Forget .500 ... what about .300?

Pirates' key hitters all well below career norms

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Now that the Pirates have established a rather lofty team goal of finishing above .500, here is another they might want to set at the individual level:

Finish above .300.

Someone.

Anyone.

Among their seven players with enough plate appearances to qualify for the National League batting title, only Freddy Sanchez -- the guy who took that title last summer -- is close at .295.

The rest?

Xavier Nady, .280.

Jose Bautista, .258.

Jack Wilson, .252.

Jason Bay, .246.

Adam LaRoche, .246.

Ronny Paulino, .240.

Since 1960, the Pirates have had only seven seasons in which they failed to have a qualified .300 hitter, most recently when Brian Giles was at .298 in 2002. The lowest average of any team leader in that span was Carlos Garcia's .277 in the strike-shortened 1994 season.

One can blame the current team's miseries on a lack of depth in the starting rotation or the bullpen having the league's fourth-highest ERA or even those wobbly fundamentals. But, when trying to find the core reason as to why this group is bound for a 15th consecutive losing season, the punch line time and again is that its lineup is punchless.

"The one thing that's been consistently true, with a couple of exceptions such as when we went into the All-Star break, is that we haven't hit the ball," manager Jim Tracy said. "You've got to score some runs to win."

Think it might be more complicated than that?

Consider ...

When the Pirates score four or more runs, their record is 32-18, a pace befitting a World Series champion.

When they score three or fewer, they are 9-36, a pace befitting the 1962 New York Mets.

When they outhit their opponents or have the same number of hits, they are 31-10.

When outhit, they are 10-46.

When their lineup had that rare burst of productivity leading up to the All-Star break, they went on a 9-4 tear.

Now that the offense is back in the tank -- just ask Buddy Carlyle or Woody Williams or pretty much any opposing pitcher about that -- they have lost eight of nine.

To uncover the root of any roster-wide malady, it is necessary to focus first on the individuals. It is there that some of the most jarring statistics can be uncovered.

"Usually, you only get one or two guys struggling a little bit," Bay said. "Well, we've got a few of us who are struggling a lot of bit. And when it happens with a few guys all at once, that's just a recipe for disaster."

Bautista, in his first full season as a starter, has seen his average rise by 33 points over his career mark, 23 points above last season. But he is very much alone among the qualified hitters.

Back to the list ...

Sanchez is at .295 now after being at .313 for his career entering this season and winning his batting crown with a .344 mark.

Nady is at .280 after .270 for his career, .300 last year.

Wilson is at .252 after .265 for his career, .273 last year.

Bay is at .246 after .292 for his career, .286 last season.

LaRoche is at .246 after a .272 career mark, .285 last season.

Paulino is at .240 after batting .310 as a rookie last season.

The average drop-off for those six players from last season to now is an incredible 40 points.

Explanations for each decline vary, of course.

Some are simple: Sanchez, for instance, missed much of spring training because of a sprained knee. He slumped through a .224 April while searching for his swing. In the two full months since then, he batted .317 and .343. Nady actually is having an improved overall season, when his 14 home runs and 52 RBIs are weighed. And Wilson is not too far off his career norm.

But the other three ...

The easy explanation for Paulino is that he overachieved as a rookie and has snapped back to reality. He had topped .300 in a minor-league season only once, after all.

Still, after an outrageous spring in which Paulino not only batted .481 but also drove the ball with authority to all fields, expectations might have been reasonable that, at the very least, he would not step backward.

Instead, it seems, he stepped into the bucket.

Observers say that Paulino's blatantly open stance, more than last year, has been largely responsible for his average plummeting, particularly as it relates to hitting to the opposite field. When a player steps into the bucket, as the lingo has it, he is stepping back with the front foot.

Tracy said the Pirates have recognized this and are working to correct it. Some encouraging evidence: Paulino's average has been .273 since the start of June.

LaRoche's matter has been intensely scrutinized, especially when he was one of the majors' worst everyday players in April with a .133 mark. But, although it came at an agonizingly slow pace and too late to matter much to the Pirates, he eventually found his swing.

What went wrong initially?

Still hard to say. Nothing about his stance, bat speed or approach changed. And, maybe most mystifying, he kept drawing walks and driving in runs even when he was a non-factor otherwise.

"All I know is that, right now, I'm feeling better, seeing the ball better and hitting it hard," LaRoche said.

Bay's plunge tops them all, if not in quantity then in quality.

