The Pittsburgh Pirates Are Proving They Can Fix Position Players Too
The Pittsburgh Pirates have a long track record of taking on reclamation project pitchers and fixing them. However, they are doing it with position players now too.
Ever since Ray Searage took over as pitching coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates, the Pirates have been known as a team that can fix struggling pitchers. A.J. Burnett, Francisco Liriano, Edison Volquez, Mark Melancon, Neftali Feliz, and Jeanmar Gomez are just some of the pitchers on this seemingly never ending list. One thing that is often overlooked though is hitting coach Jeff Branson‘s ability to do the same thing with position players.
Ever since Jeff Branson took over as the hitting coach for the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the start of the 2014 season, there have been multiple hitters that have bounced back from struggling seasons to post some of the best, if not the best, seasons of their careers.
One example is former Pirate catcher Russell Martin. Between 2009 and 2012 Martin was a below league average hitter, and in his first season with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2013 Martin was, at best, a league average hitter with a 102 wRC+ and an OPS of .703.
However, in his one season working with Branson in 2014 the best offensive numbers of his career. Martin posted career highs in OBP (.402), wOBA (.370), and wRC+ (141) in 2014. Also, his 12.8 percent walk rate in 2014 was the second highest of his career. Since Martin, the reclamation projects have only grown.
Francisco Cervelli replace Russell Martin as the catcher for the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the start of the 2015 season. Many fans hated this move because they did not think Cervelli would be able to replicate the offensive numbers Martin posted in 2014. However, offense has been the least of Cervelli’s issues as a Pirate.
Prior to joining the Pittsburgh Pirates, Cervelli owned a lifetime .278/.348/.381/.729 slash line with a .327 wOBA, wRC+ of 101, and an 8.2 percent walk rate in 785 career plate appearances. In 650 plate appearances as a Pirate Cervelli owns a .291/.373/.384/.757 slash line with a .337 wOBA, wRC+ of 115, and a 10.3 percent walk rate.
Ever since joining the Pittsburgh Pirates prior to the start of the 2015 season Francisco Cervelli has become one of the best offensive catchers in baseball. He was another position player whose career hitting coach Jeff Branson and the Pirates were able to rebuild. And now, he has had another trio of players join him on that list this season.
On the eve of Spring Training the Pittsburgh Pirates signed veteran outfielder Matt Joyce to a Minor League contract. Joyce was coming off an abysmal 2015 campaign with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in which he posted career lows in batting average (.174), on base percentage (.272), slugging percentage (.291), wOBA (.255), and wRC+ (62). Furthermore, Joyce hit just five home runs marking the first time in his career, outside of 2009 when he only played in 11 games, that he hit single digit home runs.
Well, Joyce showed up to Spring Training, bought into the Pittsburgh Pirates offensive philosophy, began to work with Jeff Branson, and the results of been outstanding. So far this season Joyce is slashing .372/.500/.767/1.267 in 54 plate appearance. Currently Joyce has a career high wOBA of .525, as well as a career high wRC+ of 234. Also, Joyce has already tied last year’s output by hitting his fifth home run of the season last night.
Obviously it is unrealistic to expect Joyce to continue to hit .372 and to get on base at a 500 clip. However, there is no reason to expect some major drop off in his production either. Matt Joyce is proving to be a great signing by Neal Huntington, as well as being one of the latest Pittsburgh Pirates position player reclamation projection successes.
Another Spring Training addition to the roster that is having a bounce-back season with the Pittsburgh Pirates is third baseman/first baseman David Freese. The former National League All-Star and World Series MVP fell on hard times last season, like Matt Joyce, with the Angels. However, Freese has bounced back so far in 2016.
With the Angels in 2015 Freese struggled mightily. Last season Freese hit a career low .257, his 6.6 percent walk rate was his lowest since appearing in just 17 games as a rookie in 2009, his .323 on base percentage was the second lowest of his Major League career, and his wOBA sunk to .325. This season however, Freese has been much better.
Through his first 138 plate appearance Freese has seen his batting average jump to .279, his walk rate has risen to 8.8 percent, his on base percentage of .362 is the second highest of his career, and his wOBA has risen ten points to .335. Even though Freese is no longer the everyday third baseman now that Jung Ho Kang has returned from injury, he will still see plenty of playing time. Freese will start at first base against left-handed pitching, and will still get starts at third base to spell Kang as the Pirates ease him back into things.
Speaking of left-handed pitching, David Freese was absolute annihilated it this season. David Freese has a .353/.389/.647/1.036 slash line this season against left-handed pitching. This is why he will play first base against left-handed pitching. David Freese, like Matt Joyce, is proving to be a great Spring Training addition by Neal Huntington and is turning into another position player reclamation project success for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
One other hitter that has to be mentioned in this is super utility man Sean Rodriguez. Now, Rodriguez’s case is a little different since this is his second season as a Pirate working with Jeff Branson. However, the 2016 Sean Rodriguez has been a much different player than the 2015 Sean Rodriguez was.
Prior to this season, Sean Rodriguez’s career highs were as follows a .251 batting average, .323 on base percentage, a .443 slugging percentage, a .716 OPS, a .313 wOBA, and a wRC+ of 99. Each and every one of those numbers are below league average numbers in those categories. This season though, Rodriguez has been on a totally different level.
In 60 plate appearance Sean Rodriguez is slashing .314/.407/.627/.1.034 with a .438 wOBA, 177 wRC+, and an 11.7 percent walk rate. All of those are career highs. Furthermore, Rodriguez has already walked seven times this year after walking just five times all last season and his four home runs tie his season total from a year ago.
In the offseason Sean Rodriguez worked to refine his craft at the plate. He wanted to become a more patient, selective hitter. So far all of his hard work has paid off in a big, big way.
Rodriguez has also made huge strides defensively this season. Rodriguez had always been a strong defender in the outfield and at first base, but shortstop was never kind to him. The last five season Rodriguez had a -214.2 (!!!!) UZR/150 at shortstop, to go along with -2 defensive runs saved. This season though Rodriguez has a 6.9 UZR/150 and 1 defensive run saved at shortstop.
Next: Pirates 8, Braves 5: Stars And Stiffs
This article may in some ways sound like nothing but praise and a ringing endorsement for Pirate hitting coach Jeff Branson. However, it is more than that. Yes Jeff Branson deserves a lot of credit for the great work he has done with these players, but the Pirate organization as a whole deserves credit for identifying and acquiring them. The players deserve credit for buying in, too.
Even though the Pittsburgh Pirates have always been known as a franchise that can ‘fix’ reclamation project pitchers, they are proving to be more than that. The Pirates are proving that they can do the same for position players as well.