Monday, December 28, 2015

Christmas Vacation Catch-Up

I. First Base, Solved. Two days before Christmas, the Pirates signed John Jaso to a two year, $8 million contract. On the surface, this doesn't seem like a defining moment for the 2016 season. Jaso's 32. He's never played in more than 109 games in a season, and over the past three years, he's played an average of 80 games per season. Here are his stats over those years. The last column, the one I labeled POS, lists the positions at which he played, by games.
2013 29 OAK 70 249 207 31 56 12 0 3 21 2 1 38 45 .271 .387 .372 .759 114 48 C, 17 DH, 1 1B
2014 30 OAK 99 344 307 42 81 18 3 9 40 2 0 28 60 .264 .337 .430 .767 118 54 C, 35 DH
2015 31 TBR 70 216 185 23 53 17 0 5 22 1 2 28 39 .286 .380 .459 .839 132 48 DH, 8 OF
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/28/2015.

There are two nonintuitive things about the Jaso signing. First, he'll play first base for the Pirates. As you can see, over the past three years, he's played exactly one game at first, and that was in 2013. It also, as it happens, was for one inning. The sum total of the remainder of his experience at first base was a game in 2010 in which he played four innings there. So the Pirates signed a first baseman who's played a total of five innings there in his career.

Second, the Pirates' primary first baseman last year was Pedro Alvarez, who was not offered a contract for 2016. Alvarez hit 27 home runs in 150 games last year. Jaso has hit 27 home runs in the last four seasons combined, covering 347 games.

So the Pirates are replacing a slugging first baseman--career total 19 at bats per home run--with a guy who's pretty much never played the position, hits a homer every 43 at bats, and is four years older than the guy he's replacing.

Before I get into why I think the move makes sense, I want to point out two amusing things about the Pirates signing Jaso. First, on December 14, FanGraphs' Eno Sarris wrote a piece entitled "Finding the Pirates (Another) First Baseman," in which he previewed six first base possibilities for the Pirates, concluding:
But there’s one left-handed player left who is younger than the oldest of these options, better offensively than anyone we’ve mentioned so far, has experience playing the position, and offers the potential of a win and a half of production that would boost the Pirates to average all over the field. His name is John Jaso...He won’t cost a prospect, and he could help patch up the worst hole on the field. Plus, he’d return dreadlocks to the field in Pittsburgh, which is fun, if not valuable by traditional metrics.
In other words, Sarris totally nailed the Jaso pickup by the Bucs. Then, when the deal was announced, FanGraphs' Jeff Sullivan wrote a typically clever column  entitled "Pirates Sign John Jaso, Obviously." His smart analysis includes this gem:
He’s getting two years, and he’s getting $8 million, and if this isn’t the very most Pirates move, it’s at least in the conversation. It doesn’t get much more Pirates than this.
It's true: The Pirates finding a low-budget, nondescript solution to a problem is what they do best, whether it's Francisco Liriano, Jung Ho Kang, or Francisco Cervelli. Here's why I think Jaso will work for the Pirates.
  1. Yes, Jaso's had very limited experience at first, but he spent most of his career as a catcher (repeated concussions probably make that a non-starter in Pittsburgh), and catchers often make a smooth transition to first base. Besides, replacing Alvarez at first isn't exactly a high bar defensively.
  2. Look at the on base percentage line his stats. His career average is .361, and he's been above .370 in four of his six major league seasons. You know how many Pirates had an on base percentage in 2015 above .370? One: Andrew McCutchen. (Cervelli was at .370, exactly.) The Pirates had a good offense (fourth in the National League in runs scored), but as I've pointed out, a high on base percentage is highly correlated with scoring runs. Jaso will improve the team in that respect.
  3. Jaso bats left. The Pirates have only one other left-handed batter in their lineup: right fielder Gregory Polanco. Compare these two batting lines:
Player A 681 616 71 142 31 1 30 88 2 1 51 191 .231 .295 .430 .725
Player B 681 594 75 162 46 2 15 67 3 5 74 139 .273 .357 .433 .790
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/28/2015.
    Which would you rather have? Obviously, the second batter's better: Way more singles, doubles, and walks compensating for the reduction in home runs. Player A is the Pirates first basemen in 2015. Player B is a hybrid, assuming a platoon of Jaso and Michael Morse. I assumed that the Pirates face, as they did in 2015, about 75% right-handed pitchers and 25% lefties, and I combined Jaso's performance last year against righties (weighted 75%) and Morse's against lefties (weighted 25%). Now, line B is probably overstated, as the Pirates will have batters other than Jaso and Morse get some at bats, and each of them will face a relief pitcher against whom they'll have a platoon disadvantage from time to time. But there's reason to believe that the Jaso/Morse platoon will outperform the Alvarez/Morse/Sean Rodriguez combination of 2015. And that's looking just at offense, not defense.
Finally, Josh Bell is one of the Pirates' top farmhands (ranked No. 34 in baseball before the 2015 season by and the team's first baseman of the future, but he's still raw. He's played only 35 games at AAA, and 2015 was his first season at first base. The Jaso/Morse tandem will keep the position warm as the 23-year-old gains experience in the minors. Once Bell comes up, the Pirates will have a bat to deal at the trade deadline.

