Buster Olney Ranks the Pirates Among the Best Defensive Teams

As was mentioned here yesterday, Buster Olney gave some very favorable rankings for the Pittsburgh Pirates, rating them near the top in baseball for their starting rotation, bullpen and lineup. I mentioned yesterday that their bench would likely rank very high once Jung Ho Kang is signed, but I missed out on the defensive side of things. Olney ranks the Pirates’ defense as the 8th best in the league, the same spot he has their bullpen and lineup.

The #8 spot may actually be a little low considering the outfield defense of Starling Marte, Andrew McCutchen and Gregory Polanco, plus the impressive season Jordy Mercer had on defense. The Pirates seem solid behind the plate with Francisco Cervelli and Chris Stewart, which he notes in the article(subscription required). Olney sort of gives the team a back-handed compliment when he says their overall defense, especially the play in the infield, has more to do with the positioning they use on defense. The defensive shifts the Pirates employ, makes players like Neil Walker and Jordy Mercer better defenders according to Olney.

The Pirates ranked fourth among NL teams on his list, trailing the Los Angeles Dodgers, St Louis Cardinals and Cincinnati Reds. All three of those teams rank in his top five.

John started working at Pirates Prospects in 2009, but his connection to the Pittsburgh Pirates started exactly 100 years earlier when Dots Miller debuted for the 1909 World Series champions. John was born in Kearny, NJ, two blocks from the house where Dots Miller grew up. From that hometown hero connection came a love of Pirates history, as well as the sport of baseball.

When he didn't make it as a lefty pitcher with an 80+ MPH fastball and a slider that needed work, John turned to covering the game, eventually focusing in on the prospects side, where his interest was pushed by the big league team being below .500 for so long. John has covered the minors in some form since the 2002 season, and leads the draft and international coverage on Pirates Prospects. He writes daily on Pittsburgh Baseball History, when he's not covering the entire system daily throughout the entire year on Pirates Prospects.

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w h

Defense is going to become a more AND less important moving forward when they move the fences in a round League, in an effort to generate more home runs.

Less important in the short term as balls will be flying out of the park. More important as teams develop sinker ball pitchers, and balls are kept in the infield. And strategies are developed like just hit the homerun hitters in the thigh…like Goldschmidt.


Walker is not even an average defender at 2nd…
Cutch is near the bottom of outfielders – not just centerfielders OUTFIELDERS – got to have led the league in number of batters going from 1st to 3rd on his weak arm – and I can recall at least a half a dozen singles he played into doubles last year.

Mercer is average to slightly above at SS
First base was a black hole last year – I would still like to see Pedro play third with someone like Morneau on first – the throwing errors picked up big time when Ike Davis took over at first.

Going into last year most reports I read thought Harrison was better fit at 2nd than 3rd.

I know the Pirates have invested a lot in analytics – so maybe they know something Fangraphs and other sites do not – but the Bucs are way behind St Louis and Cincy on defense in the Division.


Yes, Morneau would have made all the difference fielding at 1B last year. Assuming he could stand on Ike shoulders, he could have snatched at least 1/3 of Pedro’s throwing errors.

Lukas Sutton

Cutch has flaws in his defense, mostly his not great arm, but to say he is bottom of all outfielders is pretty absurd. Still has good speed and takes much better routes to the ball than he did as a younger player. Plus speed, good range, good ability to track the ball, below average arm. “I can recall” doesnt really mean much since i can recall about 5 highlight reel plays that saved runs he made. Statistically, with what defensive stats we do have, Cutch is at least average in the field if not above average.


DRS or UZR – take your pick – Cutch is awful compared to other outfielders – I am not making this up – check out fangraphs and baseball reference. Marte or Polanco would make a better Centerfielder for the bucs. De Nile is a river in Egypt – give me some facts to prove I am wrong on this or move on…

Lukas Sutton

Even just going by UZR or DRS (both with Cutch at 50ish) Cutch is top 50 level. Not great, not bottom barrel poor. With Marte being Marte and the speed and abilities of Polanco, Cutch being rated 50th best OF defender in baseball is fine….if they would only move him over to a corner OF spot.

Lukas Sutton

I agree Cutch is likely the worst OF on his team (which is awesome for PIT) but its just odd to call him bottom of all OFers. Even if you go with straight UZR, Cutch comes in at 50 with Marte at 30. Even taking that as truth, Cutch isnt bottom. More to the point, nearly any defensive stat available makes PIT overall look bad on defense. We have hit a point where we can look at our defense and go “we are a decent defensive team” and realize the relatively new defensive stats are missing something with PIT. So when UZR has Marte as the 30th best defensive OF in baseball for that stat, we can all agree something aint right. Maybe someone does think Jose Bautista is a better OF than Marte and agrees with UZR, but that aint right for me.

In my opinion, PIT has broken UZR and defensive metrics struggle to accurately portray some of what PIT does. When you look at Cutch and his tools, and look at what stats there are, he aint bottom in the OF. Not even bottom half.


if he has the reds in the top 5, i find little use for his rankings.


The Reds were the best fielding team in baseball according to Defensive Runs Saved and 4th best according to UZR.


i thought they are in rebuild mode


Not really rebuilding or going for it. Alfredo Simon isn’t good, and Matt Latos will be a free agent after the season. I don’t think they’re appreciably worse, or better, than last season.


I have read many times how Walker is not a great 2b, he lacks range and basically the same things have been said about Mercer. Harrison has not played a full season at 3rd and don’t know how he ranks but I think he may be avg. or above. 1B hasn’t been very good. I guess the last good one we had was Morneau .
So why would anybody take offense ?
I’m sure if there were gold gloves at all positions the Pirates IF would be rated the best.
So a small market team has a good defensive IF that is relatively inexpensive because of good strategy what is wrong with that?

Monsoon Harvard

Great idea! Now we just need a scout tracker, which would most likely reveal similar results.


“their overall defense, especially the play in the infield, has more to do with the positioning they use on defense”.
Buster that is the objective, they don’t have to use a UZR rating for a player, just position a decent player where he should be on the field, who knows maybe even Kang can actutally play MLB defense if he is positioned properly?
IMO, we are reaching the point where even the simplest things have to be made complicated.


Right on. Some of these computer geeks have spent so much time evaluating every aspect of the game that they forgot to look at the guys charting pitches and balls in play. So what is Walker doesn’t have the speed of some little singles hitter? With accurate charting, he will be in position most of the time. And, being 75 inches tall instead of 68, it means he will be able to get some of those line drives.

Ron Loreski

Instead of praising the Pirates for their elite defensive positioning,
he has to downplay it. There’s something to be said about knowing where
the ball is going to be hit instead of chasing it around.

Lukas Sutton

As has been said already, its pretty nice to have a guy who can chase it around well while also using the teams strategy of placing him in a good spot to begin with.


There’s also something to be said for having good defenders who can go get balls that aren’t hit where you expect them to be, which still happens way, way more than not.

Lee Foo Young

NMR…those are the kind *I* prefer. 🙂

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