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Pirates notebook: Shifts, speedy outfield make defense elite

| Thursday, June 20, 2013, 2:09 p.m.
Pirates second baseman Neil Walker tags out the Reds' Joey Votto on a stolen-base attempt in the first inning Thursday, June 20, 2013.

CINCINNATI – The Pirates successfully have worked around a number of injuries to starting pitchers, in large part because of their defense. No team has converted more batted balls into outs than the Pirates.

They entered Thursday's series finale at Cincinnati with the best baseball defensive efficiency in baseball. The Pirates have converted an MLB-best 73.1 percent of opponents' batted balls into outs. The major league average is 70.7 percent.

The Pirates, who have used 11 starting pitchers this season, have fielded the most efficient defense despite being without projected Gold Glove winners in the infield.

Manager Clint Hurdle credits some of the success to the team's increased use of defensive shifts, created from analytical scouting reports. The Pirates have increased their use of shifts this season.

“To think a book is the answer? No. Part of the answer? Absolutely,” said Hurdle of the team's advanced defensive scouting reports. “You still have to have people who can catch the ball and make plays. There were plays made (Wednesday) that the book didn't have. But there are plays we make because of our analysis and our strategic defensive systems.”

Among the plays the book didn't have was Jordy Mercer's throw from deep in the hole to get Zack Cozart at first on Tuesday, and Starling Marte's diving catch in the series opener Monday on a Brandon Phillips fly ball, which saved a run.

The book helps the Pirates, but so does having Andrew McCutchen in center field and the speedy Marte in left.

Pirates add pitching depth

The Pirates recalled reliever Duke Welker from Indianapolis and sent outfielder Alex Presley back to Triple-A. The Pirates sought an extra arm for their upcoming West Coast trip and to take some of the burden off their bullpen. Welker is 3-1 with three saves and a 2.78 ERA in Triple-A. He has 34 strikeouts and 20 walks in 35 23 innings.

Pirates, 1st pick negotiating

Grayson (Ga.) High outfielder Austin Meadows said Thursday he has not yet reached a contract agreement with the Pirates but that “we are still negotiating.”

Meadows was selected ninth overall in the draft. The Pirates signed their second first-round pick, Reese McGuire, on Tuesday.

Burnett provides brief update

A.J. Burnett said he was “doing great” when asked Thursday about his strained calf.

Burnett was placed on the 15-day disabled list last week. He has not been seen in a walking boot for several days and walked away from his brief interview Thursday without much of a limp.

Hurdle said on Wednesday Burnett had been “nowhere” near a mound.

Gomez nearing return

Jeanmar Gomez threw five innings of no-hit, shutout baseball Wednesday for Triple-A Indianapolis. Hurdle said Gomez probably does not need another rehab assignment before rejoining the Pirates. Gomez threw his sinker at 88-93 mph and threw his 26 of his 33 fastballs for strikes.

“He could very well be close to being back in the mix,” Hurdle said.

Hurdle declined to answer when asked if Thursday's start for Brandon Cumpton is expected to be the last for the rookie call-up. The Pirates are in search of pitching depth as they enter the road trip without 80 percent of their Opening Day rotation.

Marte warming

Since making an adjustment to slow down his approach and let pitches travel further, Marte has gone 13 for his last 41. He's also stolen seven bases in that period.

Travis Sawchik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at tsawchik@tribweb.com or via Twitter @Sawchik_Trib.

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