II. Andrew McCutchen, Not Solved. The Pirates' best player is signed through 2017, and the club has a certain-to-be-exercised option for 2018 as well. They'll pay McCutchen $13 million in 2016, $14 million in 2017, and $14.75 million in 2018, representing one of the biggest bargains in baseball; he'd probably get twice those amounts on the open market. He turns 32 in October 2018, so the Pirates have him signed for his prime years at below-market prices.

What's wrong with that? Well, it's what happens after the 2018 season. True, he likely won't be the same player then that he is now. This year, at 28, he's showed some signs of slowing down. He batted below .300, with a slugging percentage below .500, for the first time since 2011. With just 11 stolen bases and a 69% success rate, he's really not much of a stolen base threat. He's probably the worst fielder among the Pirates' three outfielders (though, in contrast to the club's defense at first base, that's a pretty high bar). He set a career high for strikeouts in 2015.

But, of course, we're talking about Andrew McCutchen here. He's been the face of franchise that hasn't really had a face since Willie Stargell, and its best all-around player since Barry Bonds and, before him, Roberto Clemente. In an article last week at ESPN, Buster Olney wrote,
It would make sense for the Pirates to sit down with McCutchen and his representatives before the start of the 2016 season, and take their best shot at signing the center fielder to a long-term extension...
Maybe the proposal would provide a platform for talks; maybe McCutchen's side would agree, or at least be willing to haggle some. It's also possible that the Pirates' proposal, within the current context, wouldn't be close to what McCutchen would want in an extension. Maybe McCutchen would prefer to play someplace else, for more money, which is entirely his right...
The sooner there is clarity on this for the Pirates and McCutchen, the better. If McCutchen agreed to terms, then the building anxiety over his situation -- for all involved, including the fans -- would end. (And with time, the price of an extension might only become more expensive).
If the Pirates and McCutchen cannot reach a deal, then the team's leadership would know, moving forward, that his time with the franchise will end. If the Pirates fall behind the Cardinals and Chicago Cubs in the NL Central standings next summer, the team could dangle McCutchen in the July trade market and at least begin the process of assessing what they can get in return for him. They could either move him before July 31, or swap him next winter or the winter of 2017-18, leading up to his free agency.
The idea of Neil Walker leaving Pittsburgh was controversial. Can you imagine the club dealing McCutchen? But that's the dilemma it may face: Sign your best player to a long-term extension that will almost certainly overpay him in the out years, or try to trade an asset whose value decreases with every day he moves closer to free agency after the 2018 World Series. 

Thursday, December 17, 2015

Ground Chuck No Longer In Stock

When the Pirates chose not to re-sign first baseman Pedro Alvarez for the 2016 season, it wasn't a total shock, given his one-dimensional offense and cover-your-eyes defense. Moving second baseman Neil Walker wasn't a surprise either, given his advancing age and pending free agency, and it'd been rumored for months. But last week the Pirates made a trade that was unexpected. 

On December 12, the Pirates traded right-handed starting pitcher Charlie Morton to the Phillies for right-handed minor league pitcher David Whitehead. The trade, coming the Saturday after baseball's winter meetings ended, flew under the radar. It didn't get heavily analyzed, as the Alvarez and Walker moves were. Heck, it's taken me nearly a week to talk about it. (Hey, I've been busy.)

