Blogs | Sports | News
Bucco Blog

Monday Morning Mop-up Duty: the Pirates’ democratic defense


SOUTH HILLS COMMAND CENTER – Baseball is often thought of as a team game played individually.  But the Pirates have proven this season that defensive play is most effective when the pitchers, fielders and off-the-field staff become more interdependent, not less.


Yes, Crash Davis, strikeouts are fascist.



 Costner knew defensive efficiency 


One of the cool things I learned in reporting on the secret success behind the Pirates’ season – perhaps the most aggressive run prevention plan in major league history  –  is nearly everyone in the organization has played a role in improving the Pirates’ defense. It’s been a defensive democracy.

The plan began at the minor league level, with Pirates minor league players and coaches playing the role of guinea pigs in a radical run prevention plan.


Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald from the analytics department – a department that didn’t exist as recently as 2008 – have supplied the defensive positioning data and pushed for increased groundball rates to increase the effectiveness of shifts.


Clint Hurdle and his old school coaching staff – of 20th century baseball orthodoxy – had to buy in to the new-age data and get their players to buy in.


Most important, the players had to execute. Infielders had to trust shifts, scouting reports and still catch-and-throw. Pitcher had to execute a new primary pitch, the two-seam fastball.


Yes, there’s been some resistance as we saw with A.J. Burnett (not a fan of shifts) and Clint Barmes last week, but in general the strategy has been accepted and employed.


And, of course, GM Neal Huntington had to be on board.


“It’s worked so far,”  Huntington said. “Our pitchers are doing a great job of executing. Infielders have done a great job of turning balls into outs. The coaching staff has done a great job of helping these guys be in the right spot. Advance scouts putting together the game plan what they are seeing with their eyes and then Dan and Mike adding the data. It’s a great team effort.”


It’s a team effort that has allowed the Pirates’ defensive sum to be greater than its parts. Just think the Pirates had -25 Defensive Runs Saved in 2012, this season its improved to +55 without adding a single non-catcher infielder. The defensive plan that has increased the Pirates’ defensive performance by a value of 12.8 wins over its 2010 level. That’s the difference between a winning season and another losing one.



9. Gerrit Cole has taken not a step, rather, a leap.


This is a rookie pitcher in the middle of a pennant race who has thrown 23 1/3 more innings than he ever has in a season. He should be tired, right? Instead he’s been at his best in September, posting a 1.35 ERA and 9.45 K/9 rate over three post-August starts. He’s been the Pirates’ best pitcher in the season’s most critical month. This is what a No. 1 overall pick should look like.


Said Pirates manager Clint Hurdle: “He’s been way better than pretty good. The kid is establishing himself out there. He got better, he got stronger. His curveball played again. Fastball command was solid. Got in the hornet’s nest in the seventh (on Saturday) and that young man went to work. Growing up for the team to get out.”


Cole’s velocity has remained in the mid to upper 90s. The change is his slider has continued to become more consistent. The pitch was a wipeout offering at Texas on Monday and again on Saturday. Once the changeup begins to become more consistent (flashes at Texas) – Indianapolis pitching coach Tom Filer thought it could become his best pitch – look out.



How many U25 arms would you rather have than Cole? The list isn’t likely long but it begins with Jose Fernandez.


8. The physical skills have always been there. Cole was a No. 1 overall pick because he was built for innings and had the potential for three or four plus pitches. The biggest need for growth was in the psychological aspects, specifically remaining in the moment and not letting one walk or mistake behind him affect his next outing. I thought he showed growth in this area Saturday.


I thought Cole showed tremendous growth in the seventh inning Saturday, working around  runners on second and third with one out. Cole kept his focus. There was no negative body language. No rolling of the eyes. There was no agitated monologue.  He did not release any emotion until he recorded the final out the inning and raised his glove to his faced to unleash a visceral scream.


“There’s a motor running in there that’s hot. He’s found a way to keep the heartbeat slow,” Hurdle on Cole


7. About a month ago I went on the Pirates Prospects roundtable and said Cole be my choice for a No. 3 starter in a playoff rotation. That was an aggressive position at the time as many assumed he’d have a relief role in October. But Huntington and Hurdle suggested he’ll be a starter in October if he’s one of the Pirates’ four best starting options. And he’s certainly a top-four option, he might be a top-two option.


6. I asked Hurdle on Saturday about when he would like to have bullpen roles set before going into potential postseason play.


Said Hurdle: “They’ll know and there are the only ones that need to know. It’s not public disclosure. You’ll watch the games play out and you’ll probably see roles emerge and evolve. We’re real close as a matter of fact.”


We watched the game Sunday and what is interesting is Hurdle chose to go with right-handers Bryan Morris and Kyle Farnsworth , and not Jason Grilli, in the seventh and eighth innings Sunday.  Mark Melancon earned the save. The Pirates are better off with a 100 percent Grilli closing out games. But with only 13 games remaining, is there still time to get Grilli right in key situations? Does Hurdle have more confidence in Farnsworth at this point?


5. Melancon has a 1.10 ERA and earned his 16th save Sunday. He has 50 percent of the save total that Grilli has. With Grilli’s velocity down and his blown save on Thursday, what would it take for Melancon not to be the closer going forward?


4. Grilli spoke to reporters after his first blown save on June 19th. He did not speak to reporters after his second blown save on Friday. Grilli sat alone at his locker, with his head down, a ball in his right hand.  Grilli was deep in thought and you have to wonder if his fear is if he’ll be able to get right and be a part of the final push of the season. It’s a tough time for Grilli who was arguably the face of the team in the first half of the season.


