Why can’t the Pirates keep the ball in the ballpark?

The Pirates have a problem that not even heralded savior Gregory Polanco can solve: pitching.

Tuesday night was the latest chapter of the team’s struggles, as the Orioles cruised to a 9-2 victory by way of four home runs. Between the Brewers, Yankees, and Orioles, that’s 12 home runs against the Bucs in the last five games. 91 mph sinkers aren’t meant to be grooved to the reigning home run champion:

chrisdavis third home run0001

The long ball is becoming a huge problem for Pirates’ pitching. They’ve surrendered 50 blasts through 44 games, on pace for a whopping 186. Last year, the Bucs allowed just 101 total.

Home run rates are way up across the board – HR per nine innings:

pirates hr per 9

And home run to fly ball ratio:

pirates hr fb ratio

The Pirates had the third lowest HR/FB rate in Major League Baseball last year at 8.9%. This year? The highest at 14.2%, tied with the Arizona Diamondbacks.

Another interesting look: when these home runs are coming. A homer is a homer and instant offense is huge, but the situation is also important. For example: Ike Davis‘ seventh inning home run last night. In a 7-1 drubbing? Meh. Didn’t help much. But have a look at the Pirates’ pitching splits:

High Lvrge 362 90 14 .265 .352 .434 .786
Medium Lvrge 572 67 17 .264 .320 .411 .731
Low Lvrge 585 35 19 .251 .315 .397 .712
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/21/2014.

A bunch of opponent homers – and offense in general – has come in high leverage situations. That’s one homer every 26 at-bats in high leverage; one every 34 in medium; one every 31 in low. Staggering: 90 runs (!) in high leverage situations – this follows up with the bullpen meltdowns we looked at last week.

Which pitches have been the most “homerable” against Pirates this year? This is a concept Jeff Sullivan at FanGraphs broke down a while back. Bucco results:

pirates homerable pitches

As you’ve probably been able to tell, Wandy Rodriguez has been nothing short of a disaster. Between inflated HR/9 and HR/FB rates and multiple pitches getting lit up for homers, it’s been batting practice against him for the most part. Jeanmar Gomez has been a mess out of the ‘pen (12 runs in 12 appearances; four meltdowns) and Vin Mazzaro hasn’t been trusted (only three appearances since being recalled almost three weeks ago). Edinson Volquez, who’s typically allowed a lot of homers despite being a ground ball guy, somehow managed to keep the homers at a minimum through his first few starts… His success lasted all of three weeks, and he’s surrendered eight dingers in his last four outings. Francisco Liriano and Gerrit Cole, who need to emerge as the staff leaders, have also fallen victim to the long ball…

What explains all this? Just bad pitching? I’m wondering if Ray Searage has an answer. They’ve been playing some solid teams, and playing in homer parks like Great American and Yankee Stadium probably hasn’t helped. But PNC is a pitcher’s park and it hasn’t helped either: 27 opponent HR in 24 home games this year; 37 in last year’s 81 home games.

It’s crazy to see a staff go from really good to really bad, but that’s essentially what the Pirates have done. As a whole, they’ve produced ZERO wins above replacement, worst in MLB. The offense hasn’t been much different: 3.91 runs per game last year; 3.84 rpg this year. It’s the pitching that’s gone far south, and if they keep giving up all these homers, the games will continue to be over in a hurry. And if the losses keep piling up, the season will be over in a hurry, too.


Go Bucs

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