The Pittsburgh Pirates easily had one of the worst defenses in baseball last season, but they have made strides to set themselves up for a better defensive season in 2020.
The 2019 Pittsburgh Pirates had an awful defense. To say they were the worst defensive team in all of Major League Baseball is not an exaggeration, but the truth. The team had a -46 defensive runs saved, a -54 UZR, -8.4 UZR/150, and -33.5 range runs. They ranked last in all of the listed stats, except for DRS, where they ranked 24th out of 30 teams.
It’s pretty clear that the pitchers were impacted by the lack of a sufficient defense. The Pirates had a .315 team opponent batting average on balls in play, despite pitchers allowing hard hit contact only 35.8% of the time, the 8th lowest in the Majors, and inducing soft hit contact 18.3% of the time, ranking as the 6th highest.
Plus, there was a fair discrepancy between the team’s ERA, FIP and SIERA. Pirates pitchers held a 5.19 ERA, but their FIP was 4.78, and SIERA was 4.54. Granted, while the ERA predictors still don’t paint a great picture, you can tell that the horrible defense was definitely making life harder for the pitchers. Throughout this previous off-season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have made major strides in improving it by eliminating a player who provides negative value, and setting themselves up for a better season with the leather.
However, before we continue, I want to establish one thing. I will not be analyzing how the Pirates did based on errors and fielding percentage. Errors and fielding percentage are not an accurate measure of a good or bad fielder. Good fielders are actually more prone to errors since they are the ones who are making the harder plays, but high error counts don’t mean a good fielder either. For example, Indians’ infielder Jose Ramirez had more errors, and a near identical fielding percentage to Yankees’ breakout star Gio Urshela, despite Urshela being a far inferior defender at third base than Ramirez.
In 2018, Matt Chapman, who had the third highest single season DRS total of any third baseman in the history of baseball (+30), still had 20 errors, or the 4th highest error total, and 6th lowest fielding percentage of that season. Since World War II, Adrian Beltre, Mike Schmidt, and Brooks Robinson are among the leaders in errors. If you want a better explanation of this, please watch this video.
Currently, their best defender is behind the plate in Jacob Stallings. Stallings provided excellent defense in 2019 and probably would have been in Gold Glove contention had he played an entire season. In only 461.1 innings, Stallings was worth a +14 DRS, caught 40% of all the runners trying to steal on him, and was an outstanding pitch framer. He helped the team save 8.7 runs, which ranked 11th in all of MLB.
Even though he had less than half of the framing chances of J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal, he still wasn’t far behind either of them. Stallings pretty much was providing Russell Martin-level defense behind the plate. In terms of overall fielding runs above average, Stallings was the 7th best catcher in the MLB at 13.6, and one of just nine with double digits in fielding runs above average. Stallings’ defense clearly helps the Pirates pitching too as many of the hurlers on the roster do much better with the defensive wizard that Stallings is behind the plate.
The team also improved their center field defense exponentially over this past off-season. Formerly, one of the best defensive left fielders in the game, Starling Marte had taken over the primary center field duties for the Bucs in 2018. There, he posted above average marks in DRS (+2), UZR (3.2), and UZR/150 (4.4) in ’18. But in 2019, Marte was abysmal in center field. Plus his age wasn’t doing him any favors.
Getting rid of Marte made their defense a whole lot better. Marte ranked last in center field DRS (-9), UZR (-7.6), UZR/150 (-8.3), and range runs (-9.5). None of it was even close either. The next lowest in these categories outdid the former Pirates’ center field by two points or more in each category. Marte also only had just 2 outs above average, which isn’t bad, but it’s not great. In terms of success rate, Marte’s 87% rate was solid, but his replacement will produce much better.
By trading Mate and signing Jarrod Dyson, center field defense went from one of the team’s biggest weaknesses to one of the best in the game, and one of their biggest strengths. In 2019, Dyson was worth +7 DRS, 7.9 UZR, 12.3 UZR/150, and 1.3 range runs above average. The speedy outfielder was in the 90th percentile of outs above average, and had a 90% success rate.
Since 2010, Dyson ranks in the top 10 of DRS, UZR, URZ/150 and range runs (minimum 3000 outfield innings) despite only having 5771.1 innings in the outfield. Plus, he also has 52.4 fielding runs above average.
