In his recap last night, Charlie mentions that he’s noticed muted optimism among the readers of his site despite the Pirates’ good start and that it’s most attributable to the fact that thus far in 2011, the Pirates are striking out like a drunk Mark Reynolds in a blindfold. The Bucs are currently on pace for exactly 1,620 strikeouts in 2011, which would shatter last year’s Diamondbacks’ record of 1,529, which in turn shattered the previous high of 1,399 set by the Brewers in 2001.
Since pretty much the opener, this team has looked to me like one that’s going to strike out a ton. A lineup with Lyle Overbay, Pedro Alvarez, Neil Walker, and even guys like Garrett Jones and Andrew McCutchen is going to rack up the Ks. Strikeouts don’t have to be a bad thing; the Rays lead the AL in strikeouts last year and still finished third in runs scored. They only hit .247 as a team, but their OBP was almost 90 points higher at .333. The Pirates thus far this year have not been quite as good; they’re hitting .265 but only getting on at a .330 rate. Both of those numbers are good and they would be big jumps forward from last year, but it’s not hard to extrapolate that a 1,600 strikeout rate would cause that batting average to tumble and since their early-season OBP is more batting-average dependent than a team like last year’s Rays, that would drop, too.
The two biggest all-or-nothing culprits so far are Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez. I’m particularly concerned with Walker; FanGraphs took a look at his early season yesterday and determined that he’s basically just swinging from his heels and either crushing the ball or striking out. That’s worked out fine so far this year, but in the long run that’s exactly the sort of hitter that Walker can’t be if he wants to be a productive big leaguer. There’s plenty of time for him to adjust, of course, but this is the approach that lead to him hitting .259/.307/.448 over his time in Indianapolis.
Alvarez is tougher. I’m not a hitting coach or a scout or anything other than a blogger that occasionally had his own run of at-batst that ended in strikeouts in high school, but these past few games (and the three games I saw him in Bradenton) he looks to me like a guy that’s stuck deep inside of his own head. It seems like he takes the first pitch for strike one a bit and once he’s behind in the count, it’s a death sentence. If Pedro’s locked in and looking fastball I don’t think Stephen Strasburg could blow a 101 mph pitch past him, but once he gets behind in the count and starts over-thinking, he can’t catch up to an 89 mph fastball if he’s worried there’s a chance it might be a curveball. This needs some more analysis and I would guess it’s what Hurdle’s been working with him on (his double play last night was a first-pitch swing), but I think that’s his problem right now.
I’m more than happy to write both of these guys’ early-season strikeout woes off to various things. Walker’s obviously in the zone at the plate and he knows it and is swinging for the fences and getting away with it more often than not. It’ll be more concerning if he keeps his free-swinging ways alive as pitchers start feeding him breaking ball after breaking ball low in the zone. And Alvarez is a streaky guy that probably just needs a 2-for-4 with a double and a homer night to get out of his head. They’ve also both been on the wrong end of some incredibly inconsistent strike zones, particularly (but not limited to) last night. But if the Pirates keep striking out like this, it will be a bigger problem eventually, especially if they can’t draw some more walks.