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Who can help Edinson Volquez. Is Mercer the utility guy? (5:50 p.m. update: Loney signs with Rays)

SOUTH HILLS – Yes, Ray Searage and the other Pirates’ pitching coaches no doubt played a role in the resurrections of pitchers like AJ Burnett and Francisco Liriano. Commission a statue. Yes, the Pirates’ aggressive shifting and groundball plans were critical in their turnarounds and a 94-win season. But there might be a more important player involved if the Pirates are going to enjoy a similar turnaround in Edinson Volquez. The most important man to guide a Volquez 180-degree pivot is perhaps catcher Russell Martin, and his new backup Chris Stewart. They both ranked as two of the top six pitch-framers in baseball in 2013.

 

The Pirates are big believers in pitch-framing. After all, they gave Martin the biggest free agent contract in club history.   Volquez’s most glaring issue is his ability to throw strikes and work ahead in counts, which would make his changeup a lethal pitch – like Liriano’s slider and change became last season.

 

There’s a dramatic difference in offensive performance between 2-1 and 1-2 counts. It’s something like .200 points in batting average.   Martin no doubt helped Burnett and Liriano, and the Pirates’ staff in 2013.

 

Here’s some random, easy-to-digest statistical evidence:

 

Burnett‘s K-rate in 2012:  8.01

Burnett’s K-rate in 2013: 9.85

Liriano’s walk-rate in 2012: 5.00

Liriano’s walk-rate in 2013: 3.52

Pirates’ K-rate in 2012: 7.48 per nine

Pirates’ K-rate in 2012: 7.72 per nine

 

If you think the above is just the statistical equivalent of picking low-hanging fruit just check out the heat map comparing strike calls of Pirates’ pitchers from 2008-12 compared to 2013 here

 

In short, if Martin and Stewart can create more favorable counts for Volquez, there’s reason to believe.

 

IS MERCER REALLY THE UTILITY GUY?

The Pirates agreed with Clint Barmes to a reasonable one-year, $2 million deal Thursday, ostensibly for Barmes to be the team’s middle infield utility player and a defensive complement to Jordy Mercer.   But I wonder if it is Mercer who should be the one floating around the infield as a super-sub, still gaining 600 plate appearances, but playing shortstop and spelling Pedro Alvarez and Neil Walker against left-handed pitching.

 

Against right-handed pitching, Mercer plays short … against left-handed pitching he fits at second or third as Alvarez and Walker sit versus various left-handed pitching. Alvarez and Walker have sub career 80 wRC+ numbers against left-handed pitching, and they actually declined against LHPs last season.   Barmes plays shortstop only where his defensive is an asset enough to justify the empty offensive performance.

 

I don’t think this is in Clint Hurdle‘s plan, but perhaps it should be considered.   Hey, you know I love my platoons and half-players.

 

LONEY SIGNS WITH RAYS

 

According to Ken Rosenthal the Rays have reached a three-year, $21 million deal with James Loney. Someone check on Tim Williams.   I like Loney, OK. But I’m not sure a glove-first, contact-first, 30-or-older first baseman deserves a three-year deal. Pirates would have had to beat at least the AAV of that deal, I’d assume.   First base FA market is really thinning for the Pirates. The options remaining are Eric Chavez, Kendry Morales (can he even play 1b?) and Lance Berkman. The good news is the trade market appears to hold have a decent number of options. Andrew Lambo is the only internal option and it’s growing more likely that option might be employed.

- TS

Comments

  1. NMR says:

    You and Rob did a great job at the meetings, Travis. Thanks.

    -Russ Martin certainly won’t hurt Volquez’ chance of harnessing strikes, but one only has to look at Jeff Locke last year to know there is a clear limit to the effectiveness of pitch framing. Jeff Locke wasn’t missing by feet last year, he was missing by inches. Yet even one of the best framers in the game couldn’t keep his walk rate under 5 per 9.

    -I couldn’t agree more on your Mercer assessment, but I would take it further. Clint Barmes should be starting shortstop against tough righthanders as well. Just as you point out Pedro and Walker have been sub-80 wRC+ against lefties, Mercer posted a 78 wRC+ against righties last year. If he can’t produce offensively, there is absolutely no reason for him to be on the field. ESPECIALLY for a team built on defense and pitching.

