Are the Pittsburgh Pirates built on a shaky foundation?

Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

The Pirates have been on a tear lately, but there might a fundamental flaw in the way the team is built.

Baseball is a sport that is so focused on isolated events and individual players that it is easy to forget how important it is to not only collect talent, but find players that fit your team. Before you panic this is not an article on the value of intangibles and grittiness. While Beyond the Box Score has an undeniable Arizona Diamondbacks feel at times, it has not been hijacked by the D-Backs front office.

What I'm referring to is the way players mesh together to form an effective unit on the field. The most obvious example of the way this is done in the game today is the manner in which teams match their players to their ballparks.

The Yankees are notorious for loading their lineup with left-handed hitters in order to take advantage of the laughably short right field porch. The Rockies are known to try and use ground ball pitchers to try and prevent runs at Coors field. These tactics help teams take advantage of their ballparks' quirks.

Another way teams can make their pieces fit together efficiently is fitting their pitchers to their defenses. This is probably discussed less often than trying to mesh teams with ballparks, but it is equally important. A Justin Masterson-type ground ball specialist is definitely best served by having an infield that can pick the ball. Alternatively, Jered Weaver is awfully thankful that he has Mike Trout behind him.

Some entire staffs are very ground ball or fly ball heavy and as a result it would be smart to match them with a defense that could best suit their needs. The Pittsburgh Pirates are one of the pitching staffs with the most extreme batted ball profiles, as shown in the table below.

Ground Ball Percentage Fly Ball Percentage GB/FB
49.4% (2nd in the MLB) 30.5% (30th) 1.62 (1st)

It is hard to be critical of pitchers getting ground balls, but given the Pirates play in a park where they can afford to give up balls in the air the focus on grounders is a bit odd.

Significantly more odd is the way these numbers fit with the makeup of Pittsburgh defense. The Pirates have been rather ordinary at best as infield defenders, something that is not encouraging for a team with that gives up some many balls on the ground. The following table shows how their infield measures up in UZR and DRS with their league ranks in brackets.

Infield UZR Infield DRS Infield UZR+DRS
-17.7 (29th) 4 (12th) -13.7 (23rd)

To be entirely fair the Pirates have not graded well in outfield defense either, but that has been driven a -9.9 UZR from Andrew McCutchen which is very much out of character. With Gregory Polanco, Starling Marte and McCutchen Pittsburgh has put together an athletic outfield that is likely to be a plus defensively going forward.

That being said, by filling their staff with ground-ballers they have highlighted a sub-par infield that includes the mediocre gloves of guys like Pedro Alvarez and Ike Davis. By and large that is not a great strategy.

The Pittsburgh Pirates are not a team without their faults.  The pitching staff has been disappointing, producing only 3.8 WAR on the season, and while the offense has been competent it's far from stellar.

One of the most basic flaws of this team might well be one that is rarely discussed: its basic roster construction.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Nick Ashbourne is an Editor for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @Nick_Ashbourne.

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