Final Analysis of Snider Deal

I don’t seem to be capable of limiting my takes on transactions to one or two posts, so here’s my third and (for now) final post on the Snider deal. It should go without saying that this is from the Pirates’ perspective. Good luck to the Orioles and Travis Snider and all that, but that’s not my concern.

There are two basic issues here. One is whether the trade makes sense on a general conceptual level. That is to say, does it make sense for the Pirates to be dealing an MLB player for prospects at this point on the win curve? The other issue is whether the value/talent in the trade matches up. I think the answer to both questions is: yes.

Obviously, the Pirates want to maximize MLB wins right now. They are a good team looking to win a World Series title. That said, Snider is not an important part of the team, and if his production can be replaced with other options dealing him makes sense. A lot of the talk about this question has focused on Snider’s direct replacement, which will (most likely) be Andrew Lambo. Though Snider is no sure thing himself, Lambo is an even greater question mark because of his lack of a big league track record. Superficially, though, he’s pretty similar to Snider: lefty-hitting corner outfielder, plus power but mediocre hit tool, limited defensive and baserunning value. ZiPS sees their bats as roughly equivalent. Snider’s probably a better defender and baserunner, but the difference isn’t big. Lambo is 26; Snider is 27. There’s uncertainty, of course, but the difference between the two is probably negligible.

But Lambo isn’t a direct replacement for Snider, although he’ll (probably) be the guy taking Snider’s roster spot. In practice, though, the ~350 PA that Snider would have gotten as the fourth outfielder will now probably be split between Lambo and a number of other players. If Lambo performs well, he could get significant playing time, but if he’s a below-average performer, that extra time in the outfield could go to Corey Hart, Sean Rodriguez, or Josh Harrison (with Kang filling in at third). Lambo isn’t really replacing Snider’s role, and the reality of the situation may have been that Snider was actually taking away playing time from better options like Harrison, Hart, or even Polanco and Marte.

Without Snider on the roster, there should be a lot more PA available for whoever steps up and takes them this season. That could be a healthy Corey Hart. It could be surprisingly good Jung-Ho Kang. It could be a guy like Marte or Walker who stays healthier than usual. Or it could just be that a guy like Josh Harrison gets a full 650 PA season. And if absolutely none of those contingencies comes to fruition, there’s still Andrew Lambo to fill the role Snider would have had anyway. I won’t go so far as to say that dealing Snider was addition by subtraction, but he was truly a redundant piece and moving him to clear more room for other guys makes a certain amount of sense.

That said, Snider is a solid MLB option, so moving him only truly makes sense if the talent coming back is worthwhile. That’s where our second question comes in. And I think getting Tarpley and Brault for Snider is a pretty good haul. Neither of them are elite talents, but they are both solid prospects. Tarpley probably has mid-rotation upside, and Brault could be a fifth starter or a LOOGY. Getting that kind of talent back for a fourth outfielder is, frankly, amazing. The Orioles clearly believe Snider is a starting-caliber player, and they paid the requisite price.

It’s hard to really put the return in perspective, because guys like Snider don’t get dealt for prospects too often. Consider, though, what the Pirates gave up to acquire Snider from the Blue Jays in the first place: a young middle-reliever named Brad Lincoln. At the time of that deal, Lincoln was a sort-of prospect having a bit of success as an MLB reliever. Tarpley alone is a better return than Lincoln was three years ago. Or think about this in the reverse. If the Pirates needed an outfielder, would you have them trade Tarpley and Brault for Snider? Wouldn’t you rather hold on to the prospects and try to find a better outfielder than Snider? This wasn’t an obvious steal or anything, but the Pirates did very well here, value-wise, in gettting these two pitchers for Snider.

So in my final (for now) analysis, I’m calling this trade a win for the Pirates. They dealt from a position of strength without hurting the MLB team and got good prospect value.

Pirates Acquire Steven Brault To Complete Snider Deal

As mentioned in the headline, the Pirates have acquired LHP Steven Brault from Baltimore as the PTBNL in the Travis Snider trade. That makes the full trade Snider for Brault and Stephen Tarpley. At the time of the trade, Neal Huntington said the PTBNL would be “similar” to Tarpley, and indeed Brault is a young, undersied, left-hander.

Brault is relatively raw for a 22-year-old. He was a two-way player in college, focusing solely on pitching for only the last year-and-a-half after being drafted by B’more in the 11th round in 2013. He throws 87-93, with all the inconsistency that range would suggest, but the hope is that he’ll gain consistency in the low 90s with more experience. He has a trio of middling secondaries, including two average-ish breaking balls and an above-average change. His calling card appears to be deception, as he’s got a funky delivery with a herky-jerky stride that reminds me a bit of Justin Wilson’s and a short-armed delivery from a low three-quarters slot. Because of the delivery, he strikes me as the type of lefty who might succeed as a LOOGY if all else fails. He’s very short, relatively speaking, listed at 6’1″ but appearing even smaller on the mound. He’ll probably begin the season in high-A.

Brault is a decent prospect, but not a special one. His upside is that of a fifth starter, and he’s not particularly likely to achieve that upside. Off the top of my head, I’d say he’d likely fit in the late 20s on my prospect list, near guys like Casey Sadler, Jason Creasy, and Chad Kuhl.

Though Brault isn’t an exciting prospect, he and Tarpley represent a very good return for Travis Snider. With Andrew Lambo, Josh Harrison, Sean rodriguez, and Jung-Ho Kang on the roster, it makes sense that the Pirates would see Snider as expendable, and getting two legit prospects, one of whom (Tarpley) has serious upside, for him is quite a haul.

