On April 21, the Pirates were leading the Cubs 8-6 when closer Mark Melancon entered the game to start the ninth inning. A single, double, walk, single, strikeout, and ground out later, the Cubs had a 9-8 lead that they’d hold in the last of the ninth. Melancon had a blown save.
Melancon ran off a streak of 35 straight successful save opportunities until August 18 against Arizona. As in the Cubs game in April, the Pirates had an 8-6 lead starting the ninth. As in the Cubs game, Melancon blew the save. Unlike in April, though, it’s hard to pin the blame on Melancon. Pinch hitter Ender Inciarte led off the inning with a grounder that went under the glove of third baseman Jung Ho Kang for an error. Pinch hitter Jake Lamb struck out and center fielder A.J. Pollock popped out. The game should have been over. But because of Kang’s error, there were only two outs. Second baseman Aaron Hill singled, putting runners on first and second. Paul Goldschmidt hit a grounder to first, which should have been, again, the third out of the inning, but it bounced off first baseman Sean Rodriguez (a defensive substitution!) into right field, where Gregory Polanco had a hard time picking it up. Inciarte and Hill scored, game tied, save blown. The Pirates went on to win in 14 innings, but Melancon blew his first save after 35 straight on two unearned runs caused by two errors.
This has been an issue for the Pirates this year. They’ve scored runs: 4.2 per game, fifth most in the league. The pitchers’ 3.15 ERA is the second-lowest. But they’ve given up 0.4 unearned runs per game, the second most in the league. The Pirates play smart baseball, shifting their infielders to put them in position to make outs. But you can’t make outs if you can’t catch the ball.
How bad has the Pirates defense been? Let’s look at it in three ways.
Traditional stats. The Pirates have made 96 errors so far this season, the most in the National League. Of them, 57 have been fielding errors, also most in the league, and they’ve made 39 throwing errors, tied for the sixth most. The team fielding percentage of .982 is the third worst in the league, ahead of only the Brewers and Phillies.
A lot of the focus on defense has been on first baseman Pedro Alvarez, whose 18 errors leads major league first baseman by eleven and puts him on a pace to challenge former Pirates Donn Clendenon (24 errors in 1966) and Kevin Young (23 errors in 1999) for the most errors by a National League first baseman in the past 50 years. But there have been problems all over the diamond. Pirates first basemen and right fielders lead the league in errors. Pirates third basemen are third in errors, and Pirates catchers are tied for third. Pirates center fielders are tied for sixth, and the team’s second basemen are tied for eighth. The only positions at which the Pirates’ error totals have been below average are shortstop (tied for tenth), left field (tied for second to last), and pitcher (second to last). So yeah, they’ve made a lot of errors. That’s not good.
Less Traditional Stats. Defensive Efficiency Rating, or DER, measures the percentage of balls in play that are turned into outs. It’s not completely precise, because it includes an estimate of total plays made, but it’s pretty close. The best-fielding teams in the National League, as measured by DER as calculated by Baseball Prospectus, are the Mets, Giants, and Reds. Each has turned over 71% of balls in play into outs. The Pirates, at 69.9%, are tenth. They’re below-average, but not at the bottom of the list. Milwaukee, Washington, Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Colorado all rate lower. Adjusted for their home park–there are more errors in Pirates games at PNC Park than on the road–the Pirates rise to eighth, exactly in the middle, at DER.
The company Inside Edge provides another way of looking at fielding. It looks at all balls in play and calculates the likelihood that an out will be made. Inside Edge divides batted balls into six categories: 0% likelihood of becoming an out, 1%-10%, 10%-40%, 40%-60%, 60%-90%, and 90%-100%. The Pirates have been OK in the middle of the range. They’ve converted 29% of batted balls in the 10%-40% range into outs, the eighth highest rate in the league. They’ve turned 49% of balls in the 40%-60% into outs, seventh highest. And they’ve converted 80% in the 60%-90% range, the fifth most. All of those figures say average to me. But on the extremes…the Pirates have been successful at the second lowest rate in the league on balls that Inside Edge calculates as 1%-10% likely and 90%-100% likely. In other words, they don’t make the hardest plays, and they mess up the easy plays.
Advanced Stats. There are three widely-used, frequently updated measures that estimate runs saved by defense: Total Zone Fielding Runs (from BaseballProjection.com), Defensive Runs Saved (from Baseball Information Systems), and Ultimate Zone Rating runs (from FanGraphs.com, calculated by Mitchel Lichtman). Each methodology looks at every batted ball and attempts to determine the likelihood with which the ball would be fielded. Critics decry advanced fielding stats as numerical hocus-pocus, but they’re based on careful observations of all plays. The Pirates are seventh in the NL in Defensive Runs Saved, eleventh in Ultimate Zone Rating, and tied for twelfth in Total Zone. The average of those three ratings is tenth.
Conclusion. The Pirates are below average, arguably bad, but not the worst. (That title would seem to be fought between the Phillies and Padres, with the Brewers weighing in.) They won’t win any Gold Gloves around the infield, though their aggressive use of shifts minimizes the damage (except at first, where Alvarez really does play like a DH). The outfield has a good left fielder, a solid if overrated* center fielder, and a talented but erratic right fielder. The value the catchers bring is more measured by strikes gained and balls avoided than anything else. This isn’t a team built to have an airtight defense. But an upgrade at first, and more focus on making the easier plays, would help a lot.
*Pirates fans: Don’t jump on me.
I’m not saying Cutch is a bad fielder. I’m saying–and the stats will back me up on this–that he’s a below average center fielder. A below average center fielder in the majors is still a great fielder. It’s just that when your peer group includes the likes of Cain, Hamilton, Kiermaier, Martin, Pillar, et al, it’s tough to be above average.
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