John Jaso: A Solid Bench Player

Mar 5, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA;Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso (28) works out prior to their game against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 5, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA;Pittsburgh Pirates first baseman John Jaso (28) works out prior to their game against the New York Yankees at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

The Pittsburgh Pirates have three players with a guaranteed salary slotted on the bench for 2017, David Freese, John Jaso, and Chris Stewart.  John Jaso is trying to become more of a utility player this Spring, and if his outfield defense can be even just par with a Matt Joyce a year ago, Jaso will be a nice plus.

Last offseason the Pirates signed John Jaso to a two-year contract worth $8 million, getting $4 million each year.  He was always going to be the stopgap until Josh Bell arrived in the big leagues, and that did occur last year, just not at the pace we all thought.  Bell struggled with his glove – both in the minors and with the Pirates – but Jaso also struggled with the bat.

Jaso got off to a hot start in April and May, posting a .369 on-base percentage, a .441 slugging percentage, and a 121 wRC+.  But he was not hitting the ball very hard, just 86.4 miles per hour, and the ball was not being elevated, as Jaso had a launch angle of 5.3 degrees.  His average on balls in play was .338, which with his high groundball rate, 60.4 percent, and weak contact, it was a very unsustainable pace.

June and July came around, and Jaso’s previous unsustainable two months finally caught up to him.  In his 148 plate appearances, Jaso’s on-base percentage was just .291, his slugging percentage was just .275, and he was 40 percent below league average (60 wRC+).  He was hitting the ball with even less contact, 84.9 miles per hour, but he was getting more lift, a launch angle of 9.2 degrees.  He was lucky in the first two months, but over the middle two months he was rather unlucky, posting a .250 BAbip.

This caused the ‘Free Josh Bell’ movement to come, and it happened, although Bell only played four games in July, and he did not make his first start with the Pirates until August 21.  August is when Jaso started to turn things around, as he became more of a bench bat instead of an everyday starter.

Jaso, as a bench bat, started to hit the ball harder – 88.9 miles per hour – and he had more loft – 14.7 degree launch angle.  Jaso posted a .413 on base and .568 slugging (165 wRC+), but he was once again, much like the first two months, lucky.  His average on balls in play was .365, and he was essentially just league average when it comes to exit velocity.

Overall on the season Jaso posted a .353 on-base percentage, .413 slugging percentage, .335 wOBA, and 111 wRC+, a fine season, despite what his middle two months looked like.  His overall BAbip smoothed out to a .314 clip, similar to the .319 clip he posted from 2013-2015.

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His defense at first base wasn’t great, -3 defensive runs saved a -2.3 UZR/150, but it does not have to be.  He’s getting reps in right field this spring, adding to his worth.  He told J. Scott Butherus of

"“It’s a little bit weird with so many of the guys gone for the WBC,” Jaso said. “But it’s been fun. First base is still my priority, but I’ve been able to get some time in right field because the guys are gone. I like having that versatility for myself. I don’t want to be anchored down to just one position.I don’t see myself breaking the lineup with the outfield we already have, but it is nice to give them another option if they need to use it.”"

With the lack of a fourth outfielder currently on the roster – Josh Harrison, Adam Frazier, Phil Gosselin, Alen Hanson can all play it – getting Jaso accustomed to another position is a sound plan.  Matt Joyce was the Pirates fourth outfielder last season, and all he did was perform, posting a .403 on-base percentage and a 137 wRC+.  But he’ll regress, being projected by Steamer to just a 106 wRC+.

Jaso does not have to be 2016 Joyce with the stick to be a quality bench bat, he just needs to be John Jaso, who has produced a 118 wRC+ in his career, making him a strong role player.  The area in which it would be nice if he was Joyce would be defensively.  Jaso only has 50.1 career innings in the outfield, posting a -1 runs saved.  So there remains questions on how well he can play it.

Last season Matt Joyce was -2 runs saved, following a season in which he was -3 runs saved.  With the new catch probabilities, we can see Joyce made 85.7 percent of one star plays (12-14), 50 percent of two star (2-4), 66.7 percent of three star (6-9), 57.1 percent of four star plays (4-7), and 0 percent of 5 star (0-12).  If Jaso can produce just those, maybe a tad improvement on two star (caught 76-90 percent of the time), he will be fine out there.

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Jaso producing at his STEAMER projection, a .346 on-base percentage, .411 slugging percentage, .330 wOBA, and a 107 wRC+, is a huge boost of the bench.  Continuing to play the defense at first base he did last season, while below average is still serviceable, and playing at a level of outfield defense similar to 2016 Matt Joyce, Jaso will prove to have strong value at $4 million.

*Numbers from fangraphs and baseball savant