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Pirates' defenders delighted to dump shifts

| Tuesday, July 19, 2011

The Pirates' defense is, perhaps, the most underappreciated aspect of their stunning summer.

And that just might be because they have improved in the most understated manner: Manager Clint Hurdle and the new coaching staff have essentially told their players to stay put. There aren't nearly as many dramatic shifts, and there isn't nearly as much dependence on pitch-by-pitch adjustments.

"We're just staying in our positions, not moving all over the place anymore," center fielder Andrew McCutchen said before the Pirates turned a couple more gems in blanking the Cincinnati Reds, 2-0, Monday night at PNC Park. "We're not way out in the gaps one batter, way in tight on another. We're just playing ball."

Playing it pretty well, too.

The Pirates had Major League Baseball's worst defense in 2010, committing the most errors (127) and ranking 30th of the 30 teams with a .979 fielding percentage. Rock-hard mitts, booted balls and wild throws were everywhere.

This year, before Monday's action, they committed 65 errors, ninth-fewest in the majors, and ranked eighth with a .982 fielding percentage.

Digging into baseball's deeper metrics, the Pirates have fared just as well: They have the 10th-best overall defense in the majors as measured by Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), a complex formula that takes into account not only errors but also range, throws that limit extra bases, turning double plays and several other criteria. Their figure this year is plus-1.1, compared to the minus-8.5 last year that was the majors' worst.

"Our defense deserves a huge portion of the credit for what we've done," starter Paul Maholm said. "Guys like me are pitching to get ground balls, and our guys have been on their toes all year. And, really, I think it helps a lot that we've gone back to a more traditional defense."

That was McCutchen's point, too, and it was one made by several players.

Under previous manager John Russell and his staff, the Pirates often moved their defensive players with each at-bat, sometimes even during the at-bat. They based that on meticulous advance scouting that told the pitchers where to pitch, the defense where to lineup, and it usually was incumbent on both to stay in sync to get the outs. They even shifted fielders left or right when facing the opposing pitcher.

Position players and pitchers alike privately grumbled about it, but that methodology stayed in place until pitching coach Joe Kerrigan and outfield instructor Gary Varsho, the two most responsible for the approach, were fired in August of last year.

Conversely, the Pirates' clubhouse now raves about the instruction of infield instructor Nick Leyva and outfield instructor Luis Silverio, also the team's base coaches. Leyva and Silverio still will go over specific opponents' tendencies, and they still will corroborate their plan with that of pitching coach Ray Searage. But the only dramatic shifts, the kind that force a defender to approach his position in a wholly new way with each at-bat, are reserved for the opponent's standouts.

In the Houston series over the weekend, for example, the only exceptions in the Astros' lineup were for Hunter Pence and Carlos Lee because of the short porch in Minute Maid Park's left field. And in this series with the Reds, special shifts are being ordered for left-handed sluggers Joey Votto and Jay Bruce.

Otherwise ...

"We're just playing the game," second baseman Neil Walker said. "I mean, for us infielders, Nick is still telling us where we need to be. But it's not like we're way up the middle or out in right field. We're talking about it. Nick asks us where we're most comfortable, what works for us, and works from that."

Leyva places pegs in the dirt during infield practices -- a common teaching in baseball these days -- as to where he thinks a given batter will hit a given pitch. But it's up to the fielder to determine where he best sets up for that. For example, a peg set up for Votto yesterday was just to the right of the pitcher's mound, but Walker could play anywhere he wanted to work his way toward getting to a grounder there.

"The stats don't lie: They're going to hit the ball there more often than not," Leyva said. "But we need to be prepared for it to the best of each individual's ability."

Silverio's approach in the outfield has been even simpler.

"We've got a lot of speed out there now," Silverio said. "When I wave my left arm, Cutch moves a little. When Cutch moves, everybody out there moves. We go over all our batters, but our guys are so fast now that we really don't move them too much."

The most prominent individual improvement has been that of McCutchen, whose UZR has soared from minus-12.9 to plus 7.4, from 18th in the majors to fifth among center fielders. Silverio told McCutchen early in spring training to stand 10 feet from the fence, the better to take advantage of his exceptional speed going forward and to diminish a shortcoming in going back.

"Playing deeper has helped me a lot," McCutchen said. "It's helped with my routes and even my throws. I can run into the ball and get a better angle to the base where I'm throwing."

The middle infielders have been much better, too. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno's UZR has gone from minus-4 to plus 9.4, from 15th in the majors to seventh. That is largely because Cedeno's range factor is second in the majors only to Colorado's Troy Tulowitzki. Walker's UZR has gone from minus-17.1 to minus-3.2, from second-worst in the majors to 15th.

"They're more confident, especially Cedeno," Leyva said. "I've pushed him to focus, to concentrate on each pitch. I asked him how many of his 18 errors came just because he wasn't focused. He told me it was more than half. I came back, 'Well, if you have only eight errors, you're a Gold Glover with all your talent. I've been on him from day one."

Maybe the most impressive parts of this improvement is what the Pirates have overcome: They now have used four shortstops, five third basemen and seven catchers. And the one player brought in over the offseason to upgrade the defense, Lyle Overbay, has been their worst performer with a minus-12.2 UZR.

in the zone

The Pirates ranked 10th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating, a complex defensive formula, entering Monday's games:

1. Angels — 54 errors, 9.7 ultimate zone rating

2. Reds — 50 errors, 7.3 ultimate zone rating

3. Rays — 46 errors, 6.4 ultimate zone rating

4. Diamondbacks — 56 errors, 5.7 ultimate zone rating

5. Red Sox — 46 errors, 5.7 ultimate zone rating

6. Yankees — 59 errors, 5.6 ultimate zone rating

7. Royals — 58 errors, 4.9 ultimate zone rating

8. Rangers — 74 errors, 3.0 ultimate zone rating

9. Dodgers — 46 errors, 2.1 ultimate zone rating

10. Pirates — 65 errors, 1.1 ultimate zone rating

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