The value of a first basemen’s defensive prowess has long been an afterthought. As long as a 1B can hit and pick throws he will maintain his position on the diamond. Teams generally accept poor first base defense provided the player can hit. If a first basemen is an exceptional fielder, well that is just gravy. You rarely hear about a team concerned with improving the defensively play at 1B. There is no such thing as an all glove/no bat first basemen. Even the sabermetric community treats 1B like the ugly step child of defensive positions. 1B has the lowest positional value in WAR calculations. However, there may be somewhat of a shift in the valuation of first base defense. It is the shift that is causing the shift.
Across the major leagues there was a dramatic increase in defensive shifts in 2013. The Pirates put the shift on to the tune of a 500% increase. As teams employ more and more analysts to break down the data from the spray charts of various hitters, more candidates to shift against will be identified. What was once a strategy reserved for only the most extreme left handed pull hitters is now becoming common place for many different hitters, including right handed hitters. And there in lies the issue with first base defense. Shifting against a right handed batter greatly increases the defensive demands of a first basemen. A clod like Adam Dunn can’t be expected to play 15 feet further off the bag and be the only player positioned on the right side of the infield. If you look at the spray chart of Andrew McCutchen you would see a player that looks like an ideal candidate for a right handed over shift. That seldom happens. You see teams shade against him, but not a lot of shifting. Covering the bag is just too problematic for many first basemen if they were to shift against a speedy player like McCutchen. A quicker, more athletic, and preferably left handed first basemen could allow for that.
The Pirates are a team that likes to employ the shift often and presumably wishes to expand its usage, so will that lead them to place a higher value on 1B defense? If so it could impact what player the Bucs look to acquire this offseason to fill their hole at first base. Corey Hart with his two bad knees and right handed glove wouldn’t make a lot of sense for the Pirates if more expansive shifting is part of their plans. However, it could make James Loney a more attractive free agent target.
In many ways the Pittsburgh Pirates played above their heads in 2013. Their record of 94-68 was six wins better than their Pythagorean W/L record of 88-74 which indicates they were somewhat of a fortunate ball club. It wasn’t really surprisingly outstanding individual seasons that created their success. Russell Martin and Francisco Liriano both had exceptional seasons, but they weren’t career years for either player. Both have bested their 2013 WAR value on two other occasions. Seven of the eight starting position players look safe from a big statistical tumble next season. Andrew McCutchen and Pedro Alvarez did post career highs in WAR, but they didn’t far exceed their 2012 totals. Starling Marte and Jordy Mercer are still early in their careers and have as much room to improve in 2014 as they do to regress. However, regression should still be a big concern for the Pirates as GM Neal Huntington plans for the 2014 season. All teams are likely to experience regression with some parts of their roster. The best way to combat regression is to counterbalance it with roster upgrades at positions of need. If a team can upgrade a weak position they are more likely to weather some regression that hits a position that is perceived to be stable. Unfortunately for the Pirates finding upgrades is going to be a challenge. The Pirates can’t buy clear upgrades on the free agent market like large market teams with deep pockets can. Huntington has a much more limited budget to work with for his team’s payroll. The Pirates may have to stick with the status quo at their problem positions which could make any regression at other positions a potential pitfall that could ruin the 2014 season. Here are some of the more likely regression candidates that might trip up the Pirates in 2014:
The Bullpen- It isn’t just a possibility that the Pirate bullpen will regress in 2014, it is almost a certainty. The Pirates bullpen posted 2.89 ERA in 2013. That was the third best bullpen ERA in all of baseball. One of the key reasons the Pirates bullpen held up so well was because they kept the ball in the yard. Some of that was on merit. The bullpen posted an excellent 52% ground ball rate. That was the best mark in baseball. But Lady Luck played a hand in protecting the bullpen from the long ball too. The 8.2% HR/FB rate posted by the Pirates pen was well above league average. When relievers did surrender fly balls they were dying at the warning track instead of clearing the fence. Furthermore, the bullpen arms the Pirates most relied on were the ones that were the luckiest. The following Pirate relievers tossed more than 70 innings in 2013: Mark Melancon, Tony Watson, Justin Wilson, and Vin Mazzaro. Those four relievers all had HR/FB rates of 6.7% or lower. Melancon, the 8th inning setup man, was especially fortunate with a 3.2% HR/FB rate. In fact, Melancon allowed just one HR all season. No pitcher in baseball with more than 40 innings pitched gave up home runs less frequently than Mark Melancon. Chances are the pen will not be so fortunate next season. They will likely get dinged by the long ball more often.
