Top 10 Pirates Moments of 2014

Another year in the books, and another memorable one for the Bucs. While it didn’t quite have the storybook script of 2013, the Pirates surely enjoyed their second consecutive trip to the postseason.

Looking back, you may remember some not-so-fond moments — the 10-18 start, the seven-game losing streak in August, Cutch getting beaned in Arizona, the Easter Sunday brawl (maybe you liked that one).

But there were still plenty of memorable moments in the team’s 128th season. Here’s our Top 10 in chronological order…

1. Neil Walker‘s Opening Day Walk-Off Winner — 3/31/14

What better way to start the season? A Francisco LirianoJeff Samardzija duel kept things even through nine frames, but Neil Walker sent the fans home happy with a walk-off home run and a 1-0 victory on Opening Day.

2. Sweet 16 Innings — 4/2/14

If the first game of the year wasn’t dramatic enough, how about the second?

It looked like it was going to be the Cubs’ turn to take an extra inning W, as Anthony Rizzo‘s solo shot put Chicago ahead in the 12th. But the Bucs battled back in the bottom half, with Starling Marte providing the tying single. It looked like they’d finish ’em there — Andrew McCutchen stepped in with the bases loaded, but old friend Jose Veras struck him out to end the inning.

The Pirates failed to capitalize on yet another bases loaded threat an inning later. But they finally got it done in the 16th, as Tony Sanchez slipped a dribbler through the left side to score Jose Tabata and end the marathon game.

Behold FanGraphs’ win probability chart:


Source: FanGraphs

3. Starling Marte drops the mic — 5/2/14

Coming off a brutal doubleheader sweep @ Baltimore, the Bucs welcomed the Blue Jays for the first home series of May. They had been struggling to that point, winning just 10 of their first 28 games and looking for a spark. They finally got it with one of the more exciting games of 2014.

Like many early season games, they squandered an early lead and failed to fight back. But… the switch was flipped in the ninth inning. Starling Marte will get the credit, but it couldn’t have been done without El Toro. With Neil Walker on first, Pedro Alvarez put one in the center field seats to tie the game at 5 runs a piece. Two batters later, Marte annihilated Sergio Santos‘ 3-1 pitch into the bullpen for an unbelievable comeback win.


Source: FanGraphs

This game kicked off a solid homestand and symbolized a turning point for the Bucs. They shook off their rocky start and went 78-56 the rest of the way — second-best in the NL behind Washington during that span.

4. The First Walk-Off Replay — 5/6/14

Four days after his walk-off bomb, Marte provided more magic — this time in much different fashion. Charlie Morton (0 earned runs, 3 hits in 8 innings) and Tim Hudson (1 earned run, 5 hits in 8.2 innings) absolutely shoved in this one, keeping both lineups at bay.

But with two away in the ninth, Marte drove a deep ball off the Clemente Wall, ultimately bouncing far enough away from Hunter Pence that #6 wanted to go for three. Then when the cutoff was overthrown, Marte wanted to win the game all by himself. The throw beat him to home plate by quite a few feet, but Buster Posey bailed at the last second, allowing Marte to slide his hand in before the tag was applied. Home plate ump Quinn Wolcott called him out on the field, but hey! We have replay now. A challenge was in order, and the call was easily reversed — that’s your first ever walk-off replay.

5. Welcome to The Show, Gregory Polanco — 6/13/14

On June 10th, 31,567 witnessed the highly anticipated debut of Gregory Polanco at PNC Park. Three days later, he enjoyed one of the best games of his young life.

It was Friday the 13th, but El Coffee took care of business. He went 5-for-7 with his first MLB home run, two runs batted in, and three runs scored in the Pirates’ 8-6 defeat of the Marlins in 13 innings.

6. The Rundown — 6/27/14

In many ways, 2014 was the year of Josh Harrison. This was one of those games he took over all by himself.

