Pirates' bats finding success looking other way
Pedro Alvarez's first home run of the season left his bat with rare velocity, 107 mph, a 417-foot laser off a pitch from St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Shelby Miller that easily cleared the left-center wall at PNC Park.
On Wednesday at Wrigley Field, Alvarez launched a soaring shot off Chicago Cubs starter Jason Hammel that landed several rows up in the left-field bleachers for his third home run of the season.
The early-season power from Alvarez is encouraging for the Pirates, but the location of his hits is perhaps more welcomed. Alvarez produced just three opposite-field home runs last season.
Pirates hitting coach Jeff Branson and manager Clint Hurdle subscribe to an all-fields hitting approach. They believe such a philosophy will lessen the Pirates' struggles against off-speed pitches — an issue last season — because hitters with such a focus can track pitches longer. They believe using the whole field will raise batting averages and run production. Still, trusting a message in theory is one thing for players. Early-season evidence is another — and important for buy-in.
The early evidence of benefits from the new approach has carried over to Alvarez's work against lefties and off-speed pitches, areas of weakness throughout his career.
In the eighth inning Tuesday, the Cubs brought in situational lefty James Russell to face Alvarez. Alvarez drew a walk, laying off several tempting breaking balls falling out of the strike zone. Early this season, Alvarez has appeared to track the ball as well as any point in his career, drawing six walks in his first nine games. On Thursday against the Cubs, Russell again was brought in to face Alvarez with the Pirates trailing by two runs in the seventh. Alvarez launched a Russell breaking ball 446 feet to center field for a go-ahead, three-run homer.
What's different for Alvarez?
“I'm just trying to stay within myself and not waver from my approach. It's the process and sticking to it and just trusting that things will work out for you,” he said. “I just try to hit the ball where it's pitched. If the ball is away, I try to hit it away. For the most part I've been thrown away. I'm just trying to put good wood on where the ball is pitched. It's a work in progress.”
While Branson's preferred all-fields approach is similar to that of former hitting coach Jay Bell, Alvarez notes he and many of current Pirates players worked with Branson at the minor league level. Perhaps that allowed for Pirates hitters to develop more of a relationship — and trust — with Branson.
The evidence goes beyond Alvarez.
After Alvarez walked in the sixth inning Tuesday, Russell Martin hit a sacrifice fly to right field that scored the go-ahead run. Last Sunday, Tony Sanchez's game-winning hit came on an RBI double to the right-center gap. There also have been hard-hit balls to the opposite field that did not end with a positive result but suggested a meaningful change in process.
Entering Saturday, 42 percent of the balls Alvarez put into play went to left field (13 of 31). For his career, only 21 percent of balls in play have gone to left field. Travis Snider also has hit more balls to left field than his pull field.
What's changed for the Pirates?
Snider said pride is a factor. The Pirates are aware of their issues in 2013 and that last season's success was most tied to run prevention. Last season in the National League, the Pirates ranked ninth in runs (161), 11th in batting average (.245) and third in strikeouts (1,330). So in March the Pirates spent more time in batting cages than in previous springs under Hurdle.
“We understand, offensively, we were carried by our pitching and defense,” Snider said. “We have a lot of competitors among position players who want to continue to get better, who want to give those pitchers that extra run, that extra win, and pick them up the way they have been picking us up for the last year.”
Snider said his struggles last season opened him to embracing a new approach.
“I know hitting a ball to second base is something I did regularly last year,” Snider said. “I'm trying to be a hitter who uses the middle of the field. Pitches in, staying through. Pitches away, staying on. I'm just trying to open up and not be one dimensional as a pull hitter.”
As the Pirates collectively struggled at times last season, Hurdle thought his lineup was trying to do too much. He said last week he has seen evidence of a complete buy-in this spring.
“I do think part of our problem (last season) came from our desire to hit the fastball and jump on the fastball,” Hurdle said prior to the season. “That three-run home run would jump in everyone's mind.”
While it can be dangerous to draw too much from small, April sample sizes, perhaps the early-season proof is further incentive for the Pirates to have a season-long buy-in. It's early, but the results still might be meaningful.