The Pirates' pitching philosophy is well documented. They like to make hitters uncomfortable with aggressive fastballs inside. (The Pirates describe it as forcing batters into "moving their feet.") An uncomfortable hitter is one that is more likely to make weak ground ball contact later in the count. The approach is grounded in internal analytics, as Clint Hurdle alluded to earlier this season.
"There is a number you can put on it as to what happens to them after you do pitch them inside," Hurdle said. "And we've got those numbers. On what those good hitters turn into after they've been pitched aggressively inside for strikes."
While we are not privy to the team's internal advanced data, the connection between pitching inside and ground balls is evident anecdotally. It's not coincidental that the Pirates have led the league in hit batsmen and ground ball rate the past two seasons. This year, they once again lead the league in ground ball rate, but are hitting batters less. Which may mean they are simply getting better at pitching inside.
Today, Terry Francona made clear that the Pirates reputation for pitching inside precedes them and is well known league wide.
"They by far lead the league in pitching in, which is in the statistics and is very noticeable," Terry Francona said. "It's not even close ... They have a reputation for really pitching in aggressively. And if you're able to do that, it opens up everything else."
Francona explained that what the Pirates are doing isn't easy, since the inside half of the zone is the most difficult area to get called strikes.
"You have to be able to do it," Francona said. "You have to be able to throw strikes in, which is not easy in today's game, because that is probably the hardest pitch to get called a strike by the umpires."
The Pirates pitching philosophy requires a certain type of personal, it's not a switch that every team can flip, Francona continued.
"You have to go with your guys' strengths," Francona said. "If you have guys that miss bats, good. But when you get early contact and stay off the barrel and you're getting ground balls, that bodes well in the long run. They've been very effective with it."
When asked if the Indians planned to change their approach in an effort to counteract what the Pirates are going to try to do, Francona said that they are prepared but noted that it's hard for players to change their approaches in any fundamental way.
"We had a meeting today with the advanced scouts and we have the video of what they're doing," Francona said. "But if you're a hitter that pulls the ball, it's kind of hard to change. You kind of want to be prepared for what you can hit. Sometimes the biggest thing is not to swing at balls, as opposed to swinging at balls you can't hit anyways."