Thursday, March 27, 2014

2014 Pittsburgh Pirates Preview: Position Players

Over the past four days I have taken a look at all the other NL Central teams and saved the best for last. Yea, I am talking about the Pittsburgh Pirates. The Pirates broke through last year en route to finishing second in the NL Central with 94 wins, defeated Cincinnati in the NL Wild Card, and then barely lost to St. Louis in the NL Division Series. Really fun times last year. That all sets things up for 2014. This was the first year I thought the Pirates had a chance to break “the streak” and make a run at the playoffs but after last season the expectations have changed and bigger things are expected from the team.

The first part of the three part Pirates preview series is going to look at the position players. This will include all the starters and a few guys that should make up the bench. I tried to touch on as many of the players as I could and in a lot of cases wrote way too many words about them. There are obviously going to be more players that come in to make a difference but this is a good starting point for the team.

Into the player-by-player preview:

Catcher: Russell Martin

Russell Martin is coming off a really good year for the Pirates. While he was only about a league average hitter with a 101 OPS+ he ended the season as a 4.1 fWAR player. Most of that comes from his outstanding defense. Coming into last season Martin was thought to help the Pirates behind the plate but I am not sure a lot of people could really appreciate how good he was. Baseball Prospectus put together a nice piece earlier this month on pitch framing and blocking and as you read through it you can see that Martin’s name is all over the place.

Being a good defensive catcher the way Martin is will make you more valuable if you are a sub-par offensive player. Last season Martin was right around a league average offensive player so that made him a very valuable catcher even despite his offensive slide down the stretch and him only playing in 127 games.

Last season Martin finished .226/.327/.377 with 15 home runs. On the surface that really isn’t that great but digging a little deeper he brought something to the Pirates that they sorely lacked in previous seasons, a catcher (or player) that could get on base. The .327 on base percentage was only sixth in baseball among the 10 that had enough plate appearances to qualify but Martin was second of those 10 qualified catcher with a 101 point difference between batting average and on base percentage. It would be great if Martin could hit around .250 but even though he wasn’t slugging the ball all over the field for hits he was still getting on base at a good clip and that is really alright in my book.

Martin started the season off strong with a .274/.344/.560 line in March and April but dipped below a .700 OPS in both May and June. He was back up to a pretty good July but for whatever reason he regressed back in August (.213/.304/.413) and September (.127/.214/.222). While Martin played well for the Pirates last season I think that the team will most likely try to get him a little more time off early in the season. His playing time was pretty consistent throughout the year with about 20 games started in each month but for whatever reason in August and September he dipped really hard.

Over his career he has dropped off late in the year but not nearly as much as he did in 2013. In his career he is a .252/.333/.411 hitter in August and a .233/.336/.381 in September/October. That is not nearly the drop-off from his .255/.349/.396 average so that tells me that maybe his age and use over his 1,000+ career games are catching up with him any maybe playing 100 games instead of 130 will make him more valuable despite the decline in use.

Martin has some flaws in his offensive game but I think his defense makes up for it. He finished last year third on the team in walk rate (11.5%) which was only a tenth of a percent lower than Andrew McCutchen. That makes him valuable even if he is only hitting .260. If the Pirates can find a way to manage him a little more at the beginning of the season they can get some more production later in the year when they will really need him.

First Base: Gaby Sanchez and Andrew Lambo and Travis Ishikawa

First base is really going to be interesting for the Pirates. Last year they went in with Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez. A lot of people found that this platoon was a flop and at the end of the season the Pirates were able to swing a deal for Justin Morneau. Truth be told the first base platoon wasn’t all that bad. Last season Pirates first basemen combined for a .264/.346/.422 line and had an OPS+ of 100 which is just league average.

Now being league average at a position where you are supposed to have some power isn’t good but gone from last year is Jones who was awful with a .233/.289/.419 line with 15 home runs in 440 plate appearances. Gone is Jones but the problem is the Pirates have nothing to go with Sanchez in the platoon. That’s the problem.

First, lets touch on Sanchez. For as much as people didn’t like him last year and thought he was bad that certainly wasn’t the case. In 320 plate appearances he went .254/.361/.402 line and had an wRC+ of 117. Where Sanchez is very valuable is against left handed pitching. Last season against lefties Sanchez hit .333/.448/.539 in 102 plate appearances. Over his career Sanchez is a .300/.399/.496 line in 566 plate appearances which is nearly a full year’s worth of plate appearances. That is significant.

