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.
The Pirates have also seen improved performances from their returning players. Alex Presley has played more than he did as a rookie, which has helped optimize the outfield defense. Second baseman Neil Walker is having his best season yet at the plate, but he’s also boasting a much-improved FRAA for the second straight season. Walker began his professional career as a catcher and later moved to third before learning second on the job at the major-league level in 2010. Another season at second—and another spring training working with legendary defender Bill Mazeroski—seems to have made his glove more dependable. Pedro Alvarez has made similar strides at third. The Pirates deserve credit for resisting the urge to move both Walker and Alvarez to less demanding defensive positions despite some evaluators’ doubts that they were up to the task. It’s also worth mentioning that the Pirates are one of the few major-league teams that still take pre-game infield practice on a regular basis. Practice alone didn’t turn the Pirates into a good fielding team, but it may have helped them maximize their defensive potential once they put the right personnel in place.
The Pirates have made the biggest gain in defensive efficiency since last season, but they aren’t the only contending team to benefit from more sure-handed fielders. Two surprising first-place teams, the White Sox and the Nationals, have also upped their efficiency in the field. The Nationals have been the best fielding franchise in baseball this year after finishing 12th last season, and the White Sox have improved by almost as large a margin as Pittsburgh, rising from 29th last year to eighth in 2012. Meanwhile, the preseason consensus favorites in the AL Central, the Tigers, have thus far failed to pull away, partially because they’ve fallen from the middle of the pack to 27th in defensive efficiency (one defensive development that took no one by surprise).
The White Sox have made their most meaningful improvements by moving Alex Rios from center to right, where FRAA credits him with over 11 more runs saved in the field relative to his positional peers than it did last year, and installing Alejandro De Aza and Dayan Viciedo as their other full-time outfielders. Orlando Hudson has given them good glove work in the infield, though like Barmes, he hasn’t hit. The Nats’ more modest improvements have come primarily from the promotion of Bryce Harper and returns to health for Adam LaRoche and Ryan Zimmerman. In the Pirates’ and Nationals’ cases, it’s possible that improvements to the pitching staffs, independent of the defensive upgrades, have led to some weaker contact that has merely made fielders look more efficient. But that can’t explain all of the improvement. Better gloves have been responsible for a portion of these clubs’ newfound ability to prevent runs.
Defense is still one of the most difficult aspects of performance to project, and the acquisition of an established arm or a big bat is still more likely to make headlines than a signing, position switch, or promotion intended to improve a team in the field. Maybe that’s why we didn’t see the success of the Pirates, White Sox, and Nationals coming. And maybe looking a little more closely at the leather is one way we can make next year’s surprise teams a little less surprising.
â€‹A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now
I've been watching him since he first played for the Omaha Royals in '77, but I've never seen him without a smile on his face.
Hurdle's definitely the NL Manager of the Year.
Again, I don't like FRAA, but that's how you should compare apples-to-apples.
Let's say there's 4,500 balls in play per year (halfway between 4,000 and 5,000).
4500 * 68.9% = 3100.5 outs
4500 * 72.2% = 3249.8 outs
Well, hundreds might be a bit of an exaggeration. It's 149 outs, or .92 outs / game
Someone who has access to the numbers can translate that into runs and wins over a season.
Still seems high.
But then, elsewhere, we'll say a pitcher has been hit unlucky if they have a BABIP over .300.
So, just to go on a tangent, doesn't that mean that BABIP allowed for a pitcher should always be placed in context of a team's defensive efficiency with perhaps an adjustment for GB/FB ratio?
Or, in other words, an individual pitcher's BABIP against should be compared to the team's BABIP against, adjusting for GB/FB ratio, to determine whether that individual pitcher's BABIP is good/bad because of skill or luck?
So yes, BABIP should be placed in a team context, depending on what your argument is. Average BABIP for AL pitchers this season is .293. Average BABIP for Tigers pitchers is .314. So if I'm pointing out pitchers who've been "unlucky" in order to make the argument that their luck will improve and bring better results over the rest of the season, a Tigers pitcher with a BABIP 20 points above league average wouldn't be a good candidate. His BABIP might regress a little, in that the Tigers could be a little less awful defensively, but unless you expect them to be average defensively, there's no reason to expect his BABIP to be.
However, if that pitcher signs with a new team that isn't expected to be terrible in the field over the offseason, then it's absolutely fair to say that he might be in for better luck, since his environment has changed. He was "unlucky" before in the sense that he had to pitch for a team that couldn't field.
But aren't we saying it _isn't_ absolutely fair to say that he might be in for better "luck" because we're saying team defense is a bigger factor than "luck" (hit ball randomness)?
Aren't we also saying that if a pitcher's numbers improved after a trade from a poor defensive team to a good defensive team, any improvement in BABIP would most likely be the result of the improved team defense since no one can expect "luck" to change.
Maybe my memory's bad, but I don't think I've seen BABIP discussed with the team's defense included in the context.
But, shouldn't we be saying either of those things?
That a pitcher's BABIP must be taken in context with the team's defense at turning balls in play into outs.
That a pitcher's BABIP change might have to do more with changes in team defense than in "luck"?
The aforementioned example you used of the Tigers had a .314 BABIP vs an AL average of .293. That's 21 points. Now, if I was a hypothetical AL Tigers' pitcher and I had allowed a BABIP of .313, I would look unlucky compared to the league average and an analyst might predict that my peripherals have a good shot of improving for the rest of the season. However, if my .313 BABIP is compared to the Tigers .314 BABIP, I would appear to be luck-neutral and predicting an improvement would be incorrect.
Or, take the Pirates example. Assume that in 2011, I am a Pirates pitcher that had a BABIP of .311, matching the Pirates overall BABIP in 2011. Now, if it's 2012 and my BABIP dropped to .278, analysts might think I'm getting lucky when, in fact, my own pitching performance hasn't changed and I am just receiving the benefit of the Pirates improved defense.
See what I am driving at?
As I said, a pitcher who pitches for a poor defensive team is also "unlucky," he's just unlucky in a different sense. It's not his fault that the fielders behind him were bad. If a pitcher with a high BABIP in 2012 joins a new team in 2013, then when you project his future performance, I don't know that it matters whether he spent 2012 pitching for a good defensive team and happened to have a bunch of bloops and bleeders fall in anyway, or pitched for a bad defensive team and saw a bunch of routine batted balls that other teams would have fielded go for hits. Either way, you'd expect his BABIP to be better with his new team, whether you want to say it's because of better "luck" or not. Of course, if the pitcher on the poor fielding team stays with that team, you'd expect his BABIP to be higher than average again, unless the team improves defensively.
The worst-case scenario is Max Scherzer, who has a .363 BABIP. Unlucky in the sense that he happens to pitch for a terrible defensive team, and on top of that, unlucky in the sense that that terrible defensive team has recorded even fewer outs than expected when he's been on the mound.