First Pitch: Why is Defense Still Underrated?

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.

**Baseball Prospectus Releases Their Top Ten Pirates Prospects.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Roberrto21

    What they say about defense and winning is that D-fence wins championships – even those of us who live in a zero gravity environment in upside-downville Australia know that!!!! (See e.g. Seattle Seahawks!) The maxim in baseball is “strong up the middle” and the Pirates are at least 2/3 strong up the middle with Martin/Stewart and Cutch, with the Mercer/Barmes combo being more than reasonable (Mercer is solid, Barmes is a “plus defender”). With an approach based on some swing and miss stuff (see Cole and Liriano!), ground ball heavy (Morton) pitching and good run prevention with the shifts Pirates should be sustainably solid on D. And will they have enough offence (to answer concerns about 1b and RF?) I prefer to see the situation as more than half full, that Lambo may just hit well, and am not worried about the O when Polanco comes up, he will give them more than anyone they could have overpaid millions for this off season (I’d take him right now over Ellsbury and Beltran). No one can guarantee the Pirates will win as many as last year but I am betting they will be a highly competitive team, especially post-midseason when they have both Polanco and Jameson Taillon. Whoopee!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • esd4

    “The article pointed out that Volquez did better in 2013 when he was pitching to good pitch-framing catchers. His projections, when based on his results with the good pitch framers, was 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.”

    This is not what the article says. It says that Volquez, over the course of his career (not 2013 specifically) has pitched better, in aggregate, when throwing to good pitch-framers. And it says that his past performance (not future projection), judging by kwEra, has been about a run better when pitching to good pitch-framers. And though the article does point out that Volquez could get better by throwing to better pitch-framers (which: duh), it makes no claims about whether or not good pitch-framers helped him last year.

    Obviously, a pitcher should be expected to pitch better when throwing to good framers, and Volquez, along with the rest of the Bucs’ staff, will benefit from having Martin and Stewart behind the plate, but the suggestion you’re making here is misleading. There’s not nearly enough evidence in that article to make any specific claims about how Martin/Stewart should affect Volquez’s projection.

  • http://allmyforeparents.blogspot.com Israel P.

    One word: Mazeroski.

  • The Masked robshelb

    .

    And it really is necessary to differentiate within “defense” between pitching (defense) and positional defence. Yes, the S.F. Giants won the World Series in 2010 with a below average offense.

    For that Regular Season, they also had the lowest team ERA of any team in the Majors (AL and NL combined.)

    Clearly, no one wants a fumble-fingers at *any* position. But I sure wouldn’t be running a .220 hitting SS out there 40% of the time to replace a (hopefully) .285 batting avg. SS, just because the defensive “specialist” (which may be less important in a growing age of defensive shifts) *might* make one or two plays over the course of an entire game that the .285 hitter can’t accomplish.

    And I found this cited statistic to be especially revelatory –

    Teams who were above average offensively won at a .532 clip. Teams who were above average defensively won at a .545 clip.

    iow, if a team stresses defense (which, if as measured by runs given up is predominantly — I would suggest — good pitching), as opposed to being an above-average offensive type team . . .

    Then they’re probably going to win one more additional game out of every 100 games played.

    People have been debating this issue for decades, and a few thorough studies have been done. But even those studies don’t perfectly match with each other. All do seem to agree that pitching is most important (let’s say accounting for about 55 % of actual wins). However, “above-average” offense can and does also result in wins sometimes (let’s assign the offense to only 35% of eventual wins.)

    That’s leaves about 10% of wins a team might accomplish over the course of a season attributable to superior positional defense.

    Me, I were were Clint Hurdle, I’d be playing Jordy Mercer every game. (As long as he remains above-average to well-above-average at the plate and not out-right horrid in the field — which he won’t be.)

    Well, all right, maybe not EVERY game. I’d probably give him a day off any day during which there was a solar eclipse.
    .

    .

    • impliedi

      “Clearly, no one wants a fumble-fingers at *any* position. But I sure wouldn’t be running a .220 hitting SS out there 40% of the time to replace a (hopefully) .285 batting avg. SS, just because the defensive “specialist” (which may be less important in a growing age of defensive shifts) *might* make one or two plays over the course of an entire game that the .285 hitter can’t accomplish.”

      Haha!! You mention that the defensive specialist MIGHT make one or two plays over the course of a GAME.

