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Pirates’ Defense Is Bringing Surprise Pitching Down

Jaso misplays a ball in right, but he still might be one of the best options for this defense right now. Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

Entering play Monday, the Pirates had only allowed 63 earned runs. That probably deserves an asterisk next to it after the cavalcade of the Cubs crossing home last that night, but hey, it’s still a factual statement. Just a tad outdated.

Even with that hometown beatdown fresh in all of our minds, the starting pitching has, as a whole, been pretty good. Their 12 quality starts are tied for the second most in all of baseball. Even if Nova and Taillon regress a little, Cole is pointed in the right direction and Glasnow should improve as the year goes on. What was supposed to be a weakness has been a strength through the first month.

But just imagine how good they would be if the defense was backing them up.

The Pirates’ gloves this year have ranged anywhere from “bad” to “screaming into a pillow worthy.” Through their first 18 games, they allowed 15 unearned runs — the worst in the majors. Even though they were best in the NL in earned runs allowed, their 78 total runs ranked sixth in the senior circuit. They allowed another unearned tally Monday, but they’re probably dropping a few spots for reasons other than Cervelli dropping an easy tag.

But errors are not always the best indicator for a player’s defensive skills. If a ball is hit to a spot where a defender can get to it but can not complete the play, he gets an error. That does not mean he is a worse defender than the player who could not get to the ball even though he had no play and his fielding percentage stays in tact.

A better metric for gauging this defense is defensive runs saved, but that makes the leather look even bleaker.

In the Pirates’ first 1,443 defensive innings, they combined for a -7 DRS. That’s the fifth worst mark in baseball. In 13,056 innings last year, they were worth -17 DRS, which was the 11th worst in baseball. In 2015, they were +8. In 2014, they were +28. In 2013, it was +60, which is why the pitching was a strength despite having a below average rotation on paper.

Are you noticing a trend? The defense is now costing itself a run every 206 defensive innings. If they combine for 13,400 innings like they did in 2015, that is a pace of -65 DRS. That’s a 125 run drop off in just five years. That’s about a fifth of the runs a good team would allow on the season.

Hurdle said Saturday that the defense needs to “tighten up.” That came the same day Adam Frazier booted an easy two out grounder in the eighth, resulting in the Yankees scoring five runs and taking the lead. Jaso also misread a sinking liner in right earlier that turned a single into a double, but he said he didn’t want to pick at a scab. That was probably the right thing to say about the guy making his second career start in right, but that does not hide all the other scabs around the diamond now.

Andrew McCutchen is back in center after an entire offseason of everyone saying he probably shouldn’t be in center anymore. He’s passed the eye test so far, and I love the fire he showed during “this is my spot”-gate, but even at a normal starting depth, he is at best a subpar defender at a premium position. He is most likely just keeping the spot warm for Starling Marte, or if you’re a pessimist, Austin Meadows.

The infield is not getting good marks. Josh Bell — whose glove problems have been well documented — is actually error free so far. Jordy Mercer and Phil Gosselin, on the other hand, are below the midwater mark for DRS. Josh Harrison has dropped from being one of the best defensive middle infielders to being a meh infielder so far.

Then of course, there is the right field by committee collection. Adam Frazier has great athleticism and can play the position, but he has struggled in the field as much as anyone, making three errors overall to go along with his -2 DRS. Marte’s replacement, Jose Osuna, has gotten some looks out there, but yesterday’s three run drop because he got close to the wall is all the proof that he at least needs to grow as a fielder.

Then of course there’s Jaso, who according to Fangraphs is actually leading the team in DRS with a +1 mark in right. I did a triple-take to make sure that was right. What a time to be alive.

The knee-jerk solution to fix these outfield woes is Marte, but he is not the same defender he was a year ago. A few months ago I was on the record for supporting the new outfield alignment, but I also pointed out Marte had struggled in center the last few years. He has continued to struggle in 2017, being worth -3 DRS, which is the worst on the team. Considering he had saved at least 17 runs in three of the last four seasons, that drop alone is a catastrophic tumble.

A team cannot win unless it has at last two of the big three aspects of the game — offense, defense and pitching. Pitching has not been the problem. If the Bucs can’t hit, they must defend.

There are options on how to improve. The Mariners just designated Leonys Martin for assignment. He’s saved 44 runs over his career, mostly in center field. He would not cost much, and Neal Huntington admitted in his weekly talk with the media Sunday that they could look for an external outfielder. Considering baseball is not exactly known for its April or May blockbusters, he might be the best available.

As for internal options, Gift Ngoepe is having another fine season with the leather in Indianapolis. The 27 year old misunderstood Teddy Roosevelt’s “speak softly and carry a big stick” at the plate, but he has always been a good defender at both shortstop and second. He could be a late inning replacement, allowing Josh Harrison to shift either to right or to third, bumping David Freese to first.

But two guys are not going to be the saviors. They need to get better performances out of the guys on the major league roster already. This defense is probably destined to post poor DRS numbers, but at the very least can cut down on the errors and unearned runs.  If they don’t, this pitching staff is going to be as bad as everyone thought it was going to be.

About Alex Stumpf (51 Articles)
Alex is a Pirates and Duquesne basketball contributor to The Point of Pittsburgh. He graduated from Point Park University with a degree in Journalism and Mass Comm. and a minor in English in 2014. Everything can be explained with numbers. If you want to keep up to date on both teams or have a story idea, you can follow or reach him @AlexJStumpf.
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