Pitcher defense isn’t something that comes to mind when evaluating a pitcher, but regardless, who are the best and worst mound defenders in the Pittsburgh Pirates history?
Defense isn’t one of the first things that come to mind when you think of pitchers. Pitchers rarely get opportunities to make plays. Currently, only two pitchers in baseball this season have 20+ putouts, and only seven have 20+ assists. But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been any good defensive pitchers. Mark Buehrle and Zack Greinke have saved over 85 runs per DRS. Despite his age, Greg Maddux saved 17 runs with his defense in his age-40+ seasons.
You also don’t hear much about bad defensive pitchers. Of course, you have some who have troubles when it comes to picking runners off. But in an age where stealing bases is so infrequent and rare, how good a pitcher is at holding base runners is an afterthought. You also see some pretty good plays made by pitchers on the mound, but again, those opportunities don’t come around very often for pitchers.
The Pittsburgh Pirates may have never had a Maddux or a Buehrle in their franchise’s history, but they definitely have had some athletic pitchers who have been able to help out their own defense. While there aren’t many defensive pitchers in baseball history, who are the best and worst defensive pitchers the Pirates have had?
Zach Duke is the franchise’s leader in Defensive Runs Saved. The one-time All-Star racked up +26 DRS throughout his Pirate tenure. While Duke never won a Gold Glove, he was a good glove on the mound. His best single-season DRS count was +9. That year, he worked to the tune of a 4.47 ERA, 4.13 FIP, and 1.50 WHIP in 215.1 innings. Duke had 63 chances to make a play and was a ground ball-oriented pitcher, which helped him get as many opportunities to rack up the defensive numbers. This is also the best single-season DRS total from any Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher.
In Duke’s All-Star season, he had a solid 4.06 ERA, 4.24 FIP, and 1.32 WHIP in 213 innings of work. Overall, that was about league average numbers. Duke had only +4 DRS as he only had 53 chances to make a play. Duke had a 47.7% ground ball rate this season, another reason why he had as many chances as he did.
Duke has the best numbers throughout his entire career, but Steven Brault was even better on a rate basis. Brault only had +12 defensive runs saved throughout his time with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Brault pitched for the Bucs from 2016 through 2021, pitching a total of 343.1 innings, racking up +12 DRS. While Duke had over double the amount of DRS that Brault did, Duke also pitched 964.1 innings. If Brault had kept up his defensive prowess over the same amount of innings, he would have had +34 defensive runs saved, seven more than Duke.
Brault’s best defensive work came in 2018. The southpaw worked 91.2 innings for the Pirates as a starter (five times) and reliever (40 times). He didn’t pitch all that great, though, posting a 4.61 ERA, 4.92 FIP, and 1.54 WHIP. However, he had a 48.1% ground ball rate and had 23 chances on the mound. Despite the low chances total, he still had +6 DRS. He would have been on pace for +13 DRS through 50 chances. Brault was clearly more athletic than your typical pitcher. In 2019, Brault had a .777 OPS (albeit in only 50 plate appearances), and the Pirates even toyed with the idea of making him a two-way player.
A.J. Burnett was worth -13 defensive runs saved for the Pirates. In both 2013 and 2015, Burnett had -5 defensive runs saved, but ironically, those were arguably his best seasons in his career. In 2013, Burnett had a career-best FIP (2.80), strikeout rate (26.1%), K:BB ratio (3.12), and HR/9 (.52) while having a 3.30 ERA. In 2015, he had a 3.18 ERA and 7% walk rate, two more career bests, along with a 2.92 K:BB ratio, and 0.60 HR/9.
With -40 career DRS, Burnett is the worst defensive pitcher since the metric was created. However, there are two pitchers who are arguably worse career defenders. The first is former two-time Cy Young winner Tim Lincecum with -37 DRS. Despite the small difference in DRS, Burnett pitched 752 more innings. Daniel Cabrera, who pitched in the bigs from 2004 up through 2009, had -34 DRS, but in just 892.1 innings, just over a third of the innings, Burnett tossed.
Of course, the bad defense doesn’t take away from the overall impact Burnett had on the Pirates, both on the mound and for the city. Keep in mind that all of these examples are mostly small sample sizes. Despite pitching over 550 innings for the Pirates, Burnett had just 125 total chances.
Former reliever Kyle Crick likely would have surpassed Burnett had he continued to pitch for the Pittsburgh Pirates. In just 139.1 innings, Crick had -6 defensive runs saved, tied with Joel Hanrahan for the fewest for a Pirates reliever. Had Crick pitched just 300 innings, he would have been tied with Burnett for the lowest DRS total as a Pirate pitcher. Crick had -3 DRS in his 2018 season, which should be no surprise given he pitched 60.1 innings that year. Like most pitcher defenisve statistics, take Crick’s with a grain of salt as he only had 12 total chances.