2018 Pittsburgh Pirates Rewind: The Infield
The World Series is over and the MLB offseason can get underway shortly, with the Pirates needing to upgrade at certain spots in the infield, which had a poor 2018 and the internal options don’t look too promising.
The 2018 Pirates finished 82-79, often times looking like an average team and being one of the more streakier teams in the league. They were strong at catcher, though there should still be some concerns heading into 2019 with Cervelli’s health. The other players in the infield were not nearly as strong and were a clear weakness of the team.
Using data visualizations, you can compare the batted ball profiles of the batters, but there’s more to it than just how hard and where you hit the ball. What did the results show? And for the Pirates, it wasn’t great. Using Baseball Prospectus’s team splits, the Pirates infielders in 2018 hit .255/.324/.394 and were worth 6.85 wins (WARP) while providing 17.2 runs below average (FRAA). They ranked 16th, 14th, 23rd, 21st, and 27th in those categories respectively.
The infield produced no power, didn’t provide much value, and were awful defensively. Their contributors broken down by true average (linear weight measurement of offense and average set at .260), FRAA, and WARP are as followed:
Adam Frazier was the Pirates most productive infielder this past season, as he was worth around 2.5 wins, which partly represents the current problem. 2.5 wins is an average starter and so the Pirates most productive infielder was just average. Extrapolated over 600 plate appearances, and Frazier would have been a 4.2 win player, making him an above average player.
However, the reason he fell short of that was that he hit just .239/.323/.355 through June 22 before being sent down for a month. Part of his success this year was hitting the ball harder and more in the air:
|Year||Average EV||Average LA|
When he returned in July, the averages were 88.324 mph and 12.428°, and the adjustment was a simple lowering of his hands. Hitting the ball in the air pull side as a left-handed hitter will lead to success at PNC Park, and Frazier did that in the back half of the 2018 season. The change in batted ball profile, maybe Frazier is an average second baseman going forward, and he’ll start the year there with Josh Harrison‘s $10.5 million option all but a guarantee of being declined.
Harrison hit just .250/.293/.363 this past season, posting his worst TAv (.240) since 2013. His calling card, the glove, didn’t help matters as Harrison cost the Pirates five runs out in the field. Add this up, and Harrison was worth -0.25 wins, and was essentially a replacement level player. If there was any question if the 2017 all-star would be on the team in 2019, Harrison’s 2018 answered that, and he’ll finish his time in Pittsburgh producing two seasons north of 2.0 wins with another at 1.9. He provided a spark and was a leader, but the production wasn’t there.
Harrison’s tag team partner, Jordy Mercer, performed like Jordy Mercer. The free agent to be produced these numbers over his time as a starter:
Mercer was never a plus hitter, being below average every season, though his defense went from above average to below rather quickly, and his overall value dropped. He was a one win player, which is suitable for a backup role, a spot that the Pirates need to fill this offseason, so a return shouldn’t be out of the question. But between Mercer and Harrison, the Pirates middle infield produced 0.570 wins. The Pirates have to improve on that in 2019 to be contenders, as their starting middle infielder couldn’t hit or field this past season.
At first base, Josh Bell has still disappointed, as the former second-round pick and 55 future value produced just 1.3 wins and he was the same player as he was in 2017:
The offense has been above average each year, but given the defense and positional adjustments, Bell’s value has been as a below average starter. The offensive approach, despite producing similar value (16.1 batting runs above average in 2017 and 14.4 in 2018), came in different ways. Bell showed more power in 2017 (.334 OBP/.466 SLG/.211 ISO) but was more on-base oriented in 2018 (.357 OBP/.411 SLG/.150 ISO).
2019 Bell needs to combine those performances (.383 OBP/.440 SLG/.177 ISO in the second half) to be an average started based on the defensive ability he has shown in the past. Both skill sets are in there and perhaps the new hitting coach can help in that regard. His 2018 performance was suboptimal and the Pirates needed more from him given his upside compared to other infielders.
The other starter was Colin Moran, and he ended up being an average starter, producing a .340 on-base and not hitting into double plays. But the power output was lackluster, just a .407 slugging percentage, .130 isolated power, and 11 home runs. The swing change didn’t play, and he hit 1.53 ground balls per flyball. Given the speed, any ball hit on the ground by Moran turns into an out. When he did hit the ball in the air, Moran often times went the other way and didn’t play to PNC Park’s dimensions.
Moran wasn’t bad and nor was he good (sound like the first baseman?), and the hitting coach that helped change his swing in 2017 was hired by the St. Louis Cardinals yesterday. The Pirates need to see more power from him in 2019 (same with Bell) to see improved results.
The starting group of Bell/Harrison/Moran/Mercer produced 3.97 WARP. The unit wasn’t strong, and the backups weren’t much better outside of David Freese. Freese, once again, was solid producing 1.5 wins in 265 plate appearances for the Pirates. This was the third straight season where Freese was a 2.0 win player and in 2015 he was a rounding error off (1.9 WARP).
He was a reliable player and a capable starter for the club both offensively and defensively. For 2019 his option was only $6 million, that’s the type of player you’d welcome on your club for 2019 as an emergency. Perhaps there’s truth to Neal Huntington just wanting to give Freese a shot at a ring, perhaps it’s about being able to allocate that $6 million among other players, or perhaps the club believes in Jung Ho Kang in 2019. But Freese was reliable in 2018 and the prospect value the Pirates received in their trade is minimal, he’s a player who will be missed in 2019.
The other backups didn’t produce much and were all below average players. Kevin Newman didn’t show much promise heading into 2019, and shortstop looks to be a clear positional need. The backups and young talent not producing and the starters lacking any impact are part of the reason the Pirates ended at 82 wins and not more. The group needs to show more next season than they did this past one for the club to contend.
*Numbers from Baseball Prospectus