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Pirates put premium on on-base ability

Club wants to lower amount of strikeouts, pressure opposing defenses
MLB.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- As a former catcher, John Jaso's worst days on the job wouldn't necessarily come against homer-happy or basestealing lineups. His longest nights would come against deep clubs that featured hitters who would grind out at-bat after at-bat.

"Oh my God," Jaso would think, "I'm going to be squatting back here for hours. It's not a good feeling."

BRADENTON, Fla. -- As a former catcher, John Jaso's worst days on the job wouldn't necessarily come against homer-happy or basestealing lineups. His longest nights would come against deep clubs that featured hitters who would grind out at-bat after at-bat.

"Oh my God," Jaso would think, "I'm going to be squatting back here for hours. It's not a good feeling."

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Ideally, the Pirates will strike the same thought into opposing catchers' minds this season. Pittsburgh has renewed its focus on creating a lineup built around contact and on-base ability, eschewing traditional power numbers in favor of more well-rounded hitters who won't strike out as often.

"We felt like there were times last year we didn't keep the chain moving like we'd like to, like we wanted to," general manager Neal Huntington said. "That's where we're looking to get back to our core philosophy of being based on good, professional at-bats."

There is still some thump in the Pirates' lineup despite their decision to trade Neil Walker and non-tender Pedro Alvarez, two of their more consistent threats to go deep.

Andrew McCutchen has clubbed at least 21 home runs each of the past five seasons. Jung Ho Kang and Starling Marte hit for power. Michael Morse has the most raw power on the team, and Gregory Polanco may see his slugging percentage climb as he continues to grow at the Major League level.

More than anything, the Pirates would like to cut down on their strikeout total. A year ago, they fanned 1,321 times -- the seventh-highest total in the Majors. Last on that list? The World Series champion Royals, with 973.

"When you strike out nine times in a game, you've watched the other team play catch for three innings. There's no pressure on the defense," manager Clint Hurdle said. "Every team talks about it. The elite teams are the ones able to do it. Nobody did it better than the Royals, who won the last game of the season.

"A lot of it comes down to personnel, and we've tried to look at some different personnel types to help us out."

Given the rise of deep, powerful bullpens throughout baseball, there has been some thought recently that teams aren't always better off when the starting pitcher is forced off the mound. Most clubs' seventh-, eighth- and ninth-inning relievers are dominant pitchers with strikeout stuff.

But the Pirates still believe many clubs are vulnerable if the rest of their relievers are exposed, so there is value in seeing a lot of pitches, working long at-bats and knocking out a starter early.

To that end, the Pirates signed Jaso -- and his career .361 on-base percentage -- to play first base. Jaso's single-season home run high mark came in 2012, when he hit 10. But he saw 4.03 pitches per plate appearance last year, which would have put him among the Pirates' leaders with McCutchen (4.06), Morse (4.03) and Kang (4.03).

"Power hitters that aren't good hitters, they create holes in your lineup. They create easy outs in your lineup at times," Huntington said. "Yeah, the threat is always there, but we want a balanced lineup one through eight. We don't want a pitcher to be able to take a deep breath."

They'd rather hear a catcher sigh after a long night.

Adam Berry is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @adamdberry.

Pittsburgh Pirates, John Jaso