Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions

The 2014 Pittsburgh Pirates season begins on Monday when the Pirates take on the Cubs. To prepare for the start of the year, I’ll be previewing all of the position groups on the Opening Day roster. Here are the previews we have so far.

The Pirates Rotation Has Some Red Flags, But Still Projects to Carry the Team

The Pirates Won’t Have to Wait For Gregory Polanco to Have a Top Outfield

Pirates Will Once Again Have Strong Infield Defense and Offensive Questions – READING

The Pirates are Returning a Bullpen That Was One of the Best in Baseball

The Pirates Have a Bench That Can’t Hit Right-Handers

The Pirates won last year in large part to their pitching staff, and their defense played a big part in that. The defense behind the plate from Russell Martin was huge, and the defensive shifts in the infield also had a huge assist. Martin will return this year, and the current infield looks to be good defensively. Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez have both been showing improvements at their position, while Jordy Mercer has been working on improving his defense so he won’t negate his offensive value. The current first base alignment gets a lot of their value from defense, with question marks about the ability to hit right-handed pitching. Here is a look at the starters at each position around the infield, including the catcher position.

Russell Martin was one of the best defensive catchers in the game last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Russell Martin was one of the best defensive catchers in the game last year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Catcher – Russell Martin

A lot of the value that Russell Martin brings to the table used to be hard to quantify. However, Baseball Prospectus did a great job of putting a number on his pitch framing and blocking skills. For that reason, we know that he was worth 2.3 wins above replacement for his pitch framing skills, and 1.3 wins above replacement for his blocking skills last year. Both skills ranked among the best in baseball, which combined with Martin’s 40% caught stealing rate, made him one of the best defensive catchers in the game.

Offensively, Martin didn’t have a lot of value. Actually he had no value, putting up replacement level numbers. His average and OBP improved from the 2012 season, but his power dropped. I wouldn’t expect that to change in 2014, since the last time he has provided more than replacement level value with his batting and base running was in 2008.

Even with replacement level offense, Martin was worth 4.1 wins above replacement last year, and that was without the advanced catching metrics on framing and blocking (although FanGraphs does attempt to quantify blocking, with their numbers being lower than the BP studies). What we’ve learned in the last year is that catcher defense is extremely important, and probably still undervalued. That’s not an aspect of Martin’s game that will be going away any time soon, so you can expect another good year from him defensively. Anything he does at the plate is just a bonus.

I’d expect Martin to outperform the projections, since they probably don’t account for his defense as much as FanGraphs. And if you believe in the BP advanced catching studies, Martin could seriously exceed the value in the projections below.

Steamer: 2.6 WAR

Oliver: 3.4 WAR

ZiPS: 3.1 WAR

Gaby Sanchez crushes left-handers, but shouldn't be getting at-bats against right-handers.

Gaby Sanchez crushes left-handers, but shouldn’t be getting at-bats against right-handers.

First Base – Gaby Sanchez/Travis Ishikawa

We knew coming into the season that Gaby Sanchez would get time this year against left-handed pitching. Sanchez dominates left-handers, and had a .987 OPS against lefties last year. That ranked him 16th out of 248 major league players who had 100+ plate appearances against left-handers. The problem is that Sanchez can’t hit right-handers. In his career, his best marks have been a .742 OPS against right-handers, which is slightly better than what Garrett Jones did last season.

The Pirates needed a first baseman to hit right-handers. There wasn’t much available on the free agent market after James Loney signed with the Rays. The trade market didn’t have a lot to offer, with a lot of players like Ike Davis who have upside, but are borderline reclamation projects. The Pirates had Andrew Lambo and traded for Chris McGuiness, although neither player had experience in the majors. They let Garrett Jones and Justin Morneau walk, although neither player was good last year against right-handers.

Travis Ishikawa has good defense at first base, but his career numbers are no better than Garrett Jones in 2013.

Travis Ishikawa has good defense at first base, but his career numbers are no better than Garrett Jones in 2013.

Across the board, the Pirates didn’t have a good option against right-handers. But out of all of those weaker options, it looks like they took the weakest one. Travis Ishikawa will get the starting first base job against right-handers. What’s worse is that Clint Hurdle has said it won’t be a traditional platoon, which means Gaby Sanchez will get some time against right-handers as well. Ishikawa has a career .737 OPS against right-handers, while Sanchez has a career .700 OPS against right-handers. Neither of those guys should be the top option, even if the rest of the field is weak.

The one value these guys bring is defense. Sanchez had a down year last year, but has been good defensively in his career. Ishikawa has a career 13.3 UZR/150 in his career at first base, which beats the career 3.3 mark from Sanchez. But I don’t think this will off-set the negative value that their offense will bring against right-handers.

The one consolation here is that if Ishikawa hits to his career numbers, he will be the 2013 version of Garrett Jones, with much better defense. That’s an upgrade for the Pirates, although “Garrett Jones 2013″ shouldn’t be the bar that the Pirates set for first base. If the Pirates are going with Ishikawa and Sanchez, then Ishikawa should get all of the time against right-handers, since he has better defense and slightly better numbers against right-handers. That said, I think they should be exploring a trade, or bringing up Lambo once he starts hitting again in Triple-A.