If Dyson didn’t spend most of his career as a fourth outfielder/defensive replacement, you’re looking at one of the best outfield defender of the decade, and, potentially, one of the best outfield defenders of all-time. He also ranked in the top 10 in the primary defensive stats (DRS, UZR, UZR/150, range runs) in 2019, with him ranking 11th for the most OAA. Plus, remember this, Dyson has played his entire career with teams who have cavernous home ballparks. This will be Dyson’s first outing with a team whose center field doesn’t reach 400 feet, and will also be the only time where both foul poles don’t reach 330+ feet.
Left field and right field are fairly sound with both Bryan Reynolds and Gregory Polanco. Although neither are great defenders, both grade out between slightly below average and average. When healthy, Polanco can provide good enough defense in right field, while also showing off a cannon of an arm. In 2019, rookie Bryan Reynolds posted a +5 DRS (+1 in LF, +1 in CF, +3 in RF), a -3.5 UZR, and was worth 2 outs above average. Polanco, on the other hand, has a career 11.4 UZR, but hasn’t posted a positive mark in the stat since 2017.
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In his career, the right fielder has racked up 34.8 fielding runs above average, and a +5 DRS, but + 11 in right field. Clearly, Polanco is inconsistent when it comes to fielding, but he’s never been a complete butcher in right field, nor has he ever been so bad that the Pirates considered moving his position, or outright trading him because of his lack of fielding value.
The infield is where the Pirates had some of their worst, and best defensive, showings.
Their worst was at the corners. Both Josh Bell and Colin Moran were the worst defenders at their respective positions in the Majors last year. Bell had a -8 DRS, and -5.9 error runs above average and was worth -11.1 fielding runs to the team. Both DRS and error runs were the worst at first. He was also last among first basemen in UZR (-7.5), and UZR/150 (-16.4). Sure, his offense made up for it, but it was still costing pitchers runs on defense. If and/or when the Pirates trade Bell, they’ll get a defensive upgrade at first base as Will Craig provides at the very least slightly below average to average defense.
Craig has improved his defense over the years going from a butcher at the position to a more adequate fielder. However, he is still far off from being on the par of some prospects like Mariners’ defensive standout Evan White (60 fielding grade, 70 future), or Red Sox’ Triston Casas (future grade of 55). MLB Pipeline still gives Crag a 50 grade (average), while FanGraphs gives him a 40 grade with a future of 40. Back in 2016 when Craig was drafted, MLB.com gave him a 40 overall grade for his fielding, so he has gotten better. Overall, he is still somewhere between below average to average, so that is a fair improvement over Bell. Regardless, Craig will save more runs with the glove than Bell. Craig also has a plus arm, coming in with a 60 grade by FanGraphs.
Moran is the worst defensive third baseman in baseball. However, he’ll likely start the season as the primary defender at the hot corner. But that can depend on two things: how the MLB takes into service time after the delay, or if the Pirates can reach an extension with prospect Ke’Bryan Hayes by rescheduled Opening Day.
Last year, to say that Moran provided negative value at the hot corner would be an understatement. He posted -21 DRS, a -8.8 UZR, -16 UZR/150, and -2.1 dWAR. Moran ranked last in DRS by a margin of 11 runs at third, and by a margin of 3 runs in the entire MLB, while his UZR was the 2nd worst at the position, and 6th worst fielder across the MLB. Only Bell had a worse UZR/150, but it wasn’t by a large margin. Josh Bell almost had double the amount of fielding runs above average compared to Moran, who had a horrendous -19.1.
The only question will be how long do the Pirates have to leave Moran at third base? Hayes will inevitably take over there, and will be in contention for the Gold Glove if he plays nearly the entire season. The Pirates have shown interest in extending some of their young players, including prospects. By extending Hayes, they won’t have to worry about keeping him down at Triple-A for the first two or so weeks to get that extra year of control.
On the other hand, with the postponement of the start of the season, it is possible commissioner Rob Manfred will give teams the extra year of control. Whenever Hayes does take over third base duties permanently, he’ll basically post the numbers Moran did, but with a plus sign in front of them all. Hayes is the only third base prospect with a grade of at least 60 in both arm (60) and fielding (65), per MLB Pipeline. According to FanGraphs, his overall fielding has a future of 70. These are very similar to when superstar third baseman Matt Chapman was a prospect. In 2016, Chapman had a 70 arm grade, and 60 fielding grade from MLB pipeline.
