Absent reinforcements from outside the organization, the Pirates enter opening day banking on a plan to improve the offense from within.
The 2014 season opener today against the Chicago Cubs at PNC Park marks the culmination of a six-week effort in spring training to improve the efficiency of the offense. Manager Clint Hurdle and first-year hitting coach Jeff Branson set out to revamp the team's approach, imposing absolutes across the lineup while also individualizing the instruction.
"I think Branno's done a good job of emphasizing that stuff in the cage and during [batting practice] and whatnot," Jordy Mercer said. "I think it's been a full-fledged team effort. I think we're prepared and ready to roll."
The Pirates lost right fielder Marlon Byrd in free agency. He bolstered the lineup in September and the playoffs after joining the Pirates in a trade last season. They will roll out two semi-platoon situations: Gaby Sanchez and Travis Ishikawa will spend time at first base, and Travis Snider and Jose Tabata will share right field. The team did not sign or trade for a significant offensive upgrade and returns almost all the position players from the offense that scored 3.91 runs per game in 2013, which ranked ninth in the National League.
"The sting of the season, we all felt," Hurdle said. "We know that there was probably more season there if we could have performed with more consistency on offense. We pitched extremely well, we caught it very efficiently. We plan on doing those two things this year. If we can add some offense to it, it's going to be an exciting year."
The pitching and defense helped the team to a 94-win season and a playoff berth, which ended in a five-game loss to the St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Division Series after a win against the Cincinnati Reds in the wild-card game.
"We knew the pitching staff and our defense carried us a lot last season," Snider said. "For some of us who haven't taken that next step as a hitter at this level, that is the focus for us is really honing in on that approach, for each guy."
The coaching staff wants all of the hitters to be 'stubborn,' meaning to identify a part of the strike zone in which they can make solid contact with a pitch and avoid straying outside that area. Everyone's sweet spot, however, is different.
"You can't cookie-cut swings, you can't cookie-cut approaches," Snider said. "But there is the consistent theme of being stubborn in that approach and making sure that when we get our pitch, we're ready. When it's not our pitch, we're spitting on it."
Spitting on it means letting it go. The team's plan also stressed the necessity of trusting the rest of the lineup to keep the inning going if a batter takes a walk rather than try to do something with a pitcher's pitch.
"We've done a really good job this spring training," Andrew McCutchen said. "We're just going to carry that momentum to the season."
Improving production with a runner on third and less than two outs made the list of focal points. In 320 plate appearances in 2013 in such a situation, the Pirates hit .281. The league average was .323. The St. Louis Cardinals, who led the NL in runs per game, hit .370 in such situations.
"Just not trying to do too much," Mercer said of the desired tactics. "Stay with your plan, stay with your approach. Don't deviate from it. If you don't get a pitch, take your walk and move onto the next guy."
The batter doesn't need a hit to score a run, though. The league average with runners on third and less than two outs was 0.61 runs scored per plate appearance. The Pirates scored 0.49 runs per plate appearance.
"It goes back to being selective-aggressive and not chasing pitchers' pitches in those counts and in those situations," Snider said. "Understanding the pressure's on them. They understand that a fly ball scores a run, or a ground ball up the middle depending on whether the infield's in or not, scores a run. There's a lot of ways to score a run without getting a hit."
Game: Pirates vs. Chicago Cubs, opening day.
When: 1:05 p.m.
Where: PNC Park.
TV, radio: Root Sports/ESPN, KDKA-FM 93.7.
Probable pitchers: Francisco Liriano (16-8 record, 3.02 ERA in 2013) vs. Jeff Samardzija (8-13, 4.34).
Bill Brink: firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @BrinkPG.