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Why Defense Is The Key To Improving The Pirates

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Clearly, the Pirates need help everywhere, but their top priority shouldn't be their pitching. It should be their infield defense.

A few days ago, I wrote at Bucs Dugout that the best, and most creative, fix for the Pirates' problems this offseason would be improving their defense, not necessarily improving their pitching. That conclusion was counterintuitive, since the Pirates posted a 5.00 ERA this year, so I'd like to spell out the reasons why the defense, and not the pitching, is the key.

Once a batter puts a ball into play, the pitcher generally doesn't have much control over what happens to it. The best way for a pitcher to control his own destiny is to strike out as many batters as possible, while limiting walks and home runs. Beyond that, he is mostly at the mercy of his defense.

According to Baseball Prospectus, the Pirates were the worst team in baseball this year at converting balls in play into outs. You might think that's because the Pirates' pitchers were allowing screaming line drives all year, but that's not true. For example, Zach Duke allowed exactly the same percentage of line drives (19.5%) while posting a 5.72 ERA as he did in 2009, when he posted a 4.06 ERA. The difference between the two seasons was that in 2009, the Pirates had an average defense, rather than a pitiful one. Some folks as Bucs Dugout hate when I point this out, but it's true: Zach Duke is about an average pitcher. The problem, for him, is that because he strikes out so few batters, he depends on his defense to make outs for him, and the Pirates' 2010 defense refused to do that.

Much of the offseason talk about the Pirates has focused on their pitching, but focusing on the pitching and ignoring the defense won't do the Pirates any good at all. The Bucs won't be signing Cliff Lee this offseason, and so if they want to upgrade their rotation, they'll have to go with second- or third-tier free agents. The best-case scenario here is that they sign someone like Jake Westbrook of the Cardinals, whose name has come up in connection with the Pirates.

Ok, let's take Westbrook as an example. How might we expect him to perform with the Pirates in 2011? Here are some career stats.

Pitcher K/9 BB/9 HR/9
Duke 4.71 2.45 0.94
Westbrook 5.03 2.80 0.80

These two are very similar pitchers. Westbrook is a little bit better - he causes more grounders and somewhat fewer line drives. But if these two were '80s bands, Westbrook would be, say, Ratt, and Duke would be Quiet Riot. You can tell the differences between them, but they're very fundamentally similar. And if you have both bands play through the world's worst PA system, they're both going to sound terrible. Signing Westbrook will not work unless the Pirates' defense improves. And signing a second-tier pitcher who doesn't depend quite so heavily on his defense, like Todd Wellemeyer, isn't a great idea either - the pitchers of that type who aren't radically out of the Pirates' price range really aren't much of an upgrade on what the Pirates already have.

The best path to getting better numbers out of the Pirates' pitching, then, is to improve their defense. To find out how they might do that, let's look at some numbers. The column we're interested in here is UZR, which is the best-regarded advanced defensive statistic. You can draw some weird conclusions from UZR by relying on only a year's worth of data, but that will give us a good place to start. UZR doesn't measure catcher defense, and the Pirates recently replaced a miserable defensive catcher in Ryan Doumit with a much better one in Chris Snyder, so let's forget about catcher for now. That position will be better next year.

UZR says that Jose Tabata is a very good defensive outfielder, which makes sense. It also says that Ryan Doumit was pretty awful there this year, which also makes sense. Where there might be a bit of a disconnect this year for some of you is that it says Andrew McCutchen was the Pirates' worst fielder. McCutchen plainly has the tools to be a fine defensive centerfielder, so I think the best hope for the Pirates' outfield defense to be better this year is to keep Doumit out of there as much as possible and to hope McCutchen improves. I don't think there's any real need to bring in extra outfielders just to improve the defense.

The infield is another story. Ronny Cedeno ranked as somewhat below average, and Akinori Iwamura, Bobby Crosby, Neil Walker, Garrett Jones and Pedro Alvarez all ranked well below average. Iwamura and Crosby won't be an issue next year, obviously, but even beyond that, there are some clear steps the Pirates can take to fix things.

First, Pedro Alvarez should move across the diamond. If the Pirates were to keep him at third, it wouldn't be a disaster in itself, but it would be delaying the inevitable. Alvarez's problem isn't that he needs more time to improve at third. It's that he's just fundamentally a big, slow-moving guy who's trying to play a position that's called the hot corner. He has the potential to be a great hitter, but he will never be a good defensive player. In the National League, below-average defenders tend toward first base.

That would leave a vacancy at third base, which would be a great place for Neil Walker. Walker won lots of praise for his ability at third base while he was a minor leaguer. When I've proposed moving Walker, readers at Bucs Dugout have said that by doing so I'd be ruling out the possibility of Walker learning to play second base better and becoming very valuable by virtue of the fact that it's not easy to find second basemen who can hit like Walker did last year. That might be true, and there's certainly the possibility that more experience at second will help Walker, but I don't think Walker's poor defense at second this year was the result of his not understanding the position, but of him not quite having enough range. Walker is athletic, but he isn't fast. He can handle third base, where reaction time is more important than range.

That would mean that the Pirates would have a vacancy at second base, and so I'd suggest the Pirates try to acquire a middle infielder. (If they pick up a shortstop, Ronny Cedeno can move from short to second.) In the Bucs Dugout piece I linked above, I mention Twins shortstop J.J. Hardy, who has been an underrated defender throughout his career. Free agent second baseman Orlando Hudson is another possibility.

By upgrading in the middle infield, the Pirates have the potential to improve several defensive positions. Then they can acquire a groundball pitcher like Westbrook and have the reasonable hope that he'll post good numbers for them. They can also keep Duke, and also probably hope for better ERAs from a pitcher like Paul Maholm who, like Duke and Westbrook, depends heavily on the quality of his defense.

The Pirates' pitching staff put up awful numbers this year. But the solution to the problem is not as simple as finding new pitchers. If your closet smells musty, you don't throw out your clothes and put in new ones. The Pirates might not have the most stylish bunch of pitchers, but they're good enough to get by. Grabbing a Hardy or Hudson might be just what the staff needs to smell fresh again.

Photographs by dizfunk used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.