The Pirates’ Infield Defense Looks Scary, But Help Could Arrive Soon

We had one final question left over from last week’s Q&A. The question was about the 2019 infield defense, and I had a bit more to say about this subject, including a look at the prospects who could eventually take over. I also decided to test a theory on the value of infield defense compared to the changes in the game. Spoiler alert: the theory didn’t work out, but I decided to show the work, so that all the stat pulling and analysis wasn’t for nothing (which happens a lot).

Here was the question:

Mark F: A large part of the Pirates’ rise in 2013 was run prevention. They could put a handful of runs on the board, but consistently limited the damage on the other side through shifts and solid defense. By 2018, that focus on defense (which is cheaper than paying for offense) seems to gone by the wayside, at least in regards to the infield. Why the organizational change? Seems like they are stuck on that path for 2019, looking at an infield Moran-Newman-Frazier-Bell. All sub-par defensively; taken together, pretty scary. Why consistently put yourself in a situation in which you are conceding an extra run or so a game?

The question here raises a valid concern about the infield defense. My response to the actual question is agreement that the Pirates do have an infield defense issue, although it appears to be short-term. I’ll get to that a bit later. What follows is a long explanation of a theory I wanted to test, which didn’t work out. If you want, you can skip ahead past all of that.

The question did spark my interest in a theory about the value of infield defense, especially with today’s game changes. In 2013, it made a lot of sense to focus on infield defense. You could have a strategy where you focused on generating ground balls, all while trying to maximize those grounders with strong defenders. A prime example of this would be the Pirates.

The game is much different today. Hitters are focusing on fly balls and strikeouts are up. There hasn’t been a massive shift in the ground ball/fly ball numbers. Grounders were at 44.5% in 2013, and trended up to 45.3% in 2015. They trended down the next few years to 43.2%. Likewise, fly balls were at 34.3% in 2013, down to 33.8% in 2015, and then back up to 35.4% last year. So while the fly ball rates are up, and the ground ball rates are down, it’s not a massive amount where the infield isn’t important anymore.

There are fewer balls in play now, with a strikeout percentage that has gone from 19.9% in 2013 to 22.3% in 2018, constantly trending up along the way. That, combined with a slight reduction in grounders, could have an impact on the value of infield defense, especially from 2015 to now.

I decided to look at how infield and outfield defense correlated to a few key stats using Defensive Runs Saved. I picked DRS over UZR because UZR excludes shift plays, which has played a key role in infield defense over the past six seasons. The results didn’t really show much.

I first looked at the correlation between team DRS and win totals, which was typically insignificant and inconsistent. There was one year (2016) where the correlation between infield defense and team wins was high (0.615), but the number was typically 0.2 or under, and didn’t have any noticeable trends. The same existed for the outfield, which was more consistent in the 0.3-0.4 range (four out of six years), but not much difference in the 2013-15 and 2016-18 periods.

Wins really wouldn’t be a good way to draw a correlation, since so many things go into a team win beyond just the defense of one section of the field. You’ve also got pitchers, hitters, defense behind the plate, and so on.

I next moved on to ERA, which kind of showed the opposite of what you’d expect, based on the trends. The correlation in 2013-14 was 0.23-0.25, which isn’t strong. That actually went up to 0.4-0.45 in 2016-17, which is stronger, indicating that infield defense had a bigger impact on ERA in the latter time period. But there was also a weird trend where there was absolutely zero correlation in 2015 (when ground balls were at their highest) and a 0.1 correlation in 2018, which doesn’t match the previous two years, and might be an outlier.

In the outfield, the trends were also not what you would expect. The correlation to ERA was 0.46, 0.23, and 0.35 respectively from 2013-15. There has been an upward trend the last three years, going 0.29, 0.33, and 0.40. Perhaps that backs up the idea that outfield defense is becoming more important, although it doesn’t explain why infield defense has had a stronger correlation in 2016-17.

Finally, I wanted to look at the difference between team ERAs and FIPs, figuring this might give a better indication of the defensive impacts, while removing the skill of the pitchers. If an ERA is lower than the FIP, then the pitcher benefited from good defense. If the ERA is higher, the pitcher probably had some bad defense. This isn’t exact, and might not be the best approach though, since FIP can also remove park factors and poor luck from year-to-year.

The results still didn’t show anything. The infield correlation was 0.22-0.23 in 2013-14 and down to 0.13 in 2015. It went up to 0.36 in 2016, 0.60 in 2017, and down to 0.25 in 2018. Those are better, but not a clear trend, and not consistent. The outfield numbers were 0.53, 0.34, and 0.50 from 2013-15, and 0.19, 0.16, and 0.41 from 2016-2019. Again, no clear trend, although interesting that the numbers were higher in the years where there were more ground balls.

If you look at the three year correlations (2013-15 and 2016-18), the infield correlation here goes from 0.19 to 0.33 and the outfield correlation goes from 0.45 to 0.26. That would show that infield defense has a stronger correlation in the last three years compared to 2013-15, while outfield defense has seen its correlation go down.

