Just how bad has the Pittsburgh Pirates’ defense been this season?


The biggest weakness this year for the Pittsburgh Pirates has been an area that has often been perceived as a strength in the past for the team: their defense. Coming into the year, one could say that their defense would be good again. After all, Gregory Polanco was now the full-time right fielder, and while he would still be adjusting to parameters of right field, his speed and range in the outfield would make the trio of himself, Starling Marte, and Andrew McCutchen track down every fly ball. Jordy Mercer and Josh Harrison were coming off of great defensive years, and the only issues would be Pedro Alvarez at first and a potential downgrade at catcher from Russell Martin to Francisco Cervelli.

But this year hasn’t played out like many thought it would in terms of defense. Polanco has made multiple miscues in right, the injury to Harrison has led to Aramis Ramirez being at third, who has been awful there, and the injury to Mercer has led to Jung Ho Kang starting at short, who could be considered a downgrade defensively there as well. Pedro Alvarez hasn’t improved from last year at first, and even Neil Walker has had his share of miscues at second. The poor defense, particularly in the infield, and especially as of late, has led to games being closer than necessary, and it might have cost them the first game of the series against the Cardinals.

Needless to say, their defense has been bad this season. But just how bad has it been? Let’s break down some statistics to really analyze the Pirates’ defense.

The Pirates have the fourth-most errors in all of baseball with 82, and the most errors of any team currently in a playoff spot. While errors aren’t the best factor to look at when breaking down a defense, they have their place. The Pirates have made countless mistakes in the field this year, and there have been many plays that haven’t been made that haven’t been ruled errors. This has also led to the fourth-worst fielding percentage in baseball at .982. Fielding percentage and errors are similar stats, but it’s just another reflection on how the Pirates have missed plays in the field.

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Interestingly enough, the Pirates rank first in all of baseball in assists with 1,330. Assists are awarded to any player that makes contact with a ball before a putout is recorded. I’m guessing the Pirates are high in this category because of the arms of Polanco and Marte in the outfield, and because of the high number of double plays that they record. It’s definitely a good thing that the Pirates are high in this category, but it’s not too meaningful. The team also ranks ninth in baseball in putouts with 3,101, which speaks to the number of times Pirate pitchers pitch to contact and the number of balls that are put into play. Again, not too meaningful of a stat. These two have led to the Pirates ranking first in all of baseball in total chances with 4,513, which is the sum of assists and putouts.

When we dig a little deeper, we see that FanGraphs ranks the Pirates 26th out of 30 teams in defense at -25.0. This “defense” statistic puts a weighted value to each position on the field (i.e. it may be easier to field balls at different positions) and you can read more about it here. It’s one of the many great defensive statistics FanGraphs has, and it speaks from a sabermetric side how poor the Pirate defense has been this year. They also rank 25th in UZR (ultimate zone rating) at -19.0. This is a very telling statistic, and it’s essentially the number of runs that a team has either saved or given up over the course of the season. It’s not the be-all end-all of defensive stats, but it does help when trying to quantify how much the Pirates’ defense has actually hurt them this year.

But they do rank first in the league in double-play runs (DPR) at 5.0 which, according to FanGraphs, is the amount of runs above average a team is by turning double plays. We’ve heard a lot recently about how the Pirates’ turn a ton of double plays, and this ranking speaks to that. It makes sense considering how Pirate pitchers pitch to contact and try to keep the ball low in the zone.

We could break down numerous other defensive statistic for this season’s Pittsburgh Pirates, but one thing’s for certain: their defense hasn’t been good this year by traditional or advanced stats. While they turn a lot of double plays and have the talent on the field to have a better defense, it has cost the team runs and potentially games this year. Hopefully the returns of Harrison and Mercer will help, but who knows if the defense as a whole can be improved before the end of the season.

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