Aggressive defensive plan has led to Pirates' turnaround
By Travis Sawchik
Published: Saturday, Sept. 14, 2013, 10:26 p.m.
A week after last season ended, after the Pirates completed their second consecutive collapse, general manager Neal Huntington met manager Clint Hurdle at his Hampton home.
With little money to spend on free agents, few impact prospects ready for 2013 and many outside the organization calling for a regime change, Huntington and Hurdle discussed how to get more production from their returning roster.
The meeting led to the success behind the Pirates' first winning season since 1992: an agreement to adopt perhaps the most aggressive, systematic approach to run prevention — from alignment to pitching strategy — in baseball history.
“It's the conversation where we decided to push all the chips in,” Hurdle said. “It's the most aggressive presentation and defensive program I've ever been around.”
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.
The plan has been a success.
In 2010, the year before Hurdle arrived, the Pirates ranked last in defensive efficiency — or batted balls converted to outs. For much of this summer, the Pirates have ranked first in defensive efficiency. According to Defensive Wins Above Replacement, the Pirates' defense has added 12.8 wins to the club vs. its 2010 level of performance, the difference between a winning season and a losing one.
A radical shift
A defensive shift is defined as when three infielders line up to one side of second base. In 2011, the Pirates shifted their infield 87 times. In 2012, the Pirates shifted 105 times. The Pirates have shifted a club-record 414 times in 2013, through Sept. 6, according to Baseball Info Solutions.
Since the origins of the game, players took familiar places on the field. Infielders positioned themselves not based upon where balls were most often hit but so they were equidistant from other fielders.
In 2008, the Pirates hired Dan Fox to be their first data architect. Fox was a former writer at Baseball Prospectus and a computer science whiz. More than anyone, he changed the way the Pirates thought about defense.
Fox researched where balls historically most often had been hit. He took evidence to Huntington that suggested the Pirates should change their defensive alignment. Fox suggested the Pirates not only increase their use of shifts but also alter where defenders, particularly infielders, are placed in base defenses.
“We've played infield positions conventionally for years, but if you look at hundreds of thousands of balls put in play, data shows that we're actually off a little bit,” Huntington said.
The philosophy was not immediately accepted at the major league level, but the Pirates began shifting their base defense in the minor leagues in 2009. Since then, the club's minor league teams often have ranked first or second in defensive efficiency, Huntington said.
“That foundation was laid because of (assistant GM) Kyle (Stark) and Dan's willingness to implement it at the minor league level, those two recognizing where balls are actually hit,” Huntington said. “We saw results over time, and that approach transitioned to this staff and their willingness to (change).”
Positive results from the minor leagues made its way to Hurdle's email inbox, and, in 2011, he began paying close attention to Tampa Bay's dramatic shifts.
The Pirates ratcheted up defensive experimentation last year, but it wasn't until this season that they dramatically changed the way they play defense, increasing their use of shifts by 400 percent. The Rays had shifted 453 times through Sept. 6 this season, second-most in baseball. The Pirates rank fourth.
“We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training,” Hurdle said. “We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.
“I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument.”
There has been some resistance. Starting pitcher A.J. Burnett was visibly upset with shortstop Clint Barmes' positioning in a game at Texas last week. “I don't have a problem with Clint Barmes,” Burnett later told reporters. “I have a problem with (expletive) shifts.”
But most players have bought in. First baseman Garrett Jones said the evidence was compelling.
“I think it's worked for us more than it hasn't,” Jones said. “We've taken away a lot of big hits. A lot of teams do it some or a little bit; some teams don't do it all. For us, it's been an advantage.”
The Pirates have 49 defensive runs saved this season through Sept. 6, according to Baseball Info Solutions. The Pirates posted a -25 mark in 2012, a -29 mark in 2011 and a -77 mark in 2010. Catcher Russell Martin was the only significant offseason defensive addition. There are no Gold Glove candidates outside of Martin. Yet only Cincinnati had converted more batted balls into outs in the National League.
“Are we the most gifted at each position? Probably not,” Hurdle said. “But collectively as a group, with a system in place, we've been very good.”
Historic ground game
This season, Pirates' staff has posted the highest groundball rate — 52.5 percent — in the major leagues since Fangraphs.com began keeping batted-ball data in 2002.
Shifts are only as effective as the number of groundballs hit into them. The second prong of the Pirates' comprehensive run prevention strategy was tied to increasing their pitchers' groundball rates. Defensive change began on the mound.
How do pitchers produce groundballs? They must throw effective two-seam fastballs.
When Charlie Morton arrived at spring training in 2011 following a 2010 season in which he posted a 7.74 ERA, there was a new pitching coach in place, Ray Searage, and a new plan. On the back fields and bullpens of the Bradenton, Fla., complex, Morton focused on bringing back his two-seam fastball, a pitch the previous coaching staff shelved. The two-seamer is often called a sinker due to its downward movement.
“We execute that pitch on a more consistent basis to get (groundballs),” Searage said. “The two-seamer moves more. The two-seamer has angle and moves through a couple of planes.”
