COMMENTARY | While the Pittsburgh Pirates battle the St. Louis Cardinals for possession of first place in the NL Central this week, there will be another fight going on, one hidden a little deeper in the numbers -- the two clubs' performance with runners in scoring position.
Despite the Pirates' 62-42 record, good for second-best in the sport, the Pirates are hitting a measly .225/.319/.324 with runners in scoring position, their 5-for-13 performance against the Cardinals last night largely responsible for the seven-point gap in OPS they have over the Miami Marlins for worst in the league.
The Cardinals, currently nursing a half-game lead, are hitting .339/.410/.467 with runners in scoring position, good for an .877 OPS, the highest of any team since the San Francisco Giants' .877 in 2000 at the height of the offensive explosion. (Remarkably, the Cardinals also have the second-worst OPS, bested only by the Marlins, with the bases empty, coming in with a .624 OPS.)
As for the Pirates, their .643 OPS with runners on would be the third lowest over the same time frame, only the non-playoff-bound Giants and Seattle Mariners performing worse in 2011. But after 868 at-bats with RISP, is there hope on the horizon? Or, last night excluded, is this team doomed to an eternity of struggle with runners on base?
Not to be too bleak, but the Pirates have seen a marked improvement over the last month. On June 22, the team was hitting .212 with RISP and .180 with RISP and two outs (that number is now .216). But why are they so bad?
With RISP, the team's batting average on balls in play is .275, .295 with no one on. They've even cut down on strikeouts with runners on, going from one every 3.5 at-bats to one every 4.2, the expectation being that soon enough those hits that haven't dropped in would. Just as the Cardinals and their absurd .389 BABIP would start to come down, closing the gap between two clubs as their luck reversed like a baseball version of Freaky Friday. So far, that hasn't happened. Even as the Pirates went 5-for-13 with runners in scoring position last night, the Cardinals were 3-for-8.
If it's not luck that can explain the difference between the Pirates' OPS when the bases are empty (.691) and when there are runners in position to score, what else could it be? One is that the Pirates hitters just aren't very good. Their OPS without runners on is only 16th-best in baseball, the team scoring the fourth fewest runs per game. However, the Pirates' situation isn't nearly that strange.
I looked at the difference in team OPS with the bases empty and with RISP, and nine teams hit worse when there were men on, the Texas Rangers having the largest drop by 81 points. Of course, of the eight teams other than the Pirates, seven of them hit better than Pittsburgh with the bases empty, giving them a larger cushion to drop off to.
The only other explanation could be that ethereal, frightening concept of "clutchiness," a concept where, if there are players who are better suited to big moments in big games, it has yet to be a repeatable, verifiable skill. Like the existence of ghosts or a gum that doesn't lose its flavor, it's an unproven idea. As Grant Brisbee pointed out recently, of the 40 batters who were successful in "clutch" situations last year, 36 of them have also had seasons where they were decidedly unclutch.
So is that the Pirates' problem? That they have small-time players who knock knees and drop their bat when in a position to drive in a run? I have to admit, it would fit the narrative of a team that has had two consecutive collapses. Unfortunately, those numbers don't really add up, either.
Here are the Pirates players' OPS in 2012 and 2013 with RISP:
Russell Martin: 2012 .735 / 2013 .619
Gaby Sanchez: .546 / .648
Neil Walker: .875 / .727
Clint Barmes: .634 / .564
Pedro Alvarez: .860 / .754
Starling Marte: .851 / .646
Andrew McCutchen: .975 / .710
Travis Snider: .631 / .656
Garrett Jones: .898 / .579
Jordy Mercer: N/A / .836
Jose Tabata: .574 / 635
So, no, it doesn't appear that the Pirates stare at the pitcher with wild-eyed fear when there is a runner at second base. For the most part, this seems like a problem of small sample size, each batter getting, at most, the equivalent of a month or two of at-bats with RISP. Just as you wouldn't judge a player for his performance in just April, you also shouldn't judge a player for his performance with runners in scoring position over the course of 100 at-bats.
Are the Pirates going to improve their hitting with runners on in the last two months? My money is that they will, simply because more balls will drop in or that the team's leaders in Andrew McCutchen, Starling Marte and Pedro Alvarez perform more like the players we know them to be. We may have seen just a glimpse of that in Pittsburgh last night.
The biggest problem for the Pirates isn't their performance when the bases are clogged, but it's their struggles to hit the ball in every situation that is their biggest concern. If they can improve that, then their ability to hit with runners on will take care of itself.
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