Pirates Grapefruit Report: Week 3

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We’re reaching the very dull phase of spring training, where players and fans alike are wishing for real games that count. Alas, here’s what happened in the Grapefruit League over the past week, in case you were busy watching college basketball…

Tuesday, 3/17 – Astros 13, Pirates 7

Jeff Locke obliterated for six runs in three innings. The offense got going for seven runs — their best since the Grapefruit opener — but it obviously wasn’t enough. Neil Walker went deep to the right-center boardwalk.

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Visualizing the Range of the Pirates’ Outfield

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“Their ability to go get a ball, to read balls off the bat … if there is some air underneath a ball, we have three men more than capable of running it down and getting it in leather… When they’re on the field, it lifts up our entire defensive game” – Clint Hurdle

The Pirates are shaping up to have one of the best outfields in Major League Baseball, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it will be the best around if everything goes right. Andrew McCutchen and Starling Marte have already proven to be one of the best outfield duos, and now we get to see the potential beast that is Gregory Polanco for an entire season.

Their offensive production is most noticeable, but their speed and defense really sets them apart. No one’s questioning their wheels. Then you have two natural center fielders in Marte and Polanco playing at the corners for what should be an exceptional outfield defense. The Bucco outfield is where fly balls go to die.

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Bucco GIFs of the Year: August 2014

GIFs of the year… August edition.

– Andrew McCutchen was a little bored during his DL stint:

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– Look what Edinson Volquez found:

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– The Jordy Jig:

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– The Snider Shuffle:

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– That seven-game losing streak was soooo bad:

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– Bucs finally get a win and celebrate accordingly:

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– Bird on the field alert:

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Previous editions:

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

July 2014

Go Bucs

Bucco GIFs of the Year: July 2014

Pirate GIFs of the year — July edition.

Ike Davis gets the Gatorade bath after a great walk-off win:

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A.J. Burnett tips his cap to the PNC Park crowd in his return to Pittsburgh:

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Jordy Mercer goes nuts in the dugout after Andrew McCutchen put the team on his back in Cincinnati:

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– Cutch legs out an infield single in the All-Star Game, beating out a great play by Derek Jeter:

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– Down goes Cheese Chester. This injury forced him onto the 15-day DL.

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Josh Harrison‘s (second) epic rundown:

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– Cutch videobomb city:

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– Jordy Mercer — unfortunate home run placement:

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Previous editions:

April 2014

May 2014

June 2014

Go Bucs

Edinson Volquez & The Benefit of Good Defense

Major League free agency will start within a week (five days after the conclusion of the World Series, to be exact). While most attention will be focused on Russell Martin, Pirate free-agents-to-be Francisco Liriano and Edinson Volquez will also be in demand.

Over the last calendar year, Volquez has been an interesting case. The Pirates surprised everyone when they signed him to a one-year, $5 million deal in December, then looked like geniuses when he posted a 3.04 ERA in 32 games. Although things didn’t go as they would have liked, they trusted Volquez enough to give him the ball in the NL Wild Card game.

While the seasonal results were good and he made changes for the better, Volquez may have had more luck than skill on his side. He only struck out 17.3% of batters in 2014, the lowest mark in any of his full MLB seasons. That means more balls were being put into play, which generally isn’t a good thing.

However, Volquez was fortunate to have a good defense behind him. Overall, the Pirate defense saved 36 runs this season, six-most in baseball. Whether it was luck, skill, or just being in the right place at the right time, the defense helped Volquez limit opponents to a .263 batting average on balls in play. The only NL starters who had a lower BABIP: Johnny Cueto (.238), Shelby Miller (.254), and Doug Fister (.262).

If the Bucs didn’t make so many plays behind him, you can bet his ERA wouldn’t have looked as nice as 3.04. In fact, his FIP (which “measures what a player’s ERA would look like over a given period of time if the pitcher were to have experienced league average results on balls in play and league average timing”) was 4.15 — meaning he was essentially the same pitcher he had been in the past, with a lot more luck and maybe a little more skill behind him.

The thing is, Volquez’s shiny 3.04 ERA will probably get him paid this winter. But is he that much better of a pitcher than he was a year ago? His walk rate improved, but his strikeout rate declined. If his opponent BABIP regresses back to a normal .300, his earned run average will go back up as well.

Anyway, here are nearly 30 terrific plays that kept Volquez’s ERA down in 2014 and could get him paid in 2015…

[NOTE: Lots of GIFs. Give them time to load. If they don’t load quickly or at all, you can click on each individual one.]

1. April 17th — Travis Snider keeps a hit away from Yovani Gallardo:

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2 & 3. April 17th — Russell Martin doing what Russell Martin does — throwing out runners, first with one on and one out in the sixth, then same scenario in the seventh. Not a ball in play, but still very meaningful defense. Late in a tie game, the difference between man on second/one out and none on/two outs is huge.

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4. April 22nd — Pedro Alvarez flashes the leather:

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5. April 22nd — Jordy Mercer makes a nice play up the middle:

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6. May 10th — More Jordy:

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7. May 22nd — Josh Harrison with one of the Pirates’ best defensive plays of 2014:

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Eddie loves it:

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8. May 27th — Another of the Pirates’ best plays; this one courtesy of Andrew McCutchen:

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9. June 12th — Ridiculous play from Starling Marte:

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10. June 18th — Pedro, slick pick (and even makes a good throw!)

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11. June 23rd — So many good plays in this game. J-Hay:

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12. June 23rd — More J-Hay. Insane:

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Volquez owes Harrison a steak.

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13. June 23rd — How about some Pedro? With a pick from Ike.

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(Volquez also induced three double plays in this June 23rd game.)

14. June 29th — Starling Marte, good center fielder:

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15. June 29th — Chris Stewart gets in on the action:

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16. July 21st — Marte, so smooth:

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17. August 1st — Hello Brent Morel!

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18. August 7th — Gregory Polanco has a CANNON. Spectacular inning-ending double play:

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19. August 17th — Neil Walker showing some range:

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20 & 21. August 29th — On the night he was given the Heart & Hustle Award, Josh Harrison made a pair of great plays behind Volquez:

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22. September 14th — How about a TRIPLE PLAY?

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Right before the pitch, Tim Neverett said, “The Pirates have activated the bullpen. Jared Hughes is throwing.” Volquez hadn’t been pitching well to that point; next thing you know, a perfectly placed ground ball and well-executed triple play. Volquez stayed in the game and cruised the rest of the way.

23. September 20th — It’s Mercer time:

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24. September 20th — More Jordy:

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25. September 25th — More Mercer? Sure:

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26. September 26th — Last one, I promise:

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Keep in mind, this is just a sample of great defensive plays (i.e. the ones in MLB.com’s top play archive). There were surely more key plays behind him.

Some plays may be lucky, but that’s what a low BABIP is all about. You can see the benefits of a good defense, even if these plays are difficult to replicate. It’ll be interesting to see what happens should Volquez sign with a team with a worse defense. A.J. Burnett saw a huge dropoff from 2013 to 2014, and the Phillies atrocious defense might have had something to do with that… 2013 Pirates: 68 defensive runs saved, 2nd best in National League / 2014 Phillies: -39 defensive runs saved, worst in National League.

Volquez’s ERA and BABIP will likely regress regardless, but a lesser defense could really hurt him in 2015. It’ll be also be intriguing to see how much interest the Pirates have in bringing Volquez back — will they bet on a better strikeout rate and steady defense? We’ll see what happens. Interesting offseason ahead.

Go Bucs

Top photo: Jason Miller/Getty