The problem? Sanchez is only .242/.313/.387 against right handed pitchers and last year he was only .204/.304/.315 against right handed pitching. While he probably isn’t as bad against righties as he was in 2013 it would be foolish to think that he should be getting any sort of regular at bats against them in 2014.

Despite some bad hitting against righties Sanchez finished the season leading the team in walk rate (13.8%) and struck out only 15.9% of his plate appearances. If they can limit his exposure against right handed pitching and let him thrive against left handed pitching then I think Sanchez can be better than last year.

That brings us to this question, who is going to hit against right handed pitching? I guess that person is Andrew Lambo. This is not ideal. Lambo is not a first baseman and he only has 33 plate appearances in the majors.

Now, Lambo has had a lot of success in the minor leagues. Last season between AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis his hit .282/.347/.574 with 32 home runs. He has the ability to make things work but in the (very) small sample size last season he wasn’t overly good. The problem for me is that there are more right handed pitchers than left handed pitchers so the Pirates need someone to be successful and take a lion share of the at bats against right handed pitching. Lambo could come in and make things alright in that aspect but relying on something with almost no experience to be pretty much an every day guy is a scary proposition.

When I originally wrote this I figured it was pretty certain that Lambo was going to be the big side of the platoon and Ishikawa wasn't going to have much of a chance. That proved to be wrong when the Pirates optioned Lambo a few days ago. Ishikawa isn't really all that good and he is a journeyman first baseman that got some time for the Giants from 2006-2010 and then some time for the Brewers in 2012. His career wRC+ is 92, which isn't good, and the projections have him going around a .240/.310/.360 line. If you aren't a mathematician that is a .670 OPS. Yikes.

I guess what might have helped him gain the spot over Lambo is that he had a pretty good spring. At this point (the morning of March 25) he is .333/.467/.708 this spring. Those stats are in 10 games and 30 plate appearances. I really hope this wasn't made on spring training stats, but on the other hand if it was then that says a lot about what the Pirates think of Lambo.

It is a tough call because I think most of baseball, and the Pirates, know what Ishikawa can bring to the table. I really don't think anyone knows what Lambo can do. Sure, he wasn't that great for most of his minor league career but he played pretty well in the minors last season. What do the Pirates have in him? I guess we aren't going to find out for a little while.

Second Base: Neil Walker

Last year in the preview I said that Neil Walker was going to be the big wild card for the Pirates offense. I don’t really think I have a much different opinion this year than I did last year. We know what we are going to get from guys like Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez, Gaby Sanchez, and Russell Martin but I don’t really know what I expect from Walker.

I have been vocal against the notion that the Pirates need to sign him to an extension. Walker is a decent piece to the puzzle but I don’t really think he is good enough to warrant seeing as the Pirates have him locked up through 2017.

In 2013 Walker probably had his best season since 2010 when he posted a 114 wRC+ of 114 and a .251/.339/.418 line in 551 plate appearances. He was consistent with a 2.7 fWAR after being 2.6 in each of the previous two seasons. While he has been right around the same production wise Walker has improved in areas. His 9.1% walk rate which was a significant increase from 2012 when it was 7.7% and the highest since he’s been in the majors. Walker also cut his strikeout rate from 19.6% in 2012 to only 15.4% which led to him getting on base more despite almost a 30 point drop in batting average.

The big question with Walker is whether he should just scrap the right handed hitting and focus on being a left handed hitter. Walker hit just .225/.281/.238 as a right handed batter last season and while that happened in only 80 plate appearances I think the Pirates noticed the trend when he was on the bench later in the season against left handed pitching. Walker was good hitting from the left side (.256/.350/.455) and all but one of his extra base hits came as a left handed hitter. He had one double as a right-handed hitter.

