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Buried Treasure: The Pirates Offense

While they might not get much press, the Pittsburgh Pirates have an excellent offense, having scored the sixth most runs in baseball this season. The Pirates have several players who are producing at high levels – and these players have been legitimately good, rather than lucky. They also have a couple of players who are not producing, but these players have been unlucky. Let’s take a look.

 

Jason Bay. A disappointing 2007 season left some people wondering whether Bay had begun a decline, a la Travis Hafner. This season, however, Bay has regained his pre-2007 form. In fact, his numbers from this year - .281/.392/.517 – are remarkably similar to his 2006 numbers, which were .286/.396/.532.

Bay’s walk rate has rebounded after a drop in 2007: this season, he’s walking in 15.4% of his at bats; last season he only walked in 9.9% of his at bats, but in 2006 and 2005 his walk rates were 15.4% and 13.7%, respectively.

Bay’s BABIP of .313 is almost exactly in line with his expected BABIP of .304, and his HR/FB of 15.5% is in line with his rate from the past three years (11.9%, 19.6%, and 18.1%, respectively). Jason Bay is back.

Nate McLouth. McLouth is hitting .290/.376/.552 with 15 homers and eight steals. And none of his underlying stats suggests that he’s benefited from any sort of good luck. His expected BABIP is .286, while his actual BABIP is .293.

He’s knocking 12.9% of his fly balls out of the park; not at all an unreasonable number, especially considering he hit 10.3% of his fly balls out of the park last season. McLouth is succeeding by hitting a lot of balls in the air (49% of his balls in play are fly balls) and by not striking out (only 14.7% of his at bats have ended in a strikeout).

McLouth is extremely disciplined at the plate – swinging at only 19.8% of pitches out of the strike zone and only 58.37% of the pitches in the strike zone – but makes contact with nearly every pitch in the strike zone that he swings at (92.25%). That’s a recipe for success: don’t swing at balls, and make contact with strikes.

Xavier Nady. Nady quietly had two good seasons in Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2006, hitting .300/.352/.409 and .278/.330/.476. This season, however, Nady has been even more productive, hitting .314/.376/.510 with ten homers.

Nady’s high batting average can be attributed to his high BABIP and his striking out less often than he has before. His BABIP appears to be legitimate: it is .344, but Nady is stroking line drives at a high rate, leading to an expected BABIP of .379. Nady’s strikeout rate is 17.6% this year, as compared to 23.4% last year (and a career rate of 20.0%).

Nady is not being any more selective this year than in his career (he has swung at 29.18% of pitches out of the strike zone this year, as compared to 28.3% during his career), but he is making more contact (he has made contact with 64.49% of pitches out of the strike zone, compared to 55.53% in his career). His HR/FB this year (14.7%) is nearly identical to last year (15.6%). While Nady may be getting a little lucky in terms of putting more balls in play than in the past despite showing no other signs of improved plate discipline, his statistics appear to be mostly luck-free.

Ryan Doumit. After hitting an impressive .271/.342/.472 last year, Doumit has followed it up with an even more impressive .341/.387/.609 showing in 39 games this year. Doumit’s BABIP is .342, which is not too much higher than his expected BABIP of .320.

Much of Doumit’s success this year can be attributed to a low strikeout rate (he has struck out in only 13.8% of his at bats). While his K rate is much better than his career rate of 21.8%, it doesn’t appear that his plate discipline has improved at all this season, as he is still swinging at the same percentage of pitches in and out of the strike zone.However, he is making contact with pitches out of the strike zone more often than in the past.

I do not know whether this represents a true improvement in skill (he’s better able to make contact with these pitches) or an aberration, but even if his strikeout rate regresses to his career rate, Doumit should be able to at least duplicate his line from 2007, and perhaps improve upon it.

Freddy Sanchez. After posting batting averages of .291, .344, and .304 in the first three years of his career, Sanchez’s average is down to .235 this season, leading to an abysmal triple-slash line of .235/.266/.316. However, his strikeout rate is identical to what it was last year (12.6%), and his already-low walk rate is only slightly down (5.0% last year, 3.9% this year).

Sanchez’s line-drive percentage is very high, at 25.3%, leading to an expected BABIP of .373. However, his actual BABIP is only .253. In the last three years, Sanchez’s actual BABIP has been a little lower than his actual BABIP every season: expected .353, actual .306 in 2005; expected .395, actual .364 in 2006; expected .345, actual .328 in 2007. Even so, the fact that his actual BABIP is 120 points lower than his expected BABIP this season suggests that Sanchez has been the victim of bad luck, and will regress to the mean in the future.

Adam LaRoche. After a terrible start to the season last year (he was hitting .211/.306/.366 on June 26), LaRoche finished strong and ended up posting a line of .272/.345/.458 with 21 homers. This season, LaRoche has also gotten off to a slow start, hitting .219/.299/.360 thus far, with seven homers. However, LaRoche’s underlying stats suggest that he is likely to experience, once again, a resurgence.

His expected BABIP is .330, but his actual BABIP is .263. His walk and strikeout rates are almost exactly in line with his career averages (he has walked in 10.2% of his at bats this year, as compared to 9.2% in his career; he has struck out in 25.5% of his at bats this year, as compared to 23.4% in his career). Additionally, LaRoche’s plate discipline is virtually identical to what it was last year.

Despite his numbers so far, LaRoche’s underlying skills appear to be exactly the same as they have been throughout his career. Therefore, chances are LaRoche’s numbers at the of the season will be very similar to what they were last year.

 

 

As good as the Pirates’ offense has been, it appears that not only will most of their productive players (McLouth, Bay, Nady, Doumit) continue to produce at or near their current level, but two weak links (Sanchez, LaRoche) have been unlucky and are likely to perform better during the rest of the season. Not a bad situation for a team whose future is looking brighter and brighter every day.