Jung-Ho Kang Swing Analysis on Fangraphs

Remember how a few weeks ago I got mildly optimistic about Jung-Ho Kang because of a cryptic reference to a favorable swing analysis conducted by Dan Farnsworth? Well, Fangraphs has finally published that swing analysis, and my optimism is now overwhelming. Farnsworth refers to Kang’s swing as “upper echelon,” and opines that he should have little trouble becoming a top MLB hitter. To put some numbers to it, he says .280 and 25 homers “might be conservative.”

That is . . . intriguing.

I’ve written an awful lot about Kang in the last month and a half, and the more I think about him the more excited I get. It’s possible – and I don’t want to get too carried away here – but it’s possible, not likely but possible, that the Pirates have added another MVP caliber player in Kang. If he can play shortstop and hit anywhere close to .280/25, Kang will be one of the 20 best players in MLB. There were only six MLB SS who hit .280 last year (minimum 300 PA). There were zero who hit 25 homers (though Tulowitzki would have if he’d been a bit healthier). There were only ten players in all of MLB, at any position, who hit .280/25 last year. Even if he’s a terrible defender, .280/25 from a shortstop is easily 5 WAR. In short, Kang might be really good.

Of course, it’s probably best to temper our excitement a bit, but even .260/20 as a 3b would make Kang a really good player. The Pirates are paying this guy 4/11, remember.

There’s nothing left but just to wait and see at this point, but I am getting pretty excited. Pitchers and catchers report in about a week. It’s almost time.

ZiPS, The Pirates, and Depth

Dan Szymborski released the Pirates’ ZiPS projections on Friday, and I’ve been trying to think of a way to talk about them since. For the most part, they say exactly what we’d expect them to say: Andrew McCutchen is really good, and there are a bunch of other players on the team who are pretty good as well. As far as the individual projections go, there are no real surprises. Which in turn means that on the team level there’s no real surprise either. This is a good team.

Of course, what everyone wants to do when these projections come out is to say exactly how good the team is, according to ZiPS. But that’s not really possible, at least not without a lot of work. Tim Williams has already written his yearly article over on Pirates Prospects where he adds up all the WAR numbers to get a projected win total, and as far as that goes, that’s about as good as you can do with it. So if you’re into that sort of thing, Tim is projecting 90 wins for the 2015 Pirates.

But Tim’s method ignores injury probabilities, depth, and schedule; it assumes a replacement level we can’t actually be certain of; and of course it assumes a 1:1 correlation between projected WAR and projected wins. It’s fine for back-of-the-envelope, for-fun calculations, but it’s not a serious projection. Unfortunately, as I said, a serious projection would require a ton of work that most of us simply can’t do. The best way to do a serious projection would be to plug the individual projections into a realistic simulator, which most of us do not have. Anything less than that is going to be horribly imprecise, which is a real bummer considering how imprecise even the most rigorous projection is.

All of which is to say that I’ve struggled to find an interesting way to talk about the Pirates’ ZiPS projections.

What I’ve decided to talk about, in lieu of anything particularly interesting, is depth. One of the big things that is missed by casually adding up individual WAR projections is team depth. Despite a team’s best intentions, it’s inevitably going to end up giving playing time to fourth- or fifth-stringers who weren’t on anybody’s depth chart at the beginning of the year. I’m talking about the Michael Martinezes and Brent Morels and Jayson Nixes of the world. No one includes them in a pre-season projection because no one knows which fifth-stringer it’s going to be to get 50 random PA in late August. It’s just not something you can predict, yet it’s something that happens, in one way or another, to every team, every year.

A simulator deals with this by simulating the season thousands of times and averaging out all the different outcomes. But it would take forever to do it by hand, so we mostly just ignore it. But how a team’s Michael Martinez or Brent Morel performs when called upon goes a long way (relatively speaking) toward how good a team’s season is. I doubt anyone foresaw Josh Harrison becoming a full-time player in 2014, but the fact that he was able to play 143 games and post 5 WAR was (one of) the difference(s) between making the playoffs and going home after game 162 last year.

Basically, what I’m saying is that depth is really important but too often ignored. What’s remarkable, to me, about the 2015 Pirates, is that their depth is extraordinary. If (heaven forbid) every one of the team’s eight starting position players and five starting pitchers were to miss the 2015 season due to injury, the Pirates would field the following team (with ZiPS projected WAR [per 600 PA/180 IP] in parentheses):

c Chris Stewart (1.3)
1b Corey Hart (0.6)
2b Sean Rodriguez (1.4)
3b Jung-Ho Kang (1.8)
ss Pedro Florimon (1.0)
lf Jose Tabata (0.8)
cf Keon Broxton (1.1)
rf Andrew Lambo (0.8)
sp Charlie Morton (1.6)
sp Jameson Taillon (1.5)
sp Tyler Glasnow (1.1)
sp Radhames Liz (1.1)
sp Brandon Cumpton (0.6)

That would be a bad team, obviously. But it’s also a whole team of players who are clearly better than replacement level, most of them roughly a win better. That’s tremendous. And what if all of those players goes down?

c Tony Sanchez (1.2)
1b Josh Bell (0.6)
2b Steve Lombardozzi (0.6)
3b Deibinson Romero (0.5)
ss Alen Hanson (1.0)
lf Mel Rojas (-0.2)
cf Gorkys Hernandez (0.7)
rf Jaff Decker (-0.1)
sp Nick Kingham (0.6)
sp Casey Sadler (0.6)
sp Adrian Sampson (0.1)

The Pirates go three deep with above-replacement players at every infield position, including catcher. They go seven deep in the outfield (nine if you double-count Hart and Bell). You have to go through twelve names on the starting pitching depth chart before you get to a replacement level arm. This is one very deep team.