  2. Nate83 says:

    The saddest sentence ever typed on this blog is “After all, they gave Martin the biggest free agent contract in club history.” That really puts into perspective how unsurprised anybody should be about the lack of a big splash signing this year. We barely made a ripple in the water with a small pebble by signing Martin.

    Interesting point brought up about Martin. Maybe he deserves more credit then Searage. I’m sure it’s a combination of everything. I’m also sure Martin is passing as much of this information as possible onto Sanchez. Some of the skill is natural but I have to imagine some can be learned. It’s part of the reason I’m a little disappointed Sanchez won’t be up this year unless there is an injury or Stewart is that bad offensively.

  3. Nate83 says:

    I would like to echo NMR’s comment about the job you men did at the winter meetings. Great information.

    I also agree with both his and your assessment of how Mercer should be used. I’m a much bigger supporter of Barmes then most. I probably value defense more then most and also recognize how tough it is to be batting 8th in the order on an NL team. Don’t get me wrong he is bad offensively but his numbers would be slightly better if batting 2nd or 7th in the order.

  4. Fred says:

    I think the claim that Russell Martin is a hall-of-fame pitch framer is a myth. Rather than influencing calls, often he will catch decent pitches so casually as to ensure the ump calls them balls. I just don’t see where this claim comes from – other than the Pirates front office.

    I have no problem with Russell as the Pirate’s catcher – I just don’t get the pitch framing claim.

    And why don’t the pitchers themselves get some credit when the stats improve?

    I do give Russell Martin credit for calling more change-ups – this, I think, is the factor that had the most positive effect on the Pirates’ pitching performances.

  5. Steelkings says:

    I also would like to congratulate the beat boys on a job well done. This place is a fun hang out even though yins mostly dont agree with my jib. Thanks for your ambition.

    I think not enough credit is given to the art of Pitch framing. Heres an article on Stewart’s Framing ability.
    http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=20624

    I think it is also wise to consider martins ability to control the running game as well. Pitchers dont have to work nearly as hard with runners on.

  6. Andrew says:

    I think we are reading too much into a single season’s platoon splits if we have gone from Mercer is playing second versus LHP for Walker to Barmes is starting at short versus RHP, which means Barmes is the starting shortstop.

    I am not sold on Mercer ability but we are forgetting how bad of a hitter Barmes has been, over the last three years he has a wOBA .275, OPS, .624 OPS, 3rd worst of 226 qualified hitters. (It is worse if you just look at his Pirate years.)

    Last three years Barmes has hit RHP wOBA .243, (656 PAs), Mercer wOBA .285 (332 PAs), neither is anywhere near good, however that gap of .042 wOBA is worth 13 runs over 400 PAs. I think it is far from certain that Mercer defense would be 13 runs worse.

    Barmes has value especially with lower K, groundball pitchers but let us not forget he is an out over 75% of the time.

  7. NMR says:

    “I think it is far from certain that Mercer defense would be 13 runs worse.”

    Well, good thing there is data to help us figure that out, right?

    I’m not sure which flavor you choose, but Clint posted +12 DRS in about 800 innings while Jordy came in at -2 over about 600. And I don’t think anybody here is going to suggest more innings from Mercer would help that figure.

  8. Andrew says:

    I do not really have side here, I am not sold on Mercer’s ability, mainly playing devil’s advocate I’ll admit it is quite possible that Mercer is that much worse defensively. However I put very little faith in the precision of defensive numbers, there is so much noise I do think we can say with much certainty the magnitude of the gap between Barmes and Mercer.

    Over last two year Mercer had been worth the same to Pirates as Barmes in 1/2 the playing time. Sorry, for the appeal to authority but if the Pirates allowed Barmes to look for starting opportunities and he found none, I think this says something about his value as a starter.

  9. Steelkings says:

    Travis: On the remaining options at first base

    1. Eric Chavez……HA!
    2. Kendry Morales…Ha ha ha ha!
    3. Lance Berkman …Pirates or Retirement?
    4. Adam Lambo…..Thats about right!

    Pirates sign : Hans Hoogervorst to a 1 year contract.

