Pittsburgh Pirates: Aggressive Free Agency and Positional Realignment

(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jared Wickerham/Getty Images) /

The Pittsburgh Pirates season has been over for over two weeks and the offseason is looming.  Given the trade deadline, perhaps the Pirates will look to be more aggressive in the open market.  There’s one possible aggressive route to make the Pirates playoff contenders.

On November 30, 2012 the Pittsburgh Pirates inked Russell Martin to their largest free agent contract in franchise history, signing the catcher to a two-year deal worth $17 million.  That contract remains the largest free agent signing of a player who didn’t play for them (Francisco Liriano and Ivan Nova).

The Pirates signed Martin because of his pitch framing ability, a hidden value discovered by Dan Fox and Mike Fitzgerald, the latter now working for the Arizona Diamondbacks.  About signing Martin and what Fox and Fitzgerald uncovered, Travis Sawchik wrote in Big Data Baseball,

"“We said, ‘Okay, we have to get this guy,’” Fitzgerald said.Huntington encourages subordinates to “pound the table” for players or ideas they believe in. By the second half of the 2012 season, a sanguine Fitzgerald was pounding the table for Martin. ”"

After Martin left in free agency, the Pirates went and traded for Francisco Cervelli because of his pitch framing and low cost.  The cost was mainly because of his injury concerns, and that’s something that has redeveloped over the last few seasons, primarily with Cervelli having multiple stints on the disabled list with concussion like symptoms.

Cervelli’s injuries weren’t the only recurring theme in 2018.  His defense has continued to decline, and it’s been hypothesized that Cervelli’s pitch framing has regressed partly because of these injuries.  Even if that is not the case, Cervelli, for his own good, should be moved off catcher going forward.

The internal replacement would be Elias Diaz, who posted a .340 wOBA and was worth 2.3 wins according to Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR(P) which includes pitch framing.  He did this all in 82 games.  So on the surface, Diaz would be a natural replacement at catcher for the club with Cervelli either being traded or moved to a different position (more on that later).

I’m rather bearish on Diaz as the starting catcher moving forward if Cervelli is moved off.  In looking at how the catchers played this past season, I mentioned about Diaz’s power potentially being at a career best given where his home runs landed and his scouting reports, and the power outburst might have been a little luck as well.

And if the power isn’t real, he’s going to have to be a strong defender.  Since 2014, the first year in which Diaz reached Double-A and the metrics are calculated, Diaz in aggregate has only been an above average framer and defender:

YearFraming ChancesFraming RunsFRAA_Adj

Fielding runs above average adjusted, or FRAA, has seen only one plus year coming in 2014.  Injuries limited Diaz in 2016, but he’s not been a strong receiver and presenter of the ball.  We know that framing is important, and Mitchel Lichtman looked at how much pitch framing actually is worth.  Of course, this value has always been known throughout the game, just not measured.

In Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball, he quotes Paul DePodesta, writing:

"“The difference between 1–2 and 2–1 in terms of expected outcomes is just enormous.  It’s the largest variance of expected outcomes of any one pitch. On 2–1 most average major league hitters become all-stars, yet on 1–2 they become anemic nine-hole hitters.”"

Getting that extra start has always been important, and it’s been something that’s really come into focus over the last couple years, and the Pirates were one of the first teams on the inefficiency, which is now gone.  Cervelli and Diaz haven’t been plus framers, costing the Pirates runs – of course there’s still the unmeasurables such as how they call a game – but the Pirates can capitalize on this, move Cervelli to a new position, and sign the best defensive catcher in all of baseball.

Ethan Hullihen at The Point of Pittsburgh wrote recently about the projected Pirates 2019 payroll, which he calculates to be around $77 million and notes that,

"“This final total is only about $8 million less than where the team started last year, but around $22 million less than 2017 and about $30 million less than 2016. So, the question is, where do the Pirates see themselves?”"

Given the talent they traded away for Chris Archer, along with acquiring Keone Kela, the team should view themselves as close to contending in 2019, and what I’m proposing would turn the Pirates from maybe contenders to division contenders is by issuing the biggest contract in team history to Yasmani Grandal.

The last big time catcher in the free agent market was Russell Martin, who signed a five-year deal worth $82 million following his age 31 season.  The Pirates were reluctant with both the years and the money, but the catcher has been worth 10.6 WARP over the first four years of his deal because of his framing ability, though 7.7 of the 10.6 came in his first two years.

