PHILADELPHIA — Since starting second baseman and leadoff hitter Josh Harrison was sidelined with a broken hand, the Pirates have gone about replacing him with a combination of Adam Frazier and Sean Rodriguez.
Both of those players present their own issues in that role.
Frazier can hit, with a .278 career batting average and a .341 on-base percentage, and has the kind of useful speed on the basepaths that teams like to have at the top of the order. But he’s been scuffling a bit as of late, hitting .200/.200/.400 since Harrison went down.
On defense, the issues are larger. Frazier has zero Defensive Runs Saved at second base over his first season and a half in the majors. On Friday, he wasn’t able to turn a double play that allowed the Phillies to score the game-winning run.
The defensive issues shouldn’t necessarily be an indictment of Frazier. He spent the offseason figuring he’d be getting most of his work this season in left field, then transitioned to a utility role while the Pirates went through a stretch of days where they didn’t take infield or have batting practice due to inclement weather.
As a young player that needs defensive work, it’s been a tough combination for Frazier and Harrison’s injury exacerbated the issue.
Rodriguez has no issues at second base, with a career 24 Defensive Runs Saved, including a three in 2016 in Pittsburgh when he played 165.2 innings there. But he’s never been the type of hitter that most would consider a leadoff threat. He has a career .302 on-base percentage and .230 batting average for a .688 OPS.
This season, Rodriguez has been hitting well, with a .222/.323/.556 line over 11 games. He went 2-for-4 with a leadoff home run on Saturday and earned himself another start on Sunday. But long-term, it seems unlikely that he’ll be able to maintain that pace.
So what is the solution?
One could be Max Moroff, who was recalled from Indianapolis when Harrison went on the disabled list, but has played in just three games and seen six plate appearances while Frazier and Rodriguez have dominated the playing time at second.
Moroff had four defensive runs saved at second base in 156 innings in 2017, considerably better than Frazier and better than all but Rodriguez’s best career season. He also appeared to figure things out at the plate in the second half of 2017, with an .846 OPS in the second half of the season. He had a .373 on-base percentage, so that stretch would probably represent the Pirates best shot at replacing Harrison both at the plate and in the field.
The problem is that so far in 2018, the Pirates haven’t seen much of that Moroff.
“No, actually not,” Hurdle said, while indicating that he thought Moroff might’ve put too much pressure on himself this spring to make the club. “Sometimes, they can add weight to the backpack they’re carrying if they have a chance to make the club. … He’s gone down to Indianapolis and played well in a short period of time.”
Moroff had an .846 Triple-A OPS when the got called up, down slightly from his .909 in 2017. In his six at-bats so far in the majors, he’s hit .333/.333/.500, so he’s off to a good start. But because of the issues that led him to hit .214 this spring, the Pirates are going to try to take it slow with Moroff and work him into the lineup more against left-handed pitching.
“I just didn’t perform, that’s what it came down to,” Moroff said. “When I got sent down, I just showed up every day and tried to get better. One thing every day, that adds up.”
He’ll now try to continue that improvement in the majors, something that he’s shown the ability to do before.
“Max got better as the season went on at the major-league level, which isn’t easy to do,” Hurdle said. “So, we’ve got that in our back pocket.”
With the Pirates trying to slowly work Moroff into the mix, it seems as if they don’t have a ready-made answer to their problem at second base and at the leadoff spot.
The best solution would probably be to stop treating it as one problem and recognize that it can be two. Moroff could be worked into the lineup in a lower-pressure spot. Frazier’s bat would play better lower in the order, as does Rodriguez’s.
As far as the leadoff spot, Starling Marte has long been nearly an ideal leadoff hitter, except for his seeming unwillingness to take a walk. But he’s reversed that trend so far in 2018. His 13.2 percent walk rate would be more than double his career high at any level, let alone in the majors, and he has a .374 on-base percentage as part of his team-high 142 wRC+. He’s also stolen six bases.
The benefits of having a high-OBP, base stealing threat at the top of the order are mostly theoretical. The biggest advantage to be gleaned from setting the batting order is getting the hitters at the top an extra at-bat. With Marte seemingly both a traditional leadoff hitter-type and the team’s most potent offensive player, that move seems like a no-brainer.