PITTSBURGH – At the end of last season, it seemed like the Pirates had found their leadoff hitter. A year later, the search is still ongoing.
Kevin Newman claimed his spot atop the order in 2019 by batting .308/.353/.446 in 130 games. He started 74 games as Pittsburgh’s leadoff man and didn’t start anywhere else after Aug. 22. Adam Frazier led last year’s team with 78 starts in the leadoff spot, but as they headed home for the winter, the job clearly belonged to Newman.
Newman regularly hit leadoff in Spring Training and batted first in the Pirates’ first two regular-season games, but he’s hit there once in 50 games since July 25. For all his lineup mixing and matching, manager Derek Shelton acknowledged earlier this week that Pittsburgh wants to find one or two regular leadoff hitters.
“I think that’s one of the spots where you’d like to have consistency. It may be different versus right-handed [pitchers] as it is versus left-handed,” Shelton said. “We have fluctuated a lot of guys through there to try to find the right mix.”
The Pirates have used five different leadoff men this season: Frazier, Erik González, Cole Tucker, Newman and, for the last two games, Bryan Reynolds. Shelton said he wanted to see how Reynolds handled the assignment against a right-hander on Friday night and against a lefty on Saturday.
“Just kind of seeing what we got going,” Shelton said. “Moving forward, we're going to evaluate different things and give us an opportunity to look at the flow of how he looks up there."
There aren’t many ideal candidates given the overwhelming number of struggling hitters in the Pirates’ lineup, but Shelton knows what he wants to see in a leadoff hitter.
“I think the ability to get on base is probably the most important. It doesn’t have to be a speed guy, because there’s not a lot of running that goes on in the game anymore,” Shelton said. “If you have a guy there that gets on base a ton and can steal a ton of bags, yeah, it truly helps out a lot, and it helps your two-hole hitter because of how he’s going to be pitched. But I think if we were isolating one of the things, it would be the ability to get on base.”
The Pirates only have five active hitters who entered Saturday with an on-base percentage above Newman’s .281: Ke’Bryan Hayes (.377), Jacob Stallings (.353), Colin Moran (.331), Josh Bell (.318) and Frazier (.301). González, who started 20 games atop the order, entered Saturday with a .276 OBP.
With Frazier out of the lineup in Game 2's 7-2 loss on Friday, Reynolds took his turn atop the order. It was his first time hitting first in the Majors or the Minors, though he said he has some experience there. During the game, Shelton asked Reynolds about his history in the leadoff spot.
“Typical Reynolds, he’s like, ‘I don’t remember,’” Shelton said. “But he can do it. The mindset thing is just getting guys used to anything.”
With Pittsburgh trailing by one in the fifth inning and struggling to make contact against starter Daniel Ponce de Leon, Reynolds launched a high fastball out of PNC Park, off the lower Riverwalk and into the Allegheny River for his fifth home run of the season.
“The pitch before I saw well, and I was confident, and I figured he would try to go back up there,” Reynolds said. “I just got the barrel to it that time.”
After an excellent rookie campaign, Reynolds hasn’t found any sort of consistent success at the plate this season. He entered Saturday hitting .182 with a .618 OPS. There are a few encouraging signs for Reynolds, however.
His expected statistics are better than his actual results, according to Statcast, and his walk rate has gone up as he's chased fewer pitches outside the strike zone. But Reynolds is also swinging and missing at strikes at a higher rate than last year, indicating that something is off for the switch-hitting outfielder.
"The consistency of his timing, I think, is something that is extremely important for him, because at times he's getting pitches to hit and has not been able to execute that,” Shelton said. “I feel that's something we'll definitely be able to work out.
“He's, like, the last of anybody that I'm worried about moving forward that's going to hit. This kid's going to hit, but he's had a tough year. I think he'll really bounce back."