Standing on second base in the 10th, J-Hay got caught in a pickle when Polanco chopped one back to the mound. Fortunately, Harrison is an absolute beast and evaded one of the most ridiculous rundowns of all time. Unfortunately, he was stranded at third, despite there being no outs at the time. Fortunately, he came up to bat the very next inning and laced a walk-off double. Ho-hum.

If that rundown wasn’t good enough, he did it again a month later.

7. The Comeback vs. D-backs — 7/1/14

Another great pitchers’ duel that wasn’t decided until the ninth. A pair of southpaw starters, Jeff Locke and Wade Miley, both cruised through eight innings.

Trailing 2-0 in the ninth, Neil Walker and Gregory Polanco poked back-to-back singles, chasing Miley from the game. Addison Reed replaced him, and with one out, was welcomed by Starling Marte who crushed a ball off the center field wall. Walker and Polanco both scored to tie the game. Cutch was understandably intentionally walked, but Ike Davis sent us home with a single to score Marte. A quick game, a quick comeback — this put the Bucs at 43-40, which actually tied their high water mark for the season at the time.

8. The Triple Play — 9/14/14

The Pirates almost needed to win-out after being swept in St. Louis to start September. Kicking off their final homestand of 2014, they desperately needed to avoid a series loss vs. Chicago.

Edinson Volquez found himself in a fourth inning jam, losing 3-0 with two men on base. Well, how about a triple play to fix that? Matt Szczur hit a perfectly placed ground ball to Josh Harrison at third, who flipped it to Neil Walker at second, who relayed it onto Andrew Lambo at first for a beautiful 5-4-3 triple play. It was the team’s first triple play since 2009, and first one in Pittsburgh since 1993.

It proved to be a huge turning point in the game as well. The Pirates scored seven runs in the following two frames, holding on for a 7-3 win and starting a five-game winning streak.

9. Russell Martin Brings the House Down — 9/19/14

Entering the final home series of the year, the Pirates were in a good spot — winners of 11 of their previous 13. Meanwhile, the Brewers were in an absolute tailspin — it was time to finish them.

But, for the first time in nearly two weeks, the Bucs looked lost. It seemed like they were once again going to come up short of the elusive five-game winning streak they had been searching for all season. Yovani Gallardo was nearly unhittable through seven, but fortunately Ron Roenicke thought it was a good idea to put Jonathan Broxton in to start the eighth. LOL.

Marte and Walker both singled, and the rally train left the station. Russell Martin stepped to the plate with one out — this was their chance. Broxton was throwing nothing but fastballs, and insisted one putting another right down the pipe on his 1-1 offering.

Martin knew exactly what to do, sitting on the heater and driving it to the opposite field. He planted a fastball in the center field seats just three days earlier, and brought the same approach to his at-bat vs. Broxton. This time, it felt like the ball was never going to come down.

The best way to judge a fly ball when you’re at a game is to watch the outfielders, not the ball. When Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun charged the warning track, the PNC crowd held their breath. But when they both started running out of room, it was clear where the ball was going to land. Not in Gomez’s glove. Not in Braun’s glove. In the seats.

Even though it was a high school football Friday night in western PA, PNC was jam-packed with 37,974 on hand to witness an unbelievable game.

Definitely going to miss Russ in 2015 and beyond, if only for the fire he brought every single night.

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10. Clinched — 9/23/14

For the second year in a row, September 23rd was very kind to the Pirates.

With a 3-2 win over the Atlanta Braves, they officially clinched a spot in the postseason. It wasn’t an easy ride, which made it that much sweeter.

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tony sanchez

A few honorable mentions: Andrew McCutchen’s inside-the-park home run, Travis Snider striking out Joey Votto, Cutch starting the All-Star Game (and leading off with a single), Russell Martin’s 1,000th hit, Sunday Night Baseball at PNC Park…

Let us know what we missed, and what some of your top Bucco moments were.

