The Pirates ascended from the league’s cellar to a playoff team in 2013 by focusing on run prevention. The analytics department and team bought into pitch framing and shifts, and with it, they made three consecutive playoff berths.
But the league caught up. Pitch framing went from a weird niche for catchers to a prerequisite. We’re seeing more shifts league wide every season. Teams have adjusted, and the Pirates have fallen behind, going from elite to roughly average in 2016 and 2017. This year, though, they are among the worst in the game.
Let’s compare the Pirates’ run prevention each year looking at two stats: Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) via Fangraphs/The Fielding Bible, and Baseball Prospectus’ FRAA. FRAA will be used for catcher defensive metrics since DRS does not take pitch framing into consideration, so it is not a great indicator of the position’s contributions (FRAA still takes pitch blocking and stolen bases into account. We’ll remove DRS from catchers so there won’t be any overlap).
Here are the year to year results:
The Pirates peaked in 2013, but actually got better contributions from their catchers in 2014 and 2015. Francisco Cervelli’s hand injury in 2016 seems to be the turning point for the position’s productivity, and he is currently the third worst pitch framer in baseball with -6.3 runs saved, according to Baseball Prospectus. It’s a far cry from 2015 when he saved 21.6 runs through framing alone.
It isn’t just Cervelli’s fault, though. The shifts the Pirates are deploying have been counterproductive. In 2015, when the Pirates shifted and the batter hit a ground ball, batters hit .204. This year, under the same circumstances, batters are hitting .301. That .301 average and .287 wOBA allowed are the worst team totals in baseball by over 30 points each.
Perhaps it isn’t fair to look at just all ground balls since batters could be trying to defeat the shift. Perhaps a better metric would be seeing how they do when a ground ball is pulled into a shift. That is what the shift is made for. While the league batts .235 with a .215 wOBA on ground balls, those figures fall to .155 and .146 when that ground ball is pulled into a shift.
Again, it’s not pretty. The Pirates have the fifth worst batting average and the second worst wOBA in these situations this season.
Let’s look at individual contributions across the diamond (omitting pitchers and catchers):
Ironically, Corey Dickerson- who was a DH most of last season- has been the best player in the field. Starling Marte’s -2 DRS is a bit puzzling since the metric gives him a positive grade for his arm and he’s near the top of Baseball Savant’s Catch Percentage Added leader board, but his contributions either way or insignificant compared to the rest of the team’s.
Gregory Polanco had been a plus defender the last three years, but he’s taken a huge step back. Josh Harrison is in the same boat, but perhaps he deserves a reprieve for now since he missed a good chunk of the season. Colin Moran has been steady with the bat, but he’s following through on the scouting report that he’s not a great fielder. Josh Bell is 45th defensively out of 48 players with at least 100 innings at first base.
Jordy Mercer is also having a down season. He hasn’t been graded well defensively since his 2015 leg injury, but he at least broke even and finished in the middle of the pack among shortstops last year. Now he’s near the bottom.
Enough about just the Pirates. Here’s how the rest of the NL Central is fairing in preventing runs, using the same benchmarks as the Pirates:
The division is currently being decided by these prevented runs. The Pirates are currently eight games behind the first place Brewers. As a team, Milwaukee has already saved 54 runs and could be in the middle of a historic season. The rule of thumb is 10 runs equals one win. The Brewers have 84 more defensive runs saved/prevented compared to the Pirates. That’s the difference between sub-.500 and first place.
Take it a step further. The Pirates are 6.5 games behind the second place Cubs. The Cubs have +31 runs prevented this year, so they’re up 61 total runs on the Bucs. The Cardinals have a 44 run advantage on the Pirates and are ahead four games in the standings. If each team had 0 runs prevented or cost and followed the 10 runs for one win formula, all four clubs would be within a half game of each other.
The Pirates are getting beat at their own game. Even worse, they’re not even good at their own game anymore. Barring a drastic turnaround, this is going to be the worst Pirates club for preventing runs in the Clint Hurdle era by a large margin. If the Bucs were hoping to be a surprise team like they were in 2013, they aren’t following the playbook that squad had.