      Do you know what the difference is in hits between a .285 player being in there 100% of the time and being replaced by a .220 hitter?

      By my calculations, using 502 ABs as a full season, the .285 hitter gives you 143 hits over a season. If you take him down to 60% of the playing time, that’s 85 hits. A .220 hitter playing 40% of the time gives you 44 hits.

      So, the .285 hitter playing 100% of the time: you get 143 hits

      A .285 hitter playing 60% of the time + a .220 hitter playing 40% of the time time: you get 129 hits.

      So the net loss is 14 hits over the course of a SEASON.

      You were talking about a defensive guy possibly making a defensive impact once or twice a GAME.

      The drop-down to a .220 hitter means only one hit less over the course of a WEEK.

  • skliesen

    The Pirates have made it plainly obvious they have hitched their proverbial wagon to Pitchers who can induce ground balls, Catchers who can influence balls into strikes, and fielders who can catch first and hit second.

    Considering they play 81 games in a cavernous (at least to LF) ball park, how can anyone dispute their methodology? Now if PNC was like The Great American Bandbox in Cincy, it would be another matter…maybe.

    Let the pundits, like the SI fool who gave the Pirates off-season an F, preach the Pirates were foolish not to add a couple of high-priced, best days are behind them, Free Agents to the lineup. I’ll choose to have faith in NH & his staff. They are rock stars in my book!

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      sk….I like the rock star analogy.

  • emjayinTN

    The Pirates are that team that has above average offense and defense presently, and are projected to show even better on both sides when Gregory Polanco settles into RF, and when Jameson Taillon comes up at the same time. Defense is not pretty, not flashy, but effective, and when you think about defense, it starts out there on the mound. Pitching is an absolute essential, and our FO have us flush with young, strong, pitching talent. The Steelers won the first two SB’s with the Steel Curtain; they won the next two with a lot more offense, but still a better than average defense. Can the Pirates do that? It is possible. MLB has been doing their 10 Best at each position and so far I have seen McCutchen, Marte, Walker, and I fully expect to see Alvarez and Martin added when they do 3B and C tomorrow. Position players such as Polanco and Hanson will help us, but the most long term improvement will come when we start to feed off of those young pitchers stacked up in the developmental system. Excellent moves by the FO with the adds of Burnett, Rodriguez, Liriano, and I think Edinson Volquez helping to hold it all together until the young guys are ready to step up.

    • Kozy21

      “MLB has been doing their 10 Best at each position and so far I have seen McCutchen, Marte, Walker, and I fully expect to see Alvarez and Martin added when they do 3B and C tomorrow. ”

      - Is this MLB.com? MLB Network? I haven’t seen this. Can you please cite where this is? I’d love to read/see these lists.

      • https://www.facebook.com/steve.peipock Bonds Top Hand

        MLB Network. Brian Kinney, Harold Reynolds, and James make their lists. Then there is the MLB Network shredders list. The Shredder had Walker at 8 for 2nd baseman.

        • emjayinTN

          It is on MLB TV, but I would bet the lists are on MLB.com also. Starling Marte was rated 6th, right behind Shin Soo Choo. First was Holliday, 2nd was Bryce Harper, 3rd was Justin Upton, and 4th was Alex Gordon. ‘Cutch was 2nd to Trout, and Walker was 8th overall. I would think that Martin and Alvarez will be in the Top 5 of their positions. I think that Melancon made it as the No. 10 reliever.

          • emjayinTN

            Well, what I thought regarding Pedro and Russell Martin did not measure up. Neither made the Top 10 of the MLB “Shredder”, although both were mentioned as guys who were in that group from 8 thru 12. Martin made the Top 10 of Brian Kenny and was in the Top 5 by Dave Valle, a former Catcher. Alvarez was the No. 10 pick of Mike Lowell.

  • http://www.facebook.com/bote.funkhouser Bote Funkhouser

    “…despite below average offense.” 13th in wrc+ is not below average. Offense was unlucky in producing runs it should come around this year and they will be above average in all areas.

    • Andrew

      Exactly, a wRC+ of 106 and 101 OPS+ are not below average.

