Ten Positives for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2021 – No. 2: Key Defenders
Depending on what statistics you wish to use to evaluate defense, the Pirates ranged anywhere from a solid to subpar defensive team in 2021. Based on the “old school” statistics of errors and fielding percentage, the Pirates rated as one of the best defensive teams in baseball. They committed the fewest errors (70) in all of baseball, and the team’s fielding percentage (.988) was tied with the Astros and Braves for the top mark.
Using “modern/new school” statistics, the Pirates were more of an average or even below-average defensive team. Their four defensive runs saved ranked pretty much right in the middle of the pack – 18th in baseball. Their -9.3 UZR as a team was below average, ranking 21st in the league, as was their collective defensive WAR, which also ranked 21st.
No matter how you choose to evaluate their defense as a whole, there is no denying that the Pirates employed some of the top defenders at their respective positions this passed season. Those players include Jacob Stallings, Ke’Bryan Hayes and Kevin Newman.
Stallings was superb behind the plate all season for Pittsburgh. His 21 defensive runs saved were tied for the most in baseball regardless of position, and as a catcher, were nine more than the next closest backstop (Austin Hedges: 12 DRS) in all of Major League Baseball. Stallings also ranked in the Top 5 in pitch framing and defensive WAR from behind the plate, and has a strong case to win a Gold Glove. The Pirates’ backstop was a finalist for the Gold Glove in 2020, but the honor ultimately went to Reds’ catcher Tucker Barnhart.
Despite missing a large chunk of the season and playing less than 800 innings at third base, Hayes led all Major League third basemen with 16 DRS. Hayes was second among third baseman in the National League with a 6.0 UZR and ranked third in the senior circuit in defensive WAR from the hot corner. Hayes has lived up to his reputation as an elite defender and although the amount of time missed this season could end up costing him a chance to win this year, he could be the favorite for the Gold Glove in 2022.
Hayes made one of the plays of the year in 2021.
THAT'S IT. THAT'S THE TWEET. pic.twitter.com/Bh3Mrir1i4
— Pittsburgh Pirates (@Pirates) June 27, 2021
It’s no secret that Newman had his struggles at the plate this season, but the same could not be said for what he did with his glove. Newman’s defense improved drastically from a year ago to where he held a share of the lead among all qualified National League shortstops with nine defensive runs saved. His UZR (6.4) and defensive WAR were both tops among all qualified Major League shortstops, not just in the senior circuit. Newman began the season with 76 straight games without committing an error, setting a new Pirates’ team record.
The trio of Stallings, Hayes and Newman could all be finalists for the Gold Glove at their respective positions and the case could be made for each to win the prestigious award. The Pirates certainly enjoyed having Gold Glove-caliber players at three key positions on the field.
All three of these players find themselves in different situations heading into the offseason. Hayes certainly will be with the Pirates come Opening Day 2021, and while it may be likely both remain, the future’s of both Stallings and Newman are a little less certain. Both are arbitration-eligible this season, and Stallings could be a hot commodity on the trade front as one of the game’s better catchers. Newman’s bat rated as one of the worst in the league last year and the Pirates could decide to move on from him this winter despite the elite defense.