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On the Value of 1B Defense

Should #11 be "Does He Have Dreads?" Photo by Will Vragovic/St. Pete Times

Should #11 be “Does He Have Dreads?”
Photo by Will Vragovic/St. Pete Times

I understand the situation. Pedro Alvarez sucked defensively and it’s somehow one of the main takeaways from the 98 wins in 2015 for Pirates’ fans minds. When it came to evaluating potential replacements for El Toro, it ended up being the first question asked.  Here is a rough twitter conversation I’ve seen every single day for the past two months.

Bill Yinzer

I think the Pirates should get XXXXXX to play first base.
Stosh from Blawnox

@#1PiratesFan But can he play defense?
Bill Yinzer

@BlackAndGold4Ever Anybodies better than Alvarez LOL <insert eggplant emoji>

Enter John Jaso. I knew this conversation was coming following his signing as he’s played two games at the not-so-hot corner.  That doesn’t mean I didn’t throw up a little bit in my mouth when I actually saw it. With all due respect, people are entitled to their opinions and their concerns. However, I feel like there are ten questions I’m asking about before we get to defense.

1. Can he slot into the lineup in the 3-5 range?

First base is all about offense and this is where they ought to be hitting. In truth, no one should have batted an eyelash about Pedro’s defensive misgivings if he were a solid, middle of the lineup hitter. The fact that he was a below average hitter at the position made him more a liability at the position than his ability to field it.

Jaso owns a solid bat but I don’t see him as a three or a four. To me, he’s a possibility at the five once Jung-ho Kang is healthy. He might also work in the two if the Pirates decide to put Marte in the clean up spot and tell him to let ‘er rip.

2. What did he OPS?

For me, I want to see someone in the .800’s at a minimum at first. It’s the reason why I was ok moving on from Pedro and it’s why I hated the idea of moving Walker there. Both couldn’t hit the way you want.

Jaso OPS’ed over .800 last season. While his bat played extremely well behind the plate, he’s in the slightly below average range at first base range from both sides of the plate in general. It will play, but it may not play enough.

3. Does he have a 50 or better hit tool?

Power is important at first but the longer my baseball fandom gets, the more I realize that power without at least an average Hit Tool doesn’t do you much good. I’ve seen too many busts or guys who fail to live up to their potential with big bats and nothing else. There are obvious exceptions, but AA is littered with guys who hit 25-30 HRs at the level but never got much higher.

Jaso is the professional hitter Neal Huntington said he was attempting acquire to play first base. He will put a ton of balls in play. He’s a line drive hitter over his career and makes solid contact far more often than not.

4. How much does he cost?

While people don’t like the Pirates budget conscious philosophy this time of year, the Pirates will need to find value in their acquisitions and extensions. At $8M over two years, Jaso could be an extreme value. Consider that the Pirates gave similar contracts to Rob Barajas and Clint Barmes just a few years back. It’s likely that Jaso could have had more average annual salary over a single season but elected for two years and more guaranteed money.

5. Does he hit for power?

While I think power without contact skills leads to trouble, you’ve gotta hit with at least average pop to succeed at the position. Jaso only has a career ISO in the .140s, but he’s managed over .165 the last two years. He doesn’t have a ton of home run potential, but PNC Park could be a perfect fit for half his games.  All but five of his career home runs were pulled while 60% of his doubles and triples have gone the other way. The short porch in right and the ample grass in left could allow those relatively weak career power numbers to play up.

6. Does he hit lefties and righties? If only one, does he at least hit his opposite very well?

In general, I prefer a player who can hit both righties and lefties, but if you can get a guy who really crushes his opposite handed pitchers, I can live with it. Jaso is a pretty strictly the left handed half of a platoon. His career OPS vs. RHP is .797 while he hits LHP at only a .542 clip. Since 2012, he has the 18th-best OPS (min 1000 PA) as a left handed hitter against right handed pitching.  If OPS isn’t fancy enough for you, his wRC+ splits are 127 and 64, respectively. Jaso’s not an everyday player, but at his price tag, getting a very good bat against north paws works.

7. Does he generate runs?

Say what you will about Pedro, but he produced runs. Only one other player with fewer than 500 PAs, Mark Texiera, had more RBI than Alvarez.

Jaso’s seems lacking in this department with his 22 RBI in 216 PAs last season. In fact, he made the most of only a few opportunities.  On our tRBI scale, Alvarez ranked second on the Bucs with 1.156 (15.6% above average) while Jaso came in just behind him at 1.133. If those numbers hold with more opportunities, Jaso could come close to replacing Alvarez’s lost RBI.

8. Does he walk?

As I’ve noted above, I like the hit and power tools at first base. On-base skills are a bonus. Jaso draws walks as well as just about anyone. Since 2012, his 12.8 walk rate ranks 16th among all of baseball (min 1000 PA). In truth, Jaso’s ability to draw walks at a higher than average rate might be his greatest selling point.

9. What was his fWAR?

WAR is weird for first basemen and for me, it’s best used to compare players across positions and periods. Because it’s so hit heavy for first basemen anyway, you might as well just look at what they’re doing in other statistical packages.

10. Does he play defense?

Finally, here it is! Defense is probably the third most important tool at first, but it falls so far behind hit and power that comes after all of the above deliberation. Jaso will be another brand spanking new defender at the position, but as his defense behind the plate has fallen off, it’s likely convert-or-die for his career. Other catchers have made the switch quite well, like Mike Napoli and Buster Posey to provide some recent players to compare.

There are no guarantees, but it’s highly unlikely that he will provide a repeat of Pedro’s defensive debacle. Even if he stinks the place up with the glove, it won’t matter if he’s hitting just like it wouldn’t have mattered if Alvarez had. Runs and hitting will cure what ails on the defensive side of things.

About Steve DiMiceli (139 Articles)
Steve is a naturalized yinzer hailing originally from just north of Allentown, PA. He came to Pittsburgh to attend Duquesne University and decided to stick around after graduation. Steve is best known for his contributions to Duquesne hoops community as the owner of the Duquesne Dukes forum on Yuku and as the former editor of We Wear the Ring on the Fansided network. He is an avid Pirates fan, home cook and policy nerd. He is the co-founder of the Point of Pittsburgh. Easily irritated by people who misuse the word regress.

3 Comments on On the Value of 1B Defense

  1. I like the way you think.

  2. eh.. no?

    Rod and Clint gotten similar contracts but they where established at a position. And well Rod didn’t work out all that well.

    John has a history of concussion problems and hasn’t played more than 100 games in years and when he has it was only a handful more. John has a total of 5 innings played at first base in the MLB and a few more in the minors. He also has less than 50 innings in the outfield and that right field wall catches even some seasoned vets by surprise.

    Yes his bat is decent, at or above league average, with low power and decent OBP and certainly should be at least as good as pedro at the plate… but the price is way too high. I think i’ll like Jaso in the club house seems like a good fit for the team but about half of what they’re paying plus incentives for games played or at bats or something okay I can get behind. But this is a huge risk and could turn out pretty bad. Especially when we got so many others (Morse, Rogers, Gobbert and later Bell) who will probably do just about as well if not better at no additional cost.

    If they wanted a cheap first basemen with concussion issues they probably could’ve gotten Justin Morneau for not much more.

    most anyone defensively at first will be an upgrade over Pedro, but that shouldn’t be our standard. Pay me league minimum and i’ll go out there and flop around like a fish out of water and probably cost less runs than Pedro still doesn’t mean I’m an upgrade.

    • whoops Jaso should be at least as good as pedro at first, not the plate, but still should get on base at a better rate.

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