In 2011 and 2012 Walker started putting the ball on the ground a bit more than his overall career line would indicate. As you should know from reading you give yourself the best chance to get on base when you are hitting the ball in the air, whether that is via a line drive or through a fly ball. Walker kept his line drive rate around 23-24%, which is where he was in 2012, but he decreased his groundball rate from 42.3% in 2012 to only 38.5% in 2013. His fly ball rate went up (33.7% in 2012, 38.5% in 2013) with his home run/fly ball ratio staying around the same (11%). Pretty easy to diagnose, more fly balls with the same HR/FB rate equals more home runs and a better chance at getting on. Despite having a dip in batting average it is good that Walker is trending at this rate, even if it doesn’t seem like a huge advantage.

Walker might get away from hitting right-handed and in my opinion that is good. While I have never been a huge supporter of Walker in the past I can more than live with him being a top-10 second baseman. Of the 17 qualified second baseman in the league last year Walker ranked eighth with a 114 wRC+ and was ninth in fWAR. He was also seventh in walk rate. Walker is never going to be a top-five second baseman but if he can produce around the 7-10 range then he is going to make the Pirates offense that much better.

It also must be noted that Walker has been a much better defensive player as the years have gone on. Last season he was tied for fifth among second baseman in defensive runs saved (nine). It was the first time in his career he was a plus in DRS and even though his UZR and UZR/150 were both below average Walker is not nearly as big of a liability in the past than he is now. That could be because of the defensive shifting the Pirates do but he still is noticeably better in the field.

Third Base: Pedro Alvarez

The past couple of years I have talked about how I have no idea who Alvarez is as a player. I knew what he probably was but in the end his hot streaks would last longer and it would get me wildly frustrated as to what he could be. I am finally able to say that I know what he is. Here are the things that he is going to do:

- hit a lot of home runs
- strike out 30% of the time
- go on long cold streaks
- go on decent hot streaks where he carries the team
- make the tough play and air mail the easy one

That is Alvarez.

Now that we have that out of the way here is what happened last year. He hit 36 home runs and was a 3.1 fWAR player. He hit .233/.269/.473 and despite the lack of on base prowess he was a well above league average hitter with a 111 wRC+. He ranked right in the middle in terms of fWAR among the 21 qualified third basemen. That being the case he was second in home runs. His wOBA ranked ninth among those third basemen.

With all the home runs and runs driven in there was some concerns with his offensive production. In 2012 his was rate was up to almost 10% and then fell to 7.8% last season. He is always going to struggle to get on base but with the game changing power he has pitchers are going to nibble and Alvarez still is, and probably will always be swing happy.

While Alvarez stuck right around his swing rates from 2012 his O-Contact% (number of pitches contacted on swings at pitches outside the strike zone) was 48.4% and that dropped to 41.1%. His Z-Contact% (number of pitches contacted on swings at pitches inside the strike zone) also went down about 3% while he swung at almost 5% more in his Z-Swing%. Alvarez is swinging more and contacting less. His overall contact rate went from 70.7% in 2012 to 65.9% last year. All of this could be a one-year aberration since these fall a good bit lower than his career averages but still something that is concerning.

Alvarez really didn’t hit all that well outside of June. In June he went on a tear going for a .309/.380/.680 with 10 home runs. Every other month he was under an .800 OPSand was only over .750 two other months. While the 36 home runs were nice he took somewhat of a step back from 2012.

Defensively last season was the first year that Alvarez was a positive defensive runs saved player. Sure his DRS was only three but that is an eight run improvement from 2012 and a 14 run improvement from 2011. While his DRS improved he still is wildly frustrating. FanGraphs introduced a new defensive metric called Inside Edge Fielding where they breakdown defensive plays by the following system:

Impossible (0%)
Remote (1-10%)
Unlikely (10-40%)
About Even (40-60%)
Likely (60-90%)
Almost Certain / Certain (90-100%)

In that system it had Alvarez making only 95.6% of the almost certain/certain plays which is 16th among qualified third basement and only 76.5% of the likely plays (14th). While the routine plays give him trouble he was tied for fifth among third basemen in remote plays (12.5%) and 10th in unlikely plays (33.3%). I still think his defense keeps getting better but if he could just be better at the plays he should make it would go a long way.

Alvarez is never going to be the OBP hitter that gets on base a lot and I think we are all resigned to that fact. If he could just level it out a little bit and maybe be a .245 or .250 hitter that would be great. I am not overly optimistic that he can do that but as long as he puts 35+ in the stands he can be pretty productive.

