Hey, what’s going on here?
Counting his double last night, and the 26 extra-base hits he had in 48 games at Triple-A El Paso, Jose Pirela already has 32 extra-base hits this year in just 231 plate appearances. Back in 2014, between Triple-A and the majors, he accumulated only 45 extra-base hits in 606 plate appearances. Pirela slashed .331/.387/.635 this year while at El Paso, and he’s currently running a 280 wRC+ in limited big-league PAs.
Funny thing: Pirela never hit for consistent power in the minors. His highest ISO at a single stop was .155, and that came in half a season at Double-A way back in 2012. His career minor-league slash line, counting this year’s outburst, stands at a pedestrian .278/.342/.405. Not counting this year, he had never hit more than 10 home runs in a season.
So, really, what is going on here? Let’s run through some potential scenarios.
1. Pirela, now 27, is the product of his environment.
Pirela got his first regular look at Triple-A way back in 2014, in the Yankees organization. Coming into this season he had over 1,000 plate appearances at the level. Now he gets a full-time shot at the more hitter-friendly of the two Triple-A leagues, in a hitter friendly ball park, smack in the middle of what should be his offensive prime. Sometimes guys just click, but the minor-league production is mostly a mirage, a product of an older, experienced hitter taking advantage of circumstances. With Pirela, this is almost certainly part of the equation, anyway.
The odd thing, though, is that Pirela didn’t show any signs of this last season at El Paso, when he slashed .248/.295/.387 in 35 games. Further, he’s legitimately punishing the baseball. It’s not like his hot start is a product of a lot of batted balls falling through the cracks.
2. Pirela is just riding an extended hot streak.
I don’t know. Pirela’s hitting the ball hard, no doubt. His early Statcast numbers at the big-league level indicate the same, and the eye test confirms this as well. But sometimes players just get hot. Jeff Francoeur got hot in his rookie year. He legitimately stung the ball, played really well, but he was never able to recapture that level of offense again. Shoot, Ryan Schimpf got hot last year, and even though we’re still big fans, he hasn’t been able to repeat that kind of performance in his second go-around at major-league pitching.
Sometimes players just swim above their head for a while. It’s not luck, necessarily, or randomness, or anything like that. It’s just a good, professional athlete getting into a rare, unexplained groove. It might last a couple of weeks or a couple of months even, but years of data tell us that players generally revert back to who they are, or at least something close to it.
3. He’s made a swing change and/or an adjustment in approach.
All the rage these days, some players are just, like, deciding they want to hit more home runs and then, well, they’re going out there and doing it. Who knew that was such a viable strategy? I haven’t taken the deep dive into side-by-sides of Pirela’s swing through the years, but just glancing at his batted-ball profile, it doesn’t appear that he’s putting the ball into play much differently than in the past. Per FanGraphs, Pirela’s groundball rate is historically around 50 percent in the minors; his flyball rate around 35 percent. This year, at Triple-A, those numbers were 49 percent and 37 percent, respectively.
It’s certainly possible, likely even, that Pirela has made some mechanical adjustments. However, it doesn’t appear that he’s made some type of wholesale change in approach, like trying to launch everything to the moon when in the past he was killing worms. The batted-ball profile hasn’t changed much.
4. He’s just better now.
Hey, it happens. Sometimes the hot streak doesn’t stop. It could be anything: a better workout routine, Bikram yoga, eating more carrots, a lucky pair of socks, etc. Progression isn’t always linear. Dude’s take jumps forward in their careers that we can’t always predict or explain; they also collapse, sometimes with no warning. Even retrospectively, it can be hard to identify what, exactly, happened in these scenarios. One of the interesting things with Pirela is that he struck out in just 12.9 percent of his PAs in El Paso this year, and that’s a half percentage point under his career rate. So he’s managed to hit for a bunch more power without increasing his K-rate.
I’m not saying Pirela is significantly better all of the sudden, but it’s obviously a possibility. Yes, I’m saying there’s a chance.
It’s probably a mix of everything, really. Maybe Pirela’s made some changes, which has made him tangibly better but also helped him get hot and dominate Triple-A, a league he should succeed in. So he’s better but also playing over his head, and a healthy dose of regression should be expected. Or something like that.
It’s all good, though. We weren’t even expecting to have this conversation when the Padres traded for Pirela back in November of 2015. Now he qualifies squarely as a happy surprise, and even with normal regression there’s a hint of a big-league player here.