Grandal will be entering his age 30 season next year, two years younger than Martin, and he has been a five win player over the course of the last four seasons because of both his ability to hit (.341 wOBA and 116 wRC+) and his ability to frame.  Here are the top pitch framers over the last four years:

RankPlayerFraming Runs
1Grandal, Yasmani96.1
2Flowers, Tyler78.2
3Hedges, Austin50.0
4Posey, Buster49.6
5Maldonado, Martin43.3

Grandal has not only been a good pitch framer, he’s been the best over the last four years by 17.9 runs. Cervelli ranks 18th with 22.8 framing runs since 2015, 73.3 runs less than Grandal.  Assuming 10 runs a win, that’s the difference of 7.3, or almost two wins a year just by the pitch framing.

That’s valuable just in itself.  However, Grandal’s blocking has been bad.  The catcher has 43 balls over the last four years, the most of any catcher in baseball.  Cervelli is sixth with 33.  But the run value of blocking the ball isn’t the same as getting an extra strike.  Changing the count can happen on any borderline pitch, changing the count to 1-2 instead of 2-1 happens more frequently than the runner advancing a base on a passed ball.  Baseball Prospectus calculates run values for both blocking and throwing to go with their framing metrics.  Here are Grandal’s numbers and his ranking over the last four years:

YearFraming RunsBlocking RunsThrowing RunsFRAA_Adj
201526.2 (1)-0.7 (92)-0.0 (72)24.9 (1)
201628.0 (2)0.3 (31)0.5 (22)29.2 (2)
201726.2 (4)-1.4 (96)1.3 (12)26.2 (4)
201815.7 (1)0.8 (22)0.1 (30)16.3 (1)

Even with Grandal leading the league in passed balls, his blocking has only cost his club one run.  And, overall, Grandal has saved 96.6 runs over the last four years behind the plate, the most in baseball.  Cervelli, on the other hand, has saved 11.2 runs over four years, a difference of 85.4 runs, or 8.5 wins (4.27 a year).  Grandal is that good defensively.  Add in the offensive value, and it’s certainly clear why he has been a consistent five win player and a three and a half win player over the last half decade.

Given Martin’s contract of $82 million, signed four offseasons ago, that would be worth $100 million with the assumption that contracts have grown at five percent.  Factor in he’s two years younger, and Grandal should get more, estimating somewhere between $100-$120 million over five years, with an annual average somewhere between $20 and $24 million (but also maybe his postseason woes lessen it a bit, as he did get benched by the Dodgers for game four of the NLCS).  The Pirates have never done that, and Andrew McCutchen’s contract only topped out at $14.75 million.

But remember, they didn’t sign any free agents last offseason and got $50 million from Baseball Advanced Media last offseason, some of which likely went to the Vazquez extension and in infrastructure, but there should be more money to spend.  Like Ethan wrote, they’re $22 million less than what they were at in 2017 and $30 less than in 2016.  The Pirates have shown *some* willingness to spend, not this much, and they believe in not allocating all their payroll towards one player.  However, this player could be the key that starts the car that improves both pitching, defense, and power from this team and that could make them more of a threat in the National League.

But the team also a spot to fill at shortstop, with Mercer being a free agent and Newman not looking promising either with the hit tool or his ability to field.  Kevin Craegh of The Point of Pittsburgh suggests trading Ivan Nova (wash of money) and two prospects for Nick Ahmed and Robbie Ray.  That move would acquire a pitcher with high potential and a shortstop with no change in payroll.  Add Grandal, and that leaves three spots to the 25-man roster for next year:

PitchersBullpenStarting LineupBench
WilliamsBraultAhmedBackup SS

Mercer could likely fill a backup shortstop role for cheap, and bullpen arms come and go, with cheap options always available.  The back four is solid, so a flyer here or there wouldn’t be the end of the world.  But notice where Cervelli is in that roster, he’s at third base, which is where the aggressive positional swap comes from.

Using the WARP framework, the formula is (BRAA+BRR+FRAA*+POS_ADJ+REP_LEVEL)/RPW, each value is listed on their player card, so using Cervelli’s 3.1 WARP and other components, gets us a 9.5 runs per win (RPW).  But why third base and not say first base, with Josh Bell providing 1.3 WARP and Colin Moran 2.1 WARP, making Bell below average and Moran average?

