By Wilbur Miller
Iíve been cynical for years about defense-oriented team-building philosophies. They usually seemed more like an excuse to avoid paying good hitters, or to cling to the deadball-era cliches that appeal so much to some baseball people. Some of this stems from years of the Pirates using supposedly poor defense as a reason to bury players they disliked. Refusing to use Craig Wilson at first due to his glove and then bringing in Randall Simon springs to mind.
Consequently, this season has been an eye-opener. Through June 28, the Pirates have shaved nearly a full run off their staff ERA from last yearís nightmare, dropping from 5.10 to a hair above league average at 4.26 despite having largely the same staff. Thereís no question the pitchers deserve much of the credit. Zach Duke and Sean Burnett are two of the most improved pitchers in baseball. Ross Ohlendorf and Jeff Karstens have been decent, and Jesse Chavez and Evan Meek have done well despite some control lapses. The absence of the many truly horrendous pitchers who plagued last yearís staffóMatt Morris, Tom Gorzelanny, Yoslan Herrera, John Van Benschoten, Denny Bautista, Franquelis Osoriaóhas played a big role. Another factor has been the absence for most of the year of the hugely overrated (at least by the teamís management) Tyler Yates and Craig Hansen.
Still, nobody seems to doubt that the defense is a major factor as well. If you go by the unfortunately named Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which is available at www.fangraphs.com, the improvement has been dramatic and across the board. UZR attempts to measure the number of runs a fielder saves, or costs, his team compared to the average at his position. UZR/150, which is what Iíll use here, pro-rates UZR to 150 games.
So why, given the problems associated with all defensive stats, should you pay attention to UZR? Uh . . . I canít exactly explain directly. What I can do is point to two things. One is that many people who understand these stats better than I do seem to consider it about as reliable as any other publicly available defensive stat. The other is that itís strongly corroborated in the Piratesí case. First of all, thereís the dramatic reduction in staff ERA despite the continued, extremely low strikeout rate. Second, defensive efficiency, which simply measures the percentage of balls in play that a team converts to outs, shows an equally dramatic improvement. After finishing at or near the bottom in that stat for years, the Pirates are hovering near the top, generally in the top four in MLB, this year. Another interesting, and very simple, piece of evidence is double plays. The Pirates are tops in the majors in turning them this year despite a significant drop in opportunities; the pitching staff ranks just slightly below the NL average in WHIP now after ranking last by a huge margin in 2008.
Hereís whatís happened, position by position, this year (UZR doesnít apply to catchers):
1B: Adam LaRoche has improved from -8.1 to -2.7.
2B: Freddy Sanchez, who clearly seemed bothered by the shoulder problem early last year, has improved from -1.8 to 4.1.
3B: Andy LaRoche rates a little above average at 2.4. Last year, with the Pirates, LaRoche rated a surprising 7.7, but nearly three-quarters of the starts at third went to Jose Bautista and Doug Mientkiewicz, who registered a dismal -6.2 and -16.7, respectively.
SS: Jack Wilson leads all MLB shortstops by a comfortable margin at 19.3. He was almost as good last year at 16.7, but he only started 80 games. Among his replacements, Luis Cruz was very good and Brian Bixler was below average. Luis Rivas and Chris Gomez were the equivalent, statistically and aesthetically, of putting the Kiner statue at short.
LF: Thereís been an improvement here of biblical proportions. This year, Nyjer Morgan ranks first in the majors at 23.6. Last year, Jason Bayís number was -14.4 with the Pirates. (Overall he ranked ahead of only Adam Dunn in MLB.) Among the players who manned LF after Bay was traded, Morgan and Brandon Moss played very well and Jason Michaels was terrible.
CF: Without reopening the debate over the Gold Glove award, Nate McLouth rated -14.3 in 2008. This year, before his departure, he improved to 2.9. That could be the result of the Piratesí decision to have him play deeper or it could be that the improved pitching has meant he's not effectively playing in the equivalent of a missile range. Andrew McCutchenís limited sample size works out to 3.6.
RF: Last year Xavier Nady rated 5.6 in 82 starts. The two players who started most of the remaining games, Michaels and Steve Pearce, were below average (-2.6) and terrible (-29.8), respectively. This year, Moss ranks first in MLB in right at 24.0. Of the others whoíve played there, Eric Hinske is almost exactly average (-0.5) and Craig Monroe was awful (-23.9). Neal Huntingtonís recent comment that Delwyn Young is ďaverageĒ may be true if you compare him to the general population, but among actual rightfielders his UZR/150 is -17.6.
Two things you can see here, if you buy into these numbers, is that the Piratesí outfield has improved dramatically, especially if Moss is out there, and that the infield is well above average because of Jack Wilson. I donít know whether you can estimate how much of a difference he makes to the teamís pitchers, but does anybody doubt itís a major factor with Duke and Paul Maholm, in particular, especially with the double plays?
The alternatives to Wilson arenít pretty, and thatís without even taking into account the fact that heís having one of his good hitting years, currently about average in OPS among major league shortstops. Bixlerís prospect status is a thing of the past now. Cruz never was a prospect. Brian Fridayís bat never returned from his DL stint with the inner ear infection; heís a year away at best. Jordy Mercer is struggling in high A and Chase DíArnaud just got there. Realistically, the farm system isnít going to provide an answer until at least 2011 and probably not quite even then. The free agent market isnít any better. Finding a shortstop who isnít completely hopeless with the bat is out of the question. The best-case scenario for the Pirates would be a no-hit shortstop with a good, and probably overblown, defensive reputation. Cesar Izturis is a good example of the sort of player the Pirates would wind up with; the Orioles were in a similar position last year, with no shortstop and no internal alternatives, and he's what they had to settle for. Izturis' career OPS+ is a pitiful 67. Heís supposed to be very good defensively, but UZR/150 gives him only a 0.7 this year. That would drop the Piratesí infield overall from well above average to merely average. I donít see how they can afford that with a pitching staff that remains last in the majors in strikeouts. If the Pirates canít reach an agreement with Wilson on a less expensive extension, they need to give serious consideration to picking up his $8.4M option for 2010. With McLouthís contract gone they can afford it.