On December 17, 2015, the Pirates traded outfielder Keon Broxton and right-hander Trey Supak to Milwaukee for Jason Rogers. (I’m focusing on hitters here, so Supak isn’t going to enter into the discussion.) Broxton was an extremely toolsy player with great speed, athleticism and defensive ability, and also solid power, but with major swing-and-miss problems. Rogers was a corner player with little athleticism or defensive skill, but with a line-drive bat, good contact ability and strike zone judgment, and good gap and some over-the-fence power. He’d also had some success already in the majors.
The trade should have worked out. The Pirates aren’t exactly quick to share their strategic thinking with the public, but they appear to have reached the conclusion that the best way to defeat the growing usage of shifts was with gap-to-gap hitters with good plate discipline who couldn’t be shifted effectively and wouldn’t be overwhelmed by the proliferation of high-velocity arms.
The strategy appeared in their drafts. With their recent top picks, the Pirates have focused on line-drive hitters who control the strike zone but don’t necessarily project to hit for power. Cole Tucker, Kevin Newman, Kevin Kramer and Ke’Bryan Hayes all fit this profile. So does Will Craig when you take into account the doubts that existed about how well his power would play outside his home park in college, doubts that persist based on his hitting as a pro. These picks differ sharply from the current front office’s very first draft pick and maybe are partly a reaction to it. They haven’t drafted a player remotely similar to Pedro Alvarez at the top of their draft since.
Whether the Pirates are following the same strategies at the major league level is harder to say. Their moves at that level, like all teams, are often governed by circumstances, including money, which players are available on the trade or free agent market, and which players in their system develop and which don’t. The fact is, though, that they’re currently third from the bottom in the NL in runs despite striking out the fewest times of any NL team and posting a good walk rate. The Reds and Brewers provide a marked contrast. The Pirates have walked more than either of those teams. They’ve struck less often than the Reds and drastically less often than the Brewers, who lead the NL in whiffs. But they’ve scored well under four runs per game while the Reds have scored over five and the Brewers well over five. (Yes, some of this has to do with ballpark differences, but I’m not trying to be all that scientific here.)
Unfortunately, the Rogers trade didn’t work. Rogers appeared only briefly with the Pirates and did nothing beyond drawing a few walks. He didn’t hit much in AAA last year, either; his plate discipline remained good, but he didn’t hit the ball with any authority. (He’s doing better this year, ironically with weaker plate discipline.) Broxton, on the other hand, spent much of the season with the Brewers as a fourth outfielder, putting up slightly above average numbers and playing very good defense. This year, he’s been their regular center fielder and is putting up the same numbers after a very bad start that may have resulted in part from a beaning. And he’s done all this despite an astronomical strikeout rate that’s approached 40%.
With the proliferation of shifts and fireballing relievers, you’d expect teams to pay a price for employing swing-and-miss power hitters. And you’d expect that the burgeoning strikeout rate across MLB would drag down power and scoring numbers. But the exact opposite is happening. Since the modern low point for scoring and HRs in 2014, both are increasing with roughly the same rapidity as strikeouts.
In the chart below, the red line is the HR rate, the blue line is the rate of runs per game, and the green line is the K rate. Each one is per team per game.
Anecdotally speaking, it seems to me that teams are getting a lot of mileage out of a type of player the Pirates seem to avoid. That would be power hitters who don’t have great plate discipline and/or good on-base skills. The Reds and Brewers have gotten very good mileage out of such players. Scott Schebler and Adam Duvall are examples on the Reds right now. Schebler is just a fair on-base guy and Duvall poor, but they’ve both driven in significantly more runs than anybody on the Pirates right now. The Brewers developed a similar hitter in Khris Davis, who’s now with Oakland. Milwaukee currently has another in Travis Shaw. And then there’s Broxton. There’s also the Orioles, who’ve largely based their offense for years now on power hitters with limited patience or on-base skills, like Adam Jones, Mark Trumbo, Jonathan Schoop and, for one year, Pedro Alvarez.
Again, it’s not necessarily an indication that a team doesn’t like a particular type of player that it doesn’t happen to have that type of player at a specific point in time. Still, I just don’t think the Pirates are keen on players like Davis and Duvall. They did acquire Sean Rodriguez, twice, but they wanted him for his glove. Otherwise, they seem to go more for players like John Jaso, who hasn’t exactly been a smashing success. And there was Rogers.
I don’t know that there are any larger conclusions that can be drawn here. The Rogers deal was just one trade. And the results from the recent drafts haven’t been bad thus far. Of the ones I mentioned above, the only draftee I have serious doubts about is Craig, who has to hit for power to be useful and who hasn’t so far. Newman is struggling right now, but he had a lot of success last year. Hayes is doing OK, especially when you take into account the fact that he’s one of the youngest players in his league, it’s an extreme pitchers league, and he got underweight during the off-season as he was recovering from injury. Kramer and Tucker are both having outstanding seasons.
Still, the fact is the Pirates have very little power anywhere in the organization and teams now are succeeding by hitting for power. I can’t help being concerned that the Pirates have outsmarted themselves. That seems to be a trend for them, considering how their obsessions with utility players and multi-inning relievers are backfiring. So Keon Broxton may be just one player in one relatively minor trade, but I’m not sure he’s a good sign.