As of this morning, at first base, the Pirates had the right-handed Michael Morse, and the right-handed Jason Rogers. As depth, there’s the right-handed Sean Rodriguez, and though the switch-hitting Josh Bell is on the way, he’s got his own stuff to figure out. So for the Pirates, there was an obvious need. They don’t have a lefty-heavy lineup, and last year they about tied for the highest rate of right-handed pitchers seen. The division projects to be righty-heavy again. The Pirates needed an affordable lefty for first.
Chris Davis is a lefty for first. But then, I said “affordable.” A week and a half ago, when Eno looked at this situation, he settled upon John Jaso. Now the word is out that the Pirates have signed John Jaso. He’s getting two years, and he’s getting $8 million, and if this isn’t the very most Pirates move, it’s at least in the conversation. It doesn’t get much more Pirates than this.
You know how the Pirates operate — they don’t operate at the top of the market. Some would argue they should, but that’s a different conversation. The point is, they don’t. They’re always trolling for potential bargains, and lately things have worked out pretty well for them. We’re observing another Pirates-style offseason. Instead of Mike Leake, they’ve got Jonathon Niese. Instead of Scott Kazmir, they’ve got Ryan Vogelsong. And instead of Chris Davis, or even Adam Lind, they’ve got John Jaso. He’s going to cost less than Jason Motte and Steve Cishek.
Usually, the thing about bargains is that there’s a question mark. It’s not that teams haven’t thought about them — it’s that teams prefer a little more certainty for the investment. The question mark for Jaso is his first-base defense. With, say, Lind, you know what you’re getting with the glove. It’s not great, but it’s known. Jaso, not so much. He’s volunteered to be the third catcher, but he probably won’t do that. He’ll get a few innings in the corner outfield, but not very many. Jaso’s going to play first, and he’s barely ever done that.
The Pirates refer to it as a calculated risk. It was a calculated risk when the Red Sox put Hanley Ramirez in the outfield. It was a calculated risk when the Pirates tried Pedro Alvarez at first base a year ago. There can be downside to these moves, which makes this a slight gamble. But I don’t think anyone should be worried about catastrophes. Jaso’s background is catching, and catchers who’ve done this before have by and large come away fine.
By the numbers, Buster Posey didn’t struggle to adjust to first base. Neither did Victor Martinez. Neither did Joe Mauer. Neither did Mike Napoli, or Jason Phillips, or Stephen Vogt. Neither did Carlos Santana. The Pirates aren’t trying something new — catchers have long moved in the direction of first, and Jaso will have all offseason and spring to grow accustomed to his new responsibilities. Yeah, there will be growing pains. Yeah, Jaso will make the occasional fundamental mistake. But I feel like the actual risk is small. Pedro Alvarez, for whatever reason, just forgot how to catch baseballs. Catching baseballs is half of what Jaso used to do.
The uncertainty is the defense. The more certain part is the offense. Again, like Lind, Jaso needs to be strictly platooned, because he can’t do much against lefties. But last year, against righties, he had a 132 wRC+. His three-year righty wRC+ is 130, even with Prince Fielder and Josh Donaldson. His five-year righty wRC+ is 130, even with Michael Brantley and Matt Kemp. Jaso has historically been an above-average hitter when he has the platoon advantage, and with the Pirates’ situation, he should just about only bat with the platoon advantage. Despite the various injuries, Jaso’s kept being productive.
And while he still knows how to walk, Jaso has pretty quietly become a more aggressive batter. Here are his year-to-year swing rates against righties, from Brooks Baseball:
Jaso’s gone from a little above 35% to a little above 45%. Used to be, he swung at the first pitch 18% of the time; the last two years, he’s swung at the first pitch 32% of the time. He still controls the zone, but he’s become more willing to go after pitches to put in play, and you can see some of the differences in his swing-rate heat maps:
Jaso these days swings more often low, and he swings more often at pitches away. So he’s less vulnerable to getting caught looking on pitches away, and though Jaso hasn’t become a markedly better hitter, he hasn’t gotten worse, which is just as important. He’s the sort of productive you don’t notice all that much in the moment, since he doesn’t clobber that many dingers, but Jaso’s good for a quality at-bat, and there’s Morse or Rogers to take over when Jaso might be at a disadvantage. Given how the Pirates work, this is just about a perfect fit.
Doesn’t mean it’s a high-upside fit. It’s not. Upside gets money. Low-upside players go cheap, at least as hitters go. Asdrubal Cabrera didn’t cost much. Nori Aoki didn’t cost much. Dioner Navarro didn’t cost much. If you’re okay with a low ceiling, free agency doesn’t have to be a nightmare. The Pirates have shown they’re okay with low ceilings. Because they’re okay with spreading the contributions around, almost as much as they possibly can.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.