In one of the great ad campaigns of all time, Nike put Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux together to say that “Chicks dig the long ball” in a hilarious commercial where the two pitchers teach themselves to hit to get the attention like Mark McGwire has (which is funny in retrospect, of course, based on how things turned out for these two now-Hall of Famers).
Fans of all ages and genders fixate on how many home runs a team hits. There’s no denying that the Pirates watched Pedro Alvarez’s 27 home runs and Neil Walker’s 16 dingerz walk out the door this offseason. However, there is a strong possibility that the 2016 Pirates’ offense may be better than last year’s edition.
Is the crazy-eyed optimism associated with late winter fever for the start of baseball season? Usually, but not in this case.
In this table below, I’ve put what I think is one iteration of the Pirates most likely lineup configuration. Please note that this is not what I would consider the ideal lineup; rather, this is me trying to get inside Clint Hurdle’s head and adjusting for his lineup construction tendencies. This is also assuming that Jung-ho Kang is healthy on Opening Day, of course. The three columns show what the player’s 2015 on-base percentage was, his career on-base percentage, and the split difference between the two. The split difference is the one that I’m roughly projecting to be his 2016 OBP.
|Player||2015 OBP||Career OBP||Split Career-2015 OBP|
Now let’s pair this with the cumulative stats from all the Pirates that batted in the #1-#8 spots last year from Baseball Reference’s team splits:
If you go player by player, batting spot by batting spot, you can see that…
- It’s a wash at #1 and #3
- It’s a substantial improvement at #2 and #6
- It’s a modest improvement at #4 and #5
- It’s a substantial downgrade at #7 and #8
On a superficial level, that’s very good because you’re improving at the more vital spots in the batting order (#2, #4-#6) that see more at-bats and are your run-producing lineup spots, while taking the hit at the lesser spots in the final third of the batting order. At the link above, you can click each position and see who did what at each spot in the batting order. Here’s the OBP for each player in my proposed lineup at that spot of the order in 2015:
- Harrison — .324 OBP in 291 plate appearances
- Jaso — was not here
- McCutchen — .403 OBP in 678 PA’s
- Marte — .373 OBP in 212 PA’s (huge improvement above his overall season OBP)
- Kang — .376 OBP in 255 PA’s (huge improvement above his overall season OBP)
- Cervelli — .372 OBP in 130 PA’s
- Polanco — .341 OBP in a tiny 44 PA’s (huge improvement above his overall season OBP)
- Mercer — .316 OBP in 278 PA’s
So what all this tells me is that the Pirates should be greatly improved with their ability to get men on base for the run producers like McCutchen, Marte, Kang, and Cervelli to drive in. This offense may not be hitting nearly as many long balls as last year, but I do expect some internal gains from player growth (Polanco, especially) and a return from injuries (Harrison, Mercer). This table shows how many home runs each projected starter hit in 2015, how many they averaged from 2013-14, and finally what I’m projecting them to hit in 2016 using this data as a makeshift trendline.
|Player||2015 HR||2013/14 AVG||Projected 2016|
If you quasi-agree with my home run projections for the starting 8, then there are potentially 21 more home runs coming this year from internal improvements over last year. This makes up for the loss of Walker’s 16 or gets you close to making up for Alvarez’s 27, depending on whether you’re an optimistic or pessimistic person. My worry about the loss of a true home run slugger is that McCutchen will look around the clubhouse and realize he’s the only one left that has hit 20+ homers in a season and decide, as is human nature, to shoulder the burden himself, thus leading to him changing his approach at the plate.
Not to put too much pressure on the new guy, but I really think that the new look of this offense will revolve around John Jaso. I know he’s going to be busy learning how to play 1B (that’s not that hard…is it?), but his on-base component is just one of two improvements over Alvarez that I can see. His second, and far more under-the-radar one, is his ability to simply hit doubles. For all his power, Alvarez was really a one-dimensional offensive player. If it wasn’t over the fence, Alvarez didn’t really do much else. He hit a shockingly low number of doubles for someone with his build. Jaso hit 17 doubles in 216 plate appearances, good for a 2B% of 7.87%. Alvarez, on the other hand, hit 18 doubles in 491 plate appearances, bad for a 2B% of 3.67%. If we give Jaso the same 491 PA’s, he could potentially hit 39 doubles and drive in runs by that fashion.
Jaso is simply a better offensive player, even though he doesn’t hit the flashy homers. His 2015 wRC+ was 136, while Alvarez’s was 114. Jaso’s career wRC+ of 120 is far greater than Alvarez’s 106, based on Jaso having a more well-rounded profile of batting average, on-base percentage, and doubles.
In a perfect world, the Pirates would have table setters up top and bashers in the middle to drive them in, but all of that costs money. The Pirates have cobbled together a lineup that may be as thin as a piece of parchment paper, but if it all breaks right could work more efficiently than 2015’s lineup.