One year after their first winning season since 1992, not much has gone right for the Pittsburgh Pirates. They entered Saturday 29-31 after making the playoffs in 2013.
But there has been one positive: The Pirates set out to improve their pinch hitting this season and have succeeded.
They didn't change their approach at the plate or use any advanced stats. They simply put their faith in what manager Clint Hurdle and his players call "The Machine."
It's a high-velocity pitching machine that the Pirates encourage their players to use extensively before possible pinch-hitting appearances.
In previous years, the Pirates had the machine available for home games at PNC Park but didn't emphasize its use.
In spring training this year, they installed what Hurdle calls "our pinch-hitter package." And they've also brought the machine on the road for the first time, which is no minor budgetary decision for a small-market franchise.
"We got our coaches together in spring training and we challenged them," Hurdle said recently. " 'How can we improve this even 1 percent?' "
They've done more than that, as demonstrated on Memorial Day at Citi Field. With his team trailing the Mets 2-0 in the eighth inning, pinch hitter Gaby Sanchez hit a solo homer off lefthander Scott Rice. Later that inning, Jose Tabata came off the bench to deliver a tying RBI single off Jose Valverde. Sanchez singled in the go-ahead run in the ninth as the Pirates went on to a 5-3 victory that rankled Mets brass so much, they immediately released Valverde and fired hitting coach Dave Hudgens.
It hasn't been just one day of success in a pinch for the Pirates, though.
Last season, Pittsburgh pinch hitters batted .206 with seven homers and 29 RBIs in a major league-leading 253 at-bats. The NL average for all pinch hitters was .222; the MLB average was .215.
This year, the numbers tell a different story. Entering Saturday, the Pirates were 28-for-105 (.267) with three homers and 16 RBIs. They were tied with San Diego for the most pinch-hit at-bats in the majors and second to Colorado (.286) for the top pinch-hit average in the NL.
Going into Friday, the league average was .201 and the MLB average was .207 (the Mets were at .173 and the Yankees .238).
So at least in this regard, the Pirates have gone from below average to well above average.
"We've had a much better year pinch hitting," Hurdle said. "It's an area we haven't been probably as good as we had hoped, so we did some different things early in the season. Just worked on a pinch-hitter package, different mindset, brought a machine with us on the road.
"We really ramp up, get ultra-aggressive with it before they come in. We've got the same options on the road now. We tell them exactly what we're looking for, to be purposeful with the direction before they go out. They've responded in a very good way this year, some big hits from all over. Just the quality of the at-bats has been better."
Sanchez, who has been platooning with Ike Davis at first base since the Pirates acquired the former Met on April 18, was 8-for-23 (.348) with one home run and five RBIs off the bench through Friday.
Tabata, a former Yankees prospect, was 7-for-21 (.333) with five RBIs. Lefty-swinging outfielder Travis Snider was 7-for-22 (.318) with five RBIs.
Sanchez, before his at-bat on Memorial Day, took swings against the machine for several innings -- curves and sliders, too, to get ready for Rice, though he downplayed that aspect.
"Just seeing velocity, that's the biggest thing," Sanchez said. "Of course you're not going to be able to mimic a pitcher totally, but at least with the speed at your eyes, something faster than a coach throwing 50 miles an hour, it just speeds up everything. When you get in a game, a guy who's throwing 95 doesn't look like he's throwing 110. That's been the biggest help."