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.brooks.581 Stephen Brooks

      Too many bad, lazy or unaware baseball writers fail to grasp this. Schoenfeld at ESPN ranked the Pirates 13th with 84 wins, noting (correctly) that they outperformed their Pythag by 6 wins according to RS/RA, but apparently not understanding that they should have had a higher run differential based on batted ball outcomes. And most of that was poor or unlucky sequencing by the offense.

      Schoenfeld’s last word on the Bucs is that the Pirates’ offense lacks the upside to make up the difference. In truth, there’s 3-4 wins of upside if the Pirates do EXACTLY what they did in 2013.

      • Andrew

        Schoenfield is usually good, (about the only ESPN baseball writer I read, not behind a paywall and understand how to use numbers), but using last year’s Pythag record is inane, pythagorean is good early in the season, being more predictive of final record than actual record until mid-June. In no way is it an indication of true talent.

        I honestly do not have a issue with the prediction, Fangraphs just put up their projected standing and they have the Pirates as 84-78, fighting with the Giants, and the NL East runner up for a wildcard spot.

        The Pirates issue for 2014 is this, last year Pirates pitchers OPS/wOBA against by leverage.

        High leverage: 555 OPS ( .243 wOBA league average .305)
        Medium leverage: 671 OPS ( .299 wOBA)
        Low leverage: 656 OPS (.295 wOBA )

        We all predict regression of the Cards hitting with RISP, I think the same should go for the Pirates pitchers in high leverage situations. If Pirate pitchers regress to league average that is about 35 more runs, .21/game, there is going to need to be some offensive improvement to counter act that.

        • buster09

          Shoenfield is the same genius ” expert ” that said late last season that the Pirates should trade Polanco and Taillon along with another prospect to the Marlins for Stanton. That shot his cred for me Andrew.

          • swampirate

            +1 LIKE buster. Well said.

      • The Masked robshelb

        .

        Stephen,

        imo, you are making an *excellent* point. Sequencing was surely a problem last year. And more specifically for long patches of the season, it was team RISP. Remember that stretch when we couldn’t even get a Sac Fly for all the tea in China ?? Yuck.

        Simply giving Jordy Mercer instead of Clint Barmes more AB’s will surely help remedy that some. (If last year was any indication and holds true again this coming season.).

        2013 RISP

        Mercer .308
        Barmes . 177

        2013 with runners on base

        Mercer .325
        Barmes .231

        Them thar is pretty impressive numbers from Jordy in a sequencing/RISP sense.

        But the one split that really tickles my fancy is Jordy’s output when there is a 1 – 1 count.

        .531 BA, a 1.344 OPS (both in 2013).

        The moral of this story ??

        Sometimes you can get strike one against Jordy, but when it comes to strike two, good luck.

        .

  • CalipariFan506

    John Buck rank in pitch framing? The starters were awful in his 5 starts last year before he was benched.

  • jamminjoe66

    Hurdle will use a slow overrated Barmes 50% of the time bare minimum. You need at least a couple of guys who can PH. Now we have 2 guys who should be at the end of the bench. Barmes can’t PH, PR or give you position flexibility. $2M more he should’be never made in MLB. The Pirates were the only option he had. Hurdle saved him from the t-ball coaching position he should be at

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      Barmes can also play 2b.

      I don’t think the stats say he’s overrated.

      Personally, I have NO problem with them signing a glove first SS to back up a ‘bat’ first SS. In fact, I think it was a wise move.

    • jaygray007

      how is barmes overrated? i don’t think one fan thinks he’s super good or anything. I think he’s valued just right. you either hate him or think he’s a little underrated. the average of hate and underrated is approximately “meh.”

      “Meh” is fine use of 2 million.

      They have guys who can PH.

      Actually, upon a 2nd read, i’m not sure if you’re trolling or being serious. i’ll feel dumb if you’re trolling :(.

      • buster09

        Jay : most of that person’s comments appear to be trolling I hate to say.

