The Pirates Defensive Focus

This past off-season, as we are all aware, the Pirates went through a pretty significant house cleaning, followed by the ushering in of a new regime lead by General Manager Ben Cherington and Team President Travis Williams. From the beginning new organizational philosophies were discussed; including a “player centric” model, the need to identify, acquire, develop and deploy talent and working to “get better”. The once frowned upon technology, such as Rapsodo and Trackman along with analysis of sabermetric data were immediately implemented to help work toward bringing these systematic changes to fruition. As the players currently in the Pirates organization were slowly being introduced to a new way of operating, Ben Cherington and the rest of the Baseball Operations Department were attempting to identify and acquire players that could fit into structure they were trying to develop; with the focus clearly on the need for defensive minded players that could assist in bringing consistency to an area where the Pirates had struggled significantly during the previous year.

Individually the Pirates had some defensive standouts in 2019 that prevented the situation from being more dire than it could have been. Gold Glove nominee, Adam Frazier, produced 11 outs above average (OAA) but couldn’t prevent the infield from having a total of -8 OAA. In the outfield Starling Marte (2 OAA) and Bryan Reynolds (2 OAA) did the best they could to hold down the cavernous grassland of PNC Park, but as a whole the Pirates’ outfielders also ended up with a -8 Outs Above Average. If you look at some of the other major defensive categories in the MLB, things only get worse. The Pirates finished in the bottom third in defensive runs saved (DRS) -53 (26th), ultimate zone rating (UZR) -54.0 (30th) , defense WAR (DEF) -51.0 (30th) and pitch framing (FRM) -7.1 (21st) and errors 121 (28th).

In one of his first orders of business Cherington decided to non-tender catcher Elias Diaz, who had the worst DRS (-21) in Major League Baseball; essentially awarding the starting job to Jacob Stallings, who earned a DRS of 14. Almost immediately following this the Pirates signed Luke Maile from Cherington’s former organization, the Toronto Blue Jays, to back up Stallings. Then a little while later veteran John Ryan Murphy was also added into the mix; giving Pittsburgh three solid defensive options at the catching position as Maile and Murphy were both top 25 catchers with a 3 DRS.

In between these two acquisitions, Guillermo Heredia, was signed by the Pirates as addition to outfield; bringing along his 4 OAA and 3 DRS, which was followed by the additions of JT Riddle and Jarrod Dyson. Before coming to the Pirates Riddle had accumulated at DRS of 15 in three seasons at shortstop and has shown flexibility to play all over the field. Dyson on the other hand was the reliable veteran presence and consistent defensive centerfielder, who at the age of 34 had posted a 14 DRS and 6 OAA for Arizona the previous year.

With all of these decisions concerning the roster out of the way it was finally time for Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and the rest of the coaching staff to deploy their players in a manner that would allow each of them to be successful on the ball field, particularly on defense because if you look at their offensive output it was clear to see that anything they did in that area would be seen as a bonus. The run production would have to come from the remainder of the team, which would be assisted by the introduction of the designated hitter in the National League for the truncated 2020 season. Obviously this should have been seen as a positive on the other side of the ball as well due to the fact that they could keep any defensive liabilities in the dugout.

Prior to the season getting off the ground Cherington’s plan hit a little bit of a bump as Luke Maile was placed on the IL with a fractured finger. However, with John Ryan Murphy on the squad it was pretty much an even trade considering they had fairly similar profiles. With this last obstacle out of the way, it was time to execute the plan of being more consistent in the field in order to not just give away runs as they had been so prone to do during the previous year, which in turn should help them build confidence in a pitching staff that had also struggled throughout the season. That was the plan, while also being the goal.

So, how has that plan/goal worked out so far this year? First of all, in order to make a proper evaluation, we have to ignore wins and losses. I don’t think anyone could have expected the lack of production from some of the most consistent bats. At times it has been just downright awful and can in no way be tied directly to defensive performance. Secondly, we need to examine the decisions that Derek Shelton and his coaches have made concerning positional placement of the players available to them, as well as the circumstances surrounding certain player that have occurred, which are out of the coaching staff’s control. And lastly we need to do a deep dive into the metrics and statistics, because as we all know the stats don’t lie.

Injuries are something that every team has to deal with and make adjustments for; the Pittsburgh Pirates were no exception this year and with the COVID IL in existence, there was only one more situation that would need to be addressed from time to time. In the beginning of the season the Pirates had a few players on this list, including Gregory Polanco. Newly acquired utility man JT Riddle also started the season on the IL with a right abdomen strain. Then games began and injuries slowly began to pile up for Pittsburgh. The newly emerging Phillip Evan’s season was ended by a collision with Gregory Polanco, Colin Moran hit the IL with a concussion after a run in with a runner at 1st Base, Kevin Newman sat out a few games following an awkward swing and Anthony Alford’s elbow broke as it smacked off the outfield wall only a few games into his possible extended audition.

