The Pittsburgh Pirates announced yesterday hitting coach Jeff Branson and his assistant Jeff Livesey would be let go.
Pittsburgh Pirates fans got one of their offseason wishes granted when the club let hitting coach Jeff Branson go, along with his assistant Jeff Livesey. As Rob Biertempfel of the Athletic noted, the superficial reasons why this move painted a vivid picture of mediocrity:
#Pirates team batting average this year: .254— Rob Biertempfel (@RobBiertempfel) October 1, 2018
NL average: .247
Pirates OPS: .725
NL avg: .721
Pirates home runs: 157
NL avg: 179
Pirates total bases: 2,218
NL avg: 2,221
Pirates slug: .407
NL avg: .403
Decision to fire coaches may have been based on individual player cases.
However, if we dig a bit deeper we can find a few other catalysts — perhaps quasi catalysts is more appropriate — for this change.
A maddeningly inconsistent approach to the zone that may not even matter
Overall, Pittsburgh Pirates hitters were once again, well, average in terms of how they approached the strike zone, save for one difference.
First, the overall numbers. The team was certainly aggressive enough, with a 47.8 percent swing rate overall — seventh highest in MLB and second overall in the NL. They made good enough contact with a contact rate of 78.1 percent, good for eighth best in baseball.
If we narrow our focus to pitches in the strike zone, the Pirates did a good job in swinging at pitches that landed there, with a nice 69.2 percent Z-Swing rate, third highest in baseball. Their 86 percent Zone Contact percentage was slightly above average, ranking eleventh.
However, their First Strike Percentage of 61.4 percent ranked them as the ninth highest team in terms of 0-1 counts.
Besides the obvious, why is this important? For the Pittsburgh Pirates, the answer might be that it is not. Not really. The Pirates simply see no sizable difference between their OPS After 1-0 vs After 0-1:
OPS - 1-0 vs 0-1
|Team||After 1-0||After 0-1||Swing|
|Team||After 1-0||After 0-1||Swing|
This is because they were mediocre at 1-0 to begin with. Perhaps mediocre is kind, as they ranked 24th in MLB after getting to that count. So, the swing between 1-0 and 0-1 isn’t as great, giving us a false sense of security that the team’s tendency to start 0-1 really would not have mattered much to begin with.
Of course, it’s always favorable to get to 1-0, but more context shows how it just might mean a bit more to the Pittsburgh Pirates than other teams, even if the swing between the two counts is not very large.
Pirates hitters saw pitches while ahead in the count 26.2 percent of the time. That placed them 23rd in baseball. There was not a wide gulf between the MLB-leading Cleveland Indians in this regard, who posted a 29.2 percent rate.
Here, a three percent difference equates to roughly 715 pitches, or 4.4 pitches per game, in a 162-game season in Pittsburgh's case. The effects of seeing four more pitches while ahead in any given game is awfully hard to quantify, but one can reasonably assume that any resulting gains in terms of favorable counts would not be a 1:1 proposition. A gradual increase here would logically change the way that teams pitch to Pittsburgh Pirates hitters, which may perhaps result in more “hittable” pitches in less than favorable counts as pitch counts go up. The club could draw more walks, and so on. The cumulative effect would be much more than just “four pitches per game.”
In a broader sense, the Pirates did fare a little better when ahead versus MLB.
Batters When Ahead
All of the above is just one example as to why Jeff Branson’s time with the Pittsburgh Pirates had to come to an end. There are myriad of others, and perhaps the club is simply tired of seeing hitters such as Josh Bell and Adam Frazier put in roller coaster-type seasons.
In either event, the most important addition this club can make between now and the 2019 season may in fact be Branson’s replacement.