Thanks to everyone who made it another awesome year.

Go Bucs

What might a Neil Walker extension look like?

“We would love nothing more than to have Neil Walker end his career as a Pirate.” — Neal Huntington

We hear it all the time: will the Pirates sign Neil Walker to a contract extension? The common answer is “not yet,” as the Pine-Richland product is still under team control for two more seasons. You can let him go through the arbitration process two more times, and still have time to work something out. However, with Walker getting more and more expensive in arbitration, now might be the time to get something done.

Word out of San Diego on day #3 of the Winter Meetings: the Pirates have had “preliminary discussions” about a possible extension for their second baseman.

Forget about the hometown stuff for a second. Take Walker for what he is: a good-hitting second baseman who’s average at best on defense. He consistently hits around .270 with a .340 on-base percentage and flashes of power. In 2014, he became just the 21st second baseman to post 20+ HR/.340+ OBP/130+ wRC+ in a season — a great mix of on-base ability and power. Defensively, he doesn’t have much range, but is pretty sure-handed on the balls he can get to (he made 98.9% of sure plays in ’14). Obviously there are the injury concerns, which is a big factor as creeps closer to his 30’s. There are other discussions to be had — maybe moving him to a corner infield spot as he ages, the progression of infield prospect Alen Hanson, etc. but let’s worry about Walker for right now.

So, what might he be worth? Using FanGraphs’ WAR and their dollar value metric, one win (above replacement) was worth roughly $5.5 million in 2014. This is the going rate on the open market, and I’ve seen this estimated between $5 and 7 million per year. We’ll stick with $5.5 and add 5% for inflation each year. Walker just had his best year to date in his age-28 season — with what we know about aging curves, he’s probably at or near his peak production. Steamer projects Walker to be worth 3.1 WAR in 2015, down from 3.7 in 2014 — we’ll be conservative and go with a 0.5 WAR subtraction in each successive season. Let’s take a look…

Season WAR $/WAR Value
2015 3.2 5.78  $18.48
2016 2.7 6.06  $16.37
2017 2.2 6.37  $14.01
2018 1.7 6.69  $11.36
2019 1.2 7.02  $8.42
2020 0.7 7.37  $5.16

This can be a decent model. I’m sure it fluctuates player-to-player, but using this method, Francisco Liriano‘s worth around $36 million for the next three years (he got $39), Jon Lester‘s worth around $145 million over the next six (he got $155), and Giancarlo Stanton‘s worth about $323 million for the next 13 (he got $325). Those, of course, depend on your future projections for each player and also the approximate dollar value. For our purposes, it’s good enough.

Now, I do not believe the Pirates will be this aggressive with Walker; they will certainly go for a cheaper extension. However, it does prove what he could be worth on the open market in another team’s eyes. It’s also why — if they really want to pursue an extension — they should get it done now. Obviously they have him under control for two more years, but he’ll only be looking at more money (arbitration or otherwise) if he succeeds in 2015.

Using the model above, $60 million over the next four years could certainly be market value for one of the top hitting second baseman. However, for the Pirates, it’s all about the hometown discount.

He’s projected to earn $8.6 million in arbitration. How about something like this?

2015 – $8.5 million

2016 – $9.5 million

2017 – $10.5  million

2018 – $11.5 million

Total: four years, $40 million

The Pirates buy-out his last two arbitration years and first two free agent years, keeping Walker through his age-32 season. Walker takes a hometown discount, and the Pirates could see almost $20 million in surplus value.

This actually might not be totally out of the question — Bill Brink’s initial report associated it with Howie Kendrick‘s four-year, $33.5 million extension in 2012, adding that “A rival executive said a Walker extension could exceed Kendrick’s deal.”

I could see the Pirates going for a discount like this ($40 million), Walker’s camp asking for market value ($60 million), perhaps even a middle ground (4 years, $50 million). It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out, but for now, it seems like there’s interest on both sides.

