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'Free 90s' add up for Pirates

| Sunday, July 15, 2012, 12:01 a.m.
The Pirates' Casey McGehee slides into second base with a double against the Astros Monday July 2, 2012 at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)
Christopher Horner
The Pirates' Casey McGehee slides into second base with a double against the Astros Monday July 2, 2012 at PNC Park. (Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review)

Andrew McCutchen aside, the Pirates don't have many burners on the bases. But a lack of stopwatch-scorching speed hasn't kept them from making fielders sweat.

If there's a chance to get in scoring position, manager Clint Hurdle wants to take it.

“I really feel it's got to be a part of our identity to be aggressive on the bases,” Hurdle said. “Look for free 90s.”

Those “free 90s” add up. The Pirates lead the majors in Ultimate Base Runs, which gauge a team's base-running skill in categories like taking an extra base when possible; advancing on ground outs, fly outs, passed balls and wild pitches; and avoiding getting caught while doing so. It does not include stolen-base attempts.

The Pirates have been eight runs better than an average base-running team, according to UBR. Those extra runs — which could make the difference in a tight NL Central race with the Reds (+1.2 UBR) and Cardinals (-2.4) — come from savvy more than speed, first base coach Luis Silverio said.

“You have to know the situation, know the score and know the outfielder's arm,” Silverio said. “It's something we talk about in advanced meetings, who you can run on and who you need to be careful of. If we're up by one or two runs, we want that third run in scoring position.”

The Pirates have posted the game's best UBR mark by striking a balance between aggression and pragmatism. They have taken an extra base 41 percent of the time, seventh-best in the National League and are tied with the Diamondbacks for the fewest outs made on the bases (19).

“It's something we talked about in spring training: being as aggressive as we can be but at the same time staying smart with it,” third baseman Josh Harrison said. “We want to put pressure on the other team and take as many bases as we can.”

The Pirates' performance is a marked improvement over 2011. They cost themselves eight runs on the bases last year, ranking 27th in the majors in UBR. Pirates runners took an extra base 38 percent of the time and ranked toward the middle of the pack in outs made on the bases.

“We're a year older, and I think that experience makes you a little smarter,” said Neil Walker, the team's best base runner according to UBR. “We're a much smarter team and a much more prepared team than we were last year.”

“There has been a cutting-teeth period over the past year and a half,” Hurdle said. “They're getting to the point where they realize they won't be branded when they come back to the dugout if they make mistakes.

“It becomes a freedom and part of their mentality. It becomes a part of their DNA when they take the field and play the game. Now we're starting to see some of the benefits of that.”

David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.

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