Shortstop: Jordy Mercer and Clint Barmes

Part way through the 2013 season the move that had to be made was finally made. Jordy Mercer took over the shortstop duties from Clint Barmes. Barmes was playing some really bad baseball. His defensive metrics are still off the charts compared to his peers but he went .211/.249/.309 from the plate. Brutally bad.

Mercer finished the year going .285/.336/.435 and while his play, both offensively and defensively, were streaky he gave the Pirates a much better offense offensively. Barmes was still there for the late innings and when the Pirates brought Barmes back this year that is exactly what they were setting up for, and that is OK by me.

Barmes was second in the entire league last year in defensive runs saved (12) and while his defense fell off a little from 2012 he still was outstanding in the field. While Barmes doesn’t have a place on this team as an every day play, or even a platoon player, I think he is perfect in the backup/late inning defensive replacement role.

Now to Mercer. In a weird twist in the month’s of June, July, and August he had exactly 75 at bats. That has nothing to do with him as a player but I found that interesting. Actually, when you look at the month-by-month breakdown Mercer was pretty good. Here, take a look:

I guess looking back I thought he was a little more streaky but looking at the splits it was pretty nice. I mean any time you can add almost 100 points of OBP to your shortstop position you will take it. That comes with the nuance that you are going to get less on the defensive end but that is the tradeoff you take and makes the resigning of Barmes that much more important. Mercer had a negative DRS on the season (-2) that ranked 21st in the league among shortstops with at least 500 innings played at the position.

While Mercer is a step down from Barmes I really do think that Mercer is better than many think. I think watching guys like Jack Wilson, Barmes, and Ronny Cedeno (ha, right) really made people put a higher expectation defensively on shortstops. The Pirates need Mercer at short and it will be fun to see him take the reigns from the start of the season and see how he does.

Left Field: Starling Marte

Starling Marte is a fun baseball player to watch. There are flaws in his game and things he absolutely needs to improve on but man, when he hits a ball into the gap there isn’t anything more excited than watching him turn on the jets to get to third base. He plays an outstanding left field and while that seems like something you can brush off when you consider how massive left field at PNC Park is, a place where the Pirates play half their games, it becomes pretty important to have someone out there that can field their position.

Offensively Marte finished the year hitting .280/.343/.441 and was a 4.6 fWAR player. While he was caught stealing 15 times he did steal 41 bases which is something that hasn’t happened in Pittsburgh in some time.

In his first full year he had some trouble adjusting to the adjustments that other pitchers were making but all told I think it was a pretty big success. I talked about things that he needs to work on and for someone that is going to hit in the leadoff spot you would like him get on base a little more.

I know you probably look above and see the .343 on base percentage and think that is good enough and normally I would agree with you. The problem is that Marte did not do a good job at taking walks (4.4%) and relied on getting hit by a lot of pitches (24). I talked here about the likelihood of Marte being able to rely on HBPs to keep his on base percentage up. Hint: It’s not terribly likely.

Marte is a little swing happy and it got worse this year. While league average O-Swing% is 30% Marte increased his to nearly 37% last season and only contacted 58.5% of those swings which is well below the league average of 68%. I am not sure if this is something that can be change but my gut feeling is that it can’t.

In some respects I don’t think this is as bad for Marte as it would be for a guy like Barmes because even if Marte does make weak contact and send a dribbler in the infield he has more than enough speed to beat it out. Last season Marte had 18 infield hits (23rd in MLB) and while those do include bunt base hits he does have the ability to leg out weakly hit balls.

Bottom line is that Marte is a free-swinging talent. He doesn’t really make enough of his opportunities and somewhat think he is wasted at the top of the order but one thing is for certain, he makes the most out of his talent and he is a lot of fun to watch.

Right Field: Jose Tabata

If you have been following me and reading this site for any amount of time you know that I am a huge Jose Tabata fan. As of right now he is slated to be the Pirates starting right fielder. A lot of people are banking on Gregory Polanco playing for almost the entire year with the Pirates but that is a little out of the realm of possibilities for a number of reasons. Pat over at WHYGAVS actually did a nice post a few weeks ago breaking down why keeping him down isn’t that crazy.