Go Bucs

Pirates’ Winter Meetings News & Rumors: Day 3

Some notes from the third day of baseball’s Winter Meetings…

Yesterday, it was reported that the Pirates were scouring the trade market for potential left-handed relievers. Tonight, they have their guy: Antonio Bastardo. They acquired him from Philadelphia in exchange for LHP prospect Joely Rodriguez.

The Bucs were interested in acquiring Bastardo (and A.J. Burnett) this summer, so obviously they kept tabs on those guys. Bastardo is 29, has one year of team control remaining, and replaces Justin Wilson as your high K rate/high BB rate left-hander in the bullpen.

Season G IP K/9 BB/9 GB% ERA FIP xFIP
2009 6 23.2 7.2 3.4 22.7% 6.46 5.08 5.05
2010 25 18.2 12.5 4.3 31.9% 4.34 2.76 3.70
2011 64 58.0 10.9 4.0 25.4% 2.64 3.30 3.56
2012 65 52.0 14.0 4.5 27.7% 4.33 3.34 3.18
2013 48 42.2 9.9 4.4 31.4% 2.32 3.00 4.09
2014 67 64.0 11.4 4.8 30.2% 3.94 3.10 3.81

via FanGraphs

They were looking for a reliever — preferably a lefty — who could get hitters out on both sides of the plate. Bastardo’s not a bad choice: career .185/.284/.337 slash line vs. left-handed batters; .211/.308/.336 vs. right-handed batters.

Last three years overall: 3.63 ERA, 3.10 FIP, 11.9 K/9, 4.6 BB/9 … He sits in the low/mid 90’s with his fastball with a sharp slider, which he threw 35% of the time in 2014.

antonio bastardo

Joely Rodriguez, who was named to the Arizona Fall League’s prospect team earlier in the day, goes to Philadelphia. He was added to 40-man roster a year ago to be protected from the Rule 5 draft, but didn’t do a whole lot in Altoona this year.

– Before adding Bastardo, the Pirates almost landed a different bullpen piece: Pat Neshek. We heard about their interest in him yesterday, and he already had several offers lined up today. He was really close to being a Pirate: “I was probably seconds away from signing with Pittsburgh. I told my agent [Barry Meister], ‘Let’s sign with Pittsburgh, let’s get it done.’ We were on the phone and Houston called. We told them we were going to sign, and they raised the offer.” Welp… He gets two years, $12.5 million with an option for 2017; no chance the Bucs would’ve matched that.

– One more bullpen rumor from earlier in the day: they discussed a Brian Matusz-for-Travis Snider trade with the Orioles at one point. I think they were better off in swapping Bastardo for Rodriguez.

According to Bill Brink, the Pirates have had “preliminary discussions” about an extension for Neil Walker. He’s still under team control for two more years, so still plenty of time.

– From last night: Edinson Volquez is looking for a two-year, $20 million deal; he and the White Sox have mutual interest. Even if he gets a little less than that, I think the Pirates are out.

– If you haven’t heard, Jon Lester signed with the Cubs for six years and $155 million. Should be fun facing him until 2020.

– Pirates are unveiling a new alternate jersey this Saturday at PirateFest…

More to come.

Depth Chart & Winter Meetings Primer
Winter Meetings Day 1
Winter Meetings Day 2

Go Bucs

The Longest Bucco Blasts of 2014 (and other interesting HR data)

Things have been slow in terms of Bucco talk since the Francisco Cervelli trade and A.J. Burnett signing two weeks ago. The only rumblings to be heard: a few additions to the 40-man roster in order to protect certain prospects from the Rule 5 draft, and the potential addition of a right-hander named Radhames Liz, although the club still hasn’t officially confirmed that signing. The lack of rumors is almost frustrating, but hopefully things will pick up when the Winter Meetings roll around next week (Dec. 8-11).

