Inside the Pirates: Many ways to define defense

Despite team's low error total, fundamentals appear lacking

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The most conventional numbers will show, unambiguously, that the Pirates are not a good defensive team but a very good one.

Stay with us here.

They have committed 15 errors, seventh-lowest total in Major League Baseball. They have played 18 of their first 29 games without an error. And their .987 fielding percentage -- error-free plays against total chances -- ranks No. 7 in the majors.

Fairly impressive.

And it might explain why, earlier in the week, Jim Tracy took exception to a reporter questioning some of the team's fundamental play in the field. When the subject was raised, Tracy sought examples. When a couple were cited, he abruptly dismissed them as "nitpicking."

Tracy almost always is defensive when it comes to defense, as are most managers, if only because no other facet of the game has the potential to reflect worse on a staff.

At the same time, no one at any level of the Pirates' organization displays a keener eye for defensive detail than Tracy, so he surely is aware of every lapse, including those of the mental variety that rarely are ruled errors by the official scorer.

And, in the Pirates' case ...

Outfielders routinely have thrown to the wrong base, made dismal throws even when throwing to the correct base, overshot the cutoff man, allowed pop flies to plop between them, even had a questionable effort or two in chasing balls.

The infielders have been steadier, but there has been incorrect positioning for cutoffs, poor communication and pursuit related to popups and, in the specific case of second baseman Freddy Sanchez, less-than-expected range, perhaps because of his spring knee injury. Behind the plate, Ronny Paulino has been below the league average in receiving and throwing.

In fact, going around the horn, the one player who has excelled -- physically and mentally -- has been third baseman Jose Bautista. Shortstop Jack Wilson and center fielder Chris Duffy would be alone on a second tier.

Here is another number that might counter the positive ones above: The Pirates have recorded outs on 68.9 percent of all balls put in play, no matter the scorer's decision or even if they are home runs. No judgment involved. And that figure is fourth-lowest in the game.

Not so impressive.

The players do not sound self-congratulatory about the defense, but neither do they seem dissatisfied with it.

"The one thing I think you're seeing is that guys aren't taking their bats into the field with them," Sanchez said. "I think it's been fine."

"I think we're making the plays that are supposed to be made," left fielder Jason Bay said.

No one remembers who finishes, uh, sixth

Going into Milwaukee within striking distance of the first-place Brewers reminded Jack Wilson of all the other times the Pirates have participated in such a series in his seven years.

Well, OK, just one ...

"Dude, we were 4-0 in 2003. We were in first place," he said. "And I remember that because a fan came to our ballpark with a sign that said, 'I love the Jack and Pokey Show ... and the first-place Pirates.' I'll never forget it."

Pokey Reese was the Pirates' second baseman for 37 games that year, which is 34 days longer than the team held onto first.

In all, since Wilson became shortstop July 30, 2000, the Pirates have had sole possession of first place beyond opening day for 14 days. The other 11 came in 2002.

What does a guy have to do?

When the Pirates signed Dan Kolb as a free agent in the offseason, it was with the understanding that he would have a legitimate chance to make the bullpen, if not an outright advantage given his status as an All-Star in Milwaukee three years ago.

But Kolb did not have his best stuff in the spring, was hit hard at times and was cut. After trying and failing to hook up with another team, he agreed to go to Class AAA Indianapolis and work his way up.

Since then, all he has done is to post a 0.00 ERA in 10 appearances, with 11 strikeouts in 12 1/3 innings. Maybe most eye-opening: For a guy not known for his heat, he hit 97 mph on the radar gun Wednesday in a perfect ninth inning against Pawtucket.

So much for the stuff issue.

What is keeping him down?

The Pirates feel they have enough one-inning relievers and are seeking longer arms, which is why Marty McLeary was recalled Thursday when John Wasdin went down.

And for our next number ...

Salomon Torres' playful crooning long has been a staple in the Pirates' clubhouse before games. But it was another bullpen member who perked some ears in the past week, strumming an electric guitar -- a new Fender Telecaster, no less -- at his stall, with his head draped in an Axl Rose-style bandana.

"I've been playing for about three or four years," relief pitcher Jonah Bayliss said. "My dad's been playing an acoustic forever, and I thought I'd try to learn. I'm doing it without sheet music, just by listening."

His play list is not yet terribly ambitious, as evidenced by his focus on the more intricate works of, uh, Poison and Motley Crue. But that is fine by him.

"The stuff rocks."

It could give some of those clubhouse ping-pong matches an X Games feel.

Dejan Kovacevic can be reached at .


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