The Pittsburgh Pirates Have a Right-Handed Hitting Problem

Associated Press

The Pirates have stocked up on young left-handed hitters.  However, they are very weak when an opposing left-handed pitcher is on the mound.

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I was arguing on Twitter yesterday, which is easy to do with some of the outrageous Pittsburgh Pirates takes that float around the internet nowadays.  However, this one wasn't so outrageous.  This was simply another Pirates blogger outlining the lineup he would like to see going into Tampa tonight.

The lineup wasn't bad either.  The problem, that I saw, is that it included five left-handed hitters.  In the lefty-friendly confines of PNC Park, that is okay.  It is especially okay against a right-handed pitcher.  However, the Pirates will face two left-handed pitchers in the series that starts tonight at 7:10 PM against the Tampa Bay Rays.  

The five left-handed hitters this blogger included were Tucupita Marcano, Oneil Cruz, Jack Suwinski, Daniel Vogelbach, and Bligh Madris.  The assumption is Marcano will return from the Covid-IL tonight. 

While Marcano, Cruz and Madris have less than 20 games played this season, Suwinski and Vogelbach have 50+.  So while we don't have enough data yet to evaluate the former three, we have decades of data that say left-handed hitters do not fare well against left-handed pitchers.  Maybe one of Marcano, Cruz, or Madris will break the stereotype across their, hopefully, long Pirate careers, but all three doing so is unlikely.

Suwinski is batting pretty terribly against lefty's this season.  He has just a .179 batting average with 19 strikeouts in 61 plate appearances.  He is striking out over 30% of the time against left-handed pitchers.  Not good.

In 47 plate appearances against left-handed hitters this season, Vogelbach is even worse than Suwinski.  He has a .122 batting average and a horrendous .380 OPS.  Luckily, since he is so patient at the plate, he is only striking out 23% of the time against left-handed pitchers.  However, Vogelbach has just a .133 career batting average against lefty's so he's not going to improve anytime soon.

So naturally, in a series where the Pirates are set to face two left-handed pitchers, they would look to deploy more right-handed hitters.  Right?

Unfortunately, the Pirates only have one right-handed hitter that consistently performs.  That hitter being Ke'Bryan Hayes.  Beyond him, the Pirates have Diego Castillo, Yu Chang, Michael Chavis, and switch hitters Bryan Reynolds and Tyler Heineman.  Also Kevin Newman and Jake Marisnick, right-handed hitters currently on the Injured List, are not much better alternatives.

The first two in that list , Castillo and Chang, are simply terrible at the plate this season.  Add in Heineman, and a lineup could have Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, and Paul Goldschmidt in it but would still struggle with those three Pirates at the bottom.  

Heineman, Castillo and Chang are all batting under .200 and strike out way too often.  Castillo strikes out 25% of the time he appears at the plate and Chang is striking out, laughably, 43% of the time.  Heineman doesn't strike out nearly as often, but his .164 batting average is putrid. None of them particularly hit much better against left-handed pitchers than our left-handed hitters do.  

Furthermore, as much as I like rooting for Michael Chavis, he cannot be characterized as consistent.  While he had a tremendous game yesterday, playing a large role in the Pirates win, he was on quite a skid before his game-tying homerun in the eight inning.  Prior to that homerun he was 2 for his last 25 at-bats with zero extra base hits in that span.  

This isn't uncommon for Chavis in his career.  He can rattle off games where he is the star of a series, or he can go hitless for games at a time.  That's why I cannot consider him a consistent performer.

That leaves Bryan Reynolds.  What can I say about Bryan Reynolds other than he is a superstar?  Even with a brutal start to this season, he has now terrorized pitchers in the month of June.  Across his career, he is actually batting exactly as well against righty's as he is lefty's.  He has a .285 batting average against both righty's and lefty's.

Reynolds' power numbers are better against right-handed pitchers, as most switch hitters experience, but his .807 OPS against left-handed pitchers is still outstanding.  So Reynolds should also be considered a consistent performer against left-handed pitchers, with Hayes being the only true right-handed hitter who has had success.  

I do believe if the Pirates are going to be successful, they do need a bit more balance in the lineup.  Even if their best hitters are always going to be pre-dominantly lefty, they need some righty's on the bench that are batting over the Mendoza line.  So while it looks like these young Bucs are ready to turn a corner in the next year or two, a deeper right-handed bench will be needed for any sustained success.