Until then, let’s keep looking back at the 2014 Bucs. One of my favorite baseball resources is ESPN’s Home Run Tracker. A lot of batted ball data isn’t available to the public (the kind of stuff TrackMan does), but the HR Tracker gives us some info on every long ball hit since 2006.

Here were the Pirates’ five longest home runs of the 2014 season, according to the tracker’s “True Distance”…

5. Neil Walker vs. Homer Bailey (4/14/14) — 437 feet @ Great American Ballpark

longest pirates home runs 5

4. Ike Davis vs. Seth Maness (8/26/14) — 442 feet @ PNC Park

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3. Pedro Alvarez vs. James Russell (4/10/14) — 446 feet @ Wrigley Field

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2. Ike Davis vs. Adam Wainwright (8/27/14) — 447 feet @ PNC Park

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1. Ike Davis vs. Josh Beckett (5/30/14) — 450 feet @ Dodger Stadium

longest pirates home runs 1

Well… that’s a lot of Ike Davis, the guy the Pirates just DFA’d and ultimately traded to the Oakland A’s. I wasn’t expecting to see Davis take three of the top five, including two that happened within 24 hours of each other in a big August series against the Cardinals. The Pirates are going with Alvarez at first — he obviously has tremendous power, too — but I think a case could have been made for Ike overall. He only hit 10 HR in 397 PA with the Bucs (.378 SLG, .143 ISO), but the 27-year-old Davis could provide a solid bat if he puts some of this power together with his on-base ability.

Anyway, here is some more interesting data from the Home Run Tracker…

– Average homer distance for each Pirate:

Pedro Alvarez 412
Ike Davis 407
Russell Martin 405
Starling Marte 403
Andrew McCutchen 402
Travis Snider 395
Neil Walker 395
Jordy Mercer 391
Gaby Sanchez 389
Gregory Polanco 387
Josh Harrison 380

(in feet)

– Max. distance:

Ike Davis 450
Pedro Alvarez 446
Neil Walker 437
Andrew McCutchen 435
Travis Snider 433
Gaby Sanchez 428
Starling Marte 427
Russell Martin 424
Josh Harrison 419
Gregory Polanco 413
Jordy Mercer 409

(in feet)

– Average exit speed off the bat:

Russell Martin 107.16
Pedro Alvarez 105.62
Andrew McCutchen 103.66
Ike Davis 103.12
Starling Marte 103.07
Gregory Polanco 102.99
Neil Walker 102.55
Gaby Sanchez 102.06
Jordy Mercer 101.46
Travis Snider 100.89
Josh Harrison 99.76

(in miles per hour)

– Max. exit speed:

Russell Martin 117.7
Pedro Alvarez 115.5
Andrew McCutchen 110.9
Ike Davis 110.2
Gaby Sanchez 110.1
Travis Snider 109.1
Neil Walker 108.7
Starling Marte 107.4
Gregory Polanco 107.2
Jordy Mercer 106.1
Josh Harrison 102.7

(in miles per hour)

A few observations:

– Not only was Ike hitting his homers far, but he was hitting them hard. His average and max velocities were pretty much in line with the best hitter in the National League, Andrew McCutchen.

– El Toro is a strong man, but we already knew that. Giving Ike a lot of credit here but there’s no denying Pedro’s power.

– Russell Martin can hit a baseball. It was his lowest HR output (11) since 2010, but his bombs averaged 405 feet and no Pirate hit ’em as hard as Russ. Should play well at Rogers Centre, which is one of the homer-friendliest parks in baseball.

– A little surprised to see J-Hay at the bottom of the off-the-bat speed lists. He seemed to hit a lot of balls hard this year, and had one of the highest line drive rates (24%) on the team. I’d like to see what the numbers were on all of his batted balls, not just limited to home runs.

127 days until Opening Day.

Go Bucs

Photo: Justin K. Aller/Getty

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:

volquezdefense0001

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?

pirates triple play

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