    • Y2JGQ2

      Mercer will in fact probably lose 50% playing time to Barmes for no apparent reason. There is no credible factual evidence that proves that Barmes is more than slightly better defensively than Mercer, especially last year. In addition- A run created is a run saved. Period. Mercer will create 40% more runs than Barmes and save 15% less. So Mercer is 25% more useful and generally speaking, should only not be on the field unless Mercer needs a day off. If you don’t give value to a closer late in games then you really can’t value defense vs. offense late in games either. Its a 9 inning game either way and the object is to score more runs than the other team. Until we have enough info on Mercer to calculate his defensive value (and i don’t think a good system even exists yet) offensively numbers are more reliable

      • Cato the Elder

        Clint Barmes graded out as the 3rd best defensive shortstop according by UZR/150 at 14.2. Mercer ranked 33rd at -9.4.

        http://www.fangraphs.com/leaders.aspx?pos=ss&stats=fld&lg=all&qual=400&type=1&season=2013&month=0&season1=2013&ind=0&team=0&rost=0&age=0&filter=&players=0&sort=24%2cd

        Let me tell you that that is evidence that Barmes is “more than slightly better defensively.” My guess is that you will say that UZR/150 isn’t credible, so in anticipation of that response please tell me what you have against the metric other than it doesn’t correspond to your intuitions.

        Finally, I have no idea where your are getting your #s (create 40% more, save 15% less; is that credible factual evidence that demonstrates that Barmes is more than slightly better defensively than Mercer?) I don’t disagree that Mercer’s offensive upside relative to Barmes most outweighs Barmes’ defensive contributions. That is unless we are talking about late game defensive substitutions, which is in fact what we are talking about.

        • Y2JGQ2

          UZR becomes even more worthless when looked at over such a short period of time, even the creators of UZR have said that. you need 3 years of data before its statistically significant, therefore Mercers UZR stats mean nothing, and i’ve said enough additionally about UZR below to get my point across.

          -regardless of what you are talking about, the reality is that Mercer will be pulled in the 7th inning of nearly every game and will probably lose 30% starts to Barmes. That’s not a backup, its a platoon. Barmes does not deserve that much playing time. I know how Hurdle manages, and it isn’t to what you think he should do and i think we have witnessed that in the past. If you are going to have a strong infield backup on the team, he needs to be able to play multiple positions and they won’t use Barmes that way, so its a waste of a position player and roster spot that we sorely need with the other platoons and lack of hitting off the bench

          • Cato the Elder

            I suppose the SSS applies to Mercer, but Barmes grades out the same or better if you include multiple years of data.

        • Y2JGQ2

          How is late inning hitting more valuable than late inning defense. My point is, if you cut a game into 9 innings, and the value of offensive contributions vs. defensive, you can’t weigh any inning more importantly than any other. Each is equally important to winning the game. You simply CAN’T be a proponent of advanced stats like garbage UZR and then throw that out the door. Simply said, if Mercer’s offensive plus significantly higher than Barmes plus defensively, then it actually NEVER makes sense for Barmes to be out there, because that benefit is the case for every single inning of the game, not just the first 6 or 7

          • Cato the Elder

            If Barmes is a late game defensive substitution, he won’t have to bat or if he does it will be in a low leverage situation because the team is already ahead. I don’t know what is so difficult to grasp about that.

      • jaygray007

        Are those numbers based on anything or are you speaking hypothetically? i’m not being snarky there. i seriously just don’t know.

        and could we agree that barmes should play with Morton on the hill (except for when the opposing pitcher is a lefty on that day)? that’s all i ask for from Barmes’s enemies. Your starter can’t play every day. might as well start some sort of offense-defense platoon.

        and having a defensive backup isn’t all about late inning defense or being upset that they’re a crappy pinch hitter. guys who can pick it at a major league caliber are so valuable. would you rather have barmes step into an everyday role if mercer gets hurt, or Josh Harrison.

        While you can make the argument that he’s a crappy pinch hitter, i’d much rather throw a defensive wall out there if Mercer’s on the DL. Pieces like Stewart and Barmes are more about decreasing losses in a situation when the starter is out than they are about increasing wins with the fully-healthy lineup.

        • Y2JGQ2

          It was hypothetical, but truly serves my point entirely, and no…..UZR is garbage, and i’m not the only one who thinks so. How it calculates defensive contributions is downright ridiculous. Look into the mechanics of it, and you can either agree with it or disagree, but you have to at least see my point. UZR is better than nothing, which was i guess the equivalent of fielding percentage? but not much better. There needs to something which takes into account range (independent of shifts and positioning) and consistency taking into account the degree of difficulty based on where the player began the play, otherwise its worthless, and UZR does NOT do it. The only way UZR has value, is as a team metric in my opinion. And I don’t care if you agree or disagree with it, because it’s an opinion, and UZR is an opinionated and flawed stat.