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The above is basically a long way of saying that I couldn’t find any correlation between the batted ball and hitting trends, and the value of infield defense. You’d think that infielders would be less valuable now, and that infield defense would have a smaller impact with fewer grounders and fewer balls in play due to strikeouts. You could make an argument that the value of infield defense is slightly higher now than it was in 2013-15, since the correlations have gone up. But still, you’re not talking about strong correlations.

The takeaway I’d have is that infield defense is still important, but not the only thing toward winning. The reason the correlations are probably low are due to the many other factors you need to win, to put up a good ERA, and so on.

You can see that when you look at the 2013 Pirates. Their pitching ranked 3rd in FIP and xFIP. Their offense was middle of the pack, ranking 16th in wOBA and 12th in wRC+. Their defense was good that year, with 23 DRS in the outfield, and 24 in the infield. It wasn’t just their infield defense that led them to being good. It was strong pitching, independent of the defense, and strong outfield defense, along with average offensive results. The team had holes and needs, but it wasn’t just one strength, and there wasn’t one glaring weakness.

Let’s look at the 2019 team in the same regard. The pitching looks promising. The offense has some question marks, ranking 20th last year in wOBA, and 16th in wRC+. The outfield defense is solid, assuming Corey Dickerson repeats his Gold Glove level play. But as the question above noted, the infield defense looks weak.

There are two glaring areas where this team needs to improve: offense and infield defense. The problem with the current team makeup is that you need to pick one or the other.

The biggest holes in the infield for defense are first and third base. But those are also two of the biggest areas for potential offensive upside on the team. Josh Bell had a down year last year — his second full year in the majors — but has shown offensive ability already in the majors, and has yet to fully tap into his offensive upside. His defense is poor, and probably won’t ever provide full value, but he could make up for that with his offense.

The same goes for Colin Moran. He’s got a lot of raw power, but didn’t show much of that in his rookie season last year. His defense at third base isn’t strong, which means he needs the bat to carry him like Bell.

Adam Frazier actually posted good defensive numbers at second base last year, but I would hesitate to use half a season of defensive stats for a player to project anything going forward. His value would be the offense he could provide, which was also up last year, and might be a bit safer to project going forward. I do think you could make an argument that Frazier will be the best defender of this group, which is probably telling of the group, even if Frazier can repeat positive value in 2019.

Kevin Newman isn’t a liability defensively, and can provide value with his defense at shortstop. However, I have concerns about the value of his bat due to a lack of power, and I don’t think his defense can make up for those concerns in 2019. I specify “in 2019” because Newman’s bat could improve, but he’ll probably struggle in his first year in the majors.

The Pirates could have decent defense up the middle with Frazier and Newman, while having bad defense at the corners. But that wouldn’t be as big of an issue if the bats come alive at the corners, and if Frazier repeats his 2018 offense, and if Newman can hit for average. I think the Pirates are better off gambling on the bats of the corner guys, rather than going for stronger defense with lower offensive upside. I also think they’d do well to get a shortstop who is strong defensively, even with a lack of offense, as that could be an upgrade over Newman, and could allow Newman to ease in as a utility infielder.

Ultimately what the Pirates need are guys who can do it all. That’s where the upper levels of the minors will provide a key focus for the 2019 season.

The brightest star in the minors is Ke’Bryan Hayes, who projects to have plus defense value, and could be a Gold Glove quality guy at third base. He also saw improvements with his offense and power production last year, and could be a good hitter and defender at third base in the future.

At shortstop, the focus is on Cole Tucker, who has better defense than Newman, along with more offensive upside. The key here is that he’s mostly been tools and potential for the upside, and has yet to consistently apply those tools to the games. If he can do that in 2019 with Indianapolis, it would provide hope that the Pirates will have a shortstop who can provide value on both sides of the ball.

Adam Frazier will get his shot to prove that 2018 wasn’t a fluke, and that he can provide value on both sides. But Kevin Kramer looks like the best option in the future, with positive defensive value at second, and good offensive potential. His offense really struggled in his brief first look in the majors, but he might have better results the next time around, after some more work in the minors.

Then there’s first base, where Will Craig emerged with some power production last year, and combined that with a high average and OBP in the AFL. He’s got better defense than Josh Bell, and if he can show in 2019 that he can combine power with his usual average and OBP, then the Pirates might have a better option in Craig to solve their future issues (assuming Bell doesn’t suddenly reach his full offensive upside, which is higher than Craig’s).

Hayes, Tucker, Kramer, and Craig provide hope that the Pirates can have a future infield that provides value on both sides of the ball. The issue here is that all four are prospects, and no prospect is guaranteed. All of them have specific things to work on, and the only one I’d be comfortable projecting positive value on both sides right now is Hayes, who has the least to work on.

In summary, the Pirates do have an infield defense problem in 2019, but they also have an offensive problem as well. I think the offense is a bigger priority, which is where banking on improvements from Bell and Moran makes more sense. I also think that there should be a big focus on those infielders in Triple-A and their progress in 2019, with the hope that the Pirates can solve both the offense and infield defense in the future, ideally as soon as possible.

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