Pirates Are Ranked Near the Top in Defense

On Monday morning, Buster Olney continued his rankings of the best Major League teams in each category. On Friday, he had the Pirates ranked 11th among the best lineups, fifth among National League teams. Monday’s article covered the best defensive teams in the majors, and he has the Pirates ranked fourth overall(subscription required).

The Pirates trail the Royals, Diamondbacks and Marlins in his rankings. Olney points to the strong defense in the outfield, as well as Francisco Cervelli behind the plate, with Chris Stewart also providing strong defense in the backup role. He also points to their defensive positioning/use of shifts as a reason to rank them so high. The Pirates should also be better on defense just by subtraction with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez gone.

This is the first list Olney has that really looks good for the Pirates compared to their top competition in the NL Central. The Cubs and Cardinals have both received favorable ratings in every other category, with the Cubs finishing in the top five in multiple categories last week. Olney wraps up his rankings with the top teams in baseball and the these three NL Central teams could all make the top five.

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Rob W

Why do I keep hearing the folks on MLB radio talk about Walker in such positive terms when they discuss the Mets upgrades? Never hear them mention poor defense.


The simple answer is that they are talking upgrades. Very few sportscasters mentioned his defense (good or bad) when he was the 2B for the Pirates. He was deemed to be unsignable by the Pirates/would be a FA after 2016, and that is the reason he was let go. It made it a lot easier to get a SP back who has 3 control years remaining. I think Niese and Walker will both do well for their teams in 2016.

Olney did a decent job, and 4th is probably a stretch, but I sure as hell hope we are looking to transition young ballplayers like Bell and Hanson to the Pirates and not depend on Harrison to be a long term solution at 2B, or anybody other than Bell at 1B. It may be painful at times, but at least we will be moving forward with talented young position players who will be locked in for 6 or 7 years.

I hope to see at least 5 new pitcher/position additions from AAA to the active roster in 2016. The Pirates planned for this for years and now is the best possible time to make these changes.


The internet loves lists.

Bill W

Olney basis a lot on shifts. If your first base man can catch a ball thrown to him then it significantly enhances the defense. Can “and others” catch a baseball? Can your second baseman move one step to the right and two steps to the left? Then this significantly improves your defense. Better defense means better pitching. I drank the Kool aide when Alvarez and Walker were sent packing.


I have a hard time understanding folks that reflexively laud the improvements at 1B and 2B.

Yes, both positions are likely upgraded defensively. No, upgrading the definitively and arguably worst defenders at their respective positions in baseball does not equate to “good”.

Harrison had certain writers predicting Gold Glove performances at 3B in 2015 based on a superb +9 DRS during his ridiculous 2014 I’m-all-the-sudden-f*cking-great-at-everything-I-do season, and those predictions turned out to be awful premature. Harrison may have the tools to be a fine two bagger, but lack of experience should absolutely be considered a factor at the skill positions up the middle. An improvement over Walker, yes, but also quite possibly the kind of guy that a heavy-GB staff leaves exposed.

As for the Jaso/Rogers/Morse/Bell clusterf, again, it’ll be a matter of perspective…

Brian Bernard

I really can’t argue your position here at all NMR, completely agree that there is no way we can define this tossed together infield as good or even better defensively as it hasn’t played a single inning.
However, I’ll be happy if the defense is the same and the offensive side is markedly better which is also hard to say is the case. We shall see.


I’ll add that I can certainly see how this infield *could* end up being very good defensively, but in the context of this article ranking top defensive teams in the league *at this moment* I struggle to make a solid argument for the Pirates because of the unknowns in the infield.


Wrong side of the bed this AM I see. Who are you using to get that ” perspective ” ? Alvarez, who was a TOTAL disaster defensively, with a near historically bad season at 1st base ?


Uh, yeah.

As in, the only perspective from which Jaso/Rogers/Morse/Bell look good defensively is one accustomed to watching Alvarez fumble the position in historic fashion.


If Morse gets the bulk of playing time at 1st, he is competent…
The other 3 are amateur hour


Not that I think the Pirates/Hurdle have infallible judgement of hitter/positions players, but Morse is the guy whom inspired such confidence last summer that Aramis Ramirez was getting starts over him. That continued this winter with a acquisition of a 28 yo, same-handed corner utility guy who can’t actually play the corners other than 1B.

If Mike Morse is getting the bulk of playing time, it would seem like a long series of unfortunate events have already happened and marginal improvement to 1B defense is the silverest of linings…


Agree..my thought was only that his defense was competent compared to the other 3


Harrison and Jaso/Morse are upgrades defensively over their predecessors.

Brian Bernard

I believe Neil gets a really bad wrap on his defense and any sites that rate it are meaningless to me. I’ve been watching the game for 40 years and he was an above average defensive player at the position and everyone knew it after watching him there for only a few games when he first switched. He was athletic, instinctive, consistent, and mostly very coordinated with his ability to quickly and accurately turn two. I’ll be impressed if any player this year turns in a season as consistently good as Neil turned in year after year at the position.