Francisco Liriano- Nothing in Frankie’s peripherals from 2013 indicate a regression is likely. His xFIP of 3.12 was only slightly higher than his 3.02 ERA. However, Liriano doesn’t seem to handle prosperity very well. Every time he posts a good season it is followed by a terrible season. In the past five years Liriano has three times posted an ERA above 5.00. With that kind of track record can Liriano truly be counted on to repeat his 2013 season? And he may already be headed in the wrong direction. His September ERA was 5.14.
Russell Martin- I don’t expect Russell Martin’s bat to fall off much, if at all. I do think it will be difficult for him contribute the same defensively as he did in 2013. Much of Martin’s value comes from his defense so any defensive fall off in his game could be a costly bit of regression for the team to swallow. Martin was superb defensively in 2013. He was credited with 16 defensive runs saved (DRS). That is more than the five preceding seasons combined. From 2008-2012 Russell Martin was credited with a total of just 12 (DRS). Martin threw out 40% of base stealers that tried to run him last year. That was a career high for him. Can he equal his career high again? Martin committed just 2 errors in 2013. Prior to last year he averaged more than 9 errors a season. Martin will turn 31 before the start of next season. He is on the wrong side of 30 and has caught more than 1000 games in the major leagues. That alone should be a red flag indicating he is a strong candidate for a regression.
Today the Pirates acquired OF Jaff Decker and P Miles Mikolas from the San Diego Padres in exchange for minor league first baseman Alex Dickerson. To make room for Decker and Mikolas on the 40 man roster the Pirates designated Garrett Jones and Kyle McPherson for assignment. McPherson is currently rehabbing following Tommy John surgery. There is a good chance the Pirates will end up signing McPherson to a minor league deal. This likely spells the end of the Garrett Jones era in Pittsburgh. Jones was a mostly mediocre player during his tenure with the Pirates. But he helped bridge the franchise from some truly dreadful seasons in 2009 and 2010 to the Pirates first foray into the playoffs in 21 years in 2013. Jones was a likable guy and easy to root for. He should be remembered fondly by Pirate fans. As a tribute to Jones, here is the moment I will most remember him for. This was his game tying splash shot home run into the Allegheny River off the Reds Jonathan Broxton on 6/2/2013.
The trade itself is a bit curious. Alex Dickerson was the Pirates only legitimate 1B prospect. That has to be an issue. The Pirates currently have a hole at 1B on the major league roster and no prospects of note waiting in the wings. Jaff Decker is an interesting pick up. The 23 year old left handed hitter got his first taste of the majors in 2013 playing in 13 games for the Padres. He hit just .154 in 26 ABs. He has shown rare patience at the plate during his minor league career by posting an exceptional 17.1% walk rate and a .402 OBP in nearly 2300 plate appearances. If Decker can carry that over to the big leagues he would be an asset. He should be in the mix to make the big league club out of spring training as a right fielder. He has options remaining so he could be sent down to AAA Indianapolis.
Miles Mikolas also has a chance to contribute to the major league club. He has posted a 3.44 ERA for Padres in 27 relief appearances over the last two seasons. The 25 year old right hander has a mid 90′s fastball and above average curve. He could provide depth as a middle reliever. He also has an option remaining and could be stashed on the Indianapolis roster to start the season.
If the Pirates want to fill their hole at first base they have plenty of options to choose from on the trading block. Here is a list of the first basemen rumored to be available: Mark Trumbo, Ike Davis, Lucas Duda, Logan Morrison, and Adam Lind. We can probably add Mitch Moreland to that list too. The Tigers and Rangers pulled off a mega deal yesterday that sent Prince Fielder to Texas in exchange for Ian Kinsler. The acquisition of Fiedler makes Moreland expendable. These six available first basemen all come with flaws. None of them are really superb defenders. Trumbo rates the the best with a 8.8 UZR/150 in almost 2500 career innings. Moreland also rates as slightly above average defensively with a 4.2 UZR/150 in more than 3000 career innings. The others are average at best. Davis, Morrison, Lind were particularly brutal defensively in 2013. However, defensive prowess is not high on the list of attributes teams look for in a first baseman.
The biggest concern with this group of players is the uneven level of offensive productivity they provide. They all have some Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to their games. They have tended to have alternating good and bad seasons. One year they play like an all-star candidate. The next season they wind up getting platooned or benched. Even in a good season these hitters have prolonged cold stretches. It is the nature of the type of hitters they are. They have long power swings with high whiff rates. The exception being Logan Morrison. Morrison’s issues are mostly health related. He is the Jose Tabata of first basemen, a young player who had early success and now can’t stay on the field. Davis, Duda, Lind, and Moreland are left handed hitters with really bad platoon splits. Trumbo is the only right handed hitter among the group. His major flaw is that he is not a selective enough at the plate. Trumbo chased 38.4% of the pitches he saw outside the strike zone in 2013. No first baseman chased a higher percentage of balls.