Using the batting runs (BRAA) and base running runs (BRR), with the fielding runs (FRAA) being either what Moran (third base) or Bell (first base) provided (along with if Cervelli was average at both), Cervelli would have provided these win values (note that the * means the value was taken either from Moran or Bell’s player card):

Moran’s Defense 3BAverage Defense 3BBell’s Defense 1BAverage Defense 1B

Cervelli would be worth more at third base and would have been worth around three wins if he cost the team three runs defensively or was average at the hot corner.  That’s already a plus, but there’s more to the story and the question becomes Moran or Bell at first?

Using the same as above, let’s plug-in Moran’s batting and base running values with Bell’s defense, positional adjustment, and replacement level:

Bell’s Defense 1BAverage Defense 1B

Moran would be worth south of a win Bell’s defense and about the same as Bell was (1.3 WARP) with average defense.  What this leaves is nine combinations of catcher-first-third with Grandal always at catcher.  However, to narrow this down more easily, let’s assume that Cervelli and Moran have a 70 percent chance of being the poor defender (i.e. Cervelli is Moran at third and Cervelli and Moran are Bell at first) and a 30 percent chance of them being an average defender.  This presumes neither will be plus, which makes sense given that neither has played the position before. This leaves us with the following components:

 Cervelli 3BCervelli 1BMoran 1B

This leaves us with Cervelli as a three win player at third and a two win player at first with Moran worth one win at first, similar to Bell.  Plugging in Grandal as the catcher, which is always in this instance and his 5.6 WARP, the following four scenarios are:


To maximize value, at least in 2018, Grandal/Bell/Cervelli would produce the max with Grandal/Bell/Moran producing the worst.  But remember, Cervelli only played 101 games so a healthy season at third, he could produce more value offensively, but could also certainly produce less value offensively and defensively.

Of course Grandal is going to cost money, estimated earlier at $20-$24 million in annual value based on Martin’s contract four years ago.  There’s no guarantee he’ll get that based on last year’s free agent market, but he’s been a consistent five win player for four years now.  He’s the type of player that I would pound the table for in Neal Huntington’s office like Fitzgerald did with Martin back in 2012, and in fact consider this a plea to the Pirates for that.

There are some other caveats that should be included here.  First being the cost uncertainty of the Pirates in the future, with such a young roster that is pre-arbitration, the 2020 through 2022 seasons could get rather expensive, so an aging catcher taking a huge percent of the payroll might not be valuable then.  But wins in the future and roster concerns down the road have to be discounted at some rate, though again, a long-term investment in a catcher might not be worth that price to a budget conscious team.

Furthermore, Grandal has seen second half struggles after a solid first half over the last four years.  His wRC+ by half are as followed:

YearFirst Half wRC+Second Half wRC+

No year was as dramatic of a drop as 2015, but he still slid last year, in which he posted a .292 OBP in the second half after a fist half of .319.  He wasn’t hitting the ball (.217 average) and wasn’t getting on-base, but when he did get a hit, it was usually for an extra base hit (.228 ISO).  Given the streaks that Dickerson, Marte, Polanco, and Bell have shown and the inconsistencies, maybe a more consistent hitter would be a better use of resources.

Or perhaps splitting the money and allocating that elsewhere on the roster would make more sense, however, because of roster and lineup constraints, I’d argue that wins aren’t linear despite how teams have acted on the market.  And again, the Pirates have never spent this money before, so why change?

Next. Arizona Fall League Update. dark

Perhaps the trade for both Archer and Kela represented a changing of the guard, and instead of trying to push this car across the finish line to the playoffs, get a key to ignite the engine and make it drive towards that finish line.  That’s what Grandal can do given his ability to frame and hit.  Yes he has questions blocking the ball, yes the Pirates haven’t shown the willingness to do it, and yes Cervelli moving to third would be a bold decision.

The message in Moneyball and Big Data Baseball weren’t about on-base percentage and pitch framing, the message was about thinking outside the box.  Being aggressive and signing Grandal and being aggressive with positional realignment is thinking outside the box, as a catcher might not be a position of need based on 2018’s performance, but it could improve the club by making these two aggressive moves and help contend for the division.  In today’s game, it’s about making smart decisions, but it’s okay to be bold and get out of your comfort zone, and signing Yasmani Grandal would do that.

*Numbers from FanGraphs and Baseball Prospectus