  10. Steelkings says:

    The Twins Signed Morneau to a 2 year 12 million dollar deal. 6 mil a year.

    Morrison was traded for next to nothing to someone else. The Pirates did’nt upgrade anything. NAME ONE AREA THAT GOT BETTER. JUST ONE.

  11. Steelkings says:

    Oh wait…Ownership is going to make a (expletive) ton of money…I forgot

  12. Andrew says:

    Charlie Morton and Gerrit Cole for a full season of starts.

  13. Ghost says:

    I use that s-word enough myself in casual conversation, but for some fuddy duddy reason I’m still not happy to see in print here. Not sure what that says about me…

  14. Ghost says:

    Me likey. Yet another twist on this topic I’d throw out is what many of us said last season — have Walker give up the switch-hitting schtick and learn to face lefties as a lefty. Probably wouldn’t do worse than what he’s been doing as a righty.

  15. AZBucsFan says:

    Someone in the FO please pull the trigger on a trade for Ike Davis. He won’t be 27 until the start of the season, is a decent-to-good power threat, gets on base at a good clip, and bats left-handed. He is an excellent bounce back candidate after a lost season with the craptastic Mets, and I believe a change of scenery would do him good. Get him out of the glaring spotlight that is New York City and onto a team that would better utilize his strengths.

  16. Leefoo says:

    Steelkings…you and me are together on #4. He just needed to mature and now he is a basher, imho.

  17. Leefoo says:

    Ghost…I don’t use it anywhere and I don’t want to sound curmdgeonly, but I’d rather not see it here.

    It is probably the ONLY thing I hate about Bucs Dugout.

  18. Leefoo says:

    Yes and could ANY firstbaseman we get, outside of Inge and his ilk HAS to be an improvement on GI Jones AND batting Gaby too many times vs LHP.

    Besides, I hear John Bowker can be bought out of his Japanese contract. :) :)

  19. Leefoo says:

    And I am DEFINITELY not in AJ’s corner. However, since Volquez seems to pitch well for 3-5 inn, a la Jeanmar, perhaps he should be our long man? ESPECIALLY if AJ comes back (and I ain’t giving up on Locke).

  20. Maybe he and Jeanmar can split a game every 5 days.

  21. Leefoo says:

    The trick is knowing WHEN to pull these guys. lol

    Btw, good ‘talking’ to you again. :)

    Foo

  22. Leefoo says:

    That should read “DEFINITELY not in Volquez’ corner”

    I am IN AJ’s corner!!!!

  23. Steelkings says:

    Yeah my bad. I actually expected it to come up as asterisks like it does at my other blog. and there is no edit feature or delete feature. Wont happen again.

  24. You, too. Us near Midland and Midland guys need to stick together.

  25. Thundercrack says:

    I also brought up the idea last season that Mercer could be the utility guy. And he should take some fly balls in the outfield.

    K. Morales isn’t going to be our first baseman. The Pirates are not giving up a 1st round draft pick.

  26. Leefoo says:

    I still like Mercer as our regular SS. Barmes is perfect as a late inning defender.

    The less ABs Clint gets, the better, even IF he has an PA clause in his contract.

    Agree on giving up that draft pick. Ain’t happening.

  27. Travis Sawchik says:

    Sorry, Steelkings had to edit your comment. It’s a family program here.

  28. Travis Sawchik says:

    It is a combination of everything but I think Martin can help pitchers like Liriano and Volquez relatively more … while shifts help a Charlie Morton more than a lesser grounderball pitcher. It’s a collective effort, no doubt

  29. Travis Sawchik says:

    My understanding is the Pirates have called on Davis (and Moreland and Lind)

  30. Travis Sawchik says:

    It’s also possible that Mercer improves against right-handed pitching in 2014, and doesn’t bat .410 against lefties every year, making him more neutral option. I’ll be curious to see how splits evolve with more playing time.

    I like Mercer but I like him more in a super utility role, allowing him to bounce around and help ease some of the infield weaknesses against LHP. I still think the Pirates might need a long-term answer at short and a lot of scouts aren’t convinced Alen Hanson sticks at short.