I can’t tell you exactly how good the 2015 Pirates will be, nor can I tell you exactly how they stack up to their NL Central competition, but the ZiPS projections make it clear that this is both a very talented and extraordinarily deep team.

Pirates Deal Snider For Prospects

The Pirates have traded outfielder Travis Snider to the Orioles for LHP Stephen Tarpley and a player to be named later. On the surface it’s a weird trade, as Snider is a talented player who figured to serve a significant role off the bench for the 2015 Pirates. If you look a little closer, though, the deal makes a lot of sense.

I’m sure the Pirates didn’t want to trade Snider, and indeed Neal Huntington told the press just that after the trade went down. The Orioles have been interested in Snider since at least the Winter Meetings, when the teams were reportedly working on a deal that would have sent Snider out for reliever Brian Matusz. It appears the Orioles maintained their pursuit, and now that literally all the alternatives are off the board, they’ve finally made the Pirates an offer they can’t refuse.

What’s interesting is that the offer included Stephen Tarpley, an undersized minor-league lefty with good stuff. Tarpley is similar to former Pirate prospect Joely Rodriguez, who the Pirates shipped to Philadelphia during the Winter Meetings for Antonio Bastardo. Bastardo is a dominant lefty reliever, similar to Brian Matusz, so when you sort through all the moving parts it’s sort of like the Pirates traded Snider for Bastardo and a player to be named later. That’s not exactly what happened, of course, but it’s one way to look at the big picture, and when you see it that way it’s easier to understand. In that narrative, the Pirates needed a bullpen piece, so they traded from their outfield depth to get it.

And they do have plenty of outfield depth. Despite Snider’s 2014 “breakout,” he’s not meaningfully better than the player who will replace him: Andrew Lambo. Both are young lefty sluggers who have destroyed AAA. Both have plus power with some swing-and-miss to their game, and neither brings much to the table in terms of defense or baserunning. (Snider is a better defender in the outfield, but Lambo has the versatility to play 1b as well.) Lambo hasn’t had a chance in the big leagues yet, but superficially he’s basically the same player as Snider. He should slide into Snider’s role without much of a problem.

Furthermore, I’d argue that Lambo deserves a shot. Not that that should make a difference, but Lambo has wrecked AAA to the tune of a .400+ wOBA in over 500 PA over the last two years. He’s earned a chance in the big leagues, and clearing a spot for him on the bench makes some sense.

Behind Lambo, the Pirates have plenty of 1b/of depth in AAA, as well, where Stetson Allie, Tony Sanchez, Keon Broxton, Jaff Decker, Jose Tabata, and Mel Rojas, Jr. are all set to play. The team also has Willy Garcia and Gorkys Hernandez in the upper levels. Dealing Snider certainly weakens the depth, but the change is negligible. It was (and remains) a position of strength.

It’s also possible that Snider’s 2014 “breakout” was something of a mirage, and given the team’s depth it made sense to explore trading him now while his value is high. Snider is talented, for sure, so in some ways his 2014 was only confirmation of the potential that made him a first-round draft pick and perennial top prospect. Yet there are some reasons to believe the performance might not be entirely sustainable.

One such reason is that Snider’s performance was, in part, built on unsustainable production against LHP. For his career, Snider has had a 96 wRC+ against RHP and a 90 against lefties. In 2014, those figures jumped to 110 vs. RHP and 200(!) against LHP. Even if the former is sustainable, the latter certainly isn’t. Unless he continues to improve, his overall performance is going to regress as his performance against LHP normalizes.

Secondly, Snider no longer appears to be the high-BAbip hitter he once was. With Toronto, in the minors as well as the majors, Snider consistently posted high BAbip numbers, undoubtedly just because he hit the ball so hard. Over the last several years, though, he’s replaced line drives with ground balls in his batted ball profile at an alarming rate. That’s a bad trade to begin with, but for a lefty pull hitter in the age of shifts it’s near-disastrous. Snider’s BAbip in 2013 was only .282, and while his 2014 BAbip was .298, it should have been .285 according to Jeff Zimmerman’s xBAbip metric. If the BAbip normalizes, that’s another possible point of regression.

Thirdly, Snider’s average fly ball distance increased dramatically in 2014, one of the biggest such increases in MLB. That’s a good thing, of course, but it’s also not a sure bet to continue. Research on fly ball distance has shown that hitters who drastically increase their fly ball distance from one year to the next tend to give back about half of those gains in the third season.

Snider did make legitimate gains last year in terms of contact ability and game power. His always-excellent approach finally manifested in strong BB:K numbers, and his plus raw power finally manifested in good HR/FB rates. He’s still only 27, and he’s still a very talented hitter. And now that he’ll be playing in the hitter-friendly Camden Yards, he’s got a chance to hit 20 homers if given the playing time. But there are a bunch of very good reasons to doubt that he can maintain the 121 wRC+ performance he posted in 2014. Steamer and ZiPS, for what it’s worth, agree. Steamer projects a 108 wRC+, while ZiPS is even less optimistic, projecting a 97 OPS+.

A roughly average hitter who’s also roughly average on the bases with a roughly average glove in the outfield corners is a solid fourth outfielder. But it’s hardly irreplaceable. With a good in-house replacement waiting in the wings and Snider likely at the peak of his trade value, dealing him makes some sense.

