BRADENTON, Fl. – It doesn’t seem like the Pirates acquire many players on a whim. Typically, you hear comments about how they’ve been watching a guy for a long time, and finally added him. In John Jaso’s case, the Pirates had been considering him for first base for several years.
“It’s been a thought that we’ve had. I think four or five years ago was the first time we approached this thought about John Jaso as a first baseman for us somewhere down the road,” Neal Huntington said today. “We chased him around a little bit. Weren’t able to get him. And then we were able to sign him as a free agent this off-season. So this wasn’t something we stumbled upon this off-season. This was something we’ve targeted in the past.”
The Pirates liked Jaso for the bat. As had been noted many times during the off-season, Jaso’s numbers against right-handed pitching have been some of the best in baseball.
“The bat has always intrigued us,” Clint Hurdle said. “To plug that bat into the lineup, to give a large volume of at-bats. The on-base percentage. The barrel to ball contact. The gap power. To plug that kind of guy in our lineup to try and help grow other guys in the lineup. The conversation has gone back many years.”
That on-base percentage is the driving factor of Jaso’s offense. And it might have played a role in a bigger plan for the Pirates’ offense this year.
When the Pirates added Jaso, it signaled a big shift in the type of production they would be receiving from first base. Last year they had Pedro Alvarez, who hit for a lot of power, but didn’t do much else. This year they will be getting much different production from Jaso, with his offense mostly fueled by getting on base. This shift is a microcosm for the entire team, as the power is expected to be down, but the ability to get on base is expected to be strong. But can the Pirates have a good offense with that approach?
“We’re comfortable with an offense that is going to generate baserunners,” Huntington said on the comparison. “It’s going to have some guys that are going to hit the ball into the gaps. It’s going to have multiple guys that should be able to run up double-digit home runs. The Cardinals have found a way to be the best team in baseball without hitting a lot of home runs. The Royals obviously won a World Series and lost a World Series. 28 other teams would have loved to have been in their spot without hitting a ton of home runs.”
Huntington noted that the Pirates want to focus on getting starting pitchers out earlier, and wanted to get to middle relievers, which the Pirates still feel is a weak spot across the game. Last year’s offense didn’t always accomplish this, and definitely struggled at times, especially with putting multiple guys on base in a row.
“We felt there were times last year we didn’t keep the chain moving like we wanted to, and we feel that Jaso is a perfect complement to this existing lineup,” Huntington said. “We feel like we have some guys that are ready to take some steps forward in their careers, and be a part of a hopefully one through nine that can produce base runners, that can produce some extra base hits, that can produce some balls in the seats, and most importantly produce enough runs to win games.”
The Pirates feel that the game is transitioning, and both Huntington and Hurdle used the Royals as an example of a team that won without power, but by getting on base. The idea of getting more guys on base leading to more runs is sound, as long as you have the right guys. Jaso definitely provides the right type of guy, and one of the best guys you can have for this approach. As for the benefits of this approach, and why the Pirates are going this direction, Clint Hurdle broke it down well.
“The game is transitioning a lot of different ways in a lot of different areas,” Hurdle said. “The nuts and bolts of it is, if you’ve got more on-base guys in your lineup, you’re going to have more guys on base to help create more runs. If we walk through the math together, every team is looking for a combination of dynamic power, dynamic speed. You want base on balls, you want all of those things to play out. The one thing our industry, in and of itself, is sliding into a bad place is the number of strikeouts, the strikeout frequency. It’s league-wide, it’s over 20%.”
Strikeouts have gone up in recent years, and a lot of people attribute that to stronger pitching in the game. But even with this strong pitching, there are still guys like Jaso who manage to get on base at a high rate. The Pirates are definitely making a good move to reduce strikeouts by switching from Alvarez (29% career strikeout rate) to Jaso (14.6% career strikeout rate).
“Every team talks about it. Elite teams were the ones able to do it right, and nobody did it better than the Royals, who ended up winning the last game of the season,” Hurdle said. “So you’re always going to find imitation with teams that have success, whether it be on the mound, on the base paths, or in the batter’s box. It’s one of those things we’ve talked about for a while, but it does come down to personnel in many areas. We’ve tried to look at some different personnel types to help us out.”
So is this a new trend in the game, with other teams trying to model the successful Cardinals and Royals approach? As far as the Pirates go, this isn’t a new approach to focus on good hitters, even if it sacrifices power. You can see that in their drafting approach. They’ve gone heavier in recent years on the approach to draft strong hitters who get on base, add speed, add gap power, but don’t have strong overall power. But that’s not new. They took that approach when they gave seven figures to Harold Ramirez in 2011. They took the approach when they drafted players like Max Moroff, Adam Frazier, and others before the 2014-15 drafts. They’ve taken the same approach at the MLB level by adding guys like Francisco Cervelli and even attempts that didn’t go so well like Ike Davis.
“It’s always been part of our philosophy is to generate base runners,” Huntington said. “We believe in good hitters. We want good hitters. Good hitters that have power, those are the ideal. Power hitters who aren’t good hitters, they create holes in the lineup. They create easy outs in your lineup at times. The threat is always there. We want a balanced lineup, one through eight. We don’t want a pitcher to be able to take a deep breath.”
And as far as the game changing, Huntington could see a scenario where the entire league adopts this trend.
“Five, ten years from now, we’ll be talking about where did the power go, and we’ll have a generation of bat handlers,” Huntington said. “We’ll be lamenting the good old days when guys could hit the ball, and 5′ 8″ guys would hit a ball into the right-center field gap and go 437 feet. It’s a beautiful part about the game and the part about getting older is you recognize cycles, and we’re in one of those cycles.”