The Pittsburgh Pirates should call-up Cole Tucker to improve their outfield and infield defense while giving less playing time to unproductive bats.
All season long the shortstop position has been a struggle for the Pittsburgh Pirates. As a whole, entering play on Monday, Pirate shortstops had a .202/.242/.251 slash line with a .221 wOBA and 39 wRC+. They have the lowest team wRC+ at short by a 9% margin and the lowest wOBA by a .009 margin.
However, 2014 first-round pick Cole Tucker is having a solid season at Triple-A Indianapolis and is currently on a hot streak. This could be an opportunity for not just Tucker, but many other players on the team.
Kevin Newman has taken up most of the team’s plate appearances at shortstop. The only positive of Newman’s is that he’s striking out at an insanely low 6.7% rate. Other than that, he’s hitting .209/.250/.270 with a .230 wOBA, and 45 wRC+. Newman has consistently been one of the worst batters when it comes to hitting the ball hard. His 85 MPH exit velocity is in the bottom 2nd percentile while his 21.3% hard hit rate ranks next to last among qualified hitters. This doesn’t mix well with his ground ball rate which sits at 47.2%.
Though Newman deserves credit for his glove work at shortstop this year. He has +3 DRS, an +11.9 UZR/150, and only -0.9 range runs above average. Plus, he’s in the top 98th percentile in outs above average with +6. In the two years prior, he was one of baseball’s worst defensive shortstops with -10 DRS, -4.8 range runs above average (both 4th to last), -12.4 UZR/150 (last), and -10 OAA (5th to last).
Erik González hasn’t done much better with the bat. He’s only hitting .218/.248/.295 with a .239 wOBA and a wRC+ of 50. González has been a solid defender at short with -2 DRS, but +0.2 range runs above average, and a +16.1 UZR/150. However, defensive value is about all González brings. Aside from a hot streak here and there, he’s a well below average hitter. González is in the bottom 14th percentile in exit velocity and bottom 11th percentile in hard hit rate.
Tucker on the other hand has put up a solid .233/.341/.425 line through 85 trips to the plate at Indy. Tucker has always had solid plate discipline. He’s walking at a fantastic 14.1% rate while going down on strike three just 20% of the time. But he’s also hitting for more power. So far this season he has 8 extra base hits at Triple-A. This has led to a .425 slugging percentage, which would be his highest single season slugging percentage by over 10 points. His .192 isolated slugging percentage is another promising mark as it would be his best ISO by 40 points. All told, he has a pretty decent. 341 wOBA and 107 wRC+.
Not only does this solve the problem of giving Newman and González less playing time, but it improves the defense at second base. Newman is proving to be a good defender at shortstop, but that defense could be used at second base.
So far, Adam Frazier he’s been an uncharacteristically poor defender at second base. This season he has -3 DRS, -12.3 UZR/150, and -1.1 range runs above average. Outs above average have him as an above average defender at just +1, but he’s consistently been among the leaders of OAA. For comparison, Frazier ranked 6th in OAA between 2019-2020 with +21.
Moving Frazier to the outfield could help prove he’s still versatile. Frazier is in the best season of his career. He has plenty of experience in the outfield. Currently, the Pittsburgh Pirates have Ka’ai Tom, Bryan Reynolds, and Gregory Polanco lined up as their starting three outfielders.
However, Frazier’s time in the outfield has decreased more and more over his career. Only 11.8% of his career innings in the grass have come in the last 3 seasons. Throughout his career, he’s been a solid defender in the outfield. He has +7 DRS, a 1.5 UZR/150, and +2.9 range runs above average. If Frazier can prove he can make the move to the outfield while keeping up the fantastic hitting numbers he’s had all season, his trade value may bump up a decent bit.
Plus, the outfield defense needs a much needed boost. This season Pirate outfielders have -33 DRS, which is the 5th lowest mark in the league. They’re also last in range runs above average with -25.3 as well as being last in UZR/150 by a large margin. Their -6.8 mark out does the Detroit Tigers by 2.2.
The bar isn’t too high for Tucker in the Majors. Even if he puts up a 60 wRC+, making him 40% worse than league average, he’ll still be about 20% better than Newman and 10% better than González. But the Pittsburgh Pirates have been killed more than once by their defense this year.