Why Overbay addition should not keep Bowker, Pearce off the field

July 21, 2010 - Pittsburgh, PA, United States of America - 21 July 2010: Pittsburgh Pirates' 1B Garrett Jones.

Garrett Jones - ZumaPress

Many Pirates fans were angry when the team signed Lyle Overbay to a one-year, $5 million contract earlier this week. As an example, the Overbay thread over at Bucs Dugout was up to 906 comments at the time this article was published. Many referred to the signing as a typical Dave Littlefield move. In other words, spending decent money on a past-his-prime veteran who will likely take playing time away from younger players with upside. I am not going to dispute that viewpoint, because I think it is a fairly accurate way to look at the situation. But I don’t think Overbay’s addition should necessarily keep those younger players off the field.

Before the Overbay signing, the Pirates were probably going to start Garrett Jones at first base while platooning John Bowker and Matt Diaz in right field. Steve Pearce also had the chance to get some playing time at first against left-handed pitchers. With Overbay’s addition, he is expected to play every day at first while Jones shifts to right to platoon with Diaz. Thus, Bowker and Pearce lose out on the chance for regular playing time.

There are multiple aspects of this situation to consider before allocating playing time. We must look at expected performance in 2011. The ZiPS projection system is probably the best source of 2011 projections currently available, so we will start there. ZiPS projects Overbay, Bowker, Jones and Pearce to be very similar hitters next year. My own personal projections have Overbay as a step above the rest of the group, a difference of around one win. Overbay is probably a better fielder as well, although it is difficult to quantify the exact difference. For our purposes, let’s estimate that Overbay is a marginal upgrade on the other three.

We also must consider the likelihood that a player may greatly outperform his projection, as well as the probability that he may totally collapse. To determine this we should look at things like age, past performance and sample size. For example, Overbay will turn 34 in January. At that age, and as a big first baseman, he has the potential to collapse at any time. Think Ryan Church in 2010. That being said, Bowker and Pearce (both age 27) also have a decent chance of having a disastrous 2011 season, as they have never proven that they can hit major league pitching. We have a small sample of prior performance to analyze, so we are projecting based on limited information. Think Jeff Clement in 2010. There is also the chance that a player greatly outperforms his projection. Overbay had a .363 wOBA in 2009, and he has a career wOBA of .349. Those are not monster numbers, but they are above average and well above what the Pirates received from first base and right field in 2010. We should not expect him to duplicate that performance, but we at least know he is capable of producing at that level against major league pitching. Bowker and Pearce, on the other hand, have never come close to that type of performance at this level. But they have destroyed Triple-A pitching for extended stretches (albeit mostly in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League in Bowker’s case) and they are young enough that it is certainly possible for them to suddenly figure out the big leagues.

I do not know how to accurately assign a probability to Bowker and/or Pearce breaking out in 2011, or Overbay collapsing, or vice versa. Baseball Prospectus generally publishes these types of calculations with their PECOTA projection system closer to the start of the season, so maybe we will have a better idea at that point. Subjectively, I can say that I would not be surprised if Overbay posted a wOBA anywhere between .300 and .360. Of course, I can probably say the same thing for both Bowker and Pearce. Since Bowker and Pearce are both much younger than Overbay and under team control for longer than one year, there is also added value in giving those players a chance to play regularly for an extended period. In other words, people are right to be upset with the Overbay signing if it means decreased playing time for Bowker and Pearce.

However, there should still be an opportunity for Bowker and Pearce to play regularly. First of all, Pearce should be given a chance to platoon with Overbay at first. Overbay has mostly struggled against left-handed pitchers in his career, and there is no reason to waste at-bats trying to break him of that trend. That means Jones is the one keeping Bowker off the field. And I have to wonder what purpose it serves to keep Jones in the lineup.

Here is Jones’ production over the past five years, according to Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA).

Garrett Jones

Season Level Age PA wOBA
2006 AAA 25 582 0.322
2007 AAA 26 446 0.352
MLB 84 0.260
2008 AAA 27 587 0.357
2009 AAA 28 299 0.371
MLB 358 0.396
2010 MLB 29 654 0.314

Here is Bowker’s performance over the same period. Keep in mind that his Triple-A time in the Giants’ organization was spent in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League.

John Bowker

Season Level Age PA wOBA
2006 A+ 22 511 0.343
2007 AA 23 581 0.383
2008 AAA 24 102 0.301
MLB 350 0.307
2009 AAA 25 450 0.447
MLB 73 0.271
2010 AAA (SF) 26 224 0.415
AAA (PIT) 98 0.397
MLB 167 0.280

Jones had a couple of decent years at Triple-A in his age 26 and 27 seasons. He had an excellent year at age 28, including three fantastic months at the major league level. At age 29, he received a full season of at-bats with the Pirates, and failed. He will be 30-years-old in 2011, with one year of impact performance on his résumé, and little reason to expect him to return to that level. Bowker is three years younger, has torched Triple-A three of the past four seasons, and has never really received an extended look at the major league level.

Bowker and Pearce have the chance of being impact bats for the Pirates, based on their age and extended runs of Triple-A success. They are also very risky, unproven players who could fall flat on their faces. Overbay is a proven player who has put up very good offensive numbers at various times in his career. He is also 34, and coming off a down year. He could easily collapse in 2011. Jones has little chance of making an impact, and is probably just as likely to collapse as any of the other options. He has just as much downside as the next guy, but without the upside.

Pearce and Overbay should platoon at first base. Diaz and Bowker should platoon in right field. Jones should join Ryan Doumit on the trading block.

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Matt Bandi

Matt has covered the Pirates at Wait ‘Til Next Year, Pittsburgh Lumber Co. and now Pirates Prospects. He served as Pirates team expert for Heater Magazine in 2009 and 2010 and has contributed to Graphical Player 2009, 2010 and 2011. Matt was also the editor of the 2011 and 2012 Pirates Prospects Annuals.

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  • Thejewelryman

    While I’m not for the overbay signing I’m not against it either. At least not at the moment. Last season was Clement at first and we knew beforehand and then saw what happened there. I think the FO didn’t want to start out another season with frigne prospects again when they could sign an acceptable 1b on the cheap. Also it takes some pressure off them from the players union

  • Eugene Tober

    Lyle Overbay is a proven comodity. Matt Clement came in with out any real major league experience. So. therefor the Bucs are in a much better situation than last year.

  • free candy

    while matt clement did have an occasionally ferocious goatee, he did return to the butler area with a good deal of major league experience.

  • MarkInDallas

    I have to say that I just don’t get the idea that Bowker is surely going to be a better option than Jones as a left handed platoon option. Bowker has shown nothing to say that he can hit RHPs in MLB even as well as Jones hits LHPs, which isn’t very good.

    Bowker has short arms, and he is a strictly pull hitter. Anything hit to the opposite field is purely accidental. He kind of slaps at the ball quickly without letting the ball get deep into the hitting zone, hitting grounders to the right side time and time again. Sure, he will occasionally run into one because he does have good bat speed. But he has a real hard time centering up the ball.

    As far as RHPs go, he is absolutely useless, much more so than Jones.

    Bowker might be better defensively, but it in no way makes up for his total lack of offensive ability at the MLB level.

    • MarkInDallas

      I mean… As far as LHPs go, he is absolutely useless, much more so than Jones.

    • Eugene Tober

      John Bowker is just another warm body. Hopefully, with what’s been going on thjs off-season, that is no longer the Buccos m.o.. And Bowker has little chance of coming north with the club.

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