Still, there’s a non-zero chance that Snider could be a legitimate first-division starter, so the Pirates weren’t going to let him go cheaply. And it seems the Orioles have finally met their price in the form of Tarpley-plus. The “plus” in this case is a player to be named later who Huntington claims is “similar” to Tarpley.

Let’s talk about Tarpley first. He was drafted in the third round in 2013, 98th overall. The Pirates selected JaCoby Jones in that round, eleven spots earlier. Tarpley was a raw 20-year-old out of JC at the time. He’s relatively small (6’1″) but very athletic, so while not classically projectable there was some hope that his athleticism would help him gain consistency with his stuff and command. According to Kiley McDaniel, who rated him the ninth-best prospect in the Orioles’ system, Tarpley sits 92-95 and holds his velocity well, while also flashing a plus curve and a solid-average change. If that sounds like an exciting profile, it is. The problem is that darned consistency. Despite turning 22 next month, Tarpley is still pretty raw, and he hasn’t even reached full-season ball yet. His command is only average at best, and McDaniel says that on bad days everything from Tarpley can be below-average.

But Tarpley is still a great athlete with potentially great stuff. Furthermore, there were some signs late last season that he might finally be figuring things out. He seems to have found mechanics that work for him, and McDaniel reports that he’s improving his makeup and mental conditioning. He should be ready to tackle full-season ball in 2015, and if the gains he made last year stick, he could rise quickly.

I mentioned earlier that Tarpley is similar to Joely Rodriguez, and not coincidentally I think I’d slot Tarpley into Rodriguez’s old slot on my prospect list. That would be #17 (18 now, with the addition of Jung-Ho Kang), behind Holdzkom but ahead of Dickson. He’s got a chance to be a #2 starter if he puts it all together, though a #4 is probably a more realistic vision of his upside.

Tarpley’s a good beginning to the deal, but the Pirates will get another player as well. The fact that it’s a player to be named later suggests it’s someone from the Orioles’ 2014 draft (players can’t be officially traded until a year after they’ve signed), and Huntington’s comment that it will be a “similar” prospect suggest it’s a similarly-rated pitcher. There are four guys who fit that profile: Brian Gonzalez, David Hess, Pat Connaughton, and Tanner Scott.

Connaughton is an interesting story, but not likely as the PTBNL. He’s a dual-sport guy who’s playing basketball for Notre Dame this winter. By the time the PTNBL is announced, he could be a full-time baseball player, and he’s got tremendous upside, but I doubt the Pirates are going to take a chance on a guy who’s not committed to baseball.

Scott is interesting as a sort-of poor man’s Stetson Allie from the left side. He’s 20 years old, already pretty well-filled-out, and can hit 100 mph (from the left side, no less) with an average curve, but he walked 18% of the batters he faced in rookie ball last season. In term’s of upside and left-handedness, he’s similar to Tarpley, but he’s not really in the same class as a prospect.

Gonzalez and Hess are the guys Pirate fans should be hoping for. Of the two, Gonzalez is the most similar to Tarpley. He’s a left-handed teenager taken in the third round last year. He’s short (6’1″, like Tarpley) with no real projection remaining, but he sits in the low 90s with two average-or-better secondaries. His makeup is supposedly great, and he had an excellent debut in rookie ball last year. He’s got the potential to be a back-end starter eventually.

Hess is a 21-year-old righty taken in the fifth-round last year. He had a solid debut in the NYPL and even got a few innings in the SAL at the end of the year. He’s got a plus fastball that sits 92-95 and a couple average secondaries in his curve and change. Like Gonzalez, he’s got back-of-the-rotation potential.

Neither Gonzalez or Hess are as exciting as Tarpley, but either one of them would give the Pirates two strong prospects in return for Snider. The equivalent in Pirate prospects would be something like Cody Dickson and Trey Supak. Assuming Snider doesn’t blossom into a star, that’s a very good return. Getting two legit prospects for your fourth outfielder is a win, and with Lambo replacing Snider the Pirates are able to do it without missing a beat in the short-term. If the second player is someone like Scott instead, it’s more of a fair deal than an awesome one.

We’ll have to wait for the PTBNL to be announced before making a final analysis, but given the information we have this looks like a good deal for Pittsburgh.

Thoughts On Kang’s Swing, Defense

Reading FanGraphs today, a couple notes about Jung-Ho Kang caught my eye. The first was this article by Miles Wray. Wray points out (as have I) that the Pirates may be uniquely suited to capitalize on Kang’s skill-set because of their shift-heavy defensive approach. The consensus scouting opinion on Kang’s glove is that he can’t stick as a full-time shortstop in MLB, but over the last few years the Pirates have been able to get good defensive results out of mediocre fielders by positioning their infield well.

Their infield last year, for instance, mainly consisted of Pedro Alvarez, Jordy Mercer, Neil Walker, and Ike Davis. All four of those players are below-average defenders,* yet the 2014 Pirates allowed a BAbip of just .226 on groundballs, well below the .244 NL average. This was no fluke, either, as the 2013 Pirates’ infield performed similarly well (.224 vs. .244) with similar personnel. It sure seems like the Pirates’ defensive shifts are allowing them to get good results from mediocre defenders, so it’s possible that Kang doesn’t need to be a particularly good defender to fit as a shortstop for the Pirates.

* You could argue that Mercer isn’t a below-average defender at short. His career UZR is below average, but his career DRS is above. The numbers have always been split on him, but it’s worth noting that he was never thought of as a true shortstop coming up through the minor leagues, and I think it’s fair to say that he has below-average SS tools.

