The Clint Hurdle Effect? – The Pirates’ Improved Defense

The success of the Pirates has become arguably the biggest narrative of this season. They sit pretty at 67-44, with a game and a half lead on the St. Louis Cardinals. While some fans of the Pirates are merely thirsting for fourteen more wins to guarantee the end of the 20-year losing skid, analysts widely regard the Pirates as playoff-bound, if not contenders for the division.

Presently, we’ll continue the endless discussion of why the Pirates have succeeded thus far, but perhaps with a new spin.

The Pirates have been trending up under the tenure of Clint Hurdle, but a closer look at the numbers doesn’t necessarily indicate an offensive success, but a noticeable improvement in the defense.

Run Differential

In 2010, the last season before Clint Hurdle, the Pirates finished 57-105 with a despicable -279 run differential. Since then, the run differential has improved incrementally to -102 in 2011 and -23 in 2012, when finishing .500 felt inevitable. This year, the Bucs have outscored their opponents by 49 runs, which isn’t much, but is in an improvement over where it was on August 3rd in 2010 (-205,) 2011 (-12,) and 2012 (+33.)


Additionally, a look at some of the advanced metrics indicate an improvement in the defense of the Pirates. In 2010, the Pirates had -77 DRS and a -7.7 UZR/150. In 2011, that improved to -29 and -3.5 (respectively,) and in 2012, -25 and -2.6. Still not great numbers, but they reflect an ostensible difference under Clint Hurdle. In 2013, these numbers are all in the green: 43 DRS, 5.1 UZR/150. Obviously, these are subject to change, but the trend continues.


Perhaps it is an illogical step to go backwards from advanced stats like DRS and UZR/150 to one as simple as BABIP, but it seems to me that this one sticks out the most and combines the picture of improved pitching and an improved defense. The noticeable trend has continued, as these are the defensive BABIPs of the Pirates over the last few years:

2010: .311

2011: .300

2012: .286

2013: .270 (1st in MLB)

My simplistic mind appreciates BABIP in this particular instance, because this tells me something clear. These numbers are microcosmic of the fact that the Pirates are improving in the area of simply converting batted balls into outs, and that is nothing but a good sign for a club looking to win games, but it is especially good for a club with the offensive woes the Pirates endure.

Say what you will about the overuse of the Pirates bullpen, and it will not be argued at present. It is my hope that someone can combine these defensive numbers with pitch f/x data and create a more clear picture of how the Pirates have succeeded with a group of ragamuffins. This is a start to a conversation and hopefully a case study into the effectiveness of a good defense and how it can counteract and overcome an anemic offense such as that of the Bucs. We may just see how it works out in the postseason.

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Jeff Poling is a full-time Pirates fan, part-time barista and part-time sportswriter who recently graduated from Eastern Kentucky University.

9 Responses to “The Clint Hurdle Effect? – The Pirates’ Improved Defense”

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  1. stich09 says:

    I mean the answer is pretty simple. Searage and the pitching development staff from top to bottom preach ground balls. Combined with the fact that the Pirates shift almost as much as any team in baseball this year (last I saw they were top 2), you’re gonna get a low BABIP and great defense ratings.

    GB Rate: 52.1 percent. No one else is above 50%.

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  2. Climbing The Wall says:

    There’s no doubt that the Pirates have been more aggressively shifting their infield this year, and that accounts for some of their low BABIP. There have also been individual defense upgrades, in particular a full season of Starling Marte in PNC’s spacious left field and going from Rod Barajas to Russell Martin at catcher. Also, McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez have improved their fielding (by the eye test, and backed up by the metrics). I’m not sure which factor (better positioning or better fielders) is more important, but I’m sure they both play a role.

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  3. James Santelli says:

    Ground balls plus shifts, shifts and more shifts.

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  4. CabreraDeath says:

    The myth that the Pirates offense is ‘anemic’ or that the Pirates have a lot of ‘ragamuffins’ has been debunked by many, including Dave Cameron on this very site.

    While the defense/pitching has been excellent, the reason that the Pirates are able to be 24 games over .500 is that they have enough of a complimentary offense to make said defense/pitching relevant.

    They don’t have the line-up of the Cardinals or the Reds. But, their offense isn’t nearly as bad as generally thought, especially when you take out the historical ineptitude of their pitching staff at the plate.

    Good article, though.

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  5. chris moran says:

    This is a couple weeks old, but John Dewan of Baseball Info Solutions says the Pirates are 2nd in shifts used and 4th in shift runs saved.

    Also glove man Clint Barmes joined the team in 2012

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  6. ndbrian says:

    I’d also add that the presence of a catcher that doesn’t give away bases and put men into scoring position is even more important to ground ball pitchers. Take Charlie Morton for instance. He’s had many a game (by the eye test) where he seemingly gives up ground ball hit after ground ball hit. With Barajas behind the plate, it generally takes two of those to score a run (whether that be single, SB, single), but it can also take only one if the single leads off the inning(single, SB, GB to the right side, GB to score the runner). Martin effectively shutting down the running game means that opposing teams now generally needs 3 ground balls to score a man. And using overly-rudimentary math, that’s about 50% more difficult to do.

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