There’s a trend in this early season that bothers me about the Pirates offense (well, a lot of things about the offense bug me, but this more than most). That trend is the fact that there seems to be an inability among the Pirates batters to look at bad pitches. Alex Presley has jumped from swinging at 25.4% of pitches outside the strike zone (O-swing%) to 33.2% of those same pitches. Jose Tabata’s O-swing% has gone from 23.6% to 33.8%. Andrew McCutchen’s O-swing% has gone from 22.4% to 32.7%. Garrett Jones’ has gone from 31.9% to 42.2%. As a team, the Pirates have swung at 33.6% of balls outside of the strike zone this year., which is .1% less than the worst number in the league (the Phillies sans Ryan Howard and Chase Utley). Last year, the Pirates only swung at 30.5% of these pitches. This may seem like a lot, but that put them among teams such as the Tigers and the Diamondbacks, while 33+% was Astros/Cubs territory.
This has resulted in a couple of problems. The Pirates are tied for last (with, not coincidentally, the Phillies that has a league-worst 33.7% O-swing%) in walks this season, with 48. The Indians, who lead the league with an O-swing% of 21.9%, have 101 walks this year. The inability to get on base is obviously critical to scoring runs, and this has really hurt the Pirates this year.
The Pirates also have an isolated power (slugging%-batting average) of .108, good for the fourth worst mark in the big leagues. The Phillies, who have a comparable O-swing%, have the worst isolated power in the game. It makes sense that swinging at pitches outside the strike zone will result in weak contact. While I have no definitive proof that these two numbers are linked, there is a logical and statistical basis for linking them.
It seems clear to me that the Pirates offensive woes stem largely from their lack of plate discipline to this point in 2012. Furthermore, the increase in individual numbers (some by over 10%) by multiple members of the team suggest that this might even be a recommended approach to hitting for the Pirates this year. If so, it is wrong. If not, it needs to be a point of emphasis to look at bad pitches and make swings count. Otherwise, the Pirates may not be able to get on base or hit for power.
All statistics found at http://www.fangraphs.com.