clock menu more-arrow no yes

The Post-Gazette talks 2009, which may well feature the best Pirates team since 1992. Of course, that's not saying a lot, and thanks to the Pirates' poor drafting and departures of most of the team's best players due to free agency, 2010 may end up being the worst Bucs team since 1985.

Also, I have to wonder about the Post-Gazette's assertion that Neil Walker will be "in full swing in Pittsburgh" in 2009. That certainly is a possibility, but at this point, Walker is very far from being good enough to be a starting third baseman in the major leagues. In fact, if I had to guess as to who the Pirates' starting third baseman in 2009 will be, I'd say Jose Bautista. There's no doubt that Walker has promise as a hitter, but, as I and others have pointed out, he hasn't developed anything resembling power or patience, and he flopped in the Arizona Fall League. Unlike Andrew McCutchen, Walker isn't really a top prospect; he's a huge question mark.

The Post-Gazette also reports that the Pirates are considering the possibility of moving McCutchen to left field at some point because "The Pirates' thinking is that left at PNC is like center anywhere else, and having McCutchen and Duffy side by side would make for extraordinary coverage in the biggest part of the outfield."

I don't know whether or not left field in PNC is like center somewhere else, but I strongly suspect that it is not, and that even if it is, that's a dumb thing for the Pirates to be concerned about.

In 2006, the Pirates ranked eleventh among major league teams in total chances in left field. That was the first time since PNC opened that the Pirates ranked in the top half among major league teams in chances in left field. That means that, even if it's difficult to play left field in PNC, the ball just isn't hit to left field very often with the Pirates on defense. With groundball-throwers Zach Duke and Paul Maholm and righty Ian Snell in the rotation for the foreseeable future, that is unlikely to change.

It does appear to be the case that the Pirates' current leftfielder, Jason Bay, and his predecessor, Brian Giles, have (or had) lower than average zone ratings as leftfielders as Pirates. (This means that Bay and Giles got to slightly fewer balls hit in their direction than did most other leftfielders.) However, Bay's zone ratings have been only slightly below average, and he's a decent outfielder but hardly a great one.

Evaluating what all this means is difficult because Giles and Bay have been the Pirates' leftfielders almost continuously since PNC opened, so it's hard to separate the effects of the park from those players' own abilities. So I'd like to engage in a few paragraphs of highly speculative guesstimating of the importance of leftfield defense at PNC based on Bay's and Giles' statistics. If you're easily bored or annoyed by stats, you may want to skip the next couple of paragraphs, which not only use stats but aren't terribly precise with them.

Let's posit that Bay is an average leftfielder. This seems reasonable - we know from watching that he's decent, but not great. If he's average, his zone rating - his ability to get to balls hit into his zone - should be average, all other things being equal.

In 2006, Bay got to 83.9% of balls hit to his zone; the median qualified leftfielder was Raul Ibanez, who got to 86.1%. In 2005, Bay got to 85.9%; the median was 88.3%, halfway between Matt Holliday and Pat Burrell.

So, if Bay is an average leftfielder (which, again, may or may not be true), the effect of PNC Park (and the other parks the Pirates usually play in) on leftfield defense is around two percent. The average leftfielder only makes about two plays per game; for Pirates leftfielders who play half their games at PNC, it's slightly more, probably around 2.3 plays per game, based on Bay's and Giles' range factors per nine innings, which you can get at Baseball Reference.

So if Bay (for example) makes 2.3 plays per game and makes outs on 85% of balls hit to his zone, that means that the Pirates' leftfielder, whoever he is, usually has the ball hit to him about 2.8 times a game, or around 450 times a year.

So if Bay is actually an average leftfielder, it would seem that PNC's dimensions really only prevent him from making plays that would be makable in other ballparks about nine times a year (450 times .98).

Obviously, all this is extremely rough - I don't have access to home/road splits for defensive stats, and maybe Bay's not actually an average leftfielder. But what it all suggests is that, while it is difficult to play left in PNC, leftfield defense is really not all that important there. It really isn't like centerfield in another park. And again, this should continue to be true in 2008 and 2009, based on the Pirates' pitching staff.

The issue here, of course, is Duffy. Let's say that McCutchen will be in the 2009 outfield no matter what, and that it's just a matter of whether he plays center or left. That means keeping Duffy in center would effectively keep a corner outfielder out of the lineup.

If Duffy grows to be good major-league hitter, it may be worthwhile to keep him and have McCutchen join him in the outfield. However, Duffy's line last year was .255/.317/.338, which is just horrible even considering his excellent September. If he does not show extremely dramatic improvement, he should not have anything to do with the Pirates' long-term plans. The offensive difference between him and even a mediocre corner outfielder right now is much larger than he could possibly make up in terms of run prevention. And given that Duffy turns 27 in two weeks, it seems very, very likely to me that the Pirates' best possible outfield in 2009 is going to be something other than the tentative one they've penciled in.