Pirates' 2016 power surge part of MLB-wide trend

Bucs jumped from 140 to 153 HR this season, but dropped from 10th to 12th in NL

Pirates' 2016 power surge part of MLB-wide trend

PITTSBURGH -- After parting ways with Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker last offseason, the Pirates were prepared to sacrifice some thump in their lineup. It was all part of the plan as they moved toward a more OBP-driven offense.

With that in mind, rewind back to Spring Training and imagine what might have seemed like a bigger surprise: The Pirates hitting more home runs this year than last, or doing so while moving down the National League's longball leaderboard?

Well, both happened. Pittsburgh's home run output increased from 140 to 153 this year, but the Bucs dropped from 10th to 12th-most in the NL. The Royals (147), Giants (130), Marlins (128) and Braves (122) were the only Major League clubs to hit fewer homers than the Bucs.

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The Pirates were an above-average pitching staff in terms of preventing homers this year, but they were not immune to the trend either. They allowed 180 homers, 11th-fewest in the Majors, but that number leaped from a Major League-best 110 in 2015, 128 in '14 and 101 in '13 (also the Majors' best).

It's no secret that home runs have been on the rise throughout baseball the past two years. But the total ticked up dramatically in 2016.

•  2014 MLB: 4,186 homers, one club with 200-plus, and an average of 140 per club and 0.86 per game

2015 MLB: 4,909 homers, four clubs with 200-plus, and an average of 164 per club and 1.01 per game

2016 MLB: 5,610 homers, 12 clubs with 200-plus, and average of 187 per club and 1.16 per game

Pirates manager Clint Hurdle subscribes to the belief that home runs are thrown more often than they're hit. How does he explain that kind of jump?

"Sometimes it's the pitching. I think it's hard," Hurdle said. "You have 30 teams. To continue to find staffs with 12 really good pitchers all the time, sometimes things are in flux."

The Pirates only had three players reach the 20-homer mark: Andrew McCutchen (24), Gregory Polanco (22) and Jung Ho Kang (21). They had seven players hit at least 10, and two of them -- Sean Rodriguez (18) and Matt Joyce (13) -- spent most of the season coming off the bench.

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Given their focus on run prevention and a pitcher-friendly home ballpark, the Pirates would prefer to field an athletic team over a group of all-or-nothing sluggers. Besides, power comes with a price tag.

"How do you make up the run production?" Hurdle said. "One of our thoughts was to get on base more, to put a lineup together that would connect the dots with more consistency to score more runs."

The Pirates accomplished those goals, posting a .332 on-base percentage and 729 runs (up from .323 and 697, respectively). But they had one of the Majors' highest ground-ball rates (46.9 percent, fifth) and lowest fly-ball rates (31.7 percent, 27th), and power typically comes when balls are hit in the air.

The Pirates position-player group should return mostly intact next season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the Bucs' home run total increase again if Kang and Josh Bell each play a full season, if Polanco continues to develop and if Starling Marte and Francisco Cervelli stay healthy and rediscover their power stroke.

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So the Bucs could see another power surge in 2017, even if it's not the focal point of their offense.

"Once we sit down this offseason, we'll see where our successes were, where we need to attack for next season, and how we can find more run production," Hurdle said. "We'll definitely look at it. We'll evaluate it a number of different ways. Power can help."

Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook, read his blog and listen to his podcast. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.