          • Y2JGQ2

            hypothetical…or prediction, I have no stats on how much additional runs created mercer had vs. runs saved by Barmes and i wouldn’t trust them even if i had them, but i still think they would prove my point to some degree

          • Cato the Elder

            For anybody who wants to actually “look into the mechanics of it” here you go:

            http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/the-fangraphs-uzr-primer/

            I don’t think anybody would suggest that it is without flaws, but you can decide for yourself if you think it is “worthless” or “garbage.”

          • Cato the Elder

            “There needs to something which takes into account range (independent of shifts and positioning) and consistency taking into account the degree of difficulty based on where the player began the play, otherwise its worthless, and UZR does NOT do it. The only way UZR has value, is as a team metric in my opinion.”

            These points might have some merit if we were comparing players on different teams, because you could argue that Barmes was benefiting disproportionately from the Pirates extreme use of shifts, but I think it is safe to assume that Mercer would be benefited (or harmed) in a similar way as Barmes as to be negligible. Furthermore, the Barmes defensive proficiency goes proceeds last season and the extreme shifting employed by the Bucs.

            One last point: while increased use of shifting is a problem for UZR – the effect was negligible when it was rare; as it is used more often the effects do become greater – the range and difficulty is factored into as where a ball is hit, how high/hard a ball is hit and by whom a ball is it is all taken into account and the actual result is credited or debited to the position player(s) based on the probability of that position-player making an out on that type of ball. But I am sure you are aware of those mechanics.

        • Y2JGQ2

          Well yeah, its all opinion. I’d personally almost never rather have Barmes out there. Maybe up 3-2 in the bottom of the 9th, but I ended up seeing far too often, hitters late in games being called on in clutch situations after a lead was gone, after a “late game” substitution, where our lineup in extra innings included gabby and clint in situations where Bo Jackson in a wheelchair would be just as succesful. Against right handed pitchers, they might as well have you or I up there batting.

          If Mercer needs a day off, or is nicked up, and Morton is on the mound, sure…..let Barmes play, but i don’t think Barmes should be Morton’s personal shortstop, these days pitchers pitch 6 innings, which is only 2/3 of the game…….if we aren’t going to suddenly bring Mercer in to hit when Morton is pulled, the logic is faulty to use Barmes just because Morton is pitching. We have a lot of groundball pitchers, and Barmes is just going to get worse at this age, not better. If Mercer isn’t good enough to play shortstop, then we should have gone out and signed someone who was, or traded for one, but i’m not willing to accept that Mercer is bad enough at shortstop that we need Barmes in there everytime a ground ball pitcher is out there or its past the 6th inning.

  • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

    So….is it our pitch framers making our pitchers better, our defensive positioning or Ray Searage?

    Or all three?

    Could be interesting to watch the results ex-Pirate pitchers (AJ?) obtain without the benefit of those 3?

    • jaygray007

      and the cavernous LF!

      plus AJ, Liriano, Melancon, (future Volquez), etc. just needed a bounceback in luck just as much as a bounceback in mechanics.

      all of their FIPs indicated that before even getting a great pitch framer, a good defensive positioning team, a good pitching coach, that they would *already* be due for ERAs lower than in their previous season. Lack of bad luck is responsible for a large portion of the collective bouncebacks.

      All the other stuff is what helped to turn them into studs as opposed to just being useful again.

      I just hope that we’re prepared to see two 6’3″, 200+ lb, 27+ yr old middle infielders on a regular basis. There’s no way they’ll be able to support both of them at those positions in a few years. They really need alen hanson to get his throws taken care of so they can keep Mercer or Walker at 2b.

    • CalipariFan506

      Well if Buck was the worst pitch framer in baseball I think his tiny sample proves the catchers help a lot. The starters were bombed in all of his starts. Including Coles only bad game after the middle of August.

  • The Masked robshelb

    .

    I see this morning that ESPN has us ranked 13th across all the ML teams, projecting 84 wins.

    Not enough off-season spending. Not enough off-season up-grades. And not enough improvement in offensive firepower.

    http://espn.go.com/blog/sweetspot/post/_/id/44067/ranking-the-teams-18-through-13

    (At this point, none of this is exactly new news . . .)

    .

    • http://www.facebook.com/lee.young.161 leefoo

      Robs…as stated in the ‘asylum’, I don’t get into these won/loss predictions.

