Justin Morneau and the Pirates’ First Base Platoon

The Pirates are (probably) going to the playoffs for the first time since 1992. According to the various versions of playoff odds now available at FanGraphs, Pittsburgh currently has at least a 95 percent change of making the playoffs. Their chances of winning the National League Central are much lower, so that throws them into the single-game playoff mix, but getting in is getting in.

The team is not resting on their laurels, though. Having already acquired Marlon Byrd and John Buck from the Mets, the Pirates are now rumored to be trying to get Justin Morneau from the Twins. The Pirates have mostly utilized a first base platoon with Garrett Jones and Gaby Sanchez and are still positioned to reach the postseason. So, how much of an improvement would the ghost of Morneau provide?

Although the Jones-Sanchez platoon did not look thrilling prior to the season, the Pirates did not have too many other options, and it did project to maximize production at a relatively small cost. In other words, it was a smart move.

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh, the platoon did not provide even the mediocre production for which they were hoping. Sanchez has done his part against lefties this season, as he has posted a 169 wRC+ against them. However, fewer than half of his plate appearances have come against southpaws, and his overall wRC+ this year is 111. That is not great for a first baseman, but it was about what one would expect overall, and platoons cannot always be executed perfectly due to injuries and other issues.

It is Jones’ performance that has been problematic. After his .274/.317/.516 (123 wRC+), poor man’s Corey Hart impression in 2012, Jones fell apart at the plate this year. He is sporting just a .235/.292/.409 (95 wRC+) line at the moment. Although his strikeouts are up, the main problem has been the departure of his home run power relative to last year. Jones’ split is absolutely huge this year (-42 wRC+ versus lefties in 21 plate appearances, 102 wRC+ versus righties in 376 PA), which would be nice for a platoon player, except he has not even been that great versus righties. It is not the size of the split in itself that is problematic — indeed, the bigger the split the better for a platoon player. It is the overall performance that has been bad for the Pirates.

The issue at this point is not what has happened so far, but what the Pirates can expect going forward. The team has plenty of information we do not. Perhaps Jones is dealing with a lingering injury issue, for example. From the information we do have though, we can still look at what the platoon might provide at first base.

There are issues with using rest-of-season projections this late, but that is better than just going by a partial season of observed performance (especially from part-time players like Sanchez and Jones). Without pretending to be precise, let’s average Steamer and ZiPS and say they are both roughly true talent .325 wOBA hitters. Using a basic method for estimating hitter platoon skill, Jones still projects as a .337 wOBA hitter versus righties, and Sanchez as a .349 wOBA hitter versus lefties. No platoon ends up matching up perfectly, but assuming that they would face two-thirds righties, that would be about a .340 wOBA. That is not mind-blowing for first base, but it does project to be about average for the position, and certainly looks better than what they have done so far this year.

As for Morneau, baseball fans mostly know the story here: he was a good, not great player up until 2010, when he went on a monster tear for just over half a season, got a concussion, and has not been the same since. There are teams interested in him now, reportedly because of his recent hot streak, but his seasonal line for 2013 still stands at just .261/.318/.420 (101 wRC+). Sure, Target Field probably deflates his power numbers, but even so, that is not much production from a first baseman.

ZiPS (.328 projected wOBA) and Steamer (.335) like Morneau a bit better than either Sanchez or Jones individually. Morneau’s Steamer projection is not as good as the Sanchez-Jones platoon’s projected production, though. It’s close enough, but Pittsburgh is not looking for close enough — they want to improve.

The obvious answer, of course, is that Pittsburgh should (and probably would) use Morneau to replace just Jones and still give Sanchez the plate appearances versus southpaws as much as possible. Using the same method as above, Morneau projects as a .350 wOBA hitter versus righties, about the same as Sanchez projects versus lefties. The overall platoon jumps from about .340 with Jones to about .350 with Morneau. Over a full season that is a five run improvement. It is a nice gain, other issues aside. But the change would not be for a full season, it would just be for the roughly 30 games left, which means maybe a one-run improvement.

This does not mean the Pirates should not do it. As noted earlier, there may be something specific going on with Jones that is not public knowledge. Maybe they see something specific with Morneau’s recent plate appearances (something beyond a recent hot streak). Even then, the difference is likely to be negligible.

Pittsburgh would have to pick up the rest of Morneau’s salary ($2-$3 million of the year), and so from a basic numerical perspective, it may not be worth it given that their playoff spot is very unlikely to change based on this move. But insignificant things in isolation add up as part of an overall strategy. Given the Pirates’ playoff drought, another couple million dollars for only a slight boost in production may not be brilliant, but it is understandable.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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Brian L
Brian L

On top of this, its worth stressing that while a GM should make decisions based on expected levels of production over a period of games, on the field games are often won and lost on individual plays. With the game on the line in a situation where that one victory could mean the play-in game or not, you’d take as good a hitter at the plate as you could get, no matter if he’s only a tiny upgrade over the next guy and costs more than that upgrade is worth. You expect those game-on-the-line situations to even out over a season, which is how a GM should be thinking in general, but that slightly higher shot at a game-winning hit is magnified in this situation. And maybe that’s the sort of factor that’s part of your thinking when you deem the move understandable, despite the likely overpay in terms of production per price – both conclusions I agree with.