Early returns on the Pirates' offense are consistent with expectations. Over the first 10 games of the season, they have generated the second-highest on-base percentage in baseball (.377), while hitting the second-fewest home runs (three). The high OBP has led to a lot of plate appearances with runners in scoring position (13.2 PA per game, second-highest average in baseball). As expected, the Pirates are manufacturing plenty of scoring opportunities and they aren't cashing in many instant runs.
As we knew going in, and as the early numbers reveal, the Pirates are relying on a ‘keep-the-line-moving' offense this season. This means that being on the friendly side of "cluster luck" and situational hitting is vital. Packaging baserunners together and then getting key hits with men in scoring position is essential to any offense. But high-OBP/low home run teams are especially sensitive to changes in cluster luck and hitting with RISP.
Over the first 10 games, the bad news is that the Pirates are on the wrong side of cluster luck (ranking 16th in league) and are batting just .230 with RISP (18th). They also have left a league-leading 88 men on base. The good news is that there isn't much reason to think that cluster luck and poor situational hitting will be a season long problem. Situational hitting has not been shown to be a repeatable skill and there is a reason it is called cluster luck.
TL/DR: 10 games in, the spiking on-base percentage provides much more reason for optimism than any panic over men left on base.
In Thursday afternoon's loss, the Pirates' again left 12 men on base and twice failed to score with bases loaded. Afterwards, Clint Hurdle directed everyone's attention in the right direction.
"A couple of base hits would have been nice in different situations," he said. "I don't look at what we don't have [home runs]. I look at the opportunities we were able to create and are creating."
Hurdle went on to discuss the consistency of the Pirates' approach through 10 games. They've forced opposing pitchers to throw a lot of pitches (4.06 pitches per PA, good for fifth-highest) and they are drawing walks. This approach, if it holds, will draw dividends down the line.
"We're doing a lot of good things, we're not getting the hit that can create separation," Hurdle said.
John Jaso reiterated the themes of his manager and expressed optimism that cluster luck or, as he more accurately calls it, timing, will eventually turn in the Pirates' favor.
"Getting hits is good and it builds confidence on the whole team," Jaso said. "You just rely on timing after that and you don't worry about it too much. You just trust that it's going to happen. Timing is what wins games and, in the end, pushes you in the playoffs and wins championships. It's all timing."
For the third game in a row, the Tigers beat the Pirates bullpen around. Rob Scahill allowed two runs in the seventh and Tony Watson allowed three runs in the eighth. Pirates' relievers have now tallied seven meltdowns in 10 games.
"It just reminds you that these guys are human beings and they're not going to have zero ERAs at the end of the season," Hurdle said. "That lineup can swing the bat."
Cole survives close call and pitches well
Gerrit Cole went a solid six innings and looked much stronger than his first outing. He allowed only four hits and two runs, while striking out five and walking one.
"I was much sharper today and much more refined," Cole said. "We were able to work efficiently and get strikeouts when we needed to. It's a good feeling walking away and knowing you improved from your last start."
Fortunately, Cole made it through a scary moment in the sixth without injury. As you can see in the video below, Jordan Zimmermann laced a fastball right back up the middle and off Cole's head. After lying on the ground for a second, Cole was quickly back to his feet and returned to pitching after being checked out by Pirates trainer, Ben Potenziano
"Luckily I was able to get out of the way for the most part," Cole said. "I hit the deck pretty hard."
With the Pirates trailing 7-3 in the bottom of the eighth, Rick Scofield waved Jaso around third on a one-out double by Andrew McCutchen. The throw beat Jaso by a good margin and catcher Bobby Wilson tagged him out.
The aggressive call was unnecessary and ultimately cost the Pirates one of their few remaining outs.
"On that one, we have to know the situation of the game we are in," Hurdle said. "It wasn't poor baserunning. It was a decision that didn't go right."