Pirates' all-fields approach showing results

Travis Sawchik
| Saturday, July 19, 2014, 10:06 p.m.

In spring training, Pirates first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson and manager Clint Hurdle preached a renewed commitment to an all-fields hitting approach.

They hoped such an approach would cut the club's strikeout totals and improve the Pirates against off-speed pitches. The last 2013 memories of the Pirates' bats were of them whiffing against Adam Wainwright curveballs and Michael Wacha changeups in the National League Division Series. The Pirates ranked in the bottom 10 percent of baseball against the curveball and changeup last season.

The first-half returns of the all-fields philosophy? They are mostly encouraging.

The Pirates ranked second in baseball in on-base percentage (.332) and tied for ninth in batting average (.257) entering Saturday's game against the Milwaukee Brewers at PNC Park. The Pirates were 17th in baseball on-base percentage in 2013 (.313) and 22nd in batting average (.245) last season under Jay Bell. Part of the improvement is tied to the Pirates using better the whole field, as their batted balls to the opposite field have increased this season.

The Pirates have become more effective against off-speed pitches after Hurdle felt the club was too pull happy, too often trying to jump on fastballs last season.

“The best swing you'll find is on that pitch that is down and away, that perfectly hit ball down and away. It puts you in position to hit every other pitch,” Hurdle said. “It's just kind of the way the game of hitting works. Everything is predicated off a line drive to center field. … In (using the whole field) you're building more consistency in the long run.”

The Pirates have traded some power for on-base percentage gains. This is particularly true for lefties at PNC Park, where there is a deep left field.

For example, the number of pulled balls Pedro Alvarez has put in play has fallen from 41 percent last season to 37 percent this year. His strikeouts have dropped, but so has his power production. Alvarez tied for the league lead with 36 homers last season but is on pace to fall below 30 homers in 2014. The Pirates' home run production and slugging percentage is down slightly this season.

“I don't think there is a tradeoff because if you are being pitched away, it doesn't make a lot of sense to create a swing and get out over the plate and yank balls,” said Hurdle of trading power for on-base percentage. “One thing here about going to the opposite field is there are some rewards, not so much in home runs, but there is gap power. There are doubles. There are triples.”

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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