Bob Smizik: Pirates' early offensive struggles not surprising
April 3, 2014 5:30 AM
Russell Martin scores Starling Marte on an error by the Cubs' Starlin Castro in the sixth inning at PNC Park Tuesday night.
By Bob Smizik / Special to Post-Gazette
The season is two games old and the Pirates are 2-0, with the latest win being 4-3 over the Chicago Cubs in 16 innings last night and this morning at PNC Park. Most significantly, they are getting exceptional performance from the most important position on the field -- pitching. What’s not to like about that?
Well, since the question was posed: How about the offense?
This isn’t so much about the fact the Pirates scored only two earned runs in the first 21 innings of the season. That has to change for the better, just as the pitching has to change for the worse. This is about the makeup of the Pirates' offense.
The Pirates are a better team than they were at this time last season because Francisco Liriano, Gerrit Cole and Charlie Morton stand to make approximately a combined 96 starts. Last year they made 65. But if the starting pitching is better, the offense is not.
Anyone doubting that need only take a look at the lineup manager Clint Hurdle has sent out for the first two games, both of which were against right-handed pitching, which is what the Pirates will be facing more often than not.
Travis Snider has batted second in both games and Russell Martin has batted fifth. Snider is a terrible No. 2 hitter. Martin is not much better as a No. 5.
It has been suggested in many places that Neil Walker would be a better No. 2 hitter than Snider. That’s true. But he’s also a better No. 6 hitter than Snider. Against right-handed pitching, Walker’s bat is needed in the middle of the lineup.
Walker also is a better No. 5 hitter than Russell Martin, who batted in that slot the first two games. But if Hurdle goes that way, he puts back-to-back two hitters -- Pedro Alvarez and Walker -- who would be easy prey in the late innings for the lefty specialists who are in just about every MLB bullpen. A manager doesn’t want two hitters with sub .550 OPS numbers against lefties last season batting behind Andrew McCutchen.
Then there’s the No. 7 hitter, be it Travis Ishikawa, who started the first two games, or Gaby Sanchez. Neither is a favorable option against right-handed pitching.
When catcher Chris Stewart comes off the DL later this month or early in May, the Pirates' problem against right-handers will be compounded on the one or two days a week Hurdle rests Martin. Stewart is a notoriously weak hitter. Hurdle will have to pick his poison on who to bat behind Alvarez on those days.
As a team, the Pirates are at a disadvantage against right-handed pitching. The only players who excel against right-handers are McCutchen, Alvarez and Walker, all with OPS numbers above .800 last season. The team does not get a boost from the left-handed hitting Snider, who has been bad against right-handers and abysmal versus left-handers. The Pirates were ninth in the National League in OPS against right-handers last year at .703.
Against left-handers, it was much different. The Pirates were second in OPS vs. lefties. Starling Marte, McCutchen, Sanchez and Jordy Mercer were among the best hitters in the league against left-handed pitching last season.
None of the above is to suggest the problems of the Pirates' offense are insurmountable. The offense was not especially potent last year -- ninth in runs in the National League -- and the team won 94 games. With the starting pitching having a chance to be even better this year, the Pirates could have a very successful season.
But the offensive deficiencies, as constituted, will not be easy to overcome.
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