Clint Hurdle confident Pirates lineup ready for power move
Clint Hurdle smiled.
After 16 seasons as a major league manager, he is at ease in addressing tough questions. Plus, he just faced a group of inquiring season-ticket holders, so Hurdle expected the gathered media at PiratesFest to ask him about the Pittsburgh Pirates’ lack of power.
“It’s a great question,” Hurdle said, “and we have had this question here before, and then we have gone out and hit some home runs.
“We have men in the lineup that I believe have more power than they have shown, and some of them have shown it in the past, so we have seen it.”
Whether he truly believes it, Hurdle took the optimistic approach to assessing what could be the Pirates’ greatest weakness heading into 2019. Their offense ranked 25th in the majors in home runs last season, and the top returning home-run hitter (Gregory Polanco) is rehabbing from shoulder surgery and might not play until June.
Furthermore, two other returning regulars are coming off career highs in home runs, suggesting their totals (Starling Marte with 20 and Francisco Cervelli with 12) are not sustainable.
The lone external additions to the offense in 2019, Lonnie Chisenhall and Erik Gonzalez, offer little hope for a power boost, either.
So is there truly reason to agree with Hurdle’s seemingly blind faith?
“There’s power in (Josh) Bell. There’s power in (Jung Ho) Kang, We believe there’s power in (Colin) Moran. We believe there’s power in Marte. We believe there’s power in (Corey) Dickerson. Last year was the first time we talked about Dickerson NOT showing the power we’ve seen in the past. (Adam) Frazier showed some power late (last) season we hadn’t seen before. … “
Hurdle went on to expound on the prospects for improved power at shortstop in lieu of the departed Jordy Mercer (55 homers in seven seasons) and from Chisenhall (64 in eight seasons).
“So I believe home runs will come from the men we’ve already got internally, and I think it will be with tweaks and adjustments to their individual swings,” Hurdle said.
The Pirates also expect two new hitting coaches will help, and here are the reasons for Hurdle’s optimism:
• Kang has 36 homers in a little more than a full season’s worth of career MLB at-bats.
• Moran hit 18 homers in only 302 Triple-A at-bats in 2017.
• Bell was in the Rookie of the Year discussion when he had 26 homers in 2017.
• Dickerson has 27-, 24- and 24-homer seasons in his career.
• Frazier had six homers in his final 36 games last season and is entering his first MLB season projected as an everyday player.
• Marte is coming off a 20-homer season.
“Everything is important, but it’s one thing (to perform), and it’s another thing to be consistent,” Marte said.
Marte, for example, hit more than half of his home runs in 40 combined games in May and July, but he slumped badly during June and August.
Despite the missing power, the Pirates weren’t a poor offensive team, in part because they were eighth in the majors in doubles and fifth in triples. That helped achieve a league-average slugging percentage of .407.
It’s easy to see the biggest potential area for improvement. The Pirates were last in the majors in home runs among first basemen and out of the No. 4 spot in the order. Both are easily traceable to Bell.
Then again, Bell having more than twice as many home runs in 2016 still only resulted in the Pirates finishing next-to-last in the majors in homers. The Pirates haven’t finished higher than 23rd in that category since ‘14.
Still, of the Pirates’ three consecutive playoff teams earlier this decade, that was the only squad that ranked higher than 14th in the majors in home runs.
In other words, offense doesn’t necessarily have to come from home runs.
“The thing that we have identified walking into this season after last season is we have an opportunity for every player to have an improvement in their offensive season,” Hurdle said. “And I don’t just mean getting on base. But one of our biggest focus points over the winter and going into spring training is the process of driving the baseball. … Not lifting the baseball, driving the baseball.”
Chris Adamski is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Chris at [email protected] or via Twitter @C_AdamskiTrib.