Just because the first basemen available for trade are flawed doesn’t mean the Pirates should not try to acquire one of them. They have a need at the position. Rolling the dice on one of them would not be a terrible idea. The Bucs are actually a nice fit for a left handed hitter. Last year the Pirates faced a lefty starter just 31 times. That was a league low, and it doesn’t appear that number will increase significantly in 2014. Their opposition in the NL Central possess only three notable left handed starting pitchers. And there is some real upside with some of these hitters. Trumbo, Davis, Lind, and maybe even Moreland have 30 home run potential. The Pirates don’t have the resources to land the perfect first basemen. But sometimes if you gamble right the perfect hitter can emerge. Chris Davis looked an awful lot like one of these six flawed first basemen before the Orioles acquired him in 2011. He evolved into a player that finished 3rd in AL MVP vote following a season with 53 home runs and 138 RBIs. If the Pirates could get 2/3rds of that production from one of these flawed players the trade would be well worth it.
Remember a few short years ago when baseballs where flying out of ballparks at record paces and every other game was a 10-9 slugfest? Well those days are gone. Offense has been in decline for the past several years but in 2013 it reached lows not seen in two decades. Teams scored just 4.17 runs/game in 2013. The last time scoring was that low was 1992. Hitters in 2013 posted the lowest composite batting average and on base percentage since 1972. Not since 1992 have hitters had a lower composite slugging percentage. Pedro Alvarez and Paul Goldschmidt tied for the NL lead in home runs with 36. Not since Fred McGriff led the NL with 35 homers in 1992 has a league leader had so few. So what has happened to all the offense?
It would be easy to chalk up the decline in offense to the crack down on performance enhancing drugs. The game now has a drug testing policy with some real teeth. There is no doubt the game is cleaner than it was a decade ago. However, it wasn’t just hitters using steroids. Pitchers were getting busted too. The raw power that hitters were displaying during the steroid era appears to now be missing from the game, but the same can’t be said for pitchers. Pitchers are throwing harder than ever before. In 2013 there were 3 times as many pitchers averaging 95 mph with their fastballs than in 2007. Pitchers this season fired 100 mph fastballs 469 times. That is 4 times as many as 2008. It isn’t just relief pitchers bringing the heat either. Gerrit Cole topped 100 mph a whopping 22 times in 2013. Andrew Cashner, Danny Salazar, Nathan Eovaldi,and Matt Harvey were other starting pitchers that hit triple digits this season.
Throughout the history of baseball hitting has gone through up and down cycles. But this may be different. 1968 was considered the year of the pitcher. Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, the lowest ERA of the liveball era. The league batting average in 1968 was just .237 which was the lowest of all time. But pitchers today put way more pitches by hitters. The strike out rate in 1968 was 15.8%. In 2013 hitters whiffed an historic 19.9% of the time. And as if pitchers needed any more help, the fielders behind them are increasing more efficient defensively. The .985 fielding % in 2013 was an all-time high while the 0.57 errors committed per game was an all-time low. Add it all up and it is easy to see the deck is stacked heavily against hitters.
With offense so difficult to come by it begs the question, how much will the cost to acquire it rise? Quality hitters are a scare commodity. There are rumors that Mark Trumbo and Jose Bautista are on the trade block. They could certainly fill needs for a team like the Pirates. The Pirates have been kicking the tires on high end bats for quite a while now. The Bucs were linked to trade rumors for Giancarlo Stanton and Trumbo prior to the trade deadline last season but nothing came of it. Sticker shock was the likely culprit. I don’t see that changing soon. Offense is in short supply so teams are going to hoard their premium hitters. Any team that wants to add a legitimate hitter via a trade is going to have to give up an awful lot of talent in return to make it happen.
