Moneyball Takes the Field: Gold Gloves, Team Positioning, and the Pittsburgh Pirates

A friend sent me a nice post by a fellow named Pat Lackey, at the wonderfully named Pirates site “Where Have You Gone, Andy Van Slyke”. Lackey lightly laments baseball’s failure to award any Pirates a Gold Glove award. Then he says why he thinks the award is silly and the Pirates’ defense great: Because team positioning matters more than individual extra-excellence.

It seems to me that the more that we learn about defense, the more that it seems clear that defense is very much about positioning and about defense as a whole rather than defense as an individual effort. I’d be willing to bet that having Starling Marte beside him for most of the season is part of the reason that Andrew McCutchen scored better in the advanced fielding metrics in 2013. The Pirates’ infield featured no real standout defenders besides Clint Barmes, who more or less lost his job at mid-season, and yet they were incredibly efficient at turning ground balls into outs because the Pirates were as good or better at putting their players in the right places than any other team.

So how are the Pirates doing this? The team went from low in the league D ratings to 5th over the last few years. TribLIVE, another Pirates site, says it was part of a deliberate and radical reworking of the D — which itself came out of a determination to improve despite having little ability to upgrade the roster. In other words, forget getting better players; let’s help these players simply play better. Let’s find a ways to put them in front of the balls that come off the bats.

The key event was a meeting a week after the end of the (bad) 2012 season:

The meeting led to … an agreement to adopt perhaps the most aggressive, systematic approach to run prevention — from alignment to pitching strategy — in baseball history….

The Pirates experimented with a comprehensive defensive philosophy the past several seasons, but this was different.

  • Position players had to change. They had to shift from areas of the field where they had been stationed their entire careers and trust the pitching staff’s ability to locate pitches.
  • Pitchers had to change. The staff had to rely on a new primary pitch and trust the radical defensive alignments behind them.
  • Old-school coaches had to change. Coaches trained in 20th century baseball orthodoxy had to trust 21st century concepts.

The club’s improvement would not come through adding Gold Glove-caliber fielders or pricey free agent pitchers but rather improving the sum of its defensive parts.

It’s something like Moneyball, except instead of reworking how you value players, you rework how you coordinate the actions of the players on field. One more reason to watch the Pirates. It’ll be interesting to see if and how other teams try to adjust.

Links:

No Gold Gloves for the Pirates (and a minor rant about defense) | October 2013 | Pittsburgh Pirates.

Aggressive defensive plan has led to Pirates’ turnaround | TribLIVE

Hat-tip to my old friend David Lasday.

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