Well when you start with James Harrison and Troy Polamalu, excellence really should come as no surpr....
Wait, what? This is a baseball blog? And we're talking about the defense of the Pittsburgh Pirates??
At the All-Star break, the Pirates find themselves one game out of first place in the National League Central. This is a major surprise, since the last time the Pirates had even a winning record was 1992. The Pirates have been better in every facet of the game this year than last, but their most notable improvement has been in the run prevention category. The previous four seasons, the Pirates had finished in the bottom 3 in the league in runs allowed - in 2011, they rank 4th. Usually extreme leaps in run prevention are directly related to improved pitching, but in this case, the usual pitching numbers don't show much difference in quality:
-In 2007, the Pirates ranked 14th in runs allowed, 11th in the NL in K/BB ratio, and allowed 1.2 HR/9 - slightly worse than the league average of 1.0.
-In 2008, they ranked 16th in runs allowed, 16th in K/BB, and allowed 1.1 HR/9 (league average 1.0).
-In 2009, they ranked 14th in runs allowed, 15th in K/BB, and allowed 1.0 HR/9 (same as league average)
-Last year, 16th in runs allowed, 16th in K/BB, and allowed 1.1 HR/9 (league average was .9)
-This year, they are 4th in runs allowed, 15th in K/BB, .9 HR/9 (same as league average).
So, compared to last year, part of their improvement comes from allowing home runs at closer to the league average rate, but more of it comes from turning balls into play into outs:
2007: .685 Defensive Efficiency/ 15th in NL
2008: .689 DE/ 15th
2009: .700 DE/ 15th
20101' 689 DE/ 16th
2011: .716 DE/5th
That improvement can't be understated. Behind a pitching staff that strikes out fewer batters than any other NL team, the Pirates are turning 4% more balls into outs. Striking out only 6.2 per nine, to get those other 21 outs, Pirates pitchers face 29.2 batters rather than 30.4. Over the course of the season, this means they would pitch to 192 fewer batters.
Check out the effect this has had on some of the Pirates' starting pitchers:
2010: 2-12, 7.57 ERA, 6.7 K/9, 2.9 BB/9, 1.8 HR/9, .357 BABIP
2011: 7-5. 3.80 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9, 0.3 HR/9. .316 BABIP
Morton's improvement has much to do with the extreme drop in home run rate - an improvement many attribute directly to pitching coach Ray Searange, who noticed that Morton was more effective with a lower release point. This emphasized the natural sink on his 95 mile per hour fastball, and has produced a ton of ground balls, and that's where the improvement in Pittsburgh's defense has made Morton's statistical improvement even more striking.
2010: 9-15. 5.10 ERA, 5.0 K/9, 3.0 BB/9, 0.7 HR/9, .327 BABIP
2011: 6-9, 2.98 ERA, 5.6 K/9, 3.1 BB/9, 0.5 HR/9, .252 BABIP
Maholm has only one previous season (2008) in his career with a BABIP under .300. Not coincidentally, it was the only season in his career with an ERA under 4.00.
2010: 3-10, 4.92 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 2.0 BB/9, 1.5 HR/9. .309 BABIP
2011: 7-4, 2.55 ERA, 5.3 K/9, 1.7 BB/9, 1.6 HR/9, .240 BABIP
Karstens is the most striking example of the assistance the Pittsburgh defense is providing to its mediocre pitchers. Last year Karstens allowed too many homers and struck out not enough batters. This year, he's doing the same thing and has cut his ERA in half. Karstens is having one of those years which, if the Pirates were in their normal position 20 games under .500, they'd probably trade him to a contender - this might be the best half-season Karstens ever has, his value will never be higher. A .240 BABIP isn't sustainable, and other than a slightly better walk rate, Karstens is the pitcher he's always been. I'd expect his ERA to be in the 3.85-4.15 range in the second half.
There are several reasons for the improved Pirate defense. The first is the wonderfully fantastic Andrew McCutchen, leading National League CF with an 8.3 UZR. This was a huge improvement over his performance in the second half last year, and an even bigger improvement over Jose Tabata, a more natural corner outfielder who was overmatched in center. Another big improvement has been at SS, where Ronny Cedeno has a 4.2 UZR, following his -3.6 last year. Cedeno isn't much of a hitter, so his defense needs to carry his bat for him to be worth his playing time. This year it has done so. At 3B, it's been addition by subtraction. Pedro Alvarez (-6.2 in 2010, -2.3 so far in 2011) was injured, and replaced by a combination of Brandon Wood and Josh Harrison (4.2 UZR combined). Wood and Harrison can't hit though - Alvarez can (at least he did last year, and in the minors). The defensive disadvantage with Alvarez in the lineup is more than made up for by his superior bat.
Is the defensive improvement sustainable, or just a fluke? Mostly sustainable I think. The outfield defense with McCutchen and Tabata can cover a lot of ground. The infield defense may take a small step back (Alvarez returning, Cedeno regressing), but should still be above average.
Some credit is due to Clint Hurdle, as well. He's unafraid to use defensive replacements, and his Rockies teams usually had above average defenses despite playing in spacious Coors Field. It seems possible he and his staff are doing a good job positioning their fielders. If he keeps the Pirates in the race all year, he should run away with the Manager of the Year award.