You probably hadn't heard of Whitehead prior to the trade. Me neither. Whitehead pitched last year at the Phillies' Clearwater team in the Class A Florida State League. He was 9-11 with a 4.44 ERA. The league average ERA was 3.22. He struck out 6.2 batters per nine innings and walked 3.4, a 1.8 ratio. The league averages were 7.2, 2.9, and 2.5, respectively. He was 23 last season, and the average Florida State League pitcher was 23 as well. So there's nothing here that screams out "future rotation stalwart." About the most exciting thing about Whitehead is that he attended the same high school as Ken Griffey Jr., Barry Larkin, and Buddy Bell. I'm sure he's a hard worker and I wish him much success, but he seems pretty unlikely to help the Pirates in 2016.

I think a more accurate way of looking at the trade is that the Pirates swapped the $9-$17.5 million that Morton will earn ($8 million in 2016 and either $9.5 million or a $1 million buyout in 2017) for whatever tiny amount Whitehead will earn in Altoona. The move's a salary dump.

That makes three. Alvarez and Walker were both arbitration-eligible, both likely to make more than they did in 2015: $5.75 million and $8 million, respectively. This year, they would've made, I don't know, $17 million collectively? Morton brings that up to $25 million. In return, they're taking on, by way of the Walker trade, Jon Niese's $9 million salary in 2016. So net, they're up about $16 million, maybe more. They're talking about spending it on pitching. The big-name free agents pitchers are gone--the Pirates weren't contenders for them anyway--but we'll see if they can grab a bargain arm or two and maybe add some depth at first base.

As for Morton, well, if you ever wasted your time in the comments section of any Pirates news articles or blogs, well, let's say he had his detractors. In seven seasons in Pittsburgh, he never stayed healthy enough to start 30 games in a season--he topped out with 29 in 2011, the only year he qualified for the ERA championship by pitching over 162 innings--and his Pirates ERA of 4.39 was 16% worse than the league average. He was one of the players profiled in Travis Sawchik's Big Data Baseball, an exemplar of pitching coach Ray Searage's philosophy of throwing sinking fastballs that produce a lot of ground balls. In 2011, 59% of the balls hit against him were grounders, the third most in the National League. In 2013, he allowed 63% grounders, the most in the league. In 2014, he was second at 56%. This year he was fifth at 57%. (In all years, I chose pitchers with 100 or more innings pitched. Morton pitched only 50.1 innings in 2012.) Over the past five years, there have been 36 National League pitchers with at least 600 innings pitched. Of them, Morton's 58% ground ball rate is easily the highest. He earned his Ground Chuck nickname.

Charlie Morton shouldn't be all that hard to replace. He's a slightly below-average pitcher with durability issues that aren't likely to get better now that he's 32. But he does need to be replaced. Playing in baseball's toughest division, with the perennial strong Cardinals and a Cubs squad that has made significant additions, the Pirates do need to do something to keep up.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Neil Walker: We Knew This Was Coming

I mean, I wrote about it over the summer and updated it last month. Here are the basic facts:
  • Neil Walker has been the Pirates' second baseman for six straight seasons. In the entire history of the Pirates, they've had only four players with six or more seasons of 110 games or more at second base: Hall of Famer Bill Mazeroski, with 13; Claude Ritchey, with six from 1901 to 1906, with six; Johnny Ray, with six from 1982 to 1987; and Walker.
  • Walker is also a hometown boy, born and raised in the Steel City.
  • He's been an above-average hitter every season. Not just above-average among second baseman, a generally weaker-hitting lot, but among all National League hitters, every year.
  • He's a switch-hitter, and while he's considerably better batting left (.276/.344/.459 career slash line) than right (.258/.316/.335), that's OK, because nearly four-fifths of his plate appearances are from the left side, and he provided balance to a very right-leaning Pirates lineup. (Although, as I pointed out here, Pirates batters fare well against right-handed pitchers nonetheless.)
  • He's generally considered to be an average second baseman, who makes up for somewhat limited range with a strong throwing arm and good positioning.
  • He earned $8 million in 2015. He's eligible for his third year of arbitration in 2016, and generally assumed to be in line for a raise to $10-$11 million. He's a free agent after the upcoming season.
  • He'll be 31 next September.
So the dilemma for the Pirates was that they had a solid, durable performer in a key position who's going to get both expensive and old in a hurry. As I said in September, if Walker remains an above-average hitter and regular second baseman for each of the next four seasons, he'll be the first player in this century to do so (though Robinson Cano could accomplish it in 2016). So the odds are against him remaining this good as he goes through his thirties, when he's also going to be expensive.