Considering their actual defensive performance last year (such as Stewart’s), and the major questions at first base and second base, I find this mind-boggling. On what basis does he draw this ridiculous conclusion?
I wish it was true, but we’re not even close to being a top flight defensive team – look at last year’s stats and see where the team ranked. The Orioles are a much better defensive team than the Pirates – its not even close.
Yes, getting Alvarez off first base helps, but we don’t know how the new guys will perform there.
As for the statement about Stewart, does he even do any research before he writes?? Apparently not….this is hilarious. He has zero credibility after this absurd conclusion.


Overall, though, the defense is strong. Harrison is not a question mark defensively at second base, he’s been a utility player for a few years who’s been good at every position he’s tried, and 2B and 3B are his two most comfortable positions. Mercer is an above average defensive shortstop (the questions with him have always been the bat), Kang (when he’s healthy again) presented as somewhere between above-average and very good defensively at 3B thanks in no small part to that incredible arm of his, and our corner outfielders are obviously very good, especially Marte.

If Jaso is passable, the defense will be really good, and I don’t think a top-5 ranking is unreasonable at all.

Bruce Humbert

Mercer is not above average – generally ranks in the 14/15 range of ML SS…
And yes the corner OF guys are very good – but the CF is at bas a fair to poor CF at this point in his career…

This is one guys opinion – I am sure Buster ran his thoughts past some folks to make sure he was not being totally stupid – but it is hare for me to put the Bucs in the top ten defenses with so many unknowns – we don’t know how good J-Hay will be as a full time 2nd baseman – we don’t know if Jaso will learn the position in time to be an effective alternative to Pedro. We don’t know if Kang will start the season at 3rd and if he will continue to be as effective as he seemed to be last year.


What ranks are you looking at with Mercer? His Def is held down last year because he was hurt for several weeks and it’s an aggregate stat, but he ranked between 7 and 11 in every rate metric last year expanding the list to allow few enough PA for him to qualify. In 2014, when he did qualify, his rank in various defensive metrics ranged from 5th to 12th among qualified fielders and he didn’t suffer much in anything but UZR/150 when reducing the PA to 350 to expand the list.

Mercer is an above-average shortstop defensively.

Brian Bernard

Mercer shows consistent and average play defensively – I would hesitate greatly to say he is above average.
Jumpin Jack Flash leaves him in the dust.
He better start to develop that bat or he just might lose the job to Kang on a permanent basis too. Rodgers might be a better play at 3rd, leaving Mercer to fight for PT at 2nd with Harrision.


That’s an aggregate stat, total value contributed by defense. Look at the innings game between Mercer and most of the folks ahead of him. At his pace with his usual workload, he probably lands somewhere near Bogaerts.


As Olney wrote….it’s defense positioning with Mercer.
Without that he is nowhere near the average SS in range.

Luke S

1) Positioning still is a thing Mercer will do, so yay PGH for using shifts and

2) I dont think thats clear at all. He’s not plus plus in range, but he’s able to range plenty well enough to be at least average or better.


I understand what you are saying, but I see no comparison between the Pirates individual parts and those of say the Royals, Dodgers, DBacks, Cardinals, etc. Our catchers can “frame pitches”, but cannot throw out base stealers. The guys you mention – Mercer, Kang, Harrison – are all competent, but none are even remotely Gold Glove candidates. I am hopeful for improvement over last year’s dismal defense, but to say “top 5”, that is a huge stretch in my opinion – since most of the same players are involved, and they are not young players (except for Polanco), who you would expect improvement over time.


At present, you’re talking about an infield that has exactly one fielder whose ever started at their current position.

That doesn’t worry you at all?

Brian Bernard



What do you mean by that? Kang saw over 500 innings at 3B last year, and he did quite well there. Harrison has over 600 career innings at 2B and has consistently been above-average to good there by both UZR and DRS.

Kang also was used all over the field in Korea to keep his bat in the lineup, and Harrison came up as a utility man, so I’m not concerned about their ability to make the switch to these new full-time roles.


I know everyone is encouraged by Instagram videos and all, but it still seems optimistic to assume Kang at full speed early in the season, let alone Opening Day.

Harrison has over 600 innings at 2B, but spread over five seasons. I don’t believe any single year is a stabilized sample size (someone please correct me if I’m wrong!), and adding up a bunch of SSS seasons isn’t how you get to a representative sample. I specifically used his two-year work at 3B as an example of how defensive metrics can be difficult to project. I personally think it’s optimistic to project him as more than middle of the pack. Strip away the JOSH HARRISON replacing Neil Walker context and I’m not sure folks would really be that stoked.

