August 9, 2012
Defending to the Crown
With a 7-6 win over the Diamondbacks on Wednesday night, the Pirates ran their record to 63-47, pulling within 2 ½ games of Cincinnati in the NL Central. They remain tied with Atlanta atop the NL Wild Card standings. If the season ended today, the Pirates would be a playoff team. That’s not something we’ve been able to say very often after April in the last 20 years.
Last year at this time, the Pirates were in mid-free fall, fresh off a 10-game losing streak that put them under .500 for good. This year, that collapse isn’t coming. Pittsburgh’s 2011 team had a -39 run differential on this date last season, but this year’s edition has outscored its opponents by 35 runs. The Pirates haven’t played as well as their record would indicate, which explains why their playoff odds still sit below 60 percent. But even if their two-decade postseason appearance drought does go on a little longer, their streak of consecutive sub-.500 seasons is about to end.
Scoring hasn’t been Pittsburgh’s strength. Although the Pirates have hit better this season than they did last year, when they finished with a major-league-low .244 True Average, they’re still a below-average offensive team. However, the club has taken bigger strides on the other side of the ball. Pittsburgh’s pitching has gotten most of the credit for the team’s improved run prevention, but some of that credit should go to the team’s tighter defense, the secret ingredient behind the Pirates’ surprising success.
In 2010, the Pirates finished dead last in the majors in defensive efficiency, a measure of the rate at which balls in play are converted into outs by a team’s defense. Last year, they improved only slightly, raising their ranking to 25th. This season, the Pirates’ defensive efficiency is tied for second-best in baseball. The team’s fielders have converted 72.2 percent of balls in play into outs, compared to 68.9 percent in 2010. That might not sound like much of a leap, but with between 4,000 and 5,000 balls in play allowed per pitching team per year, a gain of only a few percentage points means hundreds of extra outs recorded. Those extra outs both lighten the load on the pitching staff and decrease the damage done against it. It’s not a coincidence that the Pirates’ last winning season, 1992, was also the last in which the team finished in the top 10 in defensive efficiency.
When people think about dramatic team turnarounds on defense, the 2008 Rays are often the first team to come to mind. The Rays went from being one of the worst defensive teams of all time in 2007 to the best in baseball in 2008, making the playoffs for the first time as a franchise after 10 sad-sack years in the AL East cellar. Although the Rays traded for skilled defensive shortstop Jason Bartlett and good-gloved outfielder Gabe Gross before that season, they achieved most of their upgrades by rearranging assets already under team control, promoting Evan Longoria from Triple-A Durham, shifting Akinori Iwamura from third base to second, and moving B.J. Upton to the outfield full time.
The Rays’ fielding quick fix was the most successful year-to-year defensive overhaul in history. The Pirates’ makeover has been a little less extreme. Like the ’08 Rays, the Pirates imported a shortstop known more for his glove than his bat in Clint Barmes. Barmes has hit poorly even by his standards, but he’s delivered on defense. The team also rid itself of Ryan Doumit, whom BP’s Max Marchi rated as the second-worst defensive catcher over the period from 2008-2011. Although Doumit has been productive at the plate for the Twins this season, his defensive struggles made him a poor fit for an NL team. Offseason signee Rod Barajas is a much better backstop.