If the Pirates were going to trade him, his value is probably higher during this offseason than it'll be at any time in the upcoming season, since every day closer to his free agency reduces his value to his new team. So the Pirates traded him to the Mets for left-handed starter Jon Niese.

There are two ways to look at the trade. First, what does it do to the Pirates infield? Here's how it looks now:

There are a few issues there.
  • The last time Morse played even 100 games at first was...well, never. His career high is 85, and that was in 2011. He's been healthy enough to stay in the lineup more than 100 games only three times in his career, and he'll be 34 on Opening Day.
  • Harrison has played only 99 games at second in his career, but in fairness, he's been good in those games. He probably represents no downgrade, and very possibly an uptick, on defense compared to Walker. The greater concern is his bat; if you exclude his All-Star 2014 season, he's been a below-average hitter (if only slightly) every year of his career.
  • Mercer's just a year younger than Walker and coming off his worst year at bat (.244/.293/.320 slash line).
  • I like Kang a lot. When his season ended in September, he was the Pirates' best hitter since the All-Star break. But it's not clear when, or how well, he'll come back from his gruesome injury.
Look, the concerns about Morse and Mercer would be there regardless of Walker's trade. Would the Pirates be better in April with Walker at second and Harrison available to play to third in case Kang isn't ready or needs to be eased into the lineup? Sure. But as I said, every day after the season starts, Walker's value will diminish. The Pirates could keep him as a Kang insurance policy, but his value as a trade piece would erode.

The second way of looking at the trade starts with the realization that the infield isn't the Pirates' only concern. Forty percent of their starting rotation, representing every pitcher with the initials J or A, is gone--A.J. Burnett to retirement, J.A. Happ to a three-year, $36 million free agent contract with Toronto. Those are two holes the team needed to fill. Niese, 29, played second fiddle the Mets' young guns in the starting rotation last year, but he's one of only 19 pitchers in the majors with 140 or more innings pitched in each of the past six seasons, over which he's compiled a 3.86 ERA. Now, I'm not going to overstate things--that's actually a below-average ERA for the period, and last year (4.13 ERA) was not a good one for Niese. Among 38 National League ERA qualifiers, his 15% strikeout rate was the second-lowest, and his 7% walk rate was the 18th highest. On the other hand, here's what I said the last time the Pirates acquired a lefty starter:
In pitching coach Ray Searage we trust...[The] left-handed starter hasn't had an ERA below 4.00 since 2010, including this year, when he racked up a 4.64 ERA playing for Seattle, which plays in pitcher-friendly Safeco Field. Yes, the Pirates need a starter now that they've put A.J. Burnett on the disabled list with a sore elbow, but is [he] the answer?
That was at the trade deadline this year, and the pitcher was none other than the aforementioned J.A. Happ, who responded with a 7-2 record and a 1.85 ERA in eleven starts in Pittsburgh. And while Happ parlayed his success into his deal with Toronto, Niese is under contract for 2016 ($9 million), 2017 ($10 million team option, $500,000 buyout), and 2018 ($11 million team option, $500,000 buyout). So if Searage can work his magic (possibly getting him to use his sinker more, which he threw just 18% of the time), the Pirates could have a steady No. 3 starter behind Gerrit Cole and Francisco Liriano for the next three seasons.

Ideally, I suppose, the Pirates would've kept Walker and gotten a pitcher of Niese's caliber or better via free agency. But realistically, that wasn't going to happen. And as good as Walker's been, signing him up for several years--which would've been necessary if the Pirates were to keep him--would have been a huge risk, given to the likely effects of age, especially on a middle infielder. Dealing a year of Walker for three of Niese sounds about right.

That being said, I think it's inevitable that if the Pirates stumble next year, regardless of how Niese does, we're going to hear a lot about how Walker's absence cast a long shadow, or ripped the heart and soul out of the team, or looms over the season, or some hackneyed metaphor.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Adios, El Toro

In a somewhat surprising development, the Pirates did not offer a 2016 contract to first baseman Pedro Alvarez by last night's 11:59 PM deadline. He is now a free agent.