Brian Bernard

Not stoked, but also not overly concerned about a significant dropoff to be clear.


The numbers alone don’t make Harrison’s case, but they do fail to counter the eyeball test, which shows Harrison has good speed which he effectively translates into good range, and that his arm is good enough to play on the left side of the infield, which also means it’s going to play well at second. And that’s what the scouting on him was as he came up through the minors.

His struggles at third base last year, though, were mostly the product of errors, (-2 ErrR, his RngR was above average still, and consistent with his previous work there) and given how much he was also pressing at the plate when he was committing those errors, I’m inclined to attribute that to pressing in all aspects. I think he’s learned his lesson. And even with the struggles, his DRS was an even 0 at 3B last year.

As for Kang, I’m fully aware we’re going to start the season without him, but he showed an ability to get to full speed pretty quickly as a bench player last year, so I’m not expecting too much down time once he’s healthy and in the lineup. For the bulk of the season, we should have a pretty solid Kang at third. I’m much more worried about his bat coming off the injury than his glove.


If the “eye test” (immediate red flags) shows 2B range and enough arm, doesn’t it at all make you question why 3B is considered to be his best position? I haven’t been terribly impressed with how his hands and feet work at 2B, which is where my question of experience comes into play. Can’t simply stick a good athlete up the middle and expect that to translate to plus.

The rest of that explanation simply confirms you’re simply taking an optimistic view of the infield, and that’s certainly fine.


I don’t think Mercer is an above average defensive SS…
His only + is he listens well when the coaches tell him where to stand. He can field and throw a ground ball hit right at him. My opinion that’s not above ave.

Arik Florimonte

fangraphs gives him a career 8 DRS, but it was all in 2013. The other 3 years have been basically average. I think the jury is still out. But it is nice that he hardly ever makes a throwing error.


That’s a bit extreme, but I do think 4th is a generous ranking. One could reasonably shuffle 4-10 or so and have a fine argument for each. Pirates just happened to end up at the top.


We really don’t know that Jaso or Bell will be better than Pedro. Odds are good but if they are only 10% better that can’t be looked at as much of anything because they would still be well deficient. I think if 1B ends up being even slightly below avg and Kang is a plus 3B and Harrison well above average at 2B, then you move Cutch off CF…then you have a huge cumulative result.

Luke S

We dont “know” that, but history shows that Pedro is an outlier. Articles have already been written about why Pedro isnt a likely outcome for a player going from one spot to another. Particularly with Jaso, because moving from C to 1B has a long list of guys that didnt suddenly become worst in the league.


The one “article” you’re probably thinking of was far from scientific and unquestionably guilty of survivor bias.

What made Alvarez do special wasn’t simply that he was bad, but that his club stuck with him long enough for that lack of skill to result in the laughable numbers cited. Few players have ever been given that leash to hang themselves with after displaying such poor aptitiude.


It’s awful to talk about the fact that Pedro was historically bad. At least we all have something we can say we got to see that few will ever see again.


Stewart has been a good defensive catcher for years. He’s 36.7 runs above average by FanGraphs’ Def stat, including +2.2 last year, and a +1 DRS. The samples with Stewart for each season, though, are far too tiny to draw any conclusions, and for his career, he’s posted consistently good defensive stats, so it’s perfectly fair to conclude that Stewart is, in fact, a good defensive catcher.


I would love to know how having a top defensive club ha historically translated to wins and losses.

dr dng

Great question… I’d like to know that too.

You can’t defend balls hit over the fence.


Well, the Royals used great defense, a lights out bullpen, and timely hitting to get to the WS two years in a row. But, the Pirates are no where near the Royals defensively, except in LF and CF. Other than those positions, its all Royals by a mile.


Like any elite skill–elite pitching staffs, elite power, elite baserunning–I would guess defense can’t stand alone. Defense plays up pitching and cuts down the need for offense, but elite pitching and/or offense can cover up shortcomings on defense. Even so, none of them can stand alone.

The Royals, for example, won a World Series with elite defense, but they also had a historically good contact-hitting team and great baserunners.


“The Pirates should also be better on defense just by subtraction with Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez gone.”

Yes. They need to be. Because at least with the first few months Niese, Vogelsong, and Locke cannot afford the extra outs. The last few years it has felt like the pitching carried them early while the gloves and bats knocked off the rust. Not sure they have that luxury this time around, while Searage figures out this staff and pen.

Brian Bernard

What bats is the question. What is the starting infield at this point?
Rodgers 3b
Mercer SS
Harrison 2b
Jaso 1b
There are more than a few question marks on the capability of these bats – and gloves. I’m as hopeful as the next – even noted that Jaso may be a better signing than Zobrist – but questions there are, no doubt.


No way is Aaron Rodgers or Jason Rogers playing 3rd. You need start killing that rumor before guys like NMR give it legs. 🙂

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