There was precious little joy in Mudville today. Ubiquitous discussion of Chris Coghlan's slide technique, the Pirates' disappointing series with the Cubs, and Clint Hurdle's lineup construction (am I the only one who feels a bit morally uncomfortable with people wishing that Pedro Florimon had been in Jung-Ho Kang's place?) bred an uncomfortably pessimistic atmosphere.
It's almost as if the Pirates aren't 87-59, as if they don't have the second-best record in baseball, as if they aren't doing it on a shoestring budget with a homegrown core that includes a generational superstar. As if the people proclaiming that the sky is falling don't deserve ridicule in much the same way that Giants writer Grant Brisbee (quite presciently, as it turned out) ridiculed Bryan Murphy in this article last year.
You only have to go back four days or so to find a time when everyone's tune was decidedly different after Josh Harrison singled to finish a come-from-behind, walk-off win against the Brewers. It was then, during a less-dyspeptic period of fandom, that a discussion occurred that piqued my interest.
Amid the ensuing jubilation, several BucsDugout posters engaged in a debate regarding Neil Walker's defense. Walker's slick initiation of a 4-6-3 double play had, in the top of the 11th inning, extricated Jared Hughes from a first-and-third, one-out jam, potentially saving the game.
Here is a screenshot of the exchange:
The word 'debate' is perhaps a misnomer here. Nobody is disagreeing with anyone else. Generally speaking, 40yearsafter et al. contend that despite Walker's statuesque defensive reputation, he is effective at fielding balls hit within his limited range. I particularly like ElRocco337's comment (which provided the name for this article): "The infield cardboard cutouts must be positioned with care before each pitch."
It's not particularly controversial to state that Neil Walker is a below average defensive second baseman. By Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), he's been three runs below average this year; by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), he's five and a half runs below average. These marks rank 15th and 17th respectively among the twenty qualified second basemen. Nor is this a new phenomenon--see below for a summary of how Walker has performed on defense over his career:
The two lines track pretty closely. Walker struggled mightily on defense in 2010, but since then he's improved from 'awful' to simply 'subpar.' It's interesting that DRS consistently likes Walker's defense more than UZR, but neither metric is telling a radically different story.
This doesn't, however, tell us how Walker performs on the different components of defense--for that we need to use ErrR and RngR--two parts of UZR that measure error runs and range runs above average, respectively.
Walker's always been a pretty steady player, and the metrics agree--his range is the problem, not his hands. In fact, Walker grades out as average to slightly above average at the non-range-related aspects of playing second base. More worryingly, Walker's range appears to have slipped quite a bit from his 2013 peak.
There's an interesting question here about the interplay between the efficacy of shifts and the range of a team's individual defenders. Mitchel Lichtman, the creator of UZR, recently made a post suggesting that several teams who shift heavily (including, naturally, the Pirates) were substantially outperforming the defensive efficiency you'd expect given their individual defenders. In other words, the whole exceeded the sum of the parts. UZR and DRS both ignore shifted plays, so you'd expect them to be less accurate for teams like the Pirates, but Lichtman's macro-level point still holds.
I don't know how to properly assign credit for that--most of it probably goes to well-designed shifts, but we don't have a great way of separating pitcher strategy, infielder positioning, and infield range. And it's difficult to conclude that steady, low-error fielders are a priority for the Pirates, given how many errors they've committed this year (I suppose it's part of the cost of employing Pedro Alvarez).
Whatever the case, though, it seems to be working for them--and isn't that worth enjoying?