"My family can tell you: I'm losing sleep trying to figure that one out," Tracy said.

Bay might be, too.

"It hasn't been any fun, I can tell you that," he said.

The Pirates' most consistent right-handed power hitter in a generation, he was fresh off being named league's player of the week in late May when everything went awry.

Big time.

Since June 4, Bay is batting .148, with only four hits for extra bases. And there is no end in sight. His at-bats have ranged from unproductive to outright ugly, from awkward, downhill hacks to being buckled by breaking pitches.

"The thing you look for is the quality of the at-bat, and that comes and goes," Tracy said. "There are times when he looks fine, other times where everything looks out of whack."

Anytime a hitter of such pedigree falls so far, injury is suspected. Bay continues to get ice on his right knee that was surgically repaired in the offseason, and he does concede that it has limited his first stride on the basepaths. But he is adamant that neither the knee nor any other ailment is responsible for his problems at the plate.

Rather, Bay and Tracy agree that it mostly has to do with reading the ball out of the pitcher's hand.

"He wasn't recognizing the ball from the hand and gathering information as to what it is and how fast it is," Tracy said. "That has to be processed to make a good swing."

The solution for Bay and the others surely will remain the same: Keep running them out there. The Pirates have no position players at Class AAA Indianapolis who can help, as evidenced by the recent promotions of light-hitting Matt Kata and Don Kelly. And Cesar Izturis surely was not acquired for his bat.

One final statistic related to Bay and LaRoche, the men the Pirates expected to provide their middle-order thunder this year: In only five of the team's 97 games have Bay and LaRoche each had two hits.

"It's astounding," Tracy said.

Peter Diana, Post-Gazette
Freddy Sanchez is the only Pirate with a good chance at batting a qualified .300 this season.
Click photo for larger image.

TODAY

Game: Pirates (RHP Ian Snell 7-7, 3.31) vs. New York Mets (RHP John Maine 10-5, 3.07), 7:10 p.m., Shea Stadium.
TV, Radio: FSN Pittsburgh, WPGB-FM (104.7).
Key matchup: The Pirates' catchers vs. Jose Reyes, who leads the National League with 47 steals and has been caught only 13 times.
Of note: The Mets, fresh off taking three of four from the first-place Dodgers in Los Angeles, are 22-10 in the first game of a series. That is the best such record in Major League Baseball.

More Coverage:

Stats Geek: Izturis weakest in weak-hitting middle infield

Pirates Q&A with Dejan Kovacevic

Table: 2007 team hitting stats

Minor-league report
Monday's results

INDIANAPOLIS (51-50) beat Durham, 7-4. LHP Michael Tejera (4-2, 3.78) allowed two runs and six hits in seven innings. He struck out three and walked two. RHP Jesse Chavez (3.32) pitched a scoreless inning of relief. DH Michael Ryan (.271) hit his 10th home run and went 2 for 3 with a walk and two RBIs. SS Brian Bixler (.290) went 0 for 4 with a walk.

ALTOONA (51-48) lost to Binghamton, 10-2. RHP Dewon Brazelton (3-3, 3.95) allowed eight runs in 4 1/3 innings. 1B Jason Delaney (.341), yesterday named Eastern League player of the week for going 17 for 29 with three home runs last week, hit his 15th home run -- sixth with the Curve -- and went 1 for 4. 1B Steve Pearce (.328) failed to break the Curve record by reaching base for a 34th consecutive game, going 0 for 4. He will share the mark of 33, first set by C Ronny Paulino in 2004. 3B Neil Walker (.293) went 3 for 4 with a double and RBI. CF Andrew McCutchen (.246) went 1 for 3.

LYNCHBURG (42-54) lost at Winston-Salem, 2-1. RHP Jean Garavito (5-5, 2.67) allowed one run and six hits in eight innings. 2B Shelby Ford (.283) hit his fifth home run and went 2 for 3 with a triple.

HICKORY (47-52) beat Hagerstown, 7-4. RHP Jared Hughes (7-6, 3.95) allowed four runs in five innings. 2B Jim Negrych (.294) went 2 for 4 with an RBI.

STATE COLLEGE (16-16) was off.

BRADENTON (13-15) beat the Reds, 8-0. RHP Rafael Delossantos (1-4, 3.86) pitched six scoreless innings and allowed one hit. He struck out six. 2B Caleb Fields (.275) hit his first home run and went 2 for 5.



Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at dkovacevic@post-gazette.com .


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