As was chronicled by multiple media entities last year, the 2013 Pittsburgh Pirates were one of the most aggressive MLB teams when it came to defensive shifts.
The Bucs’ willingness to put their spray-chart data to good use gave them a subtle, yet definitive edge over the competition in 2013, as they converted 71.5 percent of balls in play into outs, the fifth-best defensive efficiency in the majors.
Pittsburgh played into that glovework by encouraging its pitchers to throw more two-seam fastballs, which typically induce more grounders than fly balls. The strategy worked, as Pirates opponents hit 52.5 percent of their balls in play on the ground, by far the highest ratio in MLB.
But if the so-called “Moneyball era” has taught us anything, it’s that any advantage will eventually be neutralized by the rest of the league catching on. Perhaps in anticipation of this, the Pirates are upping the ante in utilizing their batted-ball data this year.
As Tim Williams of Pirates Prospects has reported this week from Bradenton, Fla., both general manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have been open about the team’s intention to further exploit the tendencies of opposing batters. Part of their plan involves the use of proprietary player-tracking technology, which will allow the Bucs to better position fielders based on their defensive abilities.
That should be exciting to hear if you’re a Pirates fan. As we’ve seen this offseason, the Bucs aren’t willing and/or able to outspend most teams in MLB, but they have the ways and means to discover the small advantages that often make the difference between winning and losing.
Former Baseball Prospectus writer/researcher Dan Fox has led the Pirates’ data-mining efforts for the past few years, and it’s to the credit of Huntington, Hurdle and the players that they’ve bought into non-traditional methods, especially on the defensive side of the game.
Huntington told Williams that Pittsburgh will expand their fielder-shifting strategies to the outfield in 2014. The Bucs GM admitted that moving outfielders into unusual positions can lead to bigger potential damage compared to similar moves on the infield, but Huntington seems confident that the information they have can be trusted everywhere on the diamond.
Just as importantly, Hurdle is on board with it, too. He mentioned Tuesday that the athleticism of outfielders Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte gives the Pirates an opportunity to push the envelope even further because they can cover for batted balls that end up in unexpected places.
All in all, it’s clear that the Pirates aren’t content to simply repeat what they did last year, when they were up there with the Brewers, Rays and Orioles as the most progressive teams in re-thinking defensive positioning. If they want to maintain their 2013 edge, their methods have to be refined.
Starting March 31, we’ll find out if the Bucs’ new formulas are effective.