STATE COLLEGE, Pa. — I'm told that the man whose initials christen this site is a comic book fan, specifically Green Lantern.
I must confess that I share that bit of geekdom, though my tastes have always drifted toward The Uncanny X-Men. Perhaps that's because it was the first rag I was exposed to while spending my youthful summers with a cousin who had an extensive collection. If you'd like to debate Marvel versus DC, X-Men vs Avengers or any other nerdery, I'll be happy to oblige you in the comments or on Twitter. But for now let's bring this back to baseball.
One of the more underrated story arcs in X-Men lore is the Xavier Protocols. In short, Professor Xavier created dossiers on how to exploit weaknesses in his X-Men in order to defeat them should they ever go rogue. The actual narrative itself was a short one, yet its repercussions were felt across years of books.
The Pirates' hitters are showing much more promise of late. What if opposing pitchers were to undertake a similar exercise against them? What strategies could they devise to easily dispatch their foes?
For this, we will attempt to pinpoint deficiencies among current Pirates hitters with at least 50 MLB plate appearances. Because we are all about solutions here at Mound Visit, a remedy for each trouble spot will be proffered.
Let's start with the easy one.
BELL IS RINGING
The Fatal Flaw: Seriously?
The Remedy: Enjoy the offensive display. Bell will cool off at some point. Yet there is nothing inherent in his new approach that would preclude him from being a strong National League MVP candidate at season's end. Provided he can maintain a certain level of consistency in both approach and mindset, the results should follow.
IF NOT A FASTBALL ...
The Fatal Flaw: Outfield brethren Melky Cabrera and Bryan Reynolds seem to really prefer fastballs. A hitter preferring to see easier-to-track fastballs? Not a novel concept.
In Reynolds' case, however, there seems to be an overwhelming need to see more fastballs, as he has been abjectly terrible against breaking stuff. He currently carries an .063 batting average against sliders, curveballs and all of their variants. With a matching .063 slugging percentage and a 40.9 percent whiff rate, Reynolds is providing an easy blueprint for pitchers to follow.
Cabrera's struggles are limited to offspeed pitches. Along with Jordan Lyles and Francisco Liriano, Cabrera is offering fantastic value at a small investment for the Pirates. His hitting line alone -- .339/.380/.471 -- constitutes enough evidence to support this claim without even mentioning his elite 11.6 percent strikeout rate, buoyed by an equally impressive 6.2 percent walk rate.
Yet, Cabrera's one weakness comes out when pitchers decide to pull the string. The Melk Man fares the worst against changeups, with a .130 batting average and a 22.2 percent whiff rate. His contact peripherals -- namely a .231 xwOBA and an 86.2 mph average exit velocity -- suggest that he should be a slight measure better, if not by much.
The Remedy: For Reynolds, the salve to this burning weakness may just be seeing more pitches. At times Reynolds has looked so good, so akin to a multiyear veteran, that it can be difficult to remember that he has accumulated all of 76 plate appearances at the time of this writing.
Cabrera's remedy is a bit more difficult to come by, but we could start by suggesting that he recognize what pitchers are trying to do to him with a changeup. That is, get a cheap strike:
Both could stand to be a little better on the first pitch. Reynolds currently carries a first-strike rate of 65.8 percent, fifth highest among Pittsburgh hitters. Cabrera is eighth with a 61.9 percent clip.
The Fatal Flaw: Adam Frazier, Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli each has been a victim of contact peculiarities through the first quarter of the season.
Frazier in particular has been enigmatic. He far and away has some of the best plate discipline on the club. Featuring a first strike rate of 49.1 percent and an elite 6.9 percent swinging strike rate overall, Frazier nevertheless carries a .250/.312/.346 triple-slash. If you're following along at home, that brings about a .096 ISO (isolated power, or slugging percentage minus batting average). The extra-base hit fueled Frazier's famous resurgence in 2018 after being demoted. From the time he rejoined the club in late July through the end of last season, Frazier racked up 20 doubles in 196 PAs, or one every 9.8 trips to the plate. This season? He has hit one every 24.2 struts to the dish.
Marte has never been what one would call a fly-ball machine. Even during his best major league stretch -- 2012 through 2016 -- he never had a fly-ball rate above 29.2 percent. Last year, however, he put the ball in the air above 30 percent (32.2) for the first time in his career. Not so coincidentally, he posted the best season of his career from a power standpoint with 20 home runs and a .182 ISO. He's back down this year with a 27.5 fly-ball rate.
Cervelli does not share that ailment, with a 37.3 percent fly-ball mark. He has hit the ball hard enough with a 34.2 percent hard hit rate, and has the second best chase rate on the club at 26.2 percent -- right behind Frazier's flat 26 percent mark. Yet Cervelli has been penalized by a BABIP (Batting average on balls in play) of .243. That's far, far below the MLB rate of .295.