The other juicy Kang tidbit comes from Eno Sarris’s chat. When asked about Kang, Sarris said this:

I love him more than I should probably. I’ll say this: I don’t know if he can play shortstop. But Harrison has some downside, Walker’s been hurt, and so there’s opportunity. IF he got 600 PA, I’d feel okay giving Kang .260/18+ type numbers, but that’s really reining in my optimism about his power. You gotta read this Farnsworth piece.

The “Farnsworth piece” he mentions is a forthcoming article by Dan Farnsworth, which will be available as part of FanGraphs’ FG+ package in February. The article is an analysis of Kang’s swing, similar to the analysis of Jose Abreu’s swing done by Farnsworth last October. If you haven’t read that Abreu piece, you should go back and do so now. It’s amazing work, and beyond the impressive detail of the swing analysis itself, it’s notable for (correctly) predicting that Jose Abreu would be one of the top 25 hitters in MLB at a time when many scouts were worried that Abreu’s bat speed wouldn’t translate. Of course, one article doesn’t make Farnsworth an expert prognosticator, but it certainly seems like he knows what he’s talking about.

Unfortunately, we don’t yet have access to Farnsworth’s analysis of Kang, but it appears that Eno Sarris does. Furthermore, it appears that said analysis has made a believer out of Sarris, who apparently thinks that a .260 batting average and 18 homers is a somewhat pessimistic projection for Kang. Deduction tells us that Farnsworth thinks Kang’s swing will translate into MLB success, and experience tells us that Farnsworth is pretty good at predicting foreign swings that will translate into MLB success. That is really good and exciting news about Jung-Ho Kang.

I’m no swing analyst, but bearing in mind some of the things that Farnsworth previously pointed out about Abreu, I can see some of the reason for optimism. Here’s a video of Kang’s swing:

To me it looks like Kang does a really good job of getting the bat quickly to the swing plane and staying on that plane for a long time. He doesn’t keep the barrel as tight at the beginning of rotation as Posey and Abreu do, but he doesn’t extend his arms as quickly as Cespedes either. It looks like he does a pretty good job of keeping the bat tight early and then uncoiling and accelerating through the ball. It’s hard to see from this angle, but it looks like he engages his back elbow prior to engaging the hands or front elbow, which is something Farnsworth says “only the very best hitters in Major League Baseball demonstrate.”

It looks like Kang’s lower half isn’t quite as impressive, though. He seems to lift his back leg about the same time he starts his trunk rotation, which is more similar to Cespedes than Abreu or Posey. Like Cespedes, his back heel comes up above his toes and his back side sort of collapses, so that it’s almost like he’s falling backwards a little at impact. Kang also seems to have some of Cespedes’s side-to-side hip movement, rather than the direct, centrifugal hip rotation of Posey and Abreu. On the other hand, Kang seems to do a slightly better job of rotating those hips through contact than Cespedes does.

Again, I’m not a swing analyst or a scout. I don’t know if my observations are “correct,” nor do I know how to translate these observations into concrete expectations. And of course, there’s more to MLB success than swing efficiency. For instance, Kang doesn’t have the raw power or the insane bat speed that allow Cespedes to succeed despite inefficient mechanics and a poor approach. We don’t yet know how Kang’s approach will translate, nor do we know enough about his makeup/character to guess at how well he’ll adjust to the States. And though Farnsworth might, I certainly have no clue whether he can get away with that huge leg kick as a timing mechanism in MLB.

But Kang does have above-average raw power and above-average bat speed. He appears to have an efficient swing path. And it appears, from context, that Farnsworth is optimistic about him. When you add all that to the fact that he was by far the best hitter in Korea, there seems to be some reason for optimism regarding his bat.

It’s so hard to reach any definitive conclusion about Kang, because we just don’t have any data about KBO hitters coming to MLB. But based on the information and analysis that is accumulating, I’m becoming more and more optimistic about him. If he can stick at SS, as Wray suggests, and hit .260 with 18 homers, as Sarris/Farnsworth suggest, he’ll be one hell of a player.

xBAbip and the 2015 Pirates

Jeff Zimmerman has created an expected BAbip metric that does a reasonable job of predicting future BAbip. It’s derived from batted ball type, hard contact rate, and speed score. He recently posted a table with the 2014 xBAbip for every player in the majors. With that info, we can glean some information about which Pirate hitters were lucky/unlucky last year. Even better, we can apply the information to those players’ 2015 projections. First of all, here are the 2015 Pirates as they appear on Zimmerman’s chart.

name PA xBAbip Babip diff
Pedro Florimon 86 0.310 0.130 0.180
Sean Rodriguez 259 0.317 0.235 0.082
Corey Hart 255 0.288 0.244 0.044
Gregory Polanco 312 0.295 0.272 0.023
Neil Walker 571 0.303 0.288 0.015
Pedro Alvarez 445 0.292 0.277 0.015
Jordy Mercer 555 0.281 0.285 -0.004
Josh Harrison 550 0.343 0.353 -0.010
Travis Snider 359 0.285 0.298 -0.013
Andrew McCutchen 648 0.337 0.355 -0.018
Starling Marte 545 0.338 0.373 -0.035
Jose Tabata 186 0.274 0.327 -0.053
Chris Stewart 154 0.275 0.364 -0.089
Francisco Cervelli 162 0.316 0.408 -0.092
Tony Sanchez 80 0.238 0.391 -0.153

There are reasons for optimism and pessimism there. Optimistically, Sean Rodriguez, Gregory Polanco, Neil Walker, and Pedro Alvarez were all slightly unlucky last year and should expect somewhat better BAbips going forward (all else being equal). Similarly, while Harrison, Marte, McCutchen, and Cervelli were all BAbip lucky last year, their expected BAbips are still very good. For Harrison in particular this is good news, as it suggests that his 2014 numbers weren’t entirely flukey.