Major League Baseball was deep into negotiations with Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) over a new japanese player posting agreement when Pirates President Frank Coonelly threw a last minute curveball on the final day of the 2013 MLB Owners Meetings that blocked the deal. Coonelly led a revolt by small market teams that insist bids for posted japanese players should count towards the payroll luxury tax. MLB and NPB were close to an agreement in which the highest bidding MLB team would pay the average of the two highest bids as a transfer fee to the NPB team for the exclusive negotiating rights with the posted japanese player. The last second demands by Coonelly forced the MLB to pull its offer to the NPB. Previously the transfer fees had not been counted towards the luxury tax. In recent years the transfer fees have been exorbitant costs that only the richest MLB teams could afford for elite japanese players. The Texas Rangers paid a winning bid of $52 million for the rights to negotiate with Yu Darvish in 2012. The Red Sox paid a winning bid of $51 million for Daisuke Matsuzaka in 2007. The next highly sought after posted japanese player is expected to be Masahiro Tanaka. Baseball insiders are predicting the bidding for Tanaka could exceed $60 million. Of course only deep pocketed teams like the Yankees and Dodgers are legitimate landing spots at that high of a figure. The Yankees are especially drawn to Tanaka because they are trying to maneuver under the $189 million payroll luxury tax threshold. There is no way the Yankees would be able to do that if a large transfer fee counted towards it. By raising these issues at the 11th hour Coonelly has essentially thrown a monkey wrench into the Yankees plans. At the very least an agreement between the MLB and NPB has been stalled. It is possible that an agreement will not be hammered out this offseason and no japanese players under contract to teams in the NPB will be permitted to transfer to the MLB for 2014.
Andrew McCutchen was named NL MVP of the 2013 season in a landslide victory to cap off the MLB Awards Season. Cutch finished with 409 points and took 28 of 30 first place votes. McCutchen is the first Pirate to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992. Cutch was one of many Pirates to be honored for their work this season. Here is a list of all Pirates who were recognized for major baseball achievement awards in 2013
- NL Most Valuable Player – Andrew McCutchen
- NL Manager of the year – Clint Hurdle
- NL Comeback Player of the year – Francisco Liriano
- MLB Executive of the year (runner up) – Neal Huntington
- NL CF Silver Slugger – Andrew McCutchen
- NL 3B Silver Slugger – Pedro Alvarez
- Wilson Defensive Player of the Year (Pirates Team Recipient) – Russell Martin
Congratulations to all the Buccos for these well deserved honors.
The Pirates officially lose the first piece from their 94 win team of this past season. Marlon Byrd has signed a 2 year deal with the Phillies worth $16 million.
What this means is the Pirates have a hole in RF. That is nothing new. Until Byrd was acquired from the Mets in late August, the Bucs used a parade of players in right field for the past several seasons. Marlon Byrd was the perfect late season trade. He filled a position of need and lived up to the expectations. He will be missed, but the Pirates should be able to fill the vacancy with internal options. Jose Tabata is an adequate OF when healthy, while Andrew Lambo mashed 32 home runs in the minors last year and deserves a shot at some playing time. Both Tabata and Lambo are nothing more that placeholders until super prospect Gregory Polanco is ready to take over. I would have liked Byrd back on a one year deal. 2 years at that kind of money is beyond what the Bucs were willing to pay. I’m glad they passed. It should be noted that this was very much in line with the amount of money and length of contract that baseball insiders were predicting for Byrd. Jon Heyman wrote a piece recently in which himself, a GM, and a Player Agent made predictions on the contracts for the top free agents. This was the prediction for Byrd:
OF Marlon Byrd: There’s reason to be skeptical, but it’s hard to miss those glitzy 2013 numbers. Agent: 2 years, $17M. GM: 2 years, $15M. Me: 2 years, $18M.
So far it seems like the insiders have a pretty good grasp of how the market is shaking out.
Jay Bell has resigned as hitting coach of the Pirates in order to accept the bench coach position with the Cincinnati Reds. Bell served as the hitting coach of the Pirates for just one season. Whatever the impact Bell may have had on the team, it was minor. The Pirates posted a modest gain in OBP in 2013 over the prior season. Jordy Mercer had a breakout season and Jose Tabata hit with some consistency for the first time since his rookie season in 2010. Perhaps Bell had a positive effect on their performances.
I’ll be frank, hitting coaches generally make little difference. The biggest function of a hitting coach is to take some heat off the manager. A hitting coach gives fans someone other than the manager to bitch about. They may help break down video of a player’s swing or provide a struggling hitter some counsel to talk about hitting when things aren’t clicking, but there isn’t much more value in that than what a close buddy on the team could provide. MLB teams would probably be better served to hire a head shrinker for players to talk to when they go through slumps. Of course then there would be one less sacrificial lamb that a manager could throw under the bus when he needs to save his skin.
