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Neal Huntington talks outfield positioning and situational hitting

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Some additional notes from Neal Huntington's Sunday press meeting:

Moving in

Last Thursday, Nick Castellanos drove a high fly ball that landed behind Andrew McCutchen and skipped off the base of the center field wall. With his impressive range and [heretofore] deep positioning, not many hits have dropped behind McCutchen over the past eight seasons. The rarity of the event made an impression on Clint Hurdle.

"It definitely got our attention as well, because it's something we haven't seen," Hurdle said.

During spring training, the club announced its intention to position the outfield shallower. The data showed that the Pirates' ground ball oriented pitching staff was inducing a lower launch angle on fly balls, which travel a shorter distance on average through the air. With their outfielders positioned at normal-to-deep depths, many balls were landing just in front of them and/or requiring a longer than necessary run to reach once they dropped in. The Pirates believed that the risks associated with playing farther in would be mitigated by the speed with which their outfielders go back on balls, the reward of gaining more net outs on shallower hit balls and throwing out more base runners.

The double by Castellanos was the first time that the new positioning hurt the Pirates this season, Hurdle observed: "We've already taken a handful of (hits) away and that's the first ball that's gotten over our head and violated us. I'm not so sure if that ball's caught if he's playing (last year's depth)."

The Pirates new defensive tactics were predicated, in part, on having ground ball pitchers on the mound. However, as Hurdle acknowledged on Saturday, some of the pitchers they added to the staff over the off season are not ground ball pitchers.

"Sometimes you bring in individuals that don't have those skill sets," Hurdle said. "In those cases you're not going to try take away strengths and create something that's not there."

Hurdle pointed to Neftali Feliz and Juan Nicasio, specifically, as pitchers who don't profile as ground ball pitchers (35.9 and 44.3 career GB%, respectively).

Castellanos' double and Hurdle's comments about the pitching staff combined to raise an interesting question about exactly how the Pirates were implementing their new outfield positioning. Were they adjusting their approach based on the pitcher on the mound? Or, was it an across the board philosophy of playing shallower? A few of us talked about this issue in the Pirates' clubhouse after Hurdle's press scrum on Saturday and then Bucs Dugout commenter, Brian Cartwright, succinctly posed the question in the comments section that same evening:

David - a question I'd like you to ask Clint Hurdle, when you have a chance

The Pirates announced their intentions to play the outfielders shallower, but this year they have fewer ground ball pitchers (who allow short flies). Is the outfield positioning at least in part dependent on who is pitching (and their ground ball tendencies)?"

by Brian Cartwright on Apr 16, 2016 | 7:11 PM reply rec flag actions

On Sunday, Neal Huntington met with the media, the question was asked, and here is the full reply.

"It's a nuanced approach in that it is based on opposition hitter and pitcher, and projected outcomes. But as a group, we did tend to play deeper last year. We did tend to be deeper last year than ideally we wanted to be in most situations. So, there is an across the board intent to move our guys in a little bit. But then there is a much more nuanced approach with our outfield positioning based on a number of factors - the two big ones being hitter and pitcher."

The Pirates believe they played too deep last year, so they are going position the outfield closer in across the board this year. However, the extent of the shift depends on the profiles of both the pitcher and hitter. There it is.

Final word on RISP

There was also a lot of talk last week about hitting (or lack there of) with runners in scoring position. As we discussed Thursday, there is much more reason to be encouraged by the Pirates high on base percentage than discouraged by their struggles hitting with RISP. Nonetheless, Huntington was asked about the team's lack of early season situational hitting.

"The positive is that we're putting a lot of men in position to score," Huntington said. "But when you put a lot of runners on base and you're average [hitting with RISP], it seems like you are leaving a ton of players on base. I'd much rather be leaving a lot of guys on-base and be average, than be above average and not have a lot of baserunners."

Heading into tonight game, the Pirates have generated 478 baserunners, which is 47 more than the Cubs, who have the second most. Even with only 11 percent of baserunners eventually scoring, which is three percent lower than average and ranks near the bottom of the league, the Pirates rank fifth in baserunners scoring with 52.

Unless things change dramatically on this road trip, it appears attention will quickly return to the main issue with this team that everyone was aware of heading into this season: Is the starting rotation and the front end of the bullpen good enough for this team to keep pace with the Cubs and Cardinals? The offense and defense are not likely to be the Achilles' heel of this team, but pitching certainly could be.