The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates are not a Shifty Bunch
The Pittsburgh Pirates are shifting less in 2016 and their pitching is worse. Are these two related?
The Pittsburgh Pirates have earned a reputation around the league of being a very analytical front office and with good reason. The team’s use of FIP and xFIP to find value starting pitching is well known, but the shift is where the Pirates really earned their stripes as a numbers-centric team.
From 2013-2015, the Pirates shifted a total of 2,446 times, which was good for third in all of baseball behind only the Houston Astros and the Tampa Bay Rays, two teams with sabermetric driven front offices of their own.
The 2016 season is about one month old and the Pirates shifting totals are way down from the past three seasons. They have shifted only 214 times, which is the 12th most in the league. The Pirates spent a lot of the offseason discussing their change in outfield defense by playing their outfielders a bit more shallow, but they most certainly did not mention using the shift less. What changed?
Over the winter, the Pirates traded Charlie Morton to the Philadelphia Phillies and A.J. Burnett retired. These two pitchers both have ground ball percentages over 50 percent, which is why the team used the shift very heavily in their starts. In their place, the team added Juan Nicasio and Jon Niese. Both pitchers get ground balls below 50 percent of the time. The rotation hold overs of Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano both also have ground ball rates below 50 percent. Only Jeff Locke (51 percent) has a ground ball rate of above 50 percent.
You hear Clint Hurdle talking about not trying to fit a round peg into a square hole, so it begs the question, are the Pirates shifting less because their rotation isn’t as ground ball-centric as in years past? The Pirates are generating less ground balls as a team this season, but despite that, their entire starting pitching rotation remains above the league average of 44 percent. Even though they are down with the loss of Morton and Burnett, they still are an above average team.