Along with injuries, there are the roster moves that often come from above the manager’s pay grade, but still effect the overall evaluation of the general Manager’s goal of putting together an defensively efficient team. Toward the end of August, Guillermo Heredia was designated for assignment and ultimately claimed by the New York Mets before he could clear waivers. Shortly after this Jarrod Dyson was traded to the White Sox for International Bonus Money and just like that only two of Cherington’s defensive acquisitions remained; Riddle and Murphy. Another potential roster move or lack thereof in some fans and media members eyes was the decision to keep Third Baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes at the alternate site until the beginning of September.

Once you wade through all of these injuries and a couple of roster moves, the evaluation of how Derek Shelton and his staff chose to deploy their players on a daily basis. The one that sticks out to me the most is Shelton and apparently Donnie Kelly’s decision to put Cole Tucker in the outfield. My Co-Editor, Gary Morgan has looked into this this move in several times this season to try and figure out the potential benefit. Another choice that is often questioned by many is having Josh Bell continue to play at first base, while having the designated hitter role at their disposal, at least for this year. Sharing duties with Bell has been Colin Moran; removed from the hot corner in favor of Osuna, Evans, Gonzalez, Riddle and now Hayes. A final and more recent shift has been Newman getting regular playing time at second base with the somewhat surprising offensive output of Erik Gonzalez landing him at shortstop, which has moved Adam Frazier out to left field. Of course their have other alterations to the lineup, but it feels like these have been the most significant. If you really wanted to we could also add in what feels like JT Riddle being forced into the lineup at times, which truly makes little sense at all, just for good measure.

With all of these injuries, roster re-shuffling and field deployments the real question is; Have the adjustments and decisions made by Ben Cherington, Derek Shelton and company improved the Pirates individualand team defensive metrics from the near absolute failure that was the 2019 Pirates season?

As it stands right now, the Pittsburgh Pirates have 16 games remaining in their 2020 season and currently they lead the league in total errors committed with 40; almost split right down the middle with 18 fielding and 20 throwing, not to mention the 2 catcher’s interference calls. And I am going to be honest it should be higher as I feel the scorekeepers have been a little bit lenient at times. So I feel confident in saying that in a 162 game season they would be on pace for right around 147 errors, which easily beats out the 121 they committed last year. When looking at the other defensive metrics they are 15th in DRS (+5), 23rd as far as UZR (-3.8), 1st in all of MLB in FRM (1.5) and 19th in overall DEF (-3.8). Undoubtedly the choice to have Jacob Stallings as the team’s starting catcher and John Ryan Murphy, to maybe a lesser extent, as his backup is having a positive effect on the Pirates. Stallings has accumulated a 5 DRS and a 1.2 in FRM, while Murphy has a -1 DRS, with a .3 FRM. But, how are the other position players doing?

Well, the usual suspects can be found on the right side of zero. Adam Frazier has a 4 DRS when he is at second base and Bryan Reynolds also earned a 4 in LF and a 1 in CF. Joining them this year are the new left side of diamond duo of Erik Gonzalez (3 3B/1 SS) and Ke’Bryan Hayes (2). On the flip side of the coin are Cole Tucker (-4 RF/-2 CF), Kevin Newman (-2 SS/0 2B) and Josh Bell (-2 1B). Just ahead of Bell is his 1st Base Platoon Partner, Colin Moran with a -1. Also in case anyone was wondering, JT Riddle is a -3 at 3rd Base, Guillermo Heredia earned a 0 before being DFA’d and Jarrod Dyson was a -2 prior to leaving for Chicago. If you have been watching the Pirates play none of this information should really be that shocking to you, but what does it all mean?

First off it stuck out to me that only two of Ben Cherington’s acquisitions are still with the team, not counting Maile on the IL. However, even more that one should actually be getting any playing time; Murphy and that Heredia had little impact, while Dyson had a negative one. Secondly, can we please end the Cole Tucker Outfield Experiment? Next, Adam Frazier should be playing at Second Base over Kevin Newman. And Finally, Jacob Stallings has clearly proved he can be an everyday, starting catcher in MLB.

As far as the team’s overall performance, I believe they are headed in the right direction, but there are still some crucial decisions to be made as they move toward the off-season. If the DH doesn’t stay in the National League who is their 1st Baseman, Bell or Moran? Is there a competition between Erik Gonzalez and Cole Tucker at SS going into Spring Training? Will we see Bryan Reynolds as the regular Centerfielder to begin 2021? And about a hundred other things, which leads me to agree with Gary; this is set up to be a possible whirlwind.

Published by Craig W. Toth

Former Contributing Author at InsidethePirates.com, Co-Host of the Bucs in the Basement Podcast and life-long/diehard Pittsburgh Pirates Fan!

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