Bucs defined by advanced defensive analysis
Struggling franchise turned itself around through scouting, shifts
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Francisco Liriano arrived here last year at Pirates camp with a busted non-throwing arm and a shaky statistical track record, so he wasn't exactly in the best position to be overly judgmental about his new club and its quirks.
But even Liriano had to admit he felt a little uncomfortable, a little self-conscious the first time his infield defenders radically realigned themselves behind him in a game situation.
"This," Liriano remembered thinking, "is a little weird."
But Liriano put his faith in what the Pirates were attempting to accomplish with the application of advanced analytics, and that faith has been widespread enough -- from general manager Neal Huntington and the front office to Clint Hurdle and the coaching staff to the players themselves -- to help turn the once-woebegone Buccos into last year's National League Wild Card winner.
Pirates fans know all too well the importance of defensive positioning. Had Barry Bonds heeded Andy Van Slyke's advice to move in a few steps against the light-hitting Francisco Cabrera, maybe his throw would have nabbed Sid Bream at the plate in that famous 1992 NL Championship Series sequence.
More to the point, the 2013 season, at large, proved the merits of moving guys around. No Major League team, according to Baseball Info Solutions, used defensive shifts more than the Pirates last season, and, ergo, the Buccos' internal data suggests that they completed more plays "out of position" than anybody and were one of the most efficient defensive teams in the league.
This was the method by which the Pirates maximized the impact of their pitching staff and overcame an offense that, unlike any other postseason club, ranked in the lower-third in the Majors in runs per game.
"It's a huge reason," said Hurdle, "why we won the amount of games that we won without getting the kind of offensive support that teams that won the same number of games had."
And the on-field shifts are an extension of an organizational shift that took place shortly after Huntington arrived in 2007. Huntington and Co. wanted to find both a statistical analyst and a computer architect to build a new system for player evaluation.
"We ended up finding them in the same guy," Huntington said with a laugh.
That guy is Dan Fox, a former computer programmer and Baseball Prospectus writer who arrived in 2008 and, over time, has married the scientific and the strategic into a tangible whole.
When the word "rudimentary" was used to describe the Pirates' analytics department before Fox came aboard, Fox laughed.
"If," said Fox, "by 'rudimentary,' you mean 'nobody,' then yes."
Fox, having never worked for a big league team previously, was a veritable nobody in baseball circles, and he's the first to admit that the process of building a system of reliable data was a slow one.
But improved defensive positioning was an early target -- one the Pirates experimented with at the Minor League level. Through his interpretation of defensive metrics and batted-ball results, Fox concluded not only that the Pirates needed to shift more, but that their base positioning was askew. Then-farm director and current assistant GM Kyle Stark was open-minded enough to adjust the base positioning of the Minor League infielders, and despite not having the data to ascertain suitable shifts on a player-by-player basis, the Pirates saw immediate improvement.
"You could look at high-level things like ground balls [turned into outs] and see it was effective," Fox said.
Getting the Major League staff on board was a credit to Hurdle, who arrived in 2011 and was equally willing to embrace new ideas.
"It gave me an excellent opportunity to put into play what I share with the men all the time -- to be open-minded, use your eyes, use your ears," Hurdle said. "When we have the skill set of the people in the organization that we have, why not take your ego and kick it to the door? Listen to what they have to say, visually go over the information, the analytical work that's been done, look for a statistical advantage and if it makes sense, put it into play and trust it."
Trust is the operative word here. Because if the guy on the mound can't make a pitch with conviction, the whole system falls apart. And the dirty truth about defensive shifts is that they are going to create a few stinkers -- like ground balls to the traditional second-base slot that roll into the outfield grass instead of Neil Walker's glove.
But the Pirates fundamentally believe the shifts turn up more plusses than minuses. So at the beginning of each series, Fox provides his data to advance video scout Wyatt Toregas, infield coach Nick Leyva and pitching coach Ray Searage, who then disperse or utilize the information as they see fit. Adjustments are natural, because for all the objective data supplied, there is a good deal of this game that is and will always be subjective, in that coaches and players sometimes must trust their gut and their knowledge of the specific situation.
By and large, though, the players have bought into this defensive concept.
"The biggest challenge," Walker said, "was giving in to the numbers. When we did, it paid off in a lot of instances."
The Pirates' BIS-calculated use of shifts increased four-fold from 2012 to '13, and, not too coincidentally, their defensive runs saved mark went from minus-25 to plus-70 -- a total that trailed only that of the Royals (95) and D-backs (88). But the Pirates don't read too much into the publicly cited number of shifts, because their belief is that they are employing the practice on literally every plate appearance by the opposition.
"We think of it as 'optimized positioning,'" Fox said. "On every play, we should be optimally arranged. We need to be right on."
The Pirates feel this need because of their small-market stature, and the need for defensive efficiency will be of pivotal import yet again in 2014, especially given the loss of A.J. Burnett's innings and the ongoing uncertainty surrounding their first-base situation. Right now, it's hard to see where the offensive production is going to exponentially improve, so the Pirates will again have, quite literally, little room for error in the area of run-prevention.
Little wonder, then, that they are planning to expand their use of strategic shifts to the outfield this season. That will be another area of focus when Hurdle gathers the club together in the coming days.
It's also little wonder that elsewhere in the league, the practice is catching on. When Matt Williams took over in Washington, he kept his inherited coaching staff largely intact, save for adding a new position. Mark Weidemaier was added as an advance coach focused on defensive alignments. In Detroit, Brad Ausmus hired Matt Martin in the newly created role of "defensive coordinator."
This is probably the most fundamentally fascinating area of evolution in the game today, because it's had a huge impact on the oft-cited bottom line that is league-wide offensive regression and pitching prominence.
Here at Pirates camp, they swear by the shift.
"There's not a doubt in anybody's mind," said Hurdle, "that this was a gap-closer for us."