Morton's sinking fastball has been one of the best in baseball this season, leading him to a career-best season. He leads all starting pitchers in groundball percentage at 62 percent.
“When Ray and Jim Benedict were working with me in the spring of 2011, they dropped my arm slot down, and my sinker got better. I was able to repeat my delivery,” Morton said. “It was natural for me. I thought, ‘Where has this been my whole career?'”
It's not just Morton who has made the transformation from struggling four-seam fastball pitcher to effective sinker-ball pitcher. Every Pirates starter has.
Burnett arrived in Pittsburgh in 2012 having struggled so badly in New York that the Yankees paid a significant portion of his remaining contract to jettison him. In the American League, Burnett was a four-seam fastball, home run-prone pitcher. In the NL, he has returned to top-of-the-rotation status thanks to a sinking fastball. His groundball rate has climbed to its best rate since 2005.
“I know over the past couple of years I sink the ball more than I have in the past,” Burnett said. “I felt my last couple years in New York that I was having problems with the four-seamer away to lefties. I went outside to lefties about five times this year. I'm pitching in more with the two-seamer.”
Francisco Liriano was picked from baseball's free-agent bargain bin after a horrendous 2012 season when he was demoted to the White Sox's bullpen. This season, Liriano has thrown two-seam fastballs at a career-high rate and has posted his highest groundball rate since 2010.
Every starting pitcher — Morton (58.1 percent of pitches), Liriano (41.5), Burnett (36.2), rookie Gerrit Cole (21.7) and Jeff Locke (10.4) — is throwing at or near a career-high rate of two-seam fastballs, according to PitchFx data, which tracks pitch type.
Morton has posted a career-best 3.54 ERA. Burnett has posted his best ERA (3.45) since 2005. Liriano has enjoyed his best ERA (2.92) since 2006.
Relievers like Mark Melancon (61.2) and Jeanmar Gomez (56.3) have also produced elite groundball rates. Melancon (1.10) and Gomez (3.05) also have career-best ERAs.
The plan to throw more two-seam fastballs began in 2011, but this spring Hurdle and Huntington decided to ramp up two-seam useage.
“We sat our pitchers down in spring training and told them, ‘This is what we're going to need to do,'” Hurdle said. “ ‘W e want everyone to be open-minded. ... We have documentation that can back this up, but w e need a commitment from everybody to find out just exactly how good we can get this.' ”
The Pirates ranked 15th in groundball rate (44 percent) in 2010. They rank first this season.
Baseball is often thought of as a team game played individually, but the Pirates' defensive effort this season is a collective effort. Still, the plan must first be executed on the mound.
Before Neal Huntington became Pirates general manager, the organization did not have an in-house analytics department. Entering this season, the Pirates had five full-time staffers dedicated to data architecture and analysis and their own in-house proprietary computer system.
Before the players could change their defensive approach, their coaching staff had to change.
After being fired by the Rockies midway through the 2009 season, Hurdle knew he had to change.
Hurdle is a product of 20th century baseball thought. To earn another job in the 21st century, he knew he had to embrace new-age information. He saw how the game was trending toward a greater acceptance of sabermetrics. He spent time on websites like Fangraphs.com, and he took a job as an MLB analyst where he was exposed to even more cutting-edge information.
“It was definitely a transformation in understanding the game. It has been for me for the last 10 years, especially the last five years,” Hurdle said. “You have to get involved in the information. You've got to read. You've got to study. You can't just stick your head in the sand and just say, ‘It doesn't exist. It doesn't count. It doesn't make sense.' ”
When the Pirates hired Hurdle during the 2010 offseason and he was introduced to Fox at the Walt Disney World Swan & Dolphin Resort at the winter meetings, Hurdle didn't scoff at the notion of taking advice and information from a computer scientist and, later, Mike Fitzgerald, a 24-year-old MIT graduate. Rather, he embraced the information.
Much of the data is related to defensive positioning. Nick Leyva is in charge of positioning the infield.
“When I first came over to the Pirates, you could consider me as an old-school guy. But numbers don't lie,” Leyva said. “Halfway through last year for myself, I really bought it. … I was probably using maybe 50, 60 percent of what I was getting from stat guys last year. Now I'm close to 100 percent.”
Leyva and Hurdle meet with Fox and Fitzgerald before each series, in person or via teleconference, to review defensive-positioning data. Fox also works with Searage to supply information of what types of pitches and locations opposing batters are likely to convert into groundballs.
“Nothing gets implemented from where I sit. I have no power to make it happen, so Clint's willingness and openness to information is key,” Fox said. “They committed to it.”
It's a story of teamwork and trust, of change and openness. It's a story of what allowed the Pirates' defensive sum to become greater than their parts and break a 20-year cycle of losing.
“It's worked so far,” Huntington said. “Our pitcher are doing a great job of executing. Our infielders have done a great of job of turning balls into outs. The coaching staff has done a great job of helping these guys be in the right spot. Advance scouts put together the game plan they are seeing with their eyes and then Dan and Mike adding the data. It's a great team effort.”
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