      That’s why they play the games.

      • The Masked robshelb

        .

        Foo,

        You could be correct about all those projections. Who knows ?? Maybe the Cubs will win the NL Central this year.

        But if the Buccos don’t bring El Coffee up to The Bigs until June or July, and/or they don’t let Jordy Mercer start in at least 194 games during the 2014 season, then I for one am going to get beaucoup surly . . .

        And speaking of projections, do we really think Mr. Barmes, at age 35, is still going to be a defensive wizard ?? (Which I think is a teeny bit over-rated in the first place.)

        We do have at least two overall WAR projection (2014) comparisons.

        Steamer –

        Barmes 0.1
        Mercer 1.5

        Oliver –

        Barmes 0.7
        Mercer 3.9

        That’s all I need to know to hope that Mr. Barmes doesn’t get 30 – 40% of playing time at SS. If that happens, it will drive me CRAZY !!! (Or some might say, even crazier . . . Oh well. )
        .

        .

    • Cato the Elder

      ESPN ranked the Pirates as the 22nd best team prior to last year citing to consecutive late season collapses. So beans to that.

      Personally, I have ESPN ranked dead last in my preseason preseason-rankings rankings: Not enough off-season programming. Not enough off-season updates. And not enough improvement in their BB/FB ratio (basball to football).

      (At this point, none of this is exactly new news . . .either)

  • leadoff

    Chicks dig the long ball, offense in any sport trumps defense to the watchable eye. If you want customers, show them offense, but if you want to win show them defense. The low revenue teams can succeed if they know the secrets to defense and it appears that the Pirates have a good handle on it. Bringing a guy like Barmes back goes under the radar, but was a terrific move by the front office. The Reds will start Hamilton in CF this year and he has only one tool, he is as fast as they come, he will run down a lot of fly balls that would be hits and he will steal the other team blind, of course he can’t hit home runs, but he will be exceptionally valuable on defense.

  • piraddict

    Fascinating statistics Tim! Thanks for cranking the numbers.

  • http://www.facebook.com/azibuck Andy Zibuck

    The answer to the titular question is hidden in the first sentence. The pitching + defense equation is, as it should be, weighted toward pitching. Pitching is way, way more important than defense. Finally, after almost a decade of goatee-stroking and claiming, “pitchers have almost no control over batted balls,” people are starting to realize, they do, in fact, have some control.

    Defense at catcher (including pitch-framing) is very important. Other positions, much less so. I think we have yet to see the full impact of defensive shifts, and with defensive shifts, the need for range is even somewhat mitigated.

    Also, I don’t understand this:

    ” 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.”

    Pitch framers can’t help Trevor Bauer. They can’t pull a ball headed for the mascot back over the corner. Good pitch framers can help someone with poor command, but not poor control. They can really help a nibbler, and those with middling fastballs.

    I hope I didn’t sound confrontational. I know I’m in the minority thinking that defense is, in fact, overrated (except at catcher).

  • chris moran

    Thanks a lot for the article mention. Volquez did a lot better in 2013 when he was throwing to better pitch-framers, but it’s not just 2013. As my article noted, his main two catchers when he was with the Reds were Bako (good framer) and Ramon Hernandez (bad framer) and he was vastly better with Bako. FWIW, in 9 starts with Ryan Hanigan (good framer), he had a poor ERA, but strong K/BB ratios.

    When he was with the Padres, his main catchers were Yasmani Grandal (good framer) and Nick Hundley (bad framer), and his results were vastly better with Grandal. It wasn’t so much that his projections were a run better, but that his kwERA was a run better with the good framers than with the bad framers.

    Finally, I have to disagree with Andy Zibuck’s comment that pitch-framers can’t help someone with poor control, but only someone with poor command. First of all, it seems as if there is pretty good evidence that pitch framers have helped Volquez, who has poor control. Second of all, control/command are pretty intertwined.

    Someone such as Volquez, who throws hard, has plenty of movement on his pitches, and has poor control, will probably benefit more from a good pitch farmer than someone who is a lot easier to catch (i.e. Mariano Rivera can make almost anyone look like a good framer due to his ability to hit spots).

    It’s pretty intuitive when you think about it, and if it’s worth anything, my experience as a college catcher and catching coach bears that out.

