STATE COLLEGE, Pa. -- One of the trend lines I've been monitoring as the Pirates' 2019 season rolls on has been the hitters' commitment to swinging at more pitches in the zone.
As simple as it sounds, their hitters are just now getting into the idea of putting bat on ball where it can do the most damage. Previous years saw rankings in the mid-teens of Major League Baseball's 30 clubs in nearly every offensive category on in-zone pitches. From 2016 through 2018, the Pirates ranked 16th in wOBA in the zone at .351 and 18th with an average exit velocity of 88.2 mph.
New hitting coach Rick Eckstein and his assistant Jacob Cruz did not simply show up to their new roles empty-handed. With their arrival, a new, committed approach to productivity at the plate was set in stone on day one in Bradenton.
As things stand today, this current crop of batters leads all of MLB at in-zone swings -- simply, the percentage of times a Pirates hitter has swung at a pitch that was in the strike zone -- with a 71 percent mark.
In many ways this has been necessary, considering a reduced number of in-zone pitches overall. Pirates hitters currently see just 45.2 percent of their total pitches in the strike zone, second-worst overall though not too far off of the 47.9 percent MLB-wide rate.
These same hitters are making contact on 84.5 percent of those in-zone pitches they swing at, good for fourth-best in all of MLB.
But has the production matched the aggression? Well ...
Looks like we got ourselves a classic mixed bag. The 2019 Pirates collectively don't whiff on these pitches, but have trouble barreling the ball enough to provide the tangible power output one would typically expect from a team that swings away that much.
But, as has been the case with the team for the near-entirety of 2019, a few consistent performers have swung the grading curve quite a bit:
Yeah, that's none other than Josh Bell, Bryan Reynolds and Starling Marte putting it all together and carrying the raw power load in ISO (Isolated Power) while maintaining excellent offensive production overall with high wOBA marks. Again, these are all in-zone pitches that were swung at.
Let's reset things to a basic level. In terms of pure batting average on these in-zone pitches, the 2019 Pirates carry a .306 mark. That's surprisingly good — fifth in the league and a fair measure more than the .293 MLB mark.
The rest of the performances across the PBC on juicy in-zone pitches carries some interesting nuggets for your next water-cooler conversation:
• Reynolds leads the way in batting average in this scenario with a .404 clip. Bell shockingly slides in with just a .318 mark,
• Kevin Newman has learned to handle the zone well. When he decides to swing at a pitch there, he hits .330 with a humble but steady .496 slugging percentage. If I limit the window to after the All-Star Break, those figures jump to .415 and .561 respectively.
• Of the 10 hitters who have swung at a minimum 100 in-zone pitches, Jose Osuna found himself in the top three in SLG % (third at .610), ISO (second with .288) and Average Exit Velocity (92.8 mph).
While the 2019 Pirates are trying to do damage on balls that seem to be earmarked for them, the team will not be able to fully tap into this potential for punishment until its lesser hitters can do more damage on these offerings.
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