SOUTH HILLS – Last year the hidden secret – the hidden competitive advantage – behind the Pirates’ 94-win campaign, was the Pirates’ extreme increased useage of infield shifts (combined with a spiked groundball rate) which we reported on extensively. The Pirates improve their defensive efficiency – the number of batted balls converted into outs – by three percent, which is a significant number. That’s hundreds of hits turned into outs. Now the Pirates were not going to hold this competitive advantage forever. We live in a copy-cat world. Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said the Cardinals are going to begin comprehensive shifting at the minor league level this year and that will soon trickle up to the big-league club. The Pirates first began extreme rates of shifting at the minor league level in 2009.
As Neil Walker said during the NLDS: “I think that’s something that’s going to be universally kind of implemented in the game of baseball, if you ask me. It’s going to take some time, because most people don’t want to give into it.”
This advantage will be short-lived. For the Pirates, survival is in part tied to finding the next big thing and the Pirates will expand their use of outfield defensive shifts in 2014, which Tim Williams wrote about over at Pirates Prospects this weekend. The Pirates are apparently going to try and shrink the outfield through unorthodox defensive alignments.
While seeking the next competitive advantage makes sense, there is also greater risks and greater challenges in shifting an outfield. For starters, if your infield shift is beat you typically give up a single. If your outfield shift is beat, you’re surrendering an extra-base hit. (The reward is greater, too, in taking away extra base hits).
Moreover, range is more restricted in the infield. Infielders have less time to react than a groundball than outfielders have to a flyball. That means infield positioning, on the surface seems more important. Infielders have less margin for error. Overall, I think it makes sense to forego tradition and position players where balls are hit. And you’re asking three outfielders to cover a much larger expanse than you are four infielders.
I’m a proponent of exploring defensive alignment changes. Another interesting aspect of this is overlapping spray charts with outfielders’ range. How much do you hedge if you have an athletic outfield like the Pirates? There’s more creativity here to be tapped into. I’m not sure how much advantage there is to be gained here – there’s no doubt some – but the bigger thing the Pirates have going for themselves is they’ll have the most athletic outfield in baseball when Gregory Polanco arrives. That’s not my opinoin, it’s Mozeliak’s.
DOES MORALES MAKE SENSE?
Scott Boras is really working to create a market for free agent Kendrys Morales. We’ve touched on Morales before. We know the issues: the qualifying offer, the questionable defense and the fact that Gaby Sanchez is better against LHP eliminating some of Morales’s switch-hitting appeal.
That said Baseball Prospectus projects Morales to be worth 2.7 Wins Above Replacement in 2014, which is far better than any other external 1b alternative that’s been discussed to date. Morales is an above-average hitter and would give the team the competitive at bats it enjoyed in September from Marlon Byrd and Justin Morneau.
Unlike Lambo, he’s not a strikeout machine and he has pop. He’s hit 22+ home runs three times in his career and has played in poor offensive environments. Teams might very well be over-valuing first-round picks but the question is more about is Morales’s value than the pick. If it’s the right player, and you’re contending, you give up the pick. Still is Morales the right fit? ESPN analyst Dan Symborski recently estimated the value of free agent Morales, whom Boras suggested would be “perfect” for the Pirates, is worth less than $1 million per season when including the cost of surrendering a first-round draft pick. You’re not going to get Morales at $1 million. But you could get him at a discount in years and dollars. Four years and $40 million would do it, right? .. .but I don’t think the Pirates are willing to meet the costs in treasure or draft pick.
I’m not suggesting they should at that price but if the price dips low enough there is an opportunity.