    Thanks,
    Chris

    • http://www.piratesprospects.com/author/admin Tim Williams

      Chris,

      It was a good article. I read it earlier in the day, then wrote this article later in the evening, working off memory. Thus the mistake of thinking you were referencing only the 2013 season.

      • chris moran

        Got it. Thanks again for the mention.

    • http://www.facebook.com/azibuck Andy Zibuck

      Chris, I define (broadly) control as the ability to throw strikes, and command as the ability to throw quality strikes. What’s intuitive then is that a pitcher that lacks control struggles to put the ball over the plate. A pitcher that lacks command struggles to place the ball where they want it, e.g., on or just off the corner.

      Again, broadly, it’s the difference between 2013 Jonathan Sanchez and 2013 Jeff Locke. Neither Russ Martin nor Jesus Christ himself could frame strikes out of the crap Sanchez threw. A young, still-developing finesse pitcher like Locke benefitted greatly.

      • chris moran

        I understand the definitions of control and command, but there are very few examples of a pitcher with good control and bad command.

        Also, not sure how Locke benefited greatly. He had the highest walk rate among all qualified starting pitchers. Maybe he’s a nibbler, but he’s pretty bad at it.

        Volquez in theory (and if those catchers splits mean anything in real life) is a pitcher that would really need a good catcher because the quality of his stuff and his poor control makes him especially tough to catch, thus really exposing the difference between a poor and good pitch framer.

  • CalipariFan506

    I think the idea of shifts will meet its match in the next few years as well. IMO there will always be shifting for home run hitters when that is applicable but shifting on every single batter in a lineup won’t last long. At some point when teams are shifting for the Rickie Weeks of the world like James wrote that great article about, the Rickie Weeks of the world will start poking and bunting. Then you’ll only be left shifting for Ortiz and guys of his ilk.

    • buster09

      And taking the long ball away from guys like Weeks or a Holliday is exactly what you want them to do. Let them poke or bunt all they want to.

  • stickyweb

    This is more appropriate in yesterday’s story, but figure more people will be seeing it here in today’s. I just pulled the SI Offseason Report Card for the Braves because I’m pretty sick of hearing that the Bucs (and also Orioles, tho I don’t care about them) simply have to do SOMETHING, ANYTHING, to have a successful offseason. So I checked on the Braves because everyone’s pretty much handing them a playoff spot again and I knew they lost McCann and Hudson, so I thought maybe they added someone that I missed. And here is the report card summary:

    “Preliminary Grade: B+

    It’s indisputable that the Braves allowed far more talent to leave than they added, but for a franchise that’s never been comfortable with an excessively high payroll, it was perhaps inevitable. Atlanta’s player development system has offset such losses, however, with an enviable churn of productive young players (Freeman, Heyward, Minor, et al.). The franchise extended the first of that group in Freeman this week and should have the resources to do the same with others, given they did not re-sign McCann or Hudson and have a new ballpark opening in a few seasons.

    The front office showed commendable restraint in not deviating from its proven long-term strategy that has served it well over the last two decades. After all, the club made so many moves last winter — the additions of both Uptons, most notably — that there wasn’t much work left to do.

    This is still a very good team destined for 90-plus wins and a neck-and-neck battled with the Nationals for the NL East crown, but they don’t deserve a grade in the A range when they didn’t appreciably improve for the coming season.”

    Now that is infuriating. I have no problem with the Bucs getting an F since they haven’t made any major additions, but how can the Braves not get an F also? And a B+ for God’s sake? They’ve lost McCann, Hudson, Maholm, a few bullpen pieces and a good 4th OF (Reed Johnson). They’ve added Gavin Floyd coming off Tommy John and missing at least a month or 2 and Ryan Doumit.

    They wouldn’t deserve a B+ if they hadn’t lost anything and signed those same 2 guys. It’s like SI is rtying to prove these rankings are complete garbage.

    And I just pulled up the Bucs report card again, which has this caption under the photo of AJ:
    “Even if A.J. Burnett returns to Pittsburgh, the Pirates have a lot of uncertainties in their starting rotation.”

    Yeah, if you consider a lot of uncertainty to be your #5 spot open and the contenders being a solid #3 coming off injury, a bounceback candidate that has put up solid #4 career peripherals, or a 2nd year guy that had #3/#4 stats last year.

    What a crock!

