Good teams are strong up the middle. The Pirates are not strong up the middle. The Pirates are not a good team.
That was the truth even before the defensive implosion in the Bronx on Saturday afternoon. The misplays that day embarrassed the Pirates, their fans, the National League and the bellmen who carried the Pirates' bags, but they could not be called isolated incidents. This team lacks complete ballplayers up the middle.
This season, center fielder Chris Duffy has fielded like a champ but his on-base average is only .300, 34 points below the league average.
Freddy Sanchez has begun to hit more like a defending batting champion, with a .333 batting average and .361 OBA these past four weeks, but he has gone from a spectacular third baseman to the worst fielding second baseman in baseball other than Jeff Kent.
Shortstop Jack Wilson and catcher Ronny Paulino have disappointed with the bat and the leather, and were appropriately benched Sunday. They deserve to stay seated tonight, too, so the team might pretend for at least another day there is accountability for poor performance, but don't go betting the rent money there.
Before approaching the defense, let's consider the collective offensive output from Pirates catchers, second basemen, shortstop and center fielders. Baseball-reference.com says the collective is hitting .263 with a .312 on-base average and .367 slugging average. That's 86 percent of the major-league average for a defensive quartet (using OPS, on-base plus slugging, adjusted for the ballpark.) So if these guys aren't hitting, are they fielding?
Not on your autographed picture of Bill Mazeroski. Forget fielding percentage, which only measures the balls a fielder reaches and depends on official scorers' whims. Let's go with Ultimate Zone Rating, a metric by Michael Lichtman that was recently touted in hardballtimes.com. The UZR looks at the probability that a ball in play becomes an out, based on how hard it was hit, the base/out situation, the ballpark, the pitcher's groundball/flyball ratio and more. The stat translates that information as run values, and so in one number says how many runs the player saved or lost. Unfortunately, it doesn't include catchers.
Four Pirates were above average defenders in the season's first two months: Duffy (+4 runs), first baseman Adam LaRoche (+3), third baseman Jose Bautista (+3) and left fielder Jason Bay (+1)
Right fielder Xavier Nady and shortstop Wilson were merely average (0). The error-prone Jose Castillo received a -1 at three positions, shortstop, second and third base; Ryan Doumit was a -6 in right field and Sanchez was a -9 at second base, entirely because of his limited range.
Nobody has to take UZR as gospel, and I have doubts Castillo was that bad at third or Nady that good in right, but it's fair to say this kind of fielding has not helped balls-in-play pitchers such as Zach Duke and Paul Maholm. It's also clear Wilson must either go back to being a superior shortstop or at least hit like an average one. As Wilson said in January in reference to Castillo at second base, "I want whoever's going to make this a winning team."
Right now, that's not Wilson.
The average NL shortstop is hitting .272 with a .329 OBA and .406 SLG according to STATS Inc. In roughly 600 plate appearances going back to this date last year, Wilson has hit .258/.309/.344. Trouble is Castillo has been much worse: .230/.269/.320 in about 400 plate appearances.
Even Castillo's supporters would not describe him as steady in the field, but he had a good game Sunday with the stick and glove. The Pirates should run Castillo out there again at shortstop tonight. See if he can go on one of his three-week tears. Shake up this team.
Let Doumit catch more, too. He is unpolished, but he held on to the ball in a home plate collision Sunday, a day after Paulino didn't seem all that interested in catching anything. And Doumit obviously has swung a better bat, with an .862 OPS to Paulino's .620.
Not that there isn't real risk. Doumit has crushed the ball in the 13 games he has caught (.341/.383/.545), but the Pirates have won only two of those games because opposing hitters mostly have slammed Pirates pitchers. When Doumit is catching, opposing hitters have hit a frightening .303/.364/.522 compared to a manageable .272/.336/.413 when Paulino catches. The splits went Paulino's way even more drastically last year, so it certainly seems Paulino calls a better game.
But who says Doumit can't improve there? He caught seven shutouts in 2005, his rookie year, yet has not caught two consecutive games this season. Make catching a competition and maybe one of the backstops will develop into a complete player.
Meantime, the Pirates should try these promotions for this homestand: Hit the Cutoff Man Night, followed by Run The Bases As If You've Been There Before Day. They might pack the house.
Brian O'Neill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.