It now appears as if A.J. Burnett will not be back with the Pirates next season. The veteran right hander is contemplating retirement. Even if he decides he wants to pitch in 2014, he may not be a fit within in the Pirates budgeted payroll. GM Neal Huntington did not extend Burnett a qualifying offer due to budget concerns. Now Huntington must look to how to best address the hole in the starting rotation left by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates do have sizable depth in their system. They could go to Spring Training and allow Jeff Locke, Brandon Cumpton, Stolmy Pimentel, Phil Irwin, and others to compete for the opening. That seems risky for a team coming off 94 wins in 2013 and has legitimate aspirations of contending for the NL Central Division crown. Burnett was a solid and durable pitcher that could be counted on to make 30+ starts and log close to 200 innings. It would be a tall task for any of the internal options to replace that kind of production. And if one of the other starting pitchers that the Bucs are counting on goes down for an extended period of time the season could be lost. It would probably be in the best interests of the Pirates to bring in a veteran starting pitcher they could plug into the middle of the rotation to eat some of the innings lost by Burnett’s departure. The Pirates have had success finding undervalued struggling starting pitchers and reaping the benefits of a bounce back season. That will likely be the strategy the Bucs use to replace Burnett if they can’t get him to re-sign at a discount. They’ll be looking for pitchers that can be inked to a 1 year contract at a salary significantly lower than the $14 qualifying offer. I suspect the Pirates would not be willing to go more than $9 million with such an offer. Here are the free agent starting pitcher candidates that might fit the criteria of 1 year at less than $9 million:
Tim Hudson: Just prior to the start of free agency I thought Hudson would make a great plan B if the Bucs lost Burnett. I don’t think it is very likely to happen. The market for Hudson appears stronger than I first thought. It has been reported that as many as 10 teams are interested in Hudson. The Red Sox and the Giants have shown particularly strong interest. Hudson would also prefer more than a 1 year deal. With the number of teams interested I suspect he will get a two year contract or a 1 year deal beyond $10 million.
Josh Johnson: Johnson had a hugely disappointing season in 2013 posting a horrific 6.20 ERA. His peripherals were much better. His xFIP was 3.58. A .356 BABIP and 18.5% HR/FB indicate he suffered from some rather poor luck. He looks like a prime bounce back candidate. He is very much like the type of undervalued pitcher the Pirates have had success acquiring and fixing in the past. Despite his 2013 struggle it appears Johnson has quite the demand. He is only 30 years old and it wasn’t that long ago that he was a dominating pitcher. The Yankees, Mets, and Rangers are among the teams interested in signing Josh Johnson. Those are teams with deep pockets. However, he may still be a fit for the Pirates. Johnson is said to be seeking a 1 year contract so he can rebuild value and hit the free agent market again next offseason. If that is truly the case he might be willing to sacrifice some dollars for the situation that he thinks he could most thrive in. Pittsburgh would be an ideal place for a pitcher like Johnson to rebuild his value. PNC Park is among the most pitcher friendly stadiums in the league and the Pirates would field an excellent defense behind him. The Pirate coaching staff also has a track record of fixing talented pitchers like Josh Johnson. He profiles very much like Francisco Liriano last off season and A.J. Burnett prior to the 2012 season.
Phil Hughes: Hughes also had a disastrous 2013. Unlike Johnson, Hughes’ peripherals were less kind. Hughes is only 27 years old but he hasn’t been a very good pitcher over the last 3 seasons. There might not be enough of a market for him to get a multi-year contract offer. He may fit the Pirate’s budget. I don’t think he is fit for the team. The Pirates covet ground ball pitchers. Hughes has never had a ground ball rate greater than 37%.
Dan Haren: In 2013 Dan Haren had a 4.67 ERA which was a full point higher than his 3.67 xFIP. He got off to a terrible start to the season but posted some good numbers in the second half. He was also victimized by a rather high HR/FB rate. His ground ball rate dropped to just 36%. That was the worst GB% of his career. In recent seasons Haren has relied heavily on his cutter and that pitch failed him in 2013. Hitters abused Haren’s cutter this season to the tune of a .329 Avg. Emphasizing his 2 seam fastball instead of the cutter would likely raise his GB% and could make a big difference in his effectiveness. The Pirates have had success with other pitchers by having them deemphasize a less effective pitch in favor of more sinkers or 2 seam fastballs. Baseball insiders are predicting Haren will receive a 1 year contract in the $7-8 million range. This looks like a very good fit for Pittsburgh.
Roberto Hernandez: Formerly known as Fausto Carmona, Hernandez is the cheapest of the pitchers I’m profiling. He earned a modest $3.2 million with the Rays last season and did little to warrant a much larger investment from any team in 2014. He still could be a fit for the Pirates for one reason: he is an extreme ground ball pitcher. Hernandez posted a 53.2% ground ball rate in 2013. His career GB% is 57.8%. Despite keeping the ball on the ground Hernandez tends to get hit really hard when hitters do elevate his pitches. He has sported two straight seasons with HR/FB rates above 20%. Pitching in the cavernous PNC Park would certainly help him suppress the home runs.