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How bad is the Pirates’ hitting — really?

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2019 MLB All-Star Game, presented by Mastercard Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images

The horrific start that the Pirates had in 2020 prompted some observers to ask if this is the worst lineup the Pirates have ever fielded. It’s understandable, given the pathetic numbers most of the key players had put up in the first third of the season.

The thing about baseball, though, is that you’re never as bad as you look when things are going horribly, and you’re never as good as you look when things are going great. In other words, short stretches – or relatively short stretches – rarely tell the whole story.

But when those short stretches come at the start of a season, they get magnified, and they take on more significance than they should. This is by no means an attempt to make excuses for the Pirates’ woeful start in 2020. It’s just that everyone struggled at the same exact time – and for an extended length of time, considering the length of this year’s schedule. And that’s a bit unusual.

Because baseball is such a game of numbers, it’s only natural to focus on the numbers the Pirates put together in the first 20 games of the season. And those numbers were, in the words of Wayne Schneider, a legendary high school football coach I covered a million years ago in Tracy, California, “Pitiful.”

But perhaps it would be more instructive to look at the career numbers that the key Pirates took into the season. Why not start with Josh Bell? The big first baseman looked like Babe Ruth during the first half of the 2019 season, slumped badly after the All-Star break, but then put up nearly a .900 OPS from Aug. 2 through the end of his season. During his first four seasons, Bell put together an average OPS of .820, and while that won’t earn him a ticket to Cooperstown, it’s much better than the .577 OPS mark he lugged into Saturday’s game against Milwaukee. So, in evaluating Bell, do you think he’s closer to the .820 guy or the .577 guy? Skeptics and critics might opt for the latter, but you’re wrong.

It’s more difficult to analyze the next player – Bryan Reynolds – because he doesn’t have as much of a major league track record as Bell, whose track record, admittedly, isn’t even all that long. Reynolds came out of nowhere to contend for the National League batting title a year ago before tailing off down the stretch. He wound up batting .314 with an .880 OPS and an OPS+ of 130, good enough to help him finish fourth in the rookie of the year voting.

This year, though, Reynolds was hitting just .220 after Sunday’s game, and through the first 21 games was struggling at with a .174 batting average and a .568 OPS. One had to wonder if 2019 was an aberration – a six-month run of beginner’s luck – and that if the “real” Reynolds was beginning to surface. But I never bought that line. Look at Reynolds’ track record in college and the minor leagues. Yes, there’s no guarantee that will translate to the big leagues, but it’s still worth noting that in three seasons at Vanderbilt, he never put up an OPS less than .849, and his low mark in the minor leagues was .793 as a 21-year-old at Class A Augusta in the South Atlantic League. At the highest minor league levels, he registered .819 at Double-A Altoona and 1.181 in a small sample size at Triple-A Indianapolis before getting called up last year.

So, does it make sense to believe Reynolds will continue struggling to stay above the Mendoza line? Or will his natural ability take over and help boost his batting average and OPS to a more respectable neighborhood? Pirates broadcaster John Wehner mentioned during Saturday’s game that it can take some hitters anywhere from 50 to 100 at-bats to feel comfortable at the plate, and given the lack of exhibition games in this year’s spring training 2.0, it’s only now that some players are reaching the upper end of that spectrum. Wehner noted that Andrew McCutcheon often struggled for the first month of the season or so before getting untracked.

Of all the Pirates who’ve gotten off to slow starts – and there are many – perhaps none has taken the abuse that’s been heaped on Gregory Polanco. Some have even questioned whether Polanco is the worst hitter (or player) in the major leagues, and they certainly had the numerical ammunition to mount a convincing argument. We all know the big outfielder’s back story – the horrific injury-inducing slide late in 2018 that wrecked what would have been a very nice season, the subpar comeback season in 2019, the positive test for COVID-19 that stalled his start this year and the nightmarish production in his first 14 games.

During that stretch, Polanco went 3 for 43 – that’s.070 if you’re computing at home – for an OPS of just .396. Many questioned why first-year skipper Derek Shelton continued to run Polanco out to right field or start him at the DH spot. But Shelton, a former hitting coach, backed up Polanco, saying that he was putting in the work and hitting the ball hard – when he made contact.

It’s understandable why a manager would have a player’s back, given that confidence plays such an important role in hitting. In addition, one could argue that Shelton didn’t have all that many options, given the club’s makeup. But he could also point to the previously mentioned 2018 campaign – the last season that Polanco had a lengthy stretch of playing time while 100% healthy. That year, in 461 at-bats, Polanco posted an OPS of .839 and an OPS+ of 128. He slugged 23 home runs and drove in 81 to go with a .340 on-base percentage. Last year, playing with a shoulder that hadn’t quite healed, Polanco slumped to a .726 OPS in 42 games before being shelved for the rest of the season.

Those numbers won’t win any awards, but they are a far cry from an .070 batting average and a .396 OPS. Granted, Polanco’s career has been a disappointment through anyone’s lens, given the buildup he received while tearing through the minors and the quick start he got off to when first called up in 2014 at the age of 22. But I’d bet my life Polanco will not hit anywhere near .070 if given 200 at-bats this season. I’d expect something closer to .250 with perhaps a .750-.780 OPS, taking his tortoise-like start into consideration. His 5-for-10 weekend showing against Milwaukee is perhaps a sign of things to come.

A look at the Pirates lineup shows that others had agonizingly slow starts, including Adam Frazier and Colin Moran. But I maintain that both players will eventually find their level –somewhere in the .270/.750 range, with Moran providing a bit more pop.

The point is, this is not the worst lineup in Pirates history, and the remaining 40 games or so will bear that out. This isn’t based on the bats coming alive in the sweep of the Brewers series – it’s based on performance over time. And time, in this case, isn’t 20 games.

NOTES: General manager Ben Cherington mentioned on his 93.7 The Fan radio show Sunday that reliever Kyle Crick would throw live batting practice Tuesday, and would be traveling with the team to Chicago, St. Louis and Milwaukee this week. Cherington also said Keone Kela did the right thing in shutting himself down Friday but indicated that he didn’t think the injury was a serious one.

“From what I’ve gathered, it’s probably one of those things you can put in the bucket of the challenges of getting ready for a season (amid a pandemic) this year,” he said. That was particularly true of Kela, who missed significant time while sidelined with a positive COVID-19 test. Cherington said in a normal spring training, pitchers are not competing with the same intensity as they would be in a regular-season game, but Kela had no opportunity to ramp up in that fashion. Instead, the first time he took the mound in a game was a “real” game, and he was throwing with maximum effort. “That’s going to put a different type of strain on your body than you might get in a spring training progression,” he said. “Friday was his third outing, and I’d chalk (the forearm cramping) to part of his buildup. But we’re going to let it calm down, and we’ll check in with him Tuesday and see where he is. He’ll be with the team on the road, but we have to make sure he’s feeling good before he goes out there.”