    • buster09

      You said it all Sticky. Not to pick on anyone individual, but why would any one give any credibility to people like Cliff Corcoran or a Dave Schoenfield ? And they never have to be accountable.

  • IC Bob

    Not to change the subject but should the Pirates be interested in Brett Wallace? Thought he had some potential as a 1B for the Astroes. I think he is GI Jones type player just younger.

  • http://www.facebook.com/daryl.restly Daryl Restly

    Hi Tim,

    A thought after reading your article…

    To me, it would seem that the margin between the best offensive teams and the worst offensive teams is not as drastic as the margin between the best fielding / pitching teams and the worst fielding / pitching teams. To me this was proven in 2012 when the Pirates struggled mightily for the first few months offensively, but their pitching and defense was very solid. Once the offense got hot in mid to late June and through July, the Pirates really took off. But once the pitching started faltering and Neil Walker missed some time (not saying his glove is Gold Glove caliber though), the Pirates faltered. Last year, the Pirates were able to maintain that pitching even with injuries to Wandy, Burnett, Grilli and plain out dissapointments like J. Sanchez. and the second half Jeff Locke. I attribute a huge part of that to Russell Martin, Ray Searage and some guys simply stepping up and improving their game.

    I think a correlation between baseball and football fits in nicely right about now. Everyone just saw the juggernaut offense of Peyton Manning and the Broncos get dismantled by pretty much a no-name team in Seattle. I’d be lucky to name ten starters on that team. I’d never even heard of the guy who won Super Bowl MVP for . Malcolm Smith was his name. Probably the only real big name guy they have in my mind is Russell Wilson. I remember when he was drafted by Seattle. Everyone said he was a high reward guy / high character guy. yet he didn’t get drafted until the 12th pick in the 3rd round. I guess the question every NFL GM beside Seattle should be asking, how do you pass on a guy like that, especially for guys that have injury issues or character issues. I digress…

    I think the thing that correlates the NFL to this article is that in the NFL, you don’t have to have a big name quarterback and a high powered offense to win it all. I believe you can field a very respectable team if you can play solid defense and have solid special teams (kicking, punting, kick return, punt return, coverage on both kick and punt return). It doesn’t matter if you win 49-0 in football or if you win 7-3, a win is still a win. Where it becomes crucial is when you need to pin the other team inside their own ten yard line, or a nice punt return or kick return at a critical moment. Or simply a 3rd down stop of the opposing offense. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that in 2007, the high powered offense Patriots went 16-0 and made it all the way to the Super Bowl only to be upset by a very good defense / special teams in the Giants. Likewise, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the high-powered offense Denver Broncos set all kinds of offensive records this year and made it all the way to the Super Bowl only to be dismantled by a strong defense / special teams in Seattle. Russell Wilson didn’t put up gaudy numbers in the Super Bowl, but he did what a good quarterback should do…don’t turn the ball over, convert 3rd downs, keep drives alive to eat up clock. Peyton Manning may have had the more gaudier passing yardage and completion numbers but that’s only because they were playing from behind from nearly the get-go.

    I remember back in 1995, the Carolina Panthers came into the NFL and I believe they went 7-9 their first year as a expansion franchise. The next year they made it all the way to the NFC championship game. They were able to do this mainly because they built their team with a strong special teams and strong defensive presence. As I said before, it doesn’t matter if you win 3-0 or 49-26. If anything, the 3-0 win in the NFL is more impressive.

    These same things apply to baseball. During the “steroid” era, everyone became enamored by the Home Run. But now that there is drug testing that is enforced, only so many legitimate home run guys can go down that path. Everyone else is lucky to squeeze out 10 – 20 home runs. To me, the key things in baseball are not walking guys, turning inning ending double-plays, keeping your pitch counts low, having your pitcher sacrifice a runner over to put him in scoring position, having a good eye at the plate and forcing the pitcher to either jack up his pitch count or pitch around you, steal an occasional stolen base. avoid the double-play, keep runners from getting large leads off bases, an occasional spectacular play from your defense, and a few key base hits. To me, I would much rather watch a 1-0 or 2-1 baseball game between two teams other than the Pirates any day of the week than a 12-11 game with 3 errors, a passed ball, 2 wild pitches, a caught stealing, 7 walks, a hit batsmen, 3 ejections…you get the point. That’s just sloppy baseball.