On the pessimistic side, Mercer and Snider’s mediocre BAbips were actually both a bit lucky, and Chris Stewart, Jose Tabata, and Tony Sanchez are all just really bad. Luckily, one of those guys is a strong defensive catcher and two of them will spend the bulk of 2015 in AAA. Corey Hart is sort of the opposite of Josh Harrison: he was BAbip unlucky last year, but his xBAbip wasn’t too inspiring either.

If you adjust the 2014 batting lines by the xBAbips, apportioning or deducting the extra hits according to each player’s demonstrated 1b/2b/3b distribution, you get the following:

PA BA OBP SLG
Cervelli 162 0.240 0.315 0.356
Stewart 154 0.221 0.296 0.250
Alvarez 445 0.241 0.321 0.417
Hart 255 0.263 0.325 0.392
Walker 571 0.283 0.353 0.480
Rodriguez 259 0.262 0.305 0.519
Harrison 550 0.306 0.338 0.479
Marte 545 0.267 0.334 0.418
McCutchen 648 0.296 0.395 0.518
Polanco 312 0.249 0.319 0.361
Snider 359 0.255 0.330 0.425

NB: I left out Tabata, Sanchez, and Florimon because they’re not likely to be significant parts of the MLB team in 2015, and I left out Mercer because his xBAbip was so similar to his BAbip.

There’s not a ton to learn here. Chris Stewart is a terrible hitter who got extraordinarily lucky in 2014, but we already knew that. Cervelli got lucky, but he can hold his own with the stick. Alvarez and Hart are not exciting bats at 1b. Sean Rodriguez and Travis Snider are really good bench bats. Walker, McCutchen, and (surprisingly) Harrison are beasts. Marte is an above average hitter who does a lot of other things well, too. Polanco needs to get better in his second year.

Okay, now on to the fun part. As I mentioned, Zimmerman’s xBAbip metric correlates pretty well with next-year actual BAbip, so we can use the xBAbip numbers to find players the projections might be under- or overrating. Below are the 2015 Pirates’ Steamer projections using xBAbip in place of the projected BAbip.

BA OBP SLG
Cervelli 0.255 0.320 0.352
Stewart* 0.235 0.301 0.316
Alvarez* 0.242 0.317 0.448
Hart 0.244 0.301 0.419
Walker* 0.273 0.343 0.439
Rodriguez 0.254 0.311 0.407
Mercer 0.245 0.300 0.370
Harrison 0.305 0.342 0.460
Marte 0.267 0.324 0.420
McCutchen* 0.301 0.393 0.504
Polanco 0.262 0.321 0.398
Snider 0.240 0.309 0.404

For the players marked with asterisks, I simply copied the Steamer projection since Steamer’s projected BAbip was within .003 of the xBAbip. What can we learn from this chart?

Josh Harrison is again the biggest eye-opener. He might be really good, guys. McCutchen if, of course, awesome, and Walker and Marte are solid contributors.

Cervelli and Rodriguez were really good pickups. A catcher who defends as well as Cervelli doesn’t have to hit much, but Cervelli actually projects pretty well with the bat. Steamer projects an 89 wRC+; ZiPS projects a 96 OPS+; and this modified Steamer projection would put him somewhere between the two. The only thing holding Cervelli back is his health; if he manages to stay injury-free this season, he could make a big difference. If he’s not healthy though, the Pirates are looking at Stewart and Tony Sanchez behind the plate, which is not an appealing situation. Rodriguez, meanwhile, projects as an above-average hitter. For a guy who can play anywhere on the field, that’s awesome. He could easily be a second-division starter at 2b; as a bench piece he’s phenomenal.

The Alvarez/Hart tandem still doesn’t look exciting. If Hart bounces back a little and Alvarez is platooned strictly, they could be decent, but you need to platoon and knock on wood just to get second-division first-base production out of them. Mercer’s projection is downright scary. Mercer fans like to cite his 2013 and his post-May 2014 numbers, but selective endpoints are never going to steer you straight. The overall body of work, including the minor league numbers, suggest a second-division starter at best. Without the Pirates’ shifts masking his range limitations, he’d be a utility player for sure. These numbers suggest that the Pirates’ decision to pursue Kang might not have been solely about improving the bench. The ZiPS projection for Kang is .230/.299/.389; if he can handle shortstop, he’ll probably end up a better option than Mercer.

Despite Polanco’s presence and Snider’s good 2014, the RF picture is still a bit murky. Adjusting for xBAbip, Snider doesn’t project very well. There’s also the fact that he was the third-biggest flyball distance surger in 2014. His average flyball distance in 2014 was 29 feet greater than in 2013. That’s a good thing; more distance means more homeruns and extra-base hits. The problem is that extreme surgers usually give back a lot of those gains in the third year. It’s very possible that Snider goes back to being a below-average hitter in 2015. Polanco, again, needs to take a big step forward. He’s projected to improve next year, but the projection would make him a below-average corner outfielder, especially if his defense doesn’t improve. He’s certainly got the talent, but so did Snider once upon a time.

Aside from (potentially) Harrison, no one seems to be drastically under- or overrated. Overall, this looks like a good corps of hitters, especially from a depth perspective.

