FanPost

What the Pirates Stand to Gain by Rearranging the Infield

Given all the recent talk around here about the Pirates upgrading their infield defense, I thought I'd take a crack at calculating how much the proposed realignments would improve the Bucs. First, let's look at what we're starting with:

 

1b Jones +4, -8

2b Walker +7, -6

ss Cedeno -11, -3

3b Alvarez +7, -9

 

That's our starting point. The first number after each name is a simple marcel projection for batting runs per 600 PA. The second number is a defensive projection per 150 games. I calculated this by weighing the career UZR of each player against a 200-game sample of their scores in the fans' scouting report from the last two years. This gives us a decent balance of defensive stats and scouting info. As you can see, the current infield projects to yield seven runs above average on offense but a ghastly 26 runs below average on defense. The defense could certainly use an upgrade, as Charlie suggests.

 

So what would happen if the Pirates take Charlie's advice? He advocates benching Jones, moving Walker to third and Alvarez to first, and acquiring J.J. Hardy or Orlando Hudson to play with Ronny Cedeno in the middle infield. We have to make some assumptions in order to project how that infield would perform, because Alvarez has never played first and Walker has only played 15 games at third in the majors, so we don't have enough information to make objective projections about their abilities at those positions. It seems like Charlie believes that Walker can be average or better at third, and I've seen some comments suggesting that he would be a plus defender, so let's call him +5 on defense at third. Alvarez is a tougher case. He's a very bad defender, and though his lack of range and lead glove won't be so exposed at first, it's hard to imagine him being a plus there. I'll call him an average defender at first for the sake of argument. So Charlie's proposed infield would look like this:

 

1b Alvarez +7, 0

2b Cedeno -11, +2

ss Hardy -2, +9

3b Walker +7, +5

 

or

 

1b Alvarez +7, 0

2b Hudson +3, +3

ss Cedeno -11, -3

3b Walker +7, +5

 

The former alignment projects for +1 run on offense and +16 runs on defense, the latter for +6 on offense and +5 on defense. Either way, you get a plus defensive infield and sacrifice only a little on offense. Overall, the former alignment is a 36-run (3.5 win) improvement over what we have now, and the latter is about the same (30 runs, 3 wins). That's a drastic improvement!

 

But is it really the best option for the Pirates? The moves Charlie suggests would theoretically add three to 3.5 wins to the 2011 Pirates team, but the main drawback is that they would close the door on Walker as a second baseman. Is there a way to improve the infield defense, improve the 2011 team overall, and give Walker a longer look at second? I think so, and it starts with recognizing that neither Walker nor Alvarez are the main problems with the Pirates infield. The main problem with the Pirates infield is Ronny Cedeno.

 

Take a look at those projections for Cedeno. He's a below average fielder at shortstop and a terrible hitter. What if, instead of shuffling the infield all around and acquiring J.J. Hardy, we acquired Hardy and just substituted him into Cedeno's spot?

 

1b Jones +4, -8

2b Walker +7, -6

ss Hardy -2, +9

3b Alvarez +7, -9

 

That would give the Pirates 16 runs above average on offense and 14 runs below average on defense from their infield. Compared to our starting point, that's a full 12 run (one win) improvement on defense and a 21 run (two win) improvement overall. That's pretty good, but not as good as what Charlie's proposing. Is that all the Pirates can do to improve while leaving Walker at second? No, they have to further recognize that Jones is not a full-time option. In his short career his wRC+ (like OPS+, except it weights OBP and SLG properly) against RHP is 123, but against LHP it is a shockingly-bad 59. Finding a platoon partner for him who can also play good defense would be another way to improve the team. Luckily, the Pirates have just such a guy on hand already; his name is Steve Pearce. In his short career, Pearce's wRC+ vs. LHP is 144; against RHP it's 61. He's played so little that his UZR is basically worthless as a data point, but he's generally regarded as a decent defender at first.

 

What could we expect from a Pearce/Jones platoon? Calculating that will take a little work. First, we have to figure out an overall projection for both Pearce and Jones as hitters, and then we have to regress their observed platoon splits toward average platoon splits for RHH and LHH, respectively. Finally, we have to apply the regressed splits to their overall projections and weight them by expected playing time. So, for example, with Steve Pearce, using a simple marcel we'd project a .329 wOBA overall for him. Using a regressed platoon split, we'd project a .346 wOBA against LHP and a .320 wOBA against RHP. That .346 wOBA against LHP translates into +7 runs per 600 PA. If we do the same for Garrett Jones, we get a projection of +11 runs per 600 against RHP. Taking 2/3 of Jones and 1/3 of Pearce, we'd get +9.5 runs per 600 PA in a platoon. I'll round down to keep it simple.

 

As with Alvarez, I'll call Pearce an average defender at first. Weighting that with Jones' -8, we get -5 runs per 150 games on defense for the Pearce/Jones platoon. So with Hardy replacing Cedeno and Jones and Pearce platooning, we can expect this production:

 

1b Jones/Pearce +9, -5

2b Walker +7, -6

ss Hardy -2, +9

3b Alvarez +7, -9

 

In this scenario, the Pirates would get +21 runs on offense and -11 runs on defense from their infield. That's +10 runs overall, which is 29 runs better than our starting point. Remember, under Charlie's proposed scenarios, we'd be gaining 30 or 36 runs. This scenario is basically the same, but it has the added benefit of allowing the team to continue developing Walker at second base. The infield defense, in this scenario, is still below average, but not abominably so, and that weakness could be counteracted by targeting flyball pitchers like Aaron Harang or Javier Vazquez in free agency instead of groundball pitchers like Jake Westbrook and Zach Duke. If they wanted to go even further, they could trade the groundballing Paul Maholm and go with an all fly-ball pitching staff. (This proposal has the added benefit of increasing the number of strikeouts the pitching staff accumulates, further minimizing the impact of a below-average defense.)

 

Finally, I'd like to note that replacing Cedeno isn't predicated upon the availability of J.J. Hardy. As with Charlie's proposal (Hudson or Hardy), there are plenty of Cedeno replacements the Pirates could target. Free agent Juan Uribe would be +1 on offense and +2 on defense, making the infield +6 overall – a 25 run improvement over our current alignment. Trade candidate Jason Bartlett would be +3 on offense and +4 on defense – a 29-run improvement. There are several options for improving on Cedeno and thus improving the infield as a whole.

 

Of course, if the Pirates really wanted to go for broke, they could acquire both Hudson and Hardy (or Bartlett). That would be about a five-win improvement over what they have now.

 

Personally, I wouldn't be opposed to shifting the infield defense around. But I don't think it's necessary. The Pirates can improve the team just as much for just as cheaply in other ways, while still giving Walker the opportunity to develop as a second baseman.

This is a FanPost and does not necessarily reflect the views of the managing editor (Charlie) or SB Nation. FanPosts are written by Bucs Dugout readers.

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