Team play, not homers, key to Pirates' offense
With a higher OBP and better fundamentals, Bucs no longer relying on long ball
PITTSBURGH -- On the final two nights of a very successful homestand, there was a mighty strange development at PNC Park, one that provided an answer to people trying to figure out how the Pirates have managed to post the National League's best record for two months.
Between the end of Tuesday's game and the beginning of Wednesday's contest, the Bucs posted three four-run frames in the span of four innings -- all without a home run contributing to any of the rallies.
The 2013 Pirates' offense relied on the long ball and not on fundamentally manufacturing sustained rallies. That became their Achilles' heel in their National League Division Series loss to St. Louis.
So, the Bucs had a plan.
This is what manager Clint Hurdle said in February, at the dawn of Spring Training: "Connecting the dots better offensively is at the top of our list. The challenge is for these guys to be more consistent. In the playoffs, you will always face premium pitching, and you have to recognize the importance of each at-bat."
And they have stuck to it.
The Pirates lead the Majors in on-base percentage (.334). They own the NL's second-best average at home (only the Rockies, in their mile-high environment, are better). Pittsburgh also boasts the NL's best home record at 34-21, despite having been outhomered by visitors, 40-37 (last season, the Bucs had a 69-37 edge in long balls at their place).
When the Pirates muscled up for three homers Tuesday night against the Dodgers, it was their first multihomer game at PNC Park since June 9. They have hit a total of nine homers in their past 20 home games -- and won 15 of them.
"The biggest thing is, we're not trying to hit home runs," said Jeff Branson, who took over as hitting coach after being Jay Bell's assistant last season. "We're trying to stay in the middle of the field, trying to grind at-bats, thinking of taking our singles and let the next guy do whatever he needs to do."
"It's about team at-bats, not individual at-bats," Hurdle said. "Our guys now have had some success with it, and are realizing that there is a method to this, and that most teams who play late [into October] have an offense built along these fundamentals."
Last season, the Bucs had the third-highest strikeout total in the NL. Today, they rank third in walks. Their offense hasn't done a total 180 turn -- but about half of that would be more accurate.
"We've put in some offensive [analytical] programs that showed them the value of moving 90s -- getting people to move on the bases 90 feet at a time," Hurdle said. "It's been talked about since I've gotten here. Now, they're seeing the benefits of that. We're always talking about the eight ways to have a productive at-bat."
Make no mistake, big flies are still very productive.
"I'm still a big fan of the three-run homer," Hurdle said, smiling.
But productivity also includes advancing a baserunner, seeing more than four pitches, and the like.
"They now know that when they get to two strikes, there have got to be some things sacrificed for the team," Hurdle continued, alluding mainly to cutting down swings.
"Guys used to tell me, 'In every game, there are two at-bats for me and two for the team.' Funny, I always thought all four were for the team. They're coming around to that way of thinking. They're realizing more than ever before that the number of productive at-bats we're throwing out there are playing big."
This all goes back to the consistency Hurdle talked about seven months ago. Power typically comes in streaks. Even someone as accomplished as Andrew McCutchen realizes that: 11 of his 17 home runs have come in two stretches covering a total of 18 games (from June 4-14, then again from July 5-12).
Fundamentals, however, never take a day off.
"It's all about being consistent with our game plan, sticking to it," Branson said. "[We're] not trying to hit home runs, [but] if the pitch is up, go for it. That's also part of taking what they give you. But each individual is going up there committed to a game plan, not worried about trying to hit the ball over the fence."