Pirates Officially Sign Jung-Ho Kang

Finally completing my epic, six-post Jung-Ho Kang saga, I can now say that it’s official: the Pirates have signed Kang for four years and $11M, plus an option year that could bring the total to 5/15.5. The final contract is less than Kang’s initial demands (no surprise, of course) and less than the terms reported a few days ago. In fact, the agreed-upon price is remarkably similar to the 3/10 I suggested in this post, three weeks ago. Given that I’ve also said that if push came to shove I’d be okay with meeting Kang’s reported demand of 4/20, I am really happy with 4/11. A few days ago, I wrote about the reported 4/16, “I think this was a really smart move.” At 4/11, I can remove all equivocation: this is a great move for the Pirates.

After five previous posts on the subject, there’s nothing more to say about Kang. He’s probably a utility player, but possibly a really good one. And there’s even a slim chance that he’s a borderline all-star. Paying 4/16 (including the posting fee) for that type of player is pretty much a no-brainer. It’s kind of surprising that teams like Oakland, Washington, Toronto, and the Mets, all of whom have or had holes in the middle infield, weren’t willing to outbid the Pirates here. Oakland’s lack of interest is particularly surprising, because that’s a team that obviously understands the value of depth and versatility. It’s possible that those other teams placed bids in the $4-5M range and the Pirates just lucked out in coming out on top.

It’s also possible that the Pirates are uniquely suited to capitalize on a player like Kang. I can think of at least two reasons for this. The first is that the Pirates’ aggressive shifting strategies on the infield might make a mediocre defender like Kang more palatable at shortstop. The Pirates’ current shortstop, Jordy Mercer, after all, is in some ways pretty mediocre. He fields and throws very cleanly, but his range is limited for a shortstop. Yet he has put up pretty good numbers defensively over the last couple years, and I’d wager a good chunk of money that the Pirates’ shifts are masking his deficiencies. It’s possible that the Pirates are betting that the shifts can do the same for Kang, that despite limited skills Kang’s glove will play just fine within the team’s overall defensive scheme.

Another characteristic that may have made Kang a uniquely good fit with the Pirates is that they don’t need him to be a starter, or even a major leaguer. That’s sort of counterintuitive, but let me explain. A team like Toronto, for instance, which needs a 2b, might have felt like they couldn’t take a risk with Kang because the $5-10M they would have to commit to him in 2015 would be $5-10M less that they’d have to spend on someone else. There’s an opportunity cost there, is what I’m saying. Maybe teams more desperate for middle infield help felt they had to save their money to put toward less risky players.

Whatever the case, it all worked toward the Pirates’ benefit. They got a good player for a good price. I’m looking forward to seeing what Kang can do in MLB.

P.S. – It’s very important to me that Buc fans don’t go with something obvious and lame like “King Kang” for Kang’s nickname, especially when there’s a just-slightly-less-obvious option that’s way cooler: H to the Izzo. We don’t have enough Jay-Z inspired nicknames in baseball, and Jung-Ho lends itself so perfectly. Jung-Hova would be a good one, too. If anyone knows Neverett or Brown, please plead the case with them. Also, if Kang used “Izzo” as his walk-up music, he will instantly become one of my favorite players. “That’s the anthem; get your damn hands up!”

Pirates Agree to Terms With Jung-Ho Kang

My last five posts here have all been about Jung-Ho Kang. I apologize, but that’s pretty much all that’s been happening over the last month or so. Today Jim Bowden reported that Kang had agreed to a four-year contract worth roughly $16M. The contract will include a fifth-year option of some sort. Assuming these details hold up and including the posting fee, the Pirates will pay $21M for Kang’s age 28-31 seasons.

Obviously, the big issue here is that no one knows quite what to expect from Kang. I’ve already gone into detail about the various possibilities elsewhere, so let’s keep this more focused. ZiPS projects Kang to hit .230/.299/.389 in 2015, good for a 93 OPS+ and ~1.5 WAR over 500 PA. He could be much better, of course (Brian Cartwright’s Oliver system projects an all-star-level performance), and he could certainly be worse, as well. But let’s take the ZiPS line for granted, for the sake of argument. I’ve made the Sean Rodriguez comparison before, and that’s pretty much what ZiPS projects (Rodriguez is a career .225/.297/.372 hitter).

Over the past four years, Rodriguez has been worth 3.6 fWAR (4.4 bWAR) in 1259 PA (about 315 per year). Those were Rodriguez’s age 26-29 seasons, while the Pirates are paying for Kang’s 28-31. You’d rather have 26-29, but 28-31 is pretty comparable, as far as the aging curves go. At $6M a win, you’d expect to pay about $24M on the free agent market for Rodriguez’s four wins, so the $21M the Pirates are paying for Kang seems pretty reasonable.

Of course, nobody would give a four-year contract to a utility player, even one as good as S-Rod has been. There aren’t a lot of good comps for Rodriguez, but normally you’d expect such a player to get a two-year deal. The extra two years are the price the Pirates are paying for Kang’s upside.

It looks like a good deal. For what Kang is projected to be, it’s a bit of an overpay, but it makes sense for the Pirates to overpay a bit for the chance that Kang can realize his upside. The total price isn’t outrageous, even if Kang becomes the new Tabata, and if Kang manages to turn into, say, Ian Desmond the deal will be a huge value.

I think this was a really smart move on the Pirates’ part. I don’t know whether Kang will ultimately succeed in MLB, but he obviously has the potential to be a pretty good player. The Pirates don’t get many chances to add MLB players with all-star potential in the prime of their careers, and I’m glad they opened their pocketbooks ever-so-slightly to pay for Kang’s upside.