3. Hurdle wants Starling Marte to return immediately as an everyday player and lead-off hitter. I wouldn’t be too worried about rust accumulating on Marte’s defense or base-running ability, but is he going to be hit?


2. Hard not to see Andrew McCutchen as the NL MVP. He’s hit .400 since August 1.


1. Justin Morneau is a solid choice as the cleanup hitter against right-handed pitching, but his .550 OPS agianst left-handed pitching suggests perhaps that Marlon Byrd should be batting cleanup against left-handed pitching. (Hurdle does not want to platoon Morneau against left-handed pitching.)



Cole’s strikeout rate by month: June: 4.1, July: 7.4, August: 7.3, September: 9.5



Has the moment ever been too big for Cole this season?

(It hasn’t seemed that way, even, since his debut back in June when he was dominant against the Giants)

“There’s been a few times along the road where I’ve been like ‘Oh (expletive),’ ” Cole said of his rookie season. “But that happens to everyone. You have to be tough out there because you’re not going to be perfect.”



Daft Punk is more than a one-hit wonder. The French electronic duo’s album Random Access Memories is pretty solid from beginning to end. Check it out. I’ve also been enjoying Grouplove’s Never Trust A Happy Song and Spreading Rumours but that album is old news from 2011.


– TS



  1. NMR says:

    *slow clap as Travis enters the room*
    Fantastic work on the defense and pitching article, Travis. That one goes to the top of the portfolio.
    -I don’t think the question should be whether or not there is time to get Grilli right in key situations, but rather whether or not there is time to get Grilli right, period. I’m not a doctor, but it is hard to believe he’s as healthy as he says he is.
    -The hardest part of running the bases is getting there in the first place. We know that Marte’s on base ability will come solely from hits. A rusty start could limit his value to defense only…and take away at-bats from a reasonably competant Jose Tabata.
    -Andrew McCutchen for MVP and Gerrit Cole as a playoff starter are just about the two best bets going right now.
    -With the way they’ve hit since being acquired, Justin Morneau is never a better option as cleanup hitter than Marlon Byrd. RBIs are far from a perfect stat, but I swear you have to try not luck into more than just one when you’re hitting directly behind Andrew McCutchen.
    -I wrote this in last week’s blog in case you missed it, but heads up if you follow Jim Callis
    He answered a question on Tyler Glasnow for his new mailbox segment with and said that he thought Glasnow could’ve ended up a top 10 pick in the 2014 draft, if he were to have developed this way in college.

  2. Will Zavala says:

    With no changes to the rotation, Cole will start 2 more games in the regular season, and be in line to start the first post-season game. Don’t see that happening, but we could do worse. Liriano (5.87 ERA in 7.2 post-season innings) COULD be worse…

  3. Chuck H says:

    One thing about Cole-he throws too many fast balls in a row. He needs to mix them up
    a little more, especially against the good power hitters-keep them guessing.

  4. JohnH says:

    Nice blog post. Do you know if the pirates use the defensive shift data to see if free agent pitchers will see their balls hit into play turn into outs? For example do they see that free agent pitcher throws the 2 seam and it usually goes to spot A and his current team does not have a fielder near that spot and they have to dive for the ball ?


  5. Leo Walter says:

    Maybe if you would take the time to read Travis’ column on th ePirates defensive strategy you would figure out why Cole and others are throwing a lot of 2 seam fastballs Chuck.

  6. Joe says:

    I thought the defensive shifts were pretty odd when I first saw them but I have to admit they seem to work more than they fail.

  7. Nate83 says:

    He hasn’t relied on the fastball as much over the last 5 or 6 starts. Early on I think it was by design. He was pitching to contact and avoiding giving up walks because that is what got him in trouble in the minor leagues. He has started mixing in his other pitches pretty effectively since. When you throw it 99 mph you are still going to have that as your dominate pitch no matter how good your other stuff is.
    I love the guys attitude. He just seems like he wants to compete. I don’t think he will settle for just being good. I have no doubt that the work ethic will be there going forward with Cole.

  8. Kyle says:

    Hey Travis,
    Daft Punk is definitely not a one-hit wonder, they’ve been around a very long time. You’ve probably heard some of their music and not even realized it. Check out Alive 2007.

  9. Nate83 says:

    The Nationals are up 3-0 already on Atlanta in the 2nd. The best part about this is that I care. It has been a while since I cared about a baseball game that didn’t involve the Pirates on September 17th.

  10. Travis Sawchik says:

    Thanks, NMR

    I’m glad you enjoyed the piece. It was a blast to report on and write.

    *Interesting stuff on Glasnow. It’s apparent he was one of the great steals of the 2011 draft.

    *Grilli’s first fastball on Monday was 89. His last 94. Pirates hope the last one was indicative of something

  11. Travis Sawchik says:


    I’m not as a hip as I once was, so I’m not up-to-date on all things Daft Punk, but I will check out Alive 2007. Thanks for the tip!

  12. Travis Sawchik says:

    The Pirates love two-seam groundball pitchers, so if they find one that’s underperforming with a traditional defensive alignment behind them they would be a pitcher of interest

  13. NMR says:

    Good call, Travis. Salvaged both Jeanmar Gomez and Vin Mazarro off the scrap heap by increasing their sinker usage.
    Makes you wonder what they could do with Jeff Karstens using this new philosophy, given his arm stays attached to his torso.

Other blogs
Sports: Rob Rossi | Steel Mill | Chipped Ice | Bucco Blog | iPreps | Pitt Locker Room | Penn State Sports
News: This Just In | Trib List | ICycle | Flow Back | Stories Behind Trib Stories  

» Top Sports » Top News » Top Breaking News