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New approach on offense has Pirates in playoff contention this season

| Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, 10:30 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates third baseman Josh Harrison doubles in two runs during the fifth inning against the Cubs Sunday, Sept. 14, 2014, at PNC Park.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates catcher Russell Martin doubles during the second inning against the Nationals Friday, May 23, 2014, at PNC Park.

The batting cages at McKechnie Field are located beyond the right-field wall of the Pirates' spring training home. Covered by a tin roof, the open-air facility allows the cool Gulf air to filter through during March mornings.

In this spartan space, first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson summoned the Pirates' batters early this spring for a meeting.

As they gathered around Branson, they knew much of their team success last season was tied to run prevention, not run production. The Pirates' defensive shifts, coupled with a groundball-centric pitching philosophy, turned scores of batted balls into outs. The plan helped end a 20-year losing drought. As they met, the position players knew their season had ended in St. Louis in the playoffs largely because of their lacking production.

“Last year, the pitchers created their identity,” Branson said. “It was a talk about how we need to create our identity.”

Branson outlined parameters he and manager Clint Hurdle wanted universally accepted. They wanted more competitive at-bats, better two-strike approaches and competence against off-speed pitches.

The Pirates won 94 games last season because their defense turned an extra 2 percent of batted balls into outs. But despite the Pirates' pitching and defense regressing this season, the Pirates are in contention because their offense has improved at avoiding outs by an additional 2 percent.

The Pirates ranked 18th in baseball in on-base percentage last season (.313). This season, they are tied for first with the Detroit Tigers with a .331 mark. By getting more runners on base the Pirates are scoring more runs. They ranked 20th in runs scored in the majors last season (3.9) and now rank ninth overall and third in the NL (4.3).

Just as the Pirates improved their run-prevention abilities with few acquisitions in 2013, they have improved their offensive efficiency with nearly an identical cast.

Spin cycle

Before the meeting this spring, Hurdle instructed Pirates hitters to complete a homework assignment. They were to explain in writing two things they excelled in and two areas in need for improvement. While there were varying strengths and weakness, there were common themes. The Pirates struggled against pitches that weren't fastballs. It was a season-long issue, and it ended with the Pirates flailing at Adam Wainwright curveballs and Michael Wacha changeups in the NLDS.

According to Fangraphs, the Pirates ranked last in baseball in 2013 in effectiveness against changeups and 29th out of 30 major league clubs against curveballs. Only three teams swung and missed at more pitches (10.2 percent) than the Pirates last season. Almost a third of the Pirates' swings in 2013 were against pitches out of the strike zone, often against breaking balls.

Hurdle and Branson felt their hitters too often were seeking and jumping at fastballs in 2013. That made them susceptible to breaking pitches.

“They didn't trust themselves,” Branson said. “(They thought) ‘I'm scared to get beat with a fastball.' ”

Branson preached letting pitches travel further: slash fastballs to the opposite field and react to and pull elevated breaking balls.

The Pirates had to trust themselves, but they also had to trust the message of a first-year lead hitting coach. One reason Hurdle elevated Branson to hitting coach was his familiarity with players developed while working as a minor league hitting coach in the system.

Hurdle says a swing is a personal and prized possession, and Branson has a seemingly peculiar practice: He rarely asks players to change their swings.

“I can remember a couple years ago when I was down in Triple-A, he had told me, ‘It's not your swing,' ” said Josh Harrison, who led the NL in batting going into Monday's games. “It's your timing. Your swing, if you're late, it's going to be loopy.' ”

Subtle adjustments, not overhauls. That helped build trust. Branson also changed practice routines. In the McKechnie Field batting cages this spring, the Pirates took hundreds more swings against breaking balls than they had in previous springs. They hit off pitching machines that randomly spit out fastballs and breaking balls.

This season, the Pirates have improved to fourth in the NL against the curveball, according to Fangraphs. The Pirates have moved up three slots against the changeup (11th) and two spots against the slider.

And while hearing advice from a coach is one thing, nothing is more influential than watching a peer.

Contagious

Environment changed Russell Martin.

The Pirates catcher was a line-drive hitter with the Los Angeles Dodgers. But with the New York Yankees, the line drives that fell in for hits in right field in the NL often were caught by the opposing right fielder, who was able to play shallower because of the ballpark dimensions in New York.

A frustrated Martin began to try to pull more balls. His average fell. He hit just in .211 in 2012.

He signed with the Pirates after the 2012 season, and before the first exhibition game last spring, Martin strained his right shoulder. He never regained full strength. By the second half, with his power sapped, he began thinking about a comprehensive change in approach.

“Being banged up, not really thinking about driving the ball, I thought, ‘What can I do to be effective right now?' ” Martin said. “I had gotten away from trying to get nice easy line drives. ... I got away from my roots.”

No more empty at-bats, Martin vowed. He traded power for contact. He cut his strikeouts in the second half. So when he reported to spring training in 2014 and heard a new message from a new hitting coach, he was particularly receptive to Branson's emphasis on an improved two-strike approach.

“We didn't talk about two-strike approach too much with Jay Bell,” Martin said. “Our two-strike approach has been better. Just staying short, not chasing too many pitches, not trying to get too big. It has helped us get more hits and grind out at-bats.”

If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, Martin would lead the NL in on-base percentage (.410).

Martin's teammates have a tremendous respect for him. They saw him battle with two strikes. They followed. The Pirates track what they call “quality at-bats.” That category includes everything from reaching base, advancing runners and seeing a certain amount of pitches. Their number of quality at-bats has spiked dramatically this season.

“It's contagious,” Hurdle said. “Strikeouts are down, walks are up. … One of the most improved aspects of our club is the quality of the at-bat.”

It is the improved quality of at-bats that has the Pirates doing the unthinkable: after 20 years of losing, they are on the cusp of back-to-back years of meaningful baseball in October.

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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