Finding At-Bats For Jung-Ho Kang

Assuming the Pirates can sign Jung-Ho Kang, and also assuming they don’t trade anyone to open a full-time role for him, the Pirates’ 25-man roster will include these position players:

c Francisco Cervelli
c Chris Stewart
1b Pedro Alvarez
1b/rf Corey Hart
2b Neil Walker
if Jung-Ho Kang
if Jordy Mercer
if/of Josh Harrison
if/of Sean Rodriguez
cf Andrew McCutchen
of Starling Marte
of Gregory Polanco
of Travis Snider

There’s not a lot of flexibility there. The only guy with options who might conceivably be optioned would be Kang himself. That’s a possibility, I guess, especially if Kang looks like he can’t hang in the majors when he shows up at spring training. But the most likely scenario is that these guys are the 13 position players on the Opening Day roster.

If that’s the way they go, that’s a lot of players who need at-bats. I was initially concerned about getting everyone adequate playing time, but the more I think about it the easier it seems. At this point, I’m more excited about the phenomenal depth than worried about finding a spot for everyone. Of course, injury and/or ineffectiveness could sort it all out naturally, but even assuming everyone’s healthy and productive, I think there will be enough at-bats to go around.

Helpfully, the roster is very versatile. There are two guys (Harrison, Rodriguez) who can play pretty much anwhere; three outfielders who can handle all three outfield spots; an infielder (Mercer) who can play 2b, ss, or 3b; and another infielder (Kang) who should, in theory, be able to play 2b, ss, and 3b. Snider, Hart, and Alvarez are less versatile, but all three are able to play multiple positions. That versatility will allow Hurdle to mix up the lineup enough to get everyone playing time.

Ideally, you’d hope the Pirates could find 500+ PA for all of Cutch, Walker, Harrison, Marte, Polanco, and Kang. Mercer probably needs 500+ too, just because he’s the only proven SS. You’d hope to get Alvarez 400+ PA but platooning him will suppress his at-bat total naturally. Hart and Snider, if they perform to expectation, should get 300-350 PA. Sean Rodriguez, as a utility player on a one-year deal, is the only guy who doesn’t need consistent at-bats.

I think the Pirates can manage all that, more or less, as long as Hurdle’s as flexible as his roster. Just as a thought experiment, here’s how it could shake out:

Last year, the Pirates accumulated 6224 PA, 345 of which were taken by pitchers and 676 were taken by catchers. Russell Martin hit high in the order, though, often in the fifth spot. In 2015, the team’s catchers will almost always occupy the 8-hole, so they’re likely to eat fewer PA. The 8-hole got 643 PA, so less a few for pinch-hitters, we can estimate 640 PA for catchers next year. That leaves (6224-345-640=) 5239 PA for non-catcher position players.

Some of those PA will be taken by guys not on the opening day roster, as players are called up to cover for injuries, etc. Last year, 404 PA went to players other than the top 13 position players. Eighty of those 404 went to a catcher (Tony Sanchez), and we don’t want to double-count catcher PA, so that leaves us with 324 PA for non-catcher reserves. Subtracting that from our total leaves 4915 PA for our 11 non-catcher position players. I’d split them up something like this:

Cutch 665
Walker 550
Marte 550
Harrison 550
Mercer 550
Polanco 500
Alvarez 450
Kang 400
Snider 300
Hart 250
Rodriguez 150

Cutch has been very consistent, average 665 PA in his five full seasons. The team obviously wants him on the field as much as possible, so that’s 665 PA spoken for. For various health reasons, Walker and Marte have both been limited to around 550 PA the last few seasons, so we’ll expect around that amount for each of them. Mercer and Harrison both got about 550 PA last year, so a repeat seems like a solid expectation.

In 2012-13, when Alvarez was healthy and playing full-time, he got about 450 PA a year against RHP. With so many right-handed options on the roster (Hart and Rodriguez can both play 1b, and Kang, Mercer, and Harrison can probably all handle it in a pinch), the Pirates should be able to platoon him rather strictly. So let’s say he’ll get 450 PA (400 against RHP, since platooning him strictly will cut down a bit on his appearances vs. righties, too, such as when he’s removed in the sixth inning for a pinch-hitter only to have his lineup spot come up again in the ninth against a righty).

You’d like both Polanco and Kang to get 500 PA, but I don’t think it can be done. But Kang is used to playing a 128-game schedule in Korea, because of which he’s only averaged 517 PA a season over the last three years. Giving him 400 PA in 2015 should be a good amount to get him acclimated to the big leagues without overtaxing him or wasting him. Polanco they can and should give 500 PA.

That leaves 700 PA for Hart, Snider, and Rodriguez. You’d love to see Snider get 350-400 PA to build on his promising 2014, but the reality of his situation is that he’s only under control through 2016 anyway. Despite his upside, it’s perfectly appropriate for the Pirates to treat him as just a good fourth outfielder and give him playing time accordingly. I have him penciled in for 300 PA, which seems adequate. That leaves Hart and Rodriguez. Both players are valuable bench pieces (assuming Hart is fully recovered from his knee troubles), but both are one-year rentals. They’ll be gone after 2015, so it’s appropriate for the Pirates to use them strictly as fill-ins. I have Hart getting 250 PA as the weak side of the 1b platoon, leaving about 150 PA for Rodriguez as the utility guy.

I think that’s a good plan, one that should keep everyone satisfied, engaged, and well-rested without limiting any of the younger players’ growth. If the team has particularly bad luck with injuries, the playing time will take care of itself, and if they’re particularly lucky there will be even more PA to go around, as they won’t have to give as much playing time to minor league reserves.