When Polanco comes up is neither here nor there, the fact is that the Pirates are going to rely on Tabata to produce and give him the chance to do so. That is what they should do and despite the fact that they went out and got Marlon Byrd last season to play instead of riding Tabata they went with Byrd.

Truth be told Tabata was actually pretty good last season. He hit .282/.342/.429 with a wRC+ of 118 and ended the season hitting .312/.357/.490 from April 1 forward that included 45 games. That, my friends, ain’t bad. He was decent before an injury caused him to miss a month (.272/.337/.407) but he was much better after he came back (.282/.344/.436).

That is one of the problems with Tabata, he can’t stay healthy. He has yet to play more than 106 games in a season, which happened last season, and he has been really up and down production-wise. He really had his best year in 2010 when he came up as a rookie and hit .299/.346/.400 in 102 games and last year he got back to that. What is a little interesting is how he got to that.

In 2011 he was pretty good for the Pirates and did so with the help of a walk rate of 10.5% but in the last two years it has slowly declined (7.8% - 2012; 6.7% - 2013). While his walk rate is way down his strikeout rate is much lower at 13.2% than it was in 2011 when he struck out 16% of the time. That seems like a tradeoff but getting his walk rate back to 8% or so would be nice, not great, but manageable.

He has lost some of his athleticism and doesn’t play very good defense but I think people are really underrating how solid he has been in his time here. He isn’t going to mash the ball into the river and won’t wow you but a career .274/.339/.385 hitter really isn’t that terrible. He might be better suited for a bench spot but if he can stay healthy (big if) he will be more than fine in right field.

A lot of people think this is going to be a platoon situation but I don’t really think that is a given. Tabata hits better against righties (.279.340/.379) than he does against lefties (.258/.332/.403) and while his average isn’t great against lefties his other two portions of the slash lines are about equal. Travis Snider isn’t going to hit against lefties so I would expect that Tabata will get the chance to play more in right field than anyone else.

Center Field: Andrew McCutchen

The Pirates truly have something special in Andrew McCutchen. That might be the understatement of the last 20+ years for the Pirates, even more of an understatement than saying before last season the Pirates were playing bad baseball for 20 years.

There was some sediment among people that they still weren’t sure what McCutchen was all about. I mean he was obviously a great baseball player but with the two collapses that both he and the Pirates had in 2011 and 2012 it was a really tough pill to swallow. With how good he was in 2012 it didn’t seem like it since his massive second half drop off really took away from the good things he had done in the first half.

Well 2013 was a success in every sense of the word. McCutchen earned the NL MVP award along with leading the Pirates to a playoff berth for the first time since 1992. He hit .317/.404/.508 with a wRC+ of 155 and was an 8.2 fWAR player. He wasn’t the best in the game but he can be in that discussion.

Maybe the best part of his season wasn’t that he was able to play though a whole season or that his defense improved or that his base running improved but it was what he did at the plate that took a huge step forward.

Last season McCutchen both increased his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate. In 2012, what some considered to be a breakout season for McCutchen, he stuck out a career-high 19.6% of his plate appearances which was up from his 18.6% rate in 2011. In 2013 his strikeout rate was down to only 15% which denotes a much better contact rate which was back to his career average (80.9%) after being down around 77% the year before. In terms of walk rate he earned the free pass eight more times than in 2012 and posted a walk rate of 11.6%. These are both really nice trends.

What is even more encouraging about last season was his batted ball rates. This is the area of the stat line where you can honestly say that he can still improve and thus make him a better, and more dangerous hitter in 2014 than he was last year. As I talked about before you are much more likely to get a hit off a line drive than a fly ball and more likely a fly ball than a ground ball. McCutchen went in the right direction in all three of those areas in 2013. His ground ball rate dropped from 43.8% in 2012 to 40.7% in 2013. While that drop is good it is even better that those balls he didn’t hit on the ground were created into line drive swings. In 2012 his line drive rate was at 21.9% but last season he jumped up to 24.5%. Turning ground balls into line drives is a great way to stay more consistent and become a more dangerous hitter. McCutchen has actually increased his line drive rate every season since he broke into the league. Great stuff.

I know that people look at his MVP year of 2013 and think that maybe it’s the best that he can do but if he continues to improve and trend in the direction he did from 2012 to 2013 then he is going to be even a more dangerous hitter this year. Scary good.

