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Pirates

Will Offensive Frailties Matter For Pirates In Stretch Run?

By Matt Popchock
Andrew McCutchen

(Photo Credit: Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)

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PITTSBURGH (93-7 THE FAN) — As their bats came back to life, the Pirates (67-44) were able to reclaim first place in the NL Central during their ongoing homestand. Still, there are oceans of room for offensive improvement, and will that affect their playoff push at all?

Despite winning six of their last eight, the Bucs rank only 11th in the National League with a .244 team batting average and around the bottom of the proverbial barrel in runs scored. They remain tied for last in the majors with a .226 average with runners in scoring position–and that number jumped about 15 points in the past week.

Coming off “Collapse I,” as it came to be known locally, followed by “Collapse II”–the biggest of its kind in baseball history–those aren’t the kind of numbers that point toward rewriting the script from now till October. But are the Pirates’ offensive failures overblown?

As Michael Clair of Yahoo! Sports pointed out last week, only four of manager Clint Hurdle’s most commonly used position players currently boast an OPS (on-base plus slugging percentage) with RISP (runners in scoring position) better than their individual 2012 total. However, these numbers don’t tell the whole story of the 2013 Pirates.

For example, one of the aforementioned four players not currently beneath his final 2012 OPS with RISP is reserve outfielder Travis Snider. Snider, currently on the 15-day DL with a toe injury, has had, in the bigger picture, a terrible offensive campaign, batting .219 with three homers in 95 games. The Pirates, in fact, still have the poorest right-field OPS (Snider’s natural position) in pro baseball.

Sample sizes are also to be considered. At a .313 clip through Sunday, shortstop Jordy Mercer, currently in his first year as a big-league starter, leads the Pirates in batting average with runners in scoring position, albeit with just 48 such at-bats. Right behind him is center fielder Andrew McCutchen, who, after 112 at-bats under those conditions, is hitting a healthy .277 with a .734 OPS.

That’s still over 200 points lower than Cutch’s OPS with men in scoring position a year ago. Does it mean the 2012 Silver Slugger is under-performing? Not necessarily.

Summertime is usually go time for McCutchen, and this past July was no different. He hit .327 overall during the month with a .994 OPS and accounted for about a third of his 62 RBI in that span. Meanwhile, entering the last leg of the homestand Tuesday, he’s hit a staggering .350 this year at pitcher-friendly PNC Park.

On Sunday he drove in the Pirates’ first run with a one-out single that plated Starling Marte in a 5-1 win over the Rockies. The Pirates, owners of baseball’s best record entering their off day, are playing over .700 ball when McCutchen collects an RBI.

Matt Snyder of the CBS Sports “Eye On Baseball” blog elaborated further last month on how RISP stats don’t tell the whole story of a team or player, citing Joey Votto of the division rival Reds–one of the statistically strongest clutch hitters on one of the NL’s highest-scoring teams–as an example.

To underscore Snyder’s main example, McCutchen is hitting .229 with runners in scoring position and two outs–but a mere 35 of his 411 at-bats have happened in that situation. In his major-league career, Cutch has an OPS in “low-” and “mid-leverage” situations of .851, and he has a career OPS of .898 in “high-leverage” situations, according to James Santelli of PiratesProspects.com.

Pirate fans are all too familiar with the concept of players gravitating back toward career norms. But baseball, kind of like the stock market, fluctuates both ways, and there’s still nearly two whole months for this offense to improve organically. With Marte, owner of an eight-game hit streak, batting .306 in his last ten games following a rash of strikeouts, and even the beleaguered Clint Barmes hitting .296 in July, there are signs that might be starting to happen.

Plus, if there is a team that has proven the adage about good pitching always trumping good hitting, it is the 2013 Pirates, who have silenced the bats of the Rockies and St. Louis Cardinals–two of the National League’s deadliest teams with RISP–in six of their last eight games.

The Pirates and Marlins get underway at 7:05 Tuesday, with “Pirates Preview” with Dan Zangrilli and Kevin Orie beginning at 5:40, on your flagship home for Pirates baseball, SportsRadio 93.7 The Fan.

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