The Remedies: Let's start with Cervelli, whose 39.3 percent of his batted ball outs have come from four-seam fastballs, 22 out of 56. Of those 22, 12 have come from when he is ahead in the count. He might want to expect fastball when ahead, as he sees the second-most (again to Frazier) of four-seam fastballs while ahead in the count (45.1 percent). Expect fastball, hit fastball. If this happens, perhaps his timing won't look as behind as it has looked at times this season:
For his part, Marte might have an easier path toward remedying his fatal flaw, as he has a few zones in particular that give him trouble:
There's an easy dichotomy to point to here. Marte's average launch angle on fastballs? 10.8 degrees. On breaking balls, that drops to 3.6. At times, Marte's pitch recognition in these zones do not allow his swing path to put these balls in the air:
Better pitch recognition on balls in these blind spots will allow Marte to get into his load much quicker, offering a better swing.
Frazier is a harder nut to crack. Addressing his weaknesses practically brings the discourse to a philosophical level. What do the Pirates need from him? Do they need him to be a singles hitter with good plate discipline? Because, well, he is that right now. Down to the letter, despite a lukewarm .250 batting average. Of course, they would like to see him put a few more balls in gaps as he has shown the ability to do. Hitting a double every 10 at-bats might be a tad unrealistic, but so is only taking an extra base every 25 trips. To that end, Frazier might need to actually become more aggressive. His 64.2 percent zone swing rate is a tick below MLB's 65.9 rate, but the real snake in the weeds comes in the form of first-pitch swing. At 15.8 percent, Frazier is nearly twice as patient as the rest of MLB hitters (28.1 percent), suggesting he is simply being patient for patience's sake.
The Fatal Flaw: He burst onto the scene with flair, and since then he has gone through what many would label as normal rookie struggles. Yet Cole Tucker has one particular kink in his game that will need to be worked out sooner rather than later. Namely, a two-strike approach.
His slash line of .140/.196/.256 when on the brink is not a ludicrous one. Data shows that pitchers have a nearly incredible advantage at two-strike counts, as you might have assumed. Tucker's deficiency comes from a 54.3 percent strikeout rate in PAs that hit the two-strike mark. That's a better than 50-50 shot that he will strike out if a pitcher can simply get him to any count with two strikes.
The Remedy: Much like Reynolds, Tucker is at a stage in his debut MLB season where he needs to see as many pitches and process as many data points as possible. 40 percent of the pitches he strikes out on in two-strike counts are fastballs. Perhaps the answer for him would be as simple as expecting a fastball and putting it in play. When that occurs, pitchers might alter their offerings to him, after which he can adjust again and so on and so on. Rinse and repeat.
The Fatal Flaw: He's staring to heat up, but Gregory Polanco still has trouble with the hottest pitch in baseball right now: The slider.
After having seemingly solved them to the tune of a .345 wOBA in his breakout 2018, El Coffee has now dipped below the .300 mark in 2019 at .277. He's also whiffing a good bit more this season (38.1 percent whiff per swing) versus last (30.1 percent), and the swing and miss tendencies have put him into some bad spots. In at-bats that include at least one slider whiff at any point, Polanco is hitting just .132.
The Remedy: The jury's still out on this one. As of this writing, Polanco has whiffed at only nine sliders total, having offered at just 24 of them. Sample size plays a part here, yet the timing he's showing on other pitches is absolutely there. I am confident that the adjustments Polanco made in 2018 -- namely moving a bit further away from the plate -- can carry over to the current campaign, and bring his patience on the slider along with it. All he needs is to see more of them.
THE CLEAR CUT PLATOON
The Fatal Flaw: He's been given every chance to succeed at the plate, save for one. Colin Moran simply cannot hit left-handed pitching. A depressing, binary-like slashline of .111/.111/.111 this season bears that out.
Manager Clint Hurdle is aware of this, of course. Thus, "Captain Redbeard" has only seen nine plate appearances against southpaws this season. Moran's struggles vs. LHP are well documented, with a slightly-better slash of .184/.253/.276 over 83 PAs for his career.
The Remedy: Things weren't always this way. In 2017 -- Moran's last year in the Astros' minor league system, in which he spent the entire year at Triple-A -- he hit .287 against lefties, striking out just 16 percent of the time. In the majors, he strikes out against them at a 24.2 percent rate. A huge chunk of those come against a slider, so perhaps a Polanco-esque plate adjustment is in order? Moran may not get a chance to try that out, as his struggles here are so pronounced that any manager who gives any degree of a hoot for percentages and splits will likely limit his exposure to a southpaw.
TAKE YOUR PICK
The Fatal Flaw: The Pirates took a worthwhile gamble on Jung Ho Kang finding himself again. It didn't work out. If we're being generous, we could say that it hasn't worked out yet.
But for a team that sometimes has to scratch and claw its way toward respectable run production, the time allotted in the hourglass for the grand experiment to work out has long since dried up.
If you're looking for something concrete to point to with Kang, you won't have to look long. There's the bloated 31.6 percent strikeout rate, the 34 wRC+ rating (hint: league average is considered to be 100) and a .204 on base percentage. Seriously, take your pick.
The Remedy: This one is a piece of cake, as the Pirates have finally done what many could argue should have been done much sooner. By effectively sending him to Triple-A by way of an Injured List designation, the club can unplug Kang and attempt to rebuild him from the ground up. An action of such drastic nature was the only choice here.
Though Pirates hitters have looked much better in recent days, there are still weaknesses up and down their lineup. Considering the talent present, plugging these holes can turn their run production machine from one that sputters and lurches along into a unit that absolutely purrs.
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