Bench: Chris Stewart, Clint Barmes, Josh Harrison, Travis Snider, Andrew Lambo

I already talked about Barmes and Lambo above so I don’t think I really need to touch on them again. Barmes is going to be a nice guy to start a few times a week and Lambo will be relied on a little more.

The other guy in the platoon role this year, in a way, is Travis Snider. Tabata is going to get the first chance to start in right field but Snider will get some play out there and try to prove that an awful 2013 was more due to injury than him just not being any good.

Last season Snider was awful. He was the least valuable hitter on the big league team last year and in 111 games he hit .215/.281/.333 with a wRC+ of 70. Just brutal. He struck out a good bit (26.3%) and had an alright walk rate (8.4%).

Snider was once a top prospect with Toronto and while he has shown some flashes in 403 career games he’s hit .241/.303/.398 with little or nothing to show for himself. He hits a ton of groundballs (51.6% in 2013), doesn’t hit a lot of line drives (15.2% in 2013), and with little or no speed to speak of that isn’t even remotely worthwhile.

As I said before Snider was injured last year and seems to be a pretty injury prone player. Kinda sounds like Tabata but Tabata actually has shown some talent on the field to give him a chance. If Snider can stay healthy I think we can finally get a clear pitcher of what the Pirates have in him but up until this point it doesn’t look like they have much. I guess you could have worse options but I really am not expecting a lot from Snider in 2014.

Josh Harrison is going to do what he has done every year for the Pirates. He is going to be a super utility guy and give them a few hundred plate appearance and be able to fill in at right field and every infield position except first base. Actually I think he played first base one time before so who knows.

Harrison doesn’t bring much offensively as his walk rate is non-existent (career 4.3%, 2.1% in 2013) and holds a very batting average dependent on base percentage. The good news is that he doesn’t strike out a lot (10.5% in 2013) and is a career .250 hitter so if this is a guy you don’t expect to play a ton he can be very valuable as a swing man. Every team needs a guy like this as you can’t carry a backup for every position on the field.

Chris Stewart is the bench catcher. The Pirates signed him this season after playing for the Yankees the last two years. Stewart isn’t good offensively. At all. He hit .211/.293/.272 in 340 plate appearances last year and if you are looking for him to give you anything offensively then you are already in a bad place.

Stewart is a good pitch framer and really it is the only reason I think the Pirates signed him. They are keeping him on the roster instead of Tony Sanchez which is somewhat of a head scratcher but at the same time I think I can somewhat understand it. I will get into the Sanchez/Stewart situation in a few days as part three of the Pirates preview but the round about answer is the Pirates want Sanchez to play every day and he wouldn’t do that for much of the season as the backup.

I think Sanchez will be the backup around the middle of the season, or if he forces there hand, but Stewart just isn’t good. There might literally be hundreds of guys who could match his offense and the only thing saving him not having a job are his defensive metrics. Put it this way, if Martin goes down I would not expect Stewart to be the starter.

Again, after I wrote this I found out that Stewart had some minor knee surgery and will miss the start of the season. Sanchez will be up with the big club to start the year and when Stewart is healthy and ready to go then Sanchez will go back down to AAA unless something drastic happens.

If you made it through all of that then congratulations. Tomorrow you can come back and check out the second part of the series which looks at the Pirates pitching staff which includes the starters and relievers.


  1. I've gone to 35 consecutive Pirate openers with my son but I do not plan to attend this year beacuare the Pirates failed to sign Garrett Jones. The Pirates tried to replace Garrett Jones by many players over the 5 years he spent with the Pirates. Eact time Garrett was the better player, even Morneau failed. Jones would have been a better, more-productive-fit, than Morneau. They may have gotten into the World Series if Jones played in the playoffs instead of Morneau. In the last month, Morneau had 3 RBI in the month and the playoff in which he played. That's a production level of 18 RBIs in a full season. That's auful! Jones, in the previous 4 years, was the most productive Pirate, each year, per at bats. I'll be routing for Miami this year, where Garrett Jones will be playing all the time at first base.

  2. Eact time should be Each time

    & I'll be routing should be I'll be rooting SORRY.