By John Franco
Searching through the advanced pitching metrics on Fangraphs.com, I thought I came across a positive sign for the Pirates. Their pitchers lead the league in inducing swings on pitches outside the strike zone, a statistic called O-Swing%. Opposing hitters have chased 33.8% of all pitches the Pirates have thrown outside the zone this year. (On the opposite end of the spectrum, hitters have only chased 24.1% of pitches outside the zone against the Mariners.) For the Pirates, it sounds like a good thing, but I’m not sure it is.
Usually when a pitcher gets a hitter to chase a pitch out of the zone, the goal is a swinging strike. For the Pirates, things haven’t really worked out that way. Hitters have put the ball in play 74.7% of the time (this statistic is called O-Contact%) when swinging at pitches outside the zone – the second highest contact rate in the major leagues. (By comparison, the worst contact rate on pitches out of the zone belongs to the Rangers at 55.7%).
Put simply, hitters are chasing pitches outside the zone against the Pirates, but they’re not missing when they swing. The results aren’t much better on pitches in the strike zone: hitters swing at 68.2% of pitches in the zone (most in the major leagues) and make contact 89.2% of the time (third highest in the majors). In 2011, the Pirates’ opponents ranked third in O-Contact% and tied for first in Z-Contact%.
The Pirates’ inability to miss bats has been a long-standing issue, one that Erik Bedard and AJ Burnett were brought in to address. Bedard hasn’t helped so far – his 72.7% contact rate outside the zone and 91.5% contact rate inside the zone are roughly in line with the Pirates’ team averages. The best swing-and-miss guy has been Juan Cruz - perhaps not surprising, since his shaky command means that he doesn’t know where the ball is going any more than the hitter does. The worst offender has been Tony Watson, who actually hasn’t missed a bat this season (100% contact rate both inside and outside the strike zone).
Getting Burnett into the rotation will help the Pirates’ contact woes, since he would probably replace Kevin Correia, who had the worst swing-and-miss rates in the Pirates’ rotation last year. Beyond that, Joel Hanrahan and Evan Meek had success pitching outside the zone in 2011 (contact rate of 65% or less), but none of their pitchers really posted an impressive whiff rate on pitches in the zone. Pitching coach Ray Searage clearly has some work to do in figuring out how the Pirates can miss a few more bats. Hitters are already swinging at pitches outside the zone, which seems like the hard part, so the Pirates need to capitalize on that fact.