John Jaso Letting Instincts Take Over at First Base

PITTSBURGH – John Jaso has been one of the pleasant surprises so far this season for the Pirates. Batting leadoff, he is 21st in all of baseball in on-base percentage (behind Polanco and Cervelli) and has only struck out seven times which is T-8th among all qualified hitters in the majors. He has been an extremely smart hitter, too, as the chart below shows.

Jaso-Offense-Stats-042706

For those not familiar with these statistics from Fangraphs, O-Swing% is the amount of pitches you swings at outside of the strike zone. Z-Contact% is the amount of pitches you make contact with inside the strike zone. Contact% is any contact made on any swing. SwStr% is your swing-and-miss rate.

Clint Hurdle has said that Jaso has been a catalyst at the top of the lineup, being “everything we anticipated him being able to bring, and he’s bringing right now at the top of the lineup”.

However, the purpose of this article isn’t to talk about Jaso’s offense, which has certainly been spectacular along with many other players on the Pirates’ roster. I wanted to take a look at his defense so far this season. I almost wanted to stop myself short of checking defensive stats when the season is so fresh, but I couldn’t resist. Obviously everything can change over the course of the season, but I felt that three solid weeks could give a minuscule picture on how Jaso has transitioned to playing first base from catcher.

And… the numbers absolutely love him.

Jaso-Defense-Stats-042706

UZR (or Ultimate Zone Rating) is a popular defensive metric that basically compiles a number of different defensive components into a run value or an overall defensive score. UZR/150 is a scaled version of the stat, which compares everyone to an average number of chances for a season. Basically, the Pirates have gone from a starting first baseman with the worst UZR/150 in 2015 (Pedro Alvarez: -26.4) to one with the best in 2016 (Jaso: +20.2). The sample size is limited; however, the numbers are great so far.

The only reason I even want to remotely look at those numbers with playing so few games is strictly because of what my eyes told me in Spring Training when I saw Jaso. I was in Bradenton for a week at the start of the Spring Training game schedule, and there aren’t many words that can describe the feeling that almost all people watching had when Jaso missed this ground ball or missed that scoop or was in the wrong place on the field. His defense was simply not good. It almost made people wonder: “where in the world is Pedro Alvarez when you need him?”

At the time, Jaso told us that he just needed to be out there to learn the intricacies of the position. Here were his comments after that first game:

“You gotta do your reps and everything,” Jaso said. “Seeing how things work with runners going, processing the play out on the field as it’s happening like backing up people, it’s processing all of that stuff. If you play a few games, then everything just begins to happen. Catching was just nice and easy for me, because I’ve been doing it for a long time. I just need reps [at first base]. I’m just going to work hard and have fun.”

I was able to catch up with Jaso in the Pirates’ clubhouse last week and ask him how he felt about the progression so far.

“I’m happy with where I’m at right now,” he said. “I know there is still a lot I need to learn and more that needs to be thrown at me as far as experience goes during a game and game-type situations. Otherwise, I feel comfortable and confident out there.”

Clint Hurdle echoed that sentiment, saying that “he is making good solid progress, and he will continue to make progress”.

“He’s getting into the rhythm of the game where he is just being reactionary and having proactive thinking,” Hurdle said. “I’m happy about what he has done, and we will continue to work with him.”

The reactionary and proactive thinking is a sentiment that Jaso resonated with, saying that he was trying to thinking of everything he was supposed to do exactly by the textbook in the beginning of his time at first base. At the start of the year, there were plays that he has yet to see, and he knew that they would sneak up on him quickly. To help ease him into those situation, Jaso worked with Dave Jauss on a regular basis to be able to close that gap.

“I’ll just pretend like there’s runners on first and second [for example], and then [Dave Jauss] will hit me the ball,” Jaso told Tim Williams earlier this season. “Every once in a while, I’ll go where it’s actually game speed and try to flip the ball to second base as fast as I can. It’s stuff like that. When it happens in the game, it doesn’t speed up so much.”

The words “rely on instincts” kept creeping back to our conversation. In February and March, Jaso was not able to rely on his instincts, basically because he had no instincts for the position. However, he worked tirelessly and was extremely motivated to not only play the position but to play it extremely well. GM Neal Huntington was confident that, through their assessment of Jaso, he would be on track to becoming a more-than-adequate Major League first baseman. Huntington said that the biggest thing for the Pirates when recruiting Jaso was that he wanted to be a first baseman. Nobody was forcing him to play the position, and he knew that playing first was his ticket to continue a long career.

“We looked at the catching background, and we’re aware that catchers traditionally make the transition to first base fairly well,” Huntington said about Jaso. “He wanted to be a baseball player, and he had a ton of motivation to do so, not just in the short-term but in the long-term. If he comes out here and establishes himself as a legitimate Major League option at first base, it opens himself up to a whole ‘nother set of teams next time he goes through free agency – if he does again. We knew we had a young man who wanted to be really good over there. Not just adequate… really good.”

There were some specific details about learning first base that helped Jaso’s “instincts”, as he picked up a glove and showed me some of the troubles that he was having early in the season compared to now. As a catcher, his initial glove setup is pronated, or with the palm facing towards the ground. He was falling back on old habits from his time catching, and his glove would fall into that position on his initial setup.

“Kevin Young has been talking all year so far about my initial glove set up,” Jaso told me. “As a catcher, my glove is like this [pronated], and as a first baseman in the infield it’s like this – it’s open. He was telling me the whole time that it keeps going closed like you’re catching.”