The reasons this is surprising are that 
  1. He was the Pirates' regular first baseman.
  2. He was one of the few left-handed bats in a strongly right-handed lineup.
  3. He was the team's leading home run hitter.
  4. He wasn't all that expensive, earning $5.75 million in 2015.
  5. By non-tendering (as the lingo goes) him, they'll receive nothing in return, rather than trading him.
Let's unpack those.

Losing the regular first baseman. Alvarez played 906.1 innings at first base last season, 61% of the team's total. Sean Rodriguez, who doesn't have the bat to be a regular first baseman, played 326.2 innings (22%), often as a late-innings defensive replacement. Michael Morse, acquired via a trade deadline deal, played 116.2 innings (8%). The rest of the innings were divided among players who likely won't be Pirates next year. Morse would appear to be in line to take over the position. He's by no means a good fielder, though he's better than Alvarez, who was one of the worst fielders in baseball in 2015. The questions with Morse are his health (he turns 34 in March and has stayed in the lineup enough to qualify for the batting championship only once, in 2011, when he was 29) and his bat (he was decent in his brief time in Pittsburgh but 2015 overall was his second bad season of the past three). One of the Pirates' top prospects, Josh Bell, was shifted from right field to first base in 2014 and hit well last year at AA Altoona and AAA Indianapolis (combined .317/.393/.446 slash line). He's not a big bopper--30 minor league home runs in over 1,600 plate appearances--but he's well-regarded; rated the No. 34 prospect in baseball before the season. Morse may wind up holding Bell's place until the 23-year-old is called up in May or so.

Loss of a lefty bat. The Pirates' lineup at this point has just two left-handed hitters: Right fielder Gregory Polanco and switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker, who's a much better hitter from the left side. Morse bats right, and Bell's a switch hitter. So yes, the Pirates look vulnerable against right-handed pitching. But just looking at handedness doesn't tell the whole story. Adjusted for their park, the Pirates were the third-best hitting team against right-handed pitching last year (using FanGraphs' wRC+ metric), trailing only the Giants and Dodgers and ahead of all of their National League Central opponents. Righty swingers Andrew McCutchen, Jung-Ho Kang, Starling Marte, and Francisco Cervelli were all above-average hitters against right-handed pitchers in 2015, minimizing the platoon disadvantage.

Loss of a home run bat. Alvarez hit 27 home runs in 2015. McCutchen was second with 23. Alvarez was third, behind McCutchen and Walker, in 2014, but he led the team with 36 in 2013 and trailed McCutchen by just one in 2012. Overall, from 2012 to 2015, he hit 111 home runs, the most on the team (McCutchen's second with 100) and, believe it or not, the second most in the National League during that period, trailing only Miami's Giancarlo Stanton's 125. But here's the catch: Of the 21 players with 100 or more home runs over the past four years, Alvarez has the third-worst park-adjusted OPS. Add his defense to the mix, and he doesn't bring much more to the table than his home run bat. It's interesting to compare him to the player who ranks just behind him in OPS+, Mark Trumbo, on that list:

Alvarez 25-28573 2,136 1,918 240 456 78 4 111 318 13 3 198 610 .238 .310 .456 .767 $6.90 mil
Trumbo 26-29 533 2,171 2,000 250 501 879 102 320 11 10 154 558 .251 .304 .456 .760 $5.75 mil
Provided by View Original Table
Generated 12/3/2015.

Trumbo bats right, Alvarez left, and Trumbo's a year older. Alvarez walks more but strikes out more too. Other than that, they're pretty similar. They both have subpar on base percentages, Alvarez because of a low batting average, Trumbo because of a lack of walks. They have identical slugging percentages, largely a consequence of their almost-identical home run totals. On defense, the team employing both would be well-advised to hide their gloves. 

Alvarez is now looking for work. Trumbo? Yesterday he was traded by the Mariners to the Orioles. There were two throw-ins--Baltimore got a relief pitcher who turns 26 next month who's pitched in 24 major league games with a 6.30 ERA, Seattle got a 29-year-old catcher with a .228 lifetime batting average in 148 games--but the trade was mostly Trumbo for, well, nothing. What this tells you is that while home runs are nice--great, even--if you can't do something else, like play defense or hit for an average or run or get on base a lot or hit doubles, there isn't that much demand for your services, particularly when you enter your arbitration years and start costing millions.

They at least could've traded him. They tried, according to the Post-Gazette's Bill Brink. They didn't find a market. See the last sentence of the preceding paragraph.