Bucs hitters trusting process, waiting for results

Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, May 3, 2014, 7:06 p.m.

The Pirates might be one of the unluckiest teams in baseball.

If you are searching for a silver lining to the team's sluggish first month, there is no better evidence suggesting the Pirates should expect improvement than the team's batting average on balls in play. The Pirates entered Saturday ranked 28th out of 30 major league teams in batting average on balls in play with a .276 BABIP.

Batting average on balls in play differs from overall batting average in that strikeouts and home runs — outcomes that do not include a ball put in play — are removed from the equation. There is convincing statistical evidence suggesting pitchers have little control of the outcome of balls hit in play, and overall major league BABIP is consistently around .300, meaning the Pirates have been robbed of several dozen hits this season above what is typical.

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle has maintained that his team's approach has improved throughout its offensive struggles.

“From my viewpoint, we've had more than our fair share of well-struck balls that have not turned into hits,” Hurdle said. “I think, especially in the last three days (entering Saturday), we've struck the ball extremely well. Before that, I still think we were hitting the ball well enough to get more runs than we came up with.”

The other explanation for the Pirates' low BABIP is the club simply could be producing a lesser quality of batted ball. But the Pirates' line-drive percentage of 19.6 ranks nearer the middle of the pack than the bottom, according to Fangraphs.com, and their in-field popup rate of 9.5 percent ranks 15th.

To try to evaluate offensive performance another way, Hurdle developed a stat with the Rockies he still employs called “positive team plate appearance,” which measures the quality of at-bats using eight different factors.

“It was based upon (former NFL coach) Dick Vermeil's (stat) where if you can gain at least positive yards a certain percentage of the time, it turns into wins. We kind of reconstructed it for baseball,” Hurdle said.

“It's an eight-pitch at bat. It's moving a runner, performing an offensive fundamental. ... If you can come up with 14 a night, your winning percentage will sit around 60 percent. When I went over to Texas, we adjusted it for the DH and turned into 15.5. ... We went through a stretch (Friday) where I think we had 13 quality at-bats in our first 18 (at-bats).”

If the Pirates have been the unluckiest hitting team to date, Pedro Alvarez has been among the unluckiest players.

Through the first month of the season, Alvarez has decreased his strikeouts and increased his walks. He has better employed the entire field, already equaling his opposite-field home run production from last season. But he entered the series with Toronto with a .194 average thanks to a .208 BABIP — eighth worst in baseball — or almost 90 points below his career BABIP.

“Sometimes you don't get the results you want. You just have to be stubborn about it and trust what you are doing,” Alvarez said. “I have walked more than I walked last year, and I think that's indicative of staying within myself and staying with my approach.”

Perhaps the Pirates' BABIP luck began to regress toward the mean Friday when they tallied 17 hits and Alvarez hit a game-tying homer in the ninth.

“You can hit 20 straight line drives at someone and have a .000 batting average,” Alvarez said. “Sometimes numbers can be deceiving.”

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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