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The Pirates and the Groundball

The Pirates are no stranger to losing. In fact, they went 20 straight years without making the playoffs before 2013. That is painful. Before 2013, the last time they had made the playoffs was when Ronald Reagan was in office. However, they are becoming familiar with a new friend to end this pain of losing: the ground ball. Almost a year ago, Travis Sawchik wrote an intriguing book entitled Big Data Baseball which shed light on the ground ball as well as defensive shifting. So the fact that they lead all of baseball in GB% over the last three years came as no surprise. The surprise came when I looked at how much they lead by. The Pirates are, as a staff, leading the second-place team in GB% by almost 3% over the last three seasons. (51.1 GB%) While this number looks insignificant on the surface, putting it into some context makes all the more astonishing. The second-place GB% leader is the Dodgers at 48.3%. The last-place finisher in this category, the Dodgers’ LA counterpart, finished at 41.8%. This means that the range between the second-place team and the last-place team is 6.5% while the difference between the Pirates and Dodgers is 2.8%. Their rotation this year is set to be comprised of (with their GB% over the last three seasons):

  1. Gerrit Cole (48.6 GB%)
  2. Francisco Liriano (52.0 GB%)
  3. Jeff Locke (51.6 GB%)
  4. Jon Niese (51.2 GB%)
  5. Ryan Vogelsong (41.1%)

These five average out to a 48.9 GB%. This is including the clear outlier in Ryan Vogelsong who was recently acquired via the Giants and who will post better ground ball numbers under pitching coach Ray Searage. These five will pair up with save machine Mark Melancon and steadily growing Tony Watson, and the Pirates are set to be the under-valued ground ball juggernaut that they have been accustomed to being over the last three seasons. However a steady flow of grounders is only a real weapon if there are infielders to stop them.

Jordy Mercer will likely accumulate much of the starting shortstop action as the absence of Neil Walker will make Josh Harrison slide into the second-base position, leaving room for Jung-Ho Kang at third, pending his return from knee surgery. Getting rid of Neil Walker may prove wonders for the defense of the Pirates infield.

Mind you this fielding arrangement is a tentative one — if it comes to fruition, it will improve the overall defense of the Pirates dramatically.

This is the Pirates’ most commonly started infield for the 2015 season (with UZR values from 2015):

1B: Pedro Alvarez (-14.3)

2B: Neil Walker (-6.8)

SS: Jordy Mercer (1.5)

3B: Harrison/Kang (0.7)

This comes out to an average UZR of -4.7 per position, not doing the starters any justice. Now, here is the Pirates’ projected starting infield for the 2016 season (with UZR values from 2015):

(Projected infield from

1B: John Jaso (???- Only played five innings at first over career)

2B: Josh Harrison (0.2)

SS: Jordy Mercer (1.5)

3B: Jung-Ho Kang (1.6)

Granted Jaso is a mystery as to what he will do at first; we can assume, or hope, that he won’t be as bad as Pedro Alvarez. Even if he is below average, the defensive improvement will be significant from Alvarez. While they are losing power in their lineup, the defense may make up for some of the home runs they are losing from Alvarez. With Kang and Harrison on the rise and pitchers that are keeping the ball out of the air, the Pirates could be poised to have a fourth straight good season. While the Cubs look like they’re going to take the division, Pittsburgh could have a potential Wild Card run in their future.

(I am 15 and this is my first article. Open for criticism!)