Up the middle is where the Pirates won’t have to worry.
The future of both second base and shortstop are in good hands. If the Pirates open the season with the combo of Kevin Newman/Adam Frazier, they’ll be just fine for now. Frazier had a -1 DRS, a 2.9 UZR and 11 outs above average at second base. Frazier was able to cover a decent amount of ground, saving 1.6 runs in range runs above average.
However, Newman was below average at shortstop with -7 DRS, -5.2 UZR, -4 range runs, and -8 outs above average. If the Pirates do move Frazier back to a utility, letting Cole Tucker take over at shortstop and shift Newman to second base, they’ll get much better defensive results. Tucker is an above average defender with a future fielding grade of 55. He was also given a 55 fielding grade by MLB Pipeline in 2018. Tucker also posted very good defensive numbers, despite his limited time at the big league level. In 318.2 innings, the former first rounder had +2 DRS, 0.3 range runs, a 0.9 UZR and 4.6 UZR/150. When Newman did get the occasional nod at second base, he produced a prettier looking +2 DRS, a 1.9 UZR,17.5 UZR/150, and 0.8 range runs. Hopefully, Newman’s bat doesn’t regress too much, as there are some signs pointing to that, so the Pirates can maximize their defensive value out of their double play combo.
On the bench, the Pirates have a few good defenders. The best of which is likely JT Riddle. Riddle is an outstanding shortstop. Through 1323.2 innings at the position, Riddle has produced +15 DRS, 3.1 UZR, 4.0 range runs above average. Throughout his career, Riddle has 10.1 fielding runs above average. He can also be an adequate center fielder. Although he isn’t Dyson good, he still posted overall slightly below average numbers with -1 DRS, -1.7 UZR, and -2.1 range runs. Riddle also has plenty of experience as a third baseman and second baseman throughout the minors, so he can play basically anywhere the Pirates need him to.
Another utility man who will provide some good defense is Erik Gonzalez. Although Gonzalez missed most of 2019, he still posted some good overall defensive numbers. Gonzalez’s primary position is shortstop where he had +4 DRS, 1.3 UZR, and a 1.1 range runs above average in 2019, but he is also a good defender at third base (career +3 DRS, 1.3 UZR, 0.4 range runs). However, with little value other than solid fielding that Riddle can also provide, plus being more versatile, and a lack luster bat could lead to Gonzalez eventually being designated for assignment.
Bell’s defense at first base might be extremely poor, but if the Pirates wanted to, they could go with a late inning defensive replacement in Jose Osuna. Osuna has posted average results at first base in his career. In 461 career innings, Osuna has only -1 DRS, a -0.9 UZR, and 0.2 range runs. Again, not great numbers, but it would probably save the Pirates a good amount of runs if Osuna would take over for Bell late in games where Bell’s bat is not needed.
The team doesn’t really have a good answer with their fourth outfield situation. Although Riddle has a secondary position of center field, he doesn’t have much experience there. However, the best answer to the team’s need for fourth outfielder is Guillermo Heredia.
Heredia’s defense is lack luster, but he can still provide some value. In his career, Heredia has never been all that great at center field with a career -9 DRS, -14.5 UZR, -11.8 UZR/150, and -10.7 range runs mark in his career. Last season, he posted -3 DRS, -2.6 UZR, -8.4 UZR/150, and 0 range runs. But his defense in both left and right field are excellent. Since 2016, he has only ever posted a negative mark in UZR, DRS, UZR/150, or range runs three times at either left field or right field. In 2019, Heredia had a combined +6 DRS, 2 UZR, 22.9 UZR/150, and 1.6 range runs in the corners. Overall, his defense was still worth 4 outs above average.
The Pittsburgh Pirates in 2019 had the worst defenses in the MLB, but they might finish 2020 as one of the better defensive alignments in the game. Subtracting Marte, and getting regular playing time for most of the year out of Dyson, Stallings, and Hayes already improves the Pirates defense exponentially. Then if they move Newman to second base, and let Tucker take over at shortstop, they could be ending 2020 with six average or better defensive players on the team.
Plus, having really good utility gloves in Riddle and Frazier, who are able to play at the average or better defense at multiple positions off the bench will help the Pirates make better defensive alignments, or late inning substitutes throughout the season.