Last year we focused on the defensive shifts that were employed by the Pittsburgh Pirates, aimed at getting better results for their ground ball heavy pitchers. James Santelli broke it down last summer, and pointed out the impact the shifts were having on the overall success of the team. As a side note, that article by James has been nominated for a SABR award, and the details to vote for the article can be found here.
The Pirates aren’t stopping their shifting plan with their infield. This year they plan to focus more on outfield shifts.
“We’ve actually dug deeper into our outfield defensive metrics as well, as far as positioning going into this season, for the guys who aren’t ground ball pitchers,” Clint Hurdle said today. “So it’s definitely something that we continue, as we continue to try and evolve as an organization and look for separators within the game that we can do better, based on the talent that we have.”
Outfield shifts aren’t new. Teams move their outfielders around all the time. The Pirates explored with some shifts a few years ago that were more on the extreme side, going with the no-triples defense. But the presence of speed in the outfield that the Pirates currently have could allow them to go beyond the typical outfield shifts that you see.
“One of the things that we’re going to have is an outfield strength of range — with Marte, and with McCutchen, and then with whoever might end up, all of the guys in that position in right field are going to have ground-covering ability,” Hurdle said. “So we think that we’re going to be more aggressive in some areas in our outfield defense, based on that alone.”
By mid-season, the Pirates could see an increase to that range. Gregory Polanco is expected to come up in the second half of the season, which would give the Pirates three center fielders in the same outfield. Right field is smaller than left or center, but having a center fielder like Polanco in right field could allow the Pirates to shift him closer to center, while still having the range to get over to the line. That could allow the center fielder to fade closer to the Notch, helping to cut off that huge gap in the outfield. I asked Hurdle if that’s the type of plan the Pirates had in mind when Polanco eventually comes up.
“Absolutely. It comes into play,” Hurdle said about defending against the Notch. “The Notch is interesting, because if you track how many balls get hit to the Notch, and what hitters hit them to the Notch, what pitches are hit to the Notch. Neal talked about, when he first came in, his plan was to develop three center fielders to play in that outfield for that exact reason. And to have three men potentially down the road who have the abilities of a McCutchen, have the abilities of a Polanco and a Marte, there’s some tremendous things that we think we can do defensively to shorten the outfield, shrink the outfield for our pitchers.”
The Pirates had a pretty ground ball heavy pitching staff last year, and most of that staff is returning. The guys who could benefit the most from outfield shifts are Tony Watson (43.8% ground ball), Wandy Rodriguez (42.3% ground ball), Stolmy Pimentel (40.7% ground ball) and Jason Grilli (33% ground ball). The league average for ground balls was 44.5% last year. The Pirates, as a team, had a 52.5% ground ball rate.
The impact here will probably be different than the impact of infield shifts to prevent ground balls. The BABIP on fly balls is much lower than the BABIP on ground balls. The Pirates won’t have the opportunity to take many additional hits away. However, they might have the opportunity to take additional bases away by limiting triples to doubles, and doubles to singles. The isolated power on ground balls in 2013 was .020, which means that almost every ground ball that went for a hit was limited to a single. By comparison, the isolated power for fly balls in play (non-home runs) was .066. That’s higher than ground balls, but not a significant difference.
The area where the Pirates could hope to make a bigger difference would be with line drives. The BABIP for line drives in 2013 was .657, and the isolated power on those hits was .212. The Pirates are already ahead of the curve in that regard, probably due to Marte and McCutchen already being in the outfield. Their BABIP for line drives was .627, and their ISO on those hits was .185. The ISO was the sixth best in the majors, although they could still improve, as the top team (the Milwaukee Brewers) had a .149 ISO.
It will be interesting to see how the Pirates get creative with the outfield shifts, especially once Polanco arrives and gives them three center fielders in the outfield.