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