The open position is called a supinated wrist position, which is the typical setup for an infielder.

wrist-supination-neutral-pronation

“Eventually, [Kevin Young] ended up showing me on video, because I couldn’t feel it happening,” Jaso said. “If a ball was rocketed at me, or if I was holding on a guy at first and shuffling off, it is such a long move to get my glove to the ball [with the closed position]. The more I’m cognizant to keep my glove open, it slows down the ball, and I’m not speeding it up myself. It’s more conducive to fielding those rockets hit at me.”

We did discuss a play last week not related to glove position, where pure instincts and athletic ability came into play. With Jeff Locke pitching, the batter lined a ball off of his foot and skipped over towards first. Jaso broke towards the bag as soon as it was hit, but threw on the breaks and cut the other direction to field the ball. The runner ended up beating a sprawling Jaso to the bag, but it was a great example of pure instincts kicking in at the right time.

He has come to realize that being textbook perfect is not the key. Understanding and feeling the position is.

“It was really just clouding up my mind,” Jaso said about trying to be perfect at first. “I’m not allowing myself to instinctually be in the proper place at the right time. I’m not really thinking 1-2-3 step or being in a perfect triangle anymore.”

All of the hard work has paid off so far for the 32-year-old native of California. While Pedro Alvarez ranks last in UZR/150 at first base once again, Jaso is looking good, both in the numbers and the eye test. The Pirates not only have a first baseman who is producing on offense, but they have a guy who is fielding the position defensively. The hope is that the instincts, experience, and repetitions can take him the rest of the way.

  • I know this article is about Jaso’s fielding, but I am wondering if Jason is causing a domino effect as far as his hitting. Since Alvarez is gone, does that put less pressure on the players around him such as Josh Harrison and Jordy Mercer. Are they really slow starters?. Let’s compare the averages in April opposed to previous years. Thoughts?

    • My thoughts would be that they are all individual occurrences, not necessarily contingent on each other, especially from the hitting side. Of course, we would never really know for sure, but I would put more stock in each players’ own ability. If you said defensively, I might be able to put some relevance to that, as one’s play in the infield will affect another’s in different ways.

    • I do think there’s a synergy to this team-wide offensive approach. The more pitches you see, the more likely you are to get an idea of a guy’s stuff. It both makes intuitive sense and is born out in statistics. But figuring a pitcher out makes you more likely to lay off pitches outside of the zone and to hit the pitches you swing at in the zone.

      I don’t think the Pirates’ offense is as good as it’s been so far, but I do think we’re seeing positive signs that the offense will, indeed, be better this year than last.

  • In other words, “Don’t think – it can only hurt the ballclub.”

  • It’s really quite simple. Jaso is a bridge for when the Bell tolls. Tyler’s change up is better and breaking Glasnow. Jameson is ready as the four seamer has finally more Taillon it. I am sorry Allie not working out as he and Taillion came in together. My hats off to Stetson for the bold move. It’s all Kuhl!!!

  • Great article!

  • This is fantastic stuff.

  • Puts the Bucs in a tough but good place. One the one hand, Bell has such a offensive upside that he belongs on the team by the Summer. On the other hand, Jaso has been excellent. I especially love his approach which has been contagious. He seems to love working the count and getting to see a ton of pitches. Long-term if the Pirates keep doing what they’ve been doing the past games I think other teams will have to adjust their approach. How many pitchers have we seen now with 70+ pitches in the 4th inning? A lot. We’re grinding them down. If we can get better pitching all around, we might be the best in MLB.

  • Nice piece Seamus McCool! It’s the process with the process being the process. It’s an obvious process. Sorta of like a stonecutter. Only with a process. I was the first one who wanted to take Jaso to Salem and burn him. Wow I ‘ve been wrong quite frequently with this team.

  • I’ve been very impressed with how well he has fielded. The other thing I really like is that he looks like he is having a lot of fun.

  • Jaso in high school

    • Priceless!

    • I was thinking Jeff Spicoli

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  • Excellent article and congrats to Jaso for putting in all of his work. Passes the eye test as well.

  • First of all, tremendous detail. Very well written. Secondly, the lead picture is priceless. He looks like a guy you wouldn’t want your daughter to date even though he sounds like a really nice guy. The fact that we haven’t heard about Jaso at first, at all really before today, is really a testament to how well he’s been playing there. Almost remarkable if you ask me. I have no doubts Alvarez wanted to master first and it sounds like he put in the time. In the end……..he just couldn’t play the position. Unless Bell has mastered first I don’t see any hurry in calling him up in June even if he’s mashing the ball as long as Jaso is holding his own at the plate too.

    • I agree with you up until the part about Bell…

      …not quite sure how I feel about his promotion in June…but, realistically, the kid can’t be a prospect forever. Even if Jaso can maintain everything he’s done…it’s not like you can leave Bell down on the farm until 2018.

      It’s a tough call when to make him the starter, but, if his bat and glove are ready, Bell needs to be up.

      • For me it’s the glove. I’m going on the assumption his transition hasn’t gone as smooth. Anyone know how he’s doing on D?

        • He is improved but still needs work. He hasn’t had to make many throws in the games I’ve seen and that was an issue last year. He also needs to get better at recognizing when to go after balls to his right and when to let the second baseman get it. That is just learned from experience.

    • I was listening to a Podcast. I don’t remember if it was David Todd or DK but they were talking about a fan poll. The question was “Which 2 Pirates would you like to have a beer with?”. The absolute first guy that came to my mind is Jaso. The second is probably Melancon.

      • I would say Cervelli maybe. And Marte in case Cervelli’s mouth got us into trouble.

  • Nice article Sean, thanks! If Jaso keeps this up it will be hard for Bell to displace him.

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