    As for Barmes, the front office does not want 500+ plus at bats from him but they’ll be creative in how they squeeze some value out of him. I don’t think Barmes is an ideal utility fit because his bat really doesn’t play anywhere. The only way to maximize his value is to stick him at short.

  31. cmat0829 says:

    thank GOD we won’t sign the aging, defensive liability Morales and forfeit a valuable draft pick. I’m not enamored with him but I think Ike Davis can be had for a bullpen right hander (perhaps Bryan Morris)?

  32. Leefoo says:

    Who KNOWS what these teams want for Davis, Smoak, Carp.

    As long as we don’t overpay, I am fine with any of them. However, if these teams want too much, let’s go with Lambo.

    After hearing the price for Lind, I have a feeling these teams may be trying to snooker us. NH don’t get snookered, imho. (at least not that often)

  33. Steelkings says:

    Im glad you did, Travis. It wont happen again.

  34. NorthPirateFan says:

    If in trading for Morrison the idea was to have him replace Smoak at first then all I can say is the Mariners front office is less competent than I ever imagined and let me tell you after hearing they signed McClendon to be the manager I imagined them to be pretty darn incompetent.

    In looking at some of their recent moves they look like a team that could be easily snookered in any potential deal for Smoak.

  35. NorthPirateFan says:

    Please tell us they’ve also called on Smoak.

  36. Steelkings says:

    According to Chris Cotillo of MLB Daily Dish, the Orioles are waiting on a response from A.J. Burnett before they pursue other free agent starting pitchers.
    Burnett is very clearly their top target, but the veteran right-hander is taking his sweet time in determining whether or not he wants to pitch this season. Even if he does decide to return, he would be best served remaining in the National League instead of returning to the hard-hitting American League East.

  37. William says:

    Eric Chavez should be signed to replace Josh Harrison on the bench. Even at 36 years old, Chavez who hit .281 with 9 home runs would be an offensive upgrade over Harrison.

    He could play first, third, and maybe learn to play some second.

  38. Mr Ed says:

    No one is talking about Billy Butler of the Royals. The Royals are rumored to be listening to offers. Do you hear that NH? Butler turns 28 in April, is a proven commodity. Consistent power and r.b.i. Guy, low strikeout rate, good contact hitter. worth looking onto, to solidify first base’m

  39. Mr Ed says:

    Agreed,.I don’t see AJ going to the Orioles. He did much better getting out of the hitter friendly A.L. East

  40. Scott S says:

    Like everyone else, he would be out of their comfort zone. They are more interested in making money than improving the team, so obvious.

  41. The Gunner says:

    I would be OK with Ike Davis for Bryan Morris. Davis might get rejuvenated leaving the pressure cooker in NY & coming to the Bucs. Look what it did for AJ.

  42. Donald says:

    Actually, after looking at the numbers, why not just sign Eric Chavez to platoon with Gaby?

    Gaby in 2013 vs lefties: 102 ABs, .333 average, 9 doubles, 4 homers
    Chavez in 2013 vs righties: 197 ABs, .279 average, 13 doubles, 9 homers

    While obviously not an exact science, a whole season at those rates would be roughly 44 doubles, 26 homers. And only 4 Pirates with 100 or more at bats hit over .255 last year.

    Chavez can’t play everyday or he is a risk to break some part of his body, but a platoon would be great. And he only made $3Million last season, which will be music to the Pirate management’s ears.

  43. Big AL says:

    As mad as we get sometimes with the pirates give them time & i am sure they will have a new 1st baseman by spring. They want to WIN as bad as we want them too

  44. tedwins says:

    Seems to my little mind that we are far from being done. Management is being patient and a trade is on the horizon. Keep thinking what will be the ‘official particulars’ of that potential trade but it sure is fun trying to figure out what makes sense for us and what we give in return :)

  45. Leefoo says:

    Tedwins…that’s why it boggles my mind that people are getting all flustered. We still have two months to go. All kinds of stuff can happen between now and then.

  46. NorthPirateFan says:

    Why are you sure they’ll do that? In each of the past three off season the Pirates have gone is with essentially the same needs on offense that they have this season and in each of them they’ve come out with those needs not having been addressed. In 2011, 2012 and 2013 the team found themselves contending at mid season and desperately trying to fill the gaps that were never addressed in the off season, two of those three season they failed to do so adequately and last season they struck gold.