Steamer: 0.9 WAR (Sanchez) / 0.0 WAR (Ishikawa)

Oliver: 0.6 WAR (Sanchez) / 0.2 WAR (Ishikawa)

ZiPS: 1.0 WAR (Sanchez) / -0.1 WAR (Ishikawa)

Can Neil Walker hit for power once again in 2014? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Can Neil Walker hit for power once again in 2014? (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Second Base – Neil Walker

I’ve got mixed opinions on Neil Walker. There are some things to like about his game and where he is heading. At the same time, even thought he has over 2200 plate appearances in the majors, there are still question marks about his game. I wrote about Walker in detail back in January, and I’ll sum up some of the positives and the concerns here.

One positive is that his walk rate has been trending up each year in the majors. He went from a 7.2 BB% to 8.2%, 8.9%, and 9.1% respectively in his four years as a pro. That would have led to a higher on-base percentage in 2013, although a low .274 BABIP resulted in a .251 average, leading to his OBP being three points lower than the 2012 totals. I’d expect Walker’s average to bounce back this year, sitting in the .275-.280 range, which combined with the walks, would lead to a nice on-base percentage.

The power saw an increase last year, going from a .146 ISO to a .167 ISO. However, it’s hard to say whether this is legit for Walker. In 2010 and 2013 he had exactly a .167 ISO each season. In 2011 and 2012 he had a .134 and .146 ISO. You’ve got two seasons that say one thing, and two seasons that say another. It’s hard to determine which level of power is legit for Walker.

As I mentioned in the above article, if Walker’s power from last year is legit, and his average bounces back, he could put up Dustin Pedroia-level offensive numbers this year.

Defensively, Walker has shown improvements in his time with the Pirates. He had a -16.4 UZR/150 in his rookie year, which improved to a -4.4 in 2011. That improved to a -1.4 in 2012 and a -0.8 in 2013. If he can continue that upward trend, then that will be just another thing to give him value.

The last three years, Walker has been worth about 2.6-2.7 wins above replacement. That’s where two of the projections systems have him, although it’s possible he could exceed this if his average bounces back, power stays at the 2013 levels, and the defense and walks continue their upward trends. I’d expect the average to bounce back, and the defense and walks to at least stay at their 2013 levels. That just raises the question of where his power will end up.

Steamer: 2.4 WAR

Oliver: 3.1 WAR

ZiPS: 2.6 WAR

The Pirates will be giving Jordy Mercer a bigger role this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

The Pirates will be giving Jordy Mercer a bigger role this year. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Shortstop – Jordy Mercer

Jordy Mercer took over the primary shortstop duties from Clint Barmes last year, with Barmes still getting a decent amount of playing time. This year the Pirates brought Barmes back for their bench, but they’re set on giving Mercer a bigger role as the regular starter, rather than splitting time and just taking the majority share like last year.

Mercer isn’t as strong as Barmes defensively. He does bring more to the plate offensively. Last year he hit for a .285/.336/.435 line in 365 plate appearances, with eight home runs. That tied him with Stephen Drew for the eighth best offensive value in baseball among shortstops with 350+ plate appearances (29 shortstops total). Drew had almost 140 additional plate appearances over Mercer.

The offense is good, and as Mercer improves and gets used to the majors, he could jump up to be one of the better offensive shortstops in the league, falling in the next tier outside of the elite guys like Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez. The defense needs to improve, so it doesn’t end up negating the offensive value. According to Travis Sawchik, Mercer is learning tips from Barmes on angles to help him improve defensively.

Shortstop is the most important defensive position in the infield, and the Pirates rely heavily on their infield defense with all of their shifts and ground ball heavy pitchers. Mercer getting defensive tips is a good thing, and if he can implement them, that will be great. His negative defensive value hurts the Pirates more than it would hurt other teams, since they see more ground balls than other teams, and more opportunities for Mercer.

Like with most young players, the projection systems probably don’t have enough to be accurate with Mercer. He put up a 1.4 WAR last year in half a season, and the projections have him at that level for 2014 in a full season. It’s possible that he could end up a three win player, which would make the Oliver projections below seem a little less crazy in comparison to the other two projections.

Steamer: 1.1 WAR

Oliver: 3.9 WAR

ZiPS: 1.5 WAR

Pedro Alvarez needs to continue improving his defense and walks, otherwise he's a one trick pony. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Pedro Alvarez needs to continue improving his defense and walks, otherwise he’s a one trick pony. (Photo Credit: David Hague)

Third Base – Pedro Alvarez

Everyone loves the home run. Traditionally, a home run allows you to get a quick judgment on a player just by looking at that one stat. However, home runs don’t always mean that a player is a good hitter.

Last year, Pedro Alvarez led the National League with 36 home runs. That gives him 66 home runs in the last two seasons. So the power is definitely there, which is a good thing for a guy who is projected to bat in the middle of the order. The problem is that power is the only part of Alvarez’s game.

