Stats Corner: Pirates need better D to stay in playoff picture

| Saturday, June 14, 2014, 8:09 p.m.

The Pirates deployed an analytics-driven, shift-heavy defensive approach in 2013, helping the club surrender the second-fewest runs in the majors. But as the Bucs hover near .500 in 2014, they rank just 18th in run prevention. Pirates fielders aren't gobbling up grounders and covering the gaps like last year — and that's bad news for an injury-ravaged pitching staff that's allowing hitters to put more balls in play.

The Bucs were the majors' eighth-best defensive squad in 2013, according to Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), which measures how many runs a player saves or costs compared to an average fielder at his position. While they saved a collective 42.9 runs above average last year, the Bucs have been 7.4 runs below average this season. That's 23rd in the majors and last in the National League.

Andrew McCutchen was stellar in center field last year, saving about eight runs above average per 150 defensive games played (UZR/150), but he's last among qualified NL players at his position in 2014. McCutchen is one of five Pirates showing a double-digit decline in UZR/150.

Out of the zone

2013 2014 Player UZR/150 UZR/150 Diff.

Andrew McCutchen +8.4 -22.8 -31.2

Jose Tabata +2.9 -23.4 -26.3

Travis Snider -1.6 -27.4 -25.8

Neil Walker -0.8 -21.7 -20.9

Clint Barmes +14.2 +3.4 -10.8

Source: Fangraphs

Changes in defensive metrics require a larger sample size than offensive stats to become meaningful, so the Bucs probably aren't this bad. And Gregory Polanco — rated by Baseball America as the best defensive outfielder in the system — now patrols right field. Improving defensively will be critical to the Bucs' playoff chances, considering that the starting rotation is striking out fewer batters this season (7.35 per nine innings) than last (7.9), and injured strikeout artists Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano have been replaced by pitch-to-contact arms such as Brandon Cumpton and Jeff Locke.

David Golebiewski is a freelance writer.

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