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Pirates’ pitchers strive to be more productive at plate | TribLIVE.com
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Pirates’ pitchers strive to be more productive at plate

Tony LaRussa
| Saturday, February 14, 2015 9:00 p.m
PTRSpringTrainingPreview
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
Pirates pitcher Francisco Liriano works on his bunting skills during spring training in Feb. 2014 at Pirate City in Bradenton, Fla.
PTRBucs06081914
Christopher Horner | Trib Total Media
The Pirates' Pedro Alvarez plays first base for the first time in his career during the first inning against the Atlanta Braves on Monday, Aug. 18, 2014, at PNC Park.

When Pirates manager Clint Hurdle drew up his plans for spring training camp, which gets underway this week in Bradenton, Fla., he started by looking at last season’s final standings.

The Pirates finished two games behind the first-place St. Louis Cardinals in the National League Central. That was good enough to put the Pirates in the postseason, but it also stuck them in the loser-goes-home wild-card game.

All winter, Hurdle pondered ways to vault the Cardinals, finally win the division and earn a smoother playoff path. One answer, he believes, is improving what his pitchers do — at the plate.

Pirates pitchers combined for an .098 batting average, which ranked 13th in the National League. They were eighth in the league and next-to-last in the NL Central with 36 sacrifice bunts.

“Our pitchers’ offense continues to be a very sore spot for us,” Hurdle said. “To be able to bunt the ball (and) swing the bat — to be able to do something — is an area we’re continuing to explore and (look for) improvement. I don’t think there is any doubt that our pitchers swinging the bat better could win us two more games in a season.”

Pitchers and catchers will hold their first spring workout Thursday at Pirate City. The 12 days before the first Grapefruit League game will be filled with drills, including extra time in the batting cages for pitchers.

“In other National League camps, guys get in a lot of swings and do a lot of bunting in the cages,” right-hander Vance Worley said. “I’m sure we’re going to work on it more based on last year’s numbers. Maybe there are other techniques we can use for bunting, or maybe we can shorten up our swings and put the ball in play more.”

A pretty decent hitter in high school, Worley still likes to swing a bat. Although Pirates pitchers usually don’t take batting practice before road games, Worley often gets into the cages with the position players.

“I enjoy hitting. I take pride in my hitting,” said Worley, who hit three home runs in the minors.

A pitcher can help himself without smacking home runs. In the June 14 game against the Miami Marlins, Charlie Morton was productive without hitting the ball out of the infield.

There was at least one runner on base in each of Morton’s first three plate appearances, and he bunted each time. The Pirates scored eight runs in those innings en route to an 8-6 win.

In the second inning, Morton tapped an infield single to load the bases and set up Gregory Polanco’s run-scoring grounder. In the fourth, Morton sacrificed Chris Stewart to second base. With two on and one out in the fifth, Morton’s safety squeeze scored Jordy Mercer and put Stewart in position to score on Polanco’s single.

Sabermetrics usually show sacrifice bunts are a bad idea. Giving away an out to advance a runner 90 feet often does not do much to improve a team’s odds of winning.

But when the player is a pitcher, whose offensive skills are limited, a bunt can produce positive results.

Among the stats charted by baseball-reference.com is base-out runs added, which computes how many runs a player added at the plate, considering the number of outs and men on base in each plate appearance.

In his three-bunt game against the Marlins, Morton’s base-out runs added was 0.6. Mercer (RBI double, solo homer) and Stewart (3 for 4, two runs scored) notched a 0.8.

Morton led the Pirates with eight sacrifice bunts last year, tied for 16th in the NL. Worley and Francisco Liriano had five apiece, which ranked 41st.

The pitchers shouldn’t necessarily bunt more often, but they should be more successful when asked to sacrifice. They were successful on 36 of 64 attempts, a 56.3 percent success rate. The NL average was 60.9 percent.

Bunting isn’t the only way pitchers can contribute without getting a hit. A productive out, a stat created by Elias and ESPN, is when a pitcher has a successful sacrifice bunt with one out, advances any runner with none out or drives in a runner with the second out of an inning.

Pirates pitchers made productive outs in 26.2 percent of their chances (22 of 84). That’s not a bad rate, considering the team’s position players came in at 30.4 percent, but it would have been better had Gerrit Cole and Jeff Locke not gone a combined 0 for 24.

Morton made productive outs in 8 of 17 chances. Worley (20 percent) and Francisco Liriano (18 percent) were below par. Last year’s team leader, Edinson Volquez (62 percent) put his bat away this winter and signed with Kansas City, where he’ll let a designated hitter do the hitting for him.

Rob Biertempfel is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff reporter. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, tlarussa@tribweb.com or via Twitter .

Categories: Pirates
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