Sunday, March 24, 2013

Projecting The Offense: First Base

The Pirates will begin the year with Garrett Jones platooning with Gaby Sanchez at first base. If Spring Training line-ups are anything to go by, Sanchez projects to hit in the clean-up spot when the club faces a southpaw, with Jones hitting in the fifth spot against righties. It’s a situation that could provide the club with a lot of value if both players can produce in the role, with Sanchez being the bigger question mark as Jones is will begin his third year in a platoon role.

Garrett Jones:
2012: 515 PA, 28 doubles, 3 triples, 27 home runs, .274/.317/.516, .352 wOBA, 2 stolen bases

2013 Projections:
Bill James: 445 PA, 27 doubles, 1 triple, 20 home runs, .254/.315/.454, .331 wOBA, 4 stolen bases
ZiPS: 482 PA, 29 doubles, 2 triples, 20 home runs, .253/.313/.446, .324 wOBA, 5 stolen bases
Oliver: 483 PA, 28 doubles, 2 triples, 20 home runs, .253/.318/.443, .328 wOBA, 4 stolen bases

Summary: All three projection systems predict a power drop from Jones in 2013. His home run to fly ball ratio spiked to 17.1% in 2012 from 11.0% and 11.2% in 2011 and 2010 respectively, so a decline probably should be expected - although it should be noted that he performance against southpaws dragged his HR/FB ratio down a little. Jones picked up 81 plate appearances against left-handers last season due to injuries and lack of production from other players forcing him into a full time role, which may drop in 2013 if Gaby Sanchez can settle into a platoon role. It’s also worth noting that Jones’ career line against right-handers is .279/.348/.504 (.365 wOBA), so there is room for Jones to outperform his projections.

Gaby Sanchez:
2012: 326 PA, 16 doubles, 7 home runs, .217/.279/.341, .272 wOBA, 1 stolen base

2013 Projections:
Bill James: 394 PA, 22 doubles, 11 home runs, .263/.343/.418, .330 wOBA, 3 stolen bases
ZiPS: 541 PA, 29 doubles, 1 triple, 14 home runs, .254/.326/.405, .318 wOBA, 3 stolen bases
Oliver: 564 PA, 29 doubles, 1 triple, 17 home runs, .258/.333/.422, .329 wOBA, 2 stolen bases

Summary: All three projection systems predict an all round improvement, although Bill James probably gets the closest to the number of plate appearances. Sanchez will enter 2013 in a full-time platoon for the first time, so unless either he or Jones are moved or Jones picks up an injury, reaching 500 plate appearances seems impossible right now.

Why the first base platoon may find success: 
Quite simply, players generally hit opposite handed pitchers better and both Jones and Sanchez have a history of hitting opposite handed pitchers much better. As noted above, Jones has a career .365 wOBA against right-handers and Sanchez has a career line of .291/.385/.484 (.377 wOBA) against left-handed pitchers (as opposed to a .248/.314/.398 triple-slash line (.313 wOBA) when facing righties). Both players have weighted on-base averages above .360 over the course of their careers, so noting that only 10 first basemen (11 with Jones) that would have qualified for the batting title had a wOBA above .350 last season indicates the potential that a successful first base platoon would have.

Why the first base platoon may not find success: 
While Jones is entering his third season in a platoon and proved that he can produce in this role, it’s Sanchez’s first. The Pirates will be hoping that he can also end the year in a platoon, something that he’s been unable to do in each of the last two seasons – first with Matt Diaz in 2011 and then Casey McGehee last season. Many players struggle in a part time role, so Sanchez’s adjustment to the platoon will be key to the success of the platoon. The Pirates know full well how that adjustment could negatively affect the performance of the hitter, as seen with McGehee, Diaz and Steve Pearce (among others).

Sanchez may also face some right-handers when the designated hitter is introduced during the four road series in AL ballparks (the first being against the Detroit Tigers at the end of May). There currently projects to be no left-handed hitters on the bench (although there may be by the end of May) and he’s the better defensive first basemen of the pair (with a career 3.6 UZR/150 compared to Jones’ -8.6 UZR/150 at first base), so Sanchez could very well pick up some plate appearances with Jones as the DH, while I’d expect Jones to remain on the bench with a left-hander on the mound.

The potential is certainly there for the Pirates to have one of the more productive first basemen in the league, albeit in a tandem. Sanchez already began to bounce back after a miserable start to his 2012 season with the Miami Marlins, hitting .241/.323/.397 after the trade. He now has to adjust to playing on a part-time basis; if he has success then the Pirates will finally find value from a platoon at third attempt.