgh. As these approaches were becoming wide-spread for MLB hitters, the pitchers were starting to react with tunneling, spin rates, and movement on their breaking pitches.
From the pitching side, the Pirates scoffed at the “launch angle” trend. They were late to adopt it on the hitting side, and were already working from behind. The people they have in place now seem to have a better understanding of modern hitting, and more importantly, how to teach that to hitters.
The way I see the current problem, the Pirates were last to adjust to the new hitting methods, and their hitters are now several years behind the best clubs.
Haines, Triple-A hitting coach Eric Munson (who is very close friends with Haines), and Nunnally in Altoona (who was in Indianapolis last year) are tasked with a very difficult assignment of rapidly teaching players the correct methods that they should have learned in A-ball.
It doesn’t matter if Sammy Siani takes a few years to adjust his swing in the lowest levels.
It’s not a good thing to see this process done in the majors. There’s a reason the Pirates are the worst hitting team in the NL. There’s a reason you see players bouncing back and forth between Haines in the majors and Munson in Triple-A.
Unfortunately, the reality of this situation is that the Pirates are developing in the majors what should have been developed in the minors — still impacted by their resistance to adopt modern hitting techniques several years ago.