Defensive efficiency rating (DER) is a quite useful team-based metric that determines how often a defense converts balls in play -- i.e., fair-hit balls that don't leave the park -- into outs. That's sort of the point of fielding, after all. Anyhow, in 2012 the Pirates, who bested the Cardinals 5-3 in Game 3 of the NLDS on Sunday, ranked 10th in the majors in DER. That's quite respectable, but in 2013 they improved to fifth in MLB (of note: The Pirates ranked 25th in 2011). Those better numbers come despite not much turnover in terms defensive personnel.
On this point, Travis Sawchik of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review recently profiled the Pirates' efforts toward an improved run-prevention corps. As Sawchik writes, GM Neal Huntington and in-house analyst Dan Fox were critical to the change in philosophy Here's an excerpt from what's a must-read piece:
The Pirates ratcheted up defensive experimentation last year, but it wasn't until this season that they dramatically changed the way they play defense, increasing their use of shifts by 400 percent. The Rays had shifted 453 times through Sept. 6 this season, second-most in baseball. The Pirates rank fourth.
“We had a buy-in that we were going to do it starting in spring training,” Hurdle said. “We brought Dan (Fox) in, and I brought in all my coaching staff.
“I know this game is built upon tradition, and players are territorial. They have comfort zones in the infield. You lay out the factual information … and with facts, there's no argument.”
Defensive shifts have been around for a long time, but there's been a surge of them in very recent seasons. The Pirates have paired those shifts with an outfield that's rich in range and a pitching that's newly focused on inducing ground balls and soft contact (to the extent that the latter can be done).
In Game 3 on Sunday, though, you saw all of those elements converge. Pirate pitchers combined for 12 groundball outs. Most impressive, though, is that the defense made outs on five line drives. In contrast, the Cardinals recorded only one of their seven hits on a true line drive. Consider that during the regular season, the Cardinals batted .659 on line drives (not an unusual figure -- liners usually fall for hits), but on Sunday in Game 3 they batted just .167 (1 for 6) on such events.
To be sure, it's one game, and there's some luck -- bad or good, depending on your interests -- involved when a line drive is caught. But the Pirates shifted aggressively during Game 3, and their outfield alignments were particularly well executed.
Six liners, five outs in a two-run game: To put a finer point on it, the 2012 Pirates -- the team that shifted 400 percent less than this year's team -- probably lose Game 3.