Much has already been documented concerning the Pittsburgh Pirates increased use of defensive shifts during the 2013 season. The implementation of an aggressive new defensive plan was cited numerous times throughout the summer for turning the Pirates into one of the stingiest teams in the league at preventing runs. Only the Atlanta Braves surrendered fewer runs than the 577 allowed by Pittsburgh. To give up so few runs you have to have good pitching and defense and by all measures the Pirates had both. According to Baseball Info Solutions the Pirates had 68 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) in 2013. In 2012 the Pirates were a -25 in DRS. That is a net improvement of 93 runs saved. The philosophical change in player positioning by the Pirates that produced a 400% increase in defensive shifts was credited for the turnaround by numerous journalists and bloggers. But it would be a major reach to credit the use of defensive shifts as anything more than a minor factor in the Pirates’ improvement in run prevention.
One of the most stark observations that can be made of the use of radical defensive shifts are on plays made out of normal zones (OOZ). This was never more apparent than when Neil Walker robbed Matt Adams of a game tying hit in the 8th inning of a game on August 13th by snaring a sure line drive hit in short right field. With teams that shift as heavily as the Pirates you should expect a high number of OOZ plays. The Pirates made 559 OOZ plays which was good for the 4th best in baseball. That was 67 more OOZ plays than the team made in 2012. However this comes at a tradeoff. Fielders that are shifted out of their normal zones will fail to make plays they otherwise might have made. The percentage of plays on balls in zone (BIZ) dropped from from 83.8% in 2012 to 82.4% in 2013. Had the Pirates made plays on BIZ at the rate in which they did in 2012 they would have made 32 additional plays. So if we ignore all the other variables and just credit the shifts entirely for both the increase in plays made OOZ and the decrease in plays on BIZ the net is 35 additional plays.
When you look at all balls put in play The Pirates saw very little improvement in defensive efficiency. Defensive efficiency is the rate at which batted balls in play are turned into outs by the defense. This would include balls in zone, play made on balls out of zones, as well as hits that fell outside of zones. In 2012 the Pirates converted 71.4% of balls in play to outs. In 2013 the rate improved to 71.5%. Over the course of an entire season that equates to only 5 additional outs. Don’t get me wrong, I think defensive shifts were worth more than 5 additional outs. It is quite possible the Pirates defensive efficiency may have regressed had they not implemented the shift so frequently. But it certainly wasn’t the major factor in the 93 defensive runs saved improvement from 2012. Baseball Info Solutions estimated the defensive shifts saved the Pirates 9 runs on the season. So less than 10% of the Bucs’ improvement in DRS can be directly linked to an increased use of defensive shifts. There were so many other factors that led to the Pirates better defensive metrics that dwarfed the shifting by comparison. For example controlling the running game. Pirate catchers cut down an 24 additional base stealers and Pirate pitchers picked off 7 additional runners. The switch from Rod Barajas to Russell Martin alone was worth an improvement of 28 defensive runs saved. Martin was +16 DRS in 2013. Barajas was -12 DRS in 2012. The Bucs also saw a big improvement in left field due to a full season of Starling Marte starting in LF. Marte registered a 20 DRS, the highest total among all left fielders. In my opinion adding two elite defensive players as well as some improved defensive play by Pedro Alvarez was a way more significant factor in the Pirates having such a stingy defense in 2013.
All of the talk about how much defensive shifts aided the Pirates at preventing runs kind of stole the limelight away from the biggest reason the Pirates were so hard to score upon in 2013. It was largely because of the pitching. The Pirate pitching staff allowed just 101 home runs. Not only did that lead the league in fewest homers allowed in 2013, but it was also the second lowest total by any team since the strike shortened 1994 season. This was an elite staff at keeping the ball in the yard, and they provided a huge improvement of 52 less homers than 2012. While the story of the Pirates defensive shifts that saved the team 9 runs garnered a ton of ink this summer, the story of one of the hardest pitching staffs in this era to hit a home run against was largely ignored.