Last season the Pittsburgh Pirates had a ton of success due to an approach that focused on pitching and defense. This approach was largely overlooked, and the success was chalked up to something that couldn’t be sustained. The cries all summer were for the Pirates to add a bat, with the feeling that they couldn’t continue winning games by focusing on pitching and defense. Yet the Pirates continued to win games with this approach.
It’s not like the Pirates are the first team to try such an approach. The San Francisco Giants won a World Series in 2010 with below average offensive numbers, and well above average defensive and pitching numbers. They scored 697 runs that year, which ranked 9th overall in the NL, but only allowed 583 runs, which ranked second best in the NL. By comparison, the Pirates ranked ninth in the NL last year in runs and second best in runs allowed. So I don’t think it was a fluke that the Pirates had such a successful season, despite a below average offense.
That’s just two examples though. What if we take a look at a larger sample size? I looked at the runs scored and runs allowed for every NL team over the last five years. I divided the groups into above average and below average runs in each year for each group. Here were the results.
**Teams who were above average offensively won at a .532 clip. Teams who were above average defensively won at a .545 clip.
**Teams who were below average offensively won at a .464 clip. Teams who were below average defensively won at a .447 clip.
The basic results show that teams who were above average defensively did better than teams who were above average offensively. But there could be some overlap here. Some of the teams could have been on both lists. Let’s break them down into four groups and check the winning percentage.
**Teams who were above average offensively and defensively: .567
**Teams who were only above average offensively: .479
**Teams who were only above average defensively: .515
**Teams who were below average offensively and defensively: .428
Obviously if you’re above average in both categories, you’re going to be a strong team. On that same note, if you’re below average in both categories, you’re going to be a very bad team. But if you could only choose one category to put up above average production, you’d have more success if you were stronger defensively than offensively.
The phrase that “defense wins championships” has been around for a long time. Despite this common phrase, I don’t think people actually believe it is true in baseball. You see a team with an average offense and great pitching/defense, and that team is always viewed with skepticism on whether they can contend. You see a team with a great offense and average pitching/defense, and that team is seen in a more favorable light.
The Pirates have had a quiet off-season. They have signed Edinson Volquez, Clint Barmes, and traded for Chris Stewart and a few depth options. The deals for Barmes and Stewart are either seen as bad moves because those two can’t hit, or looked over as moves that could provide little impact…mostly because those guys can’t hit. But what about the defensive values of those moves? Should they be rated higher?
Earlier today I was reading an article at Beyond the Box Score about Edinson Volquez. The article pointed out that Volquez has done better in his career when he has been pitching to good pitch-framing catchers. His projections going forward, when based on his results with the good pitch framers, were a run better than his projections based off the stats with the poor pitch framers. It was suggested that the Pirates could be betting on Volquez getting help from their strong pitch framing catchers, which seemed to benefit him last year.
That’s where the addition of Stewart comes in. Last year, Stewart was the number two ranked pitch framer in the majors. Russell Martin was also high on that list, coming in at number six. Then there’s Tony Sanchez, who has been rated as a strong pitch framer in the minors, and is the number one replacement if Martin or Stewart get injured. What this means is that the Pirates will have a strong pitch framing catcher receiving every pitch this year, as long as two of those three catchers are healthy at all times.
That’s not just something that impacts Edinson Volquez. That impacts the entire pitching staff. It helps the rotation, the bullpen, guys coming up from Triple-A throughout the season, guys coming in via trade or waiver claims, and so on. Pitch framing has increased in popularity and recognition the last few years, but I think people only look at this from the catcher’s perspective. It’s a skill that gives the catcher value and helps the team. I don’t think people view this in the sense that it helps the entire pitching staff put up better numbers. People know that the catchers help turn balls into strikes, but no one really makes the argument that putting a guy with poor control on a team full of good pitch framing catchers will help that pitcher’s poor control. And that’s an argument that should be made. It’s the entire basis of pitch framing.
Then there’s the addition of Clint Barmes. He’s obviously not a new addition, since the Pirates had him for the previous two seasons. And he drove Pirates fans nuts because he can’t hit, and is only a defensive shortstop. Barmes has graded as one of the best defensive shortstops in baseball the last few years, and the Pirates brought him back as a backup to Jordy Mercer this year. I think he will still see about two starts per week, along with a lot of late inning work when the team has a lead. I also think this is a good idea, since the Pirates are loaded with ground ball heavy pitchers, making a strong defensive shortstop a great thing to have.
This statement usually generates groans from people who don’t really appreciate defense. The view is that defense is a complement to a player’s game. A player can be good defensively, but if he’s poor offensively then the defensive value is negated. This is true, but not to the extent that most people think. When it comes to a premium defensive position like catcher, shortstop, or center field, I think that the defense is the main thing, and the offense is the complement to the game. In Barmes’ case, he doesn’t get much of a complement offensively, and his offense takes away some of his defensive value. But the defense does make him a good player to have on the team, and his impact is even bigger for the Pirates and their ground ball heavy pitching staff.
Both of these guys are bench players, so the impact of the moves are limited, and the overall impact isn’t going to be as good as adding a starter at a position. But these guys will get playing time, and that’s when their defensive value will really pay off. Stewart could be looking at about 25-30% of the time behind the plate backing up Russell Martin. The Pirates already had strong defense and good pitch framing skills from Martin last year. This year they’ll have the same with Stewart, instead of having Michael McKenry catching in 41 games. Barmes will probably get 30-40% of the playing time at shortstop, which means the Pirates will downgrade the offense at that position, but will upgrade the defense.
Neither of these moves are big. Neither of the moves are flashy. But they do provide strong defense in a reserve role, making sure the Pirates are continuing their pitching and defense approach, even when the starters need a break. That’s not going to generate a lot of excitement, but winning would generate excitement. And you know what they say about defense and winning.
Links and Notes
**The 2014 Prospect Guide is now available. You can purchase your copy here, and read about every prospect in the Pirates’ system. The book includes our top 50 prospects, as well as future potential ratings for every player.
**Last week we finished our countdown of the top 20 prospects in the Pirates system. The number one prospect was Gregory Polanco. Click the link to read his scouting report, along with the complete list of top 20 prospects. If you enjoyed all of the reports, you can get more by purchasing the 2014 Prospect Guide.
**Our own James Santelli was Nominated For a SABR Award. The award is based on a vote. Click that link for information on how to vote for James and Pirates Prospects.