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Pittsburgh Pirates Under Clint Hurdle: The Pitching and Defense

That old baseball mantra definitely holds true with this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates: you have to win with pitching and defense.

Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole
Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole

Oct 4, 2013; St. Louis, MO, USA; Pittsburgh Pirates starting pitcher Gerrit Cole (45) reacts in game two of the National League divisional series playoff baseball game against the St. Louis Cardinals at Busch Stadium. Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

With game five of the Pittsburgh Pirates and St. Louis Cardinals series looming, we take a look back at the Pirates’ 2013 season, the third under Manager of the Year candidate, Clint Hurdle.

We last looked at the Pirates’ season from an offensive standpoint. Aside from a slight improvement in base running, there was not much difference between this version of the Pirates and the one that Hurdle took over back in 2011. An obvious conclusion could be made that it was the Pirates’ pitching that put the club over the top and on the verge of playing in the National League Championship Series for the first time since 1992. As always, we take a look at the numbers to see if the stats confirm our perceptions.

For a glossary of terms, feel free to browse fangraphs.com.

STARTING PITCHING

STARTING PITCHING

Year

K%

BB%

WHIP

BAA

ERA

ERA-

FIP

SIERA

BABIP

2011

14.4%

7.8%

1.42

0.273

4.21

113

4.41

4.40

0.300

2012

18.3%

7.6%

1.30

0.252

4.21

110

4.05

4.07

0.289

2013

20.8%

8.7%

1.27

0.238

3.50

96

3.46

3.77

0.293

Great front office moves to add depth to the rotation have helped the Pirates see immense improvements to the rotation. Pitchers such as A.J. BurnettFrancisco Liriano, and Gerrit Cole have helped the Pirates make it this far into the postseason. In 2011, Hurdle had to work with the likes of James McDonaldJeff Karstens, and Paul Maholm to get through his first season in Pittsburgh. Of course, game four pitcher Charlie Morton pitched for the Pirates in 2011. That year, Morton led the team in innings pitched. This season, he finished fifth on the club in that category. 

Not shown is the incredible strides the rotation has made in terms of batted balls. The Ground Ball Percentage (GB%) was the highest it has been under Hurdle (52.8%), while dropping the Fly Ball Percentage (FB%) to 26.4%–the lowest it’s been since 2011. With a decrease in FB%, the Home Runs Per Fly Ball Percentage (HR/FB%) also dropped to 9.4%–also the lowest in the three-year span.

BULLPEN

RELIEF PITCHING

Year

K%

BB%

WHIP

BAA

ERA

ERA-

FIP

SIERA

BABIP

2011

19.7%

9.6%

1.40

0.250

3.76

101

3.83

3.71

0.300

2012

21.8%

8.9%

1.26

0.229

3.36

87

3.73

3.51

0.279

2013

20.1%

7.8%

1.17

0.225

2.89

79

3.35

3.39

0.272

Just like the starting rotation, the bullpen has seen major strides as a unit since 2011. A big fuss was made when 2012 closer, Joel Hanrahan was traded to the Boston Red Sox in the offseason. Many saw the move as another example of the Pirates trying to tank yet another season. But it did set the stage for Jason Grilli to step in and flourish for the Pirates this season. When Grilli got hurt, Mark Melancon stepped in and chipped in 16 saves with his GB% of 60.3%. But let’s not overlook the fact that the 2012 relief corps was pretty good that year as well and really speaks volumes to the strong season the 2013 version underwent.

Just like the starting rotation, the bullpen recorded a three-season high GB% of 52% and a low FB% of 28%.

FIELDING

DISCLAIMER: The whole numbers on the left of the data table are part of the Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) defensive statistics. The numbers with the decimal points on the right are part of the Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) group of statistics. Both groups try to value defense by using “runs” as a unit of measurement.

FIELDING

Year

rSB

rARM

rPM

DRS

ARM

RngR

ErrR

UZR

2011

-1

-9

-2

-29

-6.2

-6.3

0.5

-18.2

2012

-12

-14

27

-25

-13.2

19.2

-4.6

0.4

2013

3

1

58

68

-1.4

21.0

-9.5

4.4

It’s worth noting that in terms of the advanced defensive metrics, double play efficiency and errors are still a concern with this team, but all other defensive metrics are an improvement over the 2011 and 2012 Pirates. Not always easy to quantify a manager’s impact on a new team, but based on this data, we can see that Hurdle was intent on improving his team’s fielding.

To break it down in relative, baseball elementary terms, the battery on any given day will not allow an opposing running game to impact the game (rSB), the outfield keeps opposing base runners from liberally advancing on the base paths (rARM and ARM), batted balls are more than likely now to be converted into outs (rPM), and overall team range (RngR) is solid. In terms of UZR, the Pirates finished in 15th place in all Major League Baseball, but seeing where they’ve come from, that is still a great accomplishment. On the other hand, in terms of DRS, the Bucs finished third in all of MLB.

CONCLUSION

That old baseball mantra definitely holds true with this year’s Pittsburgh Pirates: you have to win with pitching and defense. So far, it has worked and has created a very exciting and memorable baseball season for all fans that have witnessed the rise of the 2013 Pirates. However, the inefficient offense is really holding back this team from getting to that next level. Regardless, in a win-or-go-home scenario, anything can happen and all it takes is one lucky break to advance to the next round of the playoffs. And as always, all of it will be settled on the baseball field.

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