Alvarez saw his batting average drop from .244 in 2012 to .233 last year. He could be due for a bit of a bounce back, since his .276 BABIP was below his career line of .299. However, if you’re expecting him to hit .250 or better, you’re going to be disappointed. Alvarez has a 30% strikeout rate in almost 1850 plate appearances in the majors. Guys who strike out about once every three trips to the plate don’t usually hit for a high average.

There’s nothing wrong with a three true outcomes guy (home run, strikeout, walk), except that Alvarez isn’t that guy yet. His walk rate declined to a 7.8%, dropping from the 9.2-9.7% range the previous two years. The league average last year was 7.9%. Typically, “three true outcome” guys have a walk rate that is above average, thus justifying the strikeouts and the low average that comes with those strikeouts. Take Carlos Pena, as an example. He had a career .233 average, with a 26.9% strikeout rate. However, his career 13.9% walk rate gave him a career .348 OBP. Alvarez is closer to a .300 OBP.

Where Alvarez makes up for this is with his improving defense. He looked much improved on the field last year at third base, and the stats agreed. His -0.4 UZR/150 was the best of his career, and a big improvement over the -9.1 UZR/150 in 2012. That defense ranked 10th out of 20 qualified third basemen last year. If Alvarez continues these improvements, then it would help make up for the lack of hits and walks.

At the moment, Alvarez is an average defender at third base who has some of the best power in the league, and nothing else. Improving the defense would help add value to his game. Getting his walk rate up to the 2011-12 totals will also help his value. Alvarez is a one trick pony when it comes to his offense. Fortunately, that one trick does provide a lot of value. It just doesn’t provide as much value as you’d think, and if he doesn’t improve the defense or the walks this year, it’s possible he could have less value than Walker and Mercer.

Steamer: 2.5 WAR

Oliver: 3.3 WAR

ZiPS: 2.8 WAR

The Depth

I’ll cover a lot of the depth options when I talk about the bench tomorrow. In most cases, the Pirates will just move a bench player to the lineup, and promote a minor league player to the bench. There are also players who could fill in at depth options for multiple positions. So to keep this organized, I’ll break down the depth by position.

Catcher - Tony Sanchez will start the year as Russell Martin’s backup, and will return to Triple-A when Chris Stewart recovers from his injury. If Martin gets hurt, I’d expect Sanchez to take over the starting duties.

First Base - There are two spots here. The depth behind Gaby Sanchez requires someone who can crush left-handed pitching. Matt Hague has done a good job of that in his minor league career. The depth behind Travis Ishikawa is where you’ll find more options. Andrew Lambo is the top internal option, although the Pirates want him working on his hitting and getting back on track in the minors. I don’t know if I’m convinced they won’t make a trade or bring in outside help. It’s also possible that Lambo could come up sooner, rather than later. Behind Lambo is Chris McGuiness, who would have been my choice to open the season in Pittsburgh if the organization didn’t want to go with Lambo.

Second Base - Josh Harrison would be the top depth option here. Clint Barmes could also play the position. Either player could get time against left-handers, since Walker struggles in that regard. In the minors, the Pirates have Robert Andino, Michael Martinez, and Chase d’Arnaud as depth options for second base. The Pirates have also been getting Brent Morel time at second base in practice, and he could see game action there if the experiment goes well.

Shortstop - If Mercer goes down, Barmes would probably take over as the starting shortstop. Behind Barmes would be Andino and d’Arnaud in the minors, and maybe Josh Harrison in a pinch.

Third Base - The Pirates don’t have much depth here, which explains their addition of Brent Morel this Spring. He would be the top option to take over if Alvarez goes down. Josh Harrison is also a candidate, and would provide good defense, but a lack of offense. Either way, if Alvarez goes down, it would be a big blow to the team, since no one else can match his power.

Tim Williams

Author: Tim Williams

Tim is the owner and editor in chief of Pirates Prospects. He started the site in January 2009, and turned it into his full time job during the 2011 season. Prior to starting Pirates Prospects, Tim worked with AccuScore.com, providing MLB, NHL, and NFL coverage to various national media outlets, including ESPN Insider, USA Today, Yahoo Sports, and the Wall Street Journal. He also writes the annual Prospect Guide, which is sold through the site. Tim lives in Bradenton, where he provides live coverage all year of Spring Training, mini camp, instructs, the Bradenton Marauders, and the GCL Pirates.

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  • Lee Young

    Tim…how good is Chris McGuiness’ defense? I would’ve taken McBeer north, but maybe they saw something we didn’t, hence the ‘quick cut’?

  • Honusty

    Mercer’s splits seem to indicate that he’s more of a lefty killer – we shall call him Little Gaby. I project some regression here. I think he’s more of a -1 to 1 WAR guy.

    • Andrew

      I wouldn’t make too much of observed splits after 433 career PAs. And that Oliver number is based on some very optimistic projections of Mercer defensive ability.