The plate discipline of the 2012 Pirates is nothing short of horrifying. However, this is not a new thing. Almost every Pirate has had their plate discipline get progressively worse each year. Before I delve into the numbers, here is a short explanation of the metrics I will be using. All data is courtesy of Fangraphs, as always. And I used only the Pirates most often started players this season, in an effort to save me work while still getting the most important players.
O-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at outside the strike zone.
Z-Swing%: The percentage of pitches a batter swings at inside the strike zone.
Swing%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter swings at.
O-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with outside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Z-Contact%: The percentage of pitches a batter makes contact with inside the strike zone when swinging the bat.
Contact%: The overall percentage of a batter makes contact with when swinging the bat.
Zone%: The overall percentage of pitches a batter sees inside the strike zone.
F-Strike% – The percentage of first pitch strikes.
SwStr%: The percentage of total pitches a batter swings and misses on.
And here are the league averages from 2002-2011 in those categories.
There are more than a few troubling trends in this data. For starters, every player has seen their O-Swing% increase from year to year. Only Presley is at or below the average in that category. McCutchen is normally below the average, but this season even he is above 30%. Everyone in this group except for Walker is swinging more in the zone as well (Walker is swinging at more out of the zone, and less in the zone, which is troubling in itself). In most cases (not Walker, who is making more contact on worse pitches) players' overall contact rates have gone down, and swinging strike rates have gone up, which is understandable since they're swinging at more pitches out of the zone, where they are less likely to hit the ball. Something that is very interesting, however, is that aside from against McCutchen, opposing teams seem to have caught on to these trends. Every player on this list other than Cutch is seeing a career low percentage of pitches in the zone. And we're still swinging more than ever. That is not a good combination.
Now, on to the one player who doesn't have this steady trend
In a startling trend for Pirates players, Tabata swung a lot less last year. That resulted in a much better walk rate. He also had a higher strikeout rate, but it was an overall positive increase in BB/K ratio. Additionally, his contact rates improved when he was more selective at the plate. However, this year he is back to free swinging, and fits right in with the above Pirates setting career highs in swinging, and swinging outside of the zone.
Now, let's look at the Pirate free agent additions from this offseason (the last four years of their careers, not all of it),
Two players not exactly known for their plate discipline, even veterans Barmes and Barajas are swinging at career highs. What semblance of plate discipline they had has eroded this season.
So, Pirate hitters suck. Big whoop, wanna fight about it? Yes, the players may be bad, but I find it highly unlikely that the vast majority of players that get significant playing time on the Pirates have their plate discipline erode on their own. Young players, established veterans, everyone is swinging more. In the zone, out of the zone, doesn't matter. Everyone is swinging. And somebody has to be telling them to do that. Or at least not telling them to stop it. I don't know if that would be Greg Ritchie, or Clint Hurdle, or who, but someone needs to get Pirate hitters to swing less. Considering how veteran hitters have increased their swing rates when coming to Pittsburgh, I would say it seems as though somebody is advocating this free swinging strategy. The Pirates may be setting career highs in terrible plate discipline this season, but the trends are not new. For a few years now, players have been swinging more, and at worse pitches. Anyone with eyes can watch the Pirates and see that they need to be more selective at they plate. But yet, they aren't doing that, and it's something that's been happening for a while. These players need to learn some modicum of plate discipline. Whoever is telling them to swing needs to go away, and someone needs to teach the Pirates to not swing at every pitch they see.
The league has adjusted to the Pirates. The team swings at everything outside of the zone, so other teams have quit throwing it in the zone as much. Now the Pirates need to adjust back.
Well, either that or they're just cursed, terrible, or both.