    I’ll give Neal Huntington all the credit he deserves for the things he does well, which are many, but the truth is his record when it comes to addressing the needs of the offense especially with regards to the offense is very poor.

    His biggest problem seems to be playing out this season just as it did in those past seasons; his timidness in identifying and pursuing specific players who address specific needs and watching as players get snapped up until he’s left with the choice of over paying for lesser talent or making no move at all and leaving the team short handed when the season starts.

    The most troubling aspect of his ineffectiveness is that the Pirates needs, a first baseman who walks and has power is generally considered one of the easier things to find and acquire. There is no shortage of guys in blocked in AAA in the majors who could probably step right in and represent a significant upgrade at first for the Pirates but their obsession with defense at a position where defense is the least important concern seems to have left them paralyzed to make even that sort of move.

  47. NorthPirateFan says:

    Being a Pirate fans is not unlike being character in the movie Groundhog Day … every season we hear news of the trade on the horizon that is going to fix the hole at first base, names get bandied about and the trade(s) never happens.

    I hope they do make a trade and it does put this problem to rest for a couple seasons but based on their recent track record I’m not holding my breath.

    It’s been many, many seasons since the Pittsburgh Pirates have had an adequate first baseman and I see no reason with the way Neal Huntington has conducted himself this off season to believe that’s going to change anytime soon.

  48. tedwins says:

    @ Foo, very nice to hear from you:). Yes, my optimisim in supporting the FO remains, as always and perhaps blindly :). Funny that this year I haven’t visualised the trade partner yet but my thought is once abit more time goes by the FO will have a clearer picture of what works for this year as well as the ongoing plan of sustainable success. Hope runs eternal. ..

  49. tedwins says:

    Yes NPF we certainly haven’t had a serviceable first baseman, except from Jones flashes, in some time. We all hope for an upgrade for sure. I’m actually thinking that the trade we make, if it happens as what do I know, will address that and perhaps have other interesting arrivals as well as departures. Time will tell I guess…

  50. tedwins says:

    Thinking out loud, perhaps if the Red Sox sign drew (who I love for some odd reason) we could work out a trade for middlebrooks and move Alvarez to first. Folks this is just a thought and not sure what it would entail. My point only being that we can think more than just the 1st base options being discussed. Well, again, just a thought. .. not sure I even like it :)

  51. NMR says:

    Dude, aren’t you the guy who claimed the Pirates didn’t give Garrett Jones enough of a chance last year? Where is this first base search coming from?

    If you’re going to bash the Front Office for something, anything, at least pick a narrative and stick with it.

  52. NorthPirateFan says:

    Even Jones at his best though was never really “the first baseman” and he wasn’t acquired to be it either. He’s been bounced back and forth between 1st and RF so much he’s been more of a utility guy.

    I had really had high hopes last year when they acquired Clint Robinson that while they hadn’t found a star they had managed to find a solution on the cheap.

    I still can’t help but shake my head at the fact they lost him on waivers because they thought it was more to important acquire a 38 year UTI (John McDonald) than to keep him around.

  53. NorthPirateFan says:

    Nope, that was never my complaint. My complaint was that Travis Snider wasn’t given enough of a chance because from the first game of the season he was frequently pushed to the bench with Jones playing RF so Gabby Sanchez could flail helplessly against RHP at first.

    My complaints about Jones’ usage were the fact that at the end of spring training Clint Hurdle said Jones would be hitting in the number two spot due to his past walk rates but he never followed through and despite the claims he wasn’t used in a true platoon role at first much as he was a utility.

    And if memory server TS did post the numbers not long after as to how little platooning the Pirates did last year despite several of their starts suffering from significant split disadvantages.

  54. Nate83 says:

    That would definitely be a buy low solution. He showed good promise in 2012 but fell out of favor quickly in Boston this year. Part of me thinks the Red Sox are much better at evaluating talent then some of the other large markets. I’m not sure I want somebody they so quickly gave up on but maybe he would come at a low cost so there isn’t much to lose except your moving Alvarez around the diamond which I’m not a fan of unless you know it’s going to be permanent.

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