Pirates defense could be a spoiler down the stretch
By MARK SIMON
The Pirates have a chance to play postseason spoiler in the last two weeks with nine games remaining against the Reds and Phillies.
Pittsburgh ranks last in the NL in OPS and their pitchers rank in the bottom four in the league in strikeouts and walks. The best chance for the Pirates to spoil might be with their defense.
Yes, the Pirates are a middle-of-the-pack team in Defensive Runs Saved, but they have three players who can significantly impact a game with how they play in the field – catcher Jacob Stallings, third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes, and shortstop Kevin Newman.
Stallings is the runaway Runs Saved leader at catcher with 21. In fact, he’s one run shy of Ryan McMahon of the Rockies for the overall MLB lead. Stallings ranks in the top five in Runs Saved from pitch framing and is one of the top catchers in pitch blocking.
Here’s a good recent example of his value in framing, with two strikeouts gotten against Marlins infielder Jazz Chisholm, one that was on the outside corner, one that was just a little off.
Stallings has the highest block rate among the 40 catchers who have blocked the most pitches this season (a few guys in the top 50 edge him out).
Here’s a comparison of Stallings against two catchers who have won a combined 14 Gold Gloves, Yadier Molina and Salvador Pérez. He’s considerably better than both.
|Name||Blocked Pitches||Passed Balls||Wild Pitches||Block Rate|
Additionally, Stallings has 635 blocks and no passed balls. The next-most blocks by a catcher with no passed balls is Michael Perez with 276.
Here’s where Stallings’ pitch blocking comes in handy, with the tying run on third base in the ninth inning of this past Sunday’s game.
Stallings has sustained this success for an extended period. He ranked fourth in Runs Saved among catchers in 2019 (in which he played less than half the season) and second in 2020 (his first as a regular starter). He’ll definitely be a strong candidate to win a Fielding Bible Award in 2021.
Hayes could win one as well. After missing two months to a thumb injury, Hayes has been the defensive standout he was expected to be upon his recall in 2020. He leads all third basemen with 17 Runs Saved. Yep, his total is one run more than Nolan Arenado and Matt Chapman combined. Had Hayes been healthy in April and May, there’s a good chance he’d be leading all players in Runs Saved. And maybe we’d have seen another play like this one.
Hayes’ left side mate, Newman, isn’t going to make the highlight reels often. He has only 8 Good Fielding Plays this season. On a per-inning basis, he has the third-lowest per inning rate among the 40 shortstops that have played the most innings this season.
But Newman finds himself in the right spot at the right time more often than not. He ranks 5th among shortstops with 8 Runs Saved. That’s a huge improvement from 2018 to 2020 when he totaled -14 runs in just under 1,200 innings (the equivalent of close to a full season).
A pre-pitch crow hop, often not seen on camera (though visible in the stands), has helped Newman in that it’s made plays that were hard to make when he was flat-footed, possible, and it’s made most plays routine. In particular, Newman seems a little nimbler than he’d previously been on balls hit to his left, as Alcides Escobar learned a little more than a week ago.
Little things tend to matter a lot at this time of year. One block or good frame by Stallings, a Web Gem by Hayes, or a nifty play by Newman could make a huge difference. Keep an eye out for their piracy these next two weeks.