Rangers Nab A.J. Pierzynski

To date, it hasn’t been the offseason that the Texas Rangers wanted it to be. There’s still plenty of time, and the team still has plenty of talent, but the Rangers have been looking to make a move of significance. Later Thursday, they were able to make one, locking up free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski. And more, while Pierzynski is coming off arguably the best season of his entire big-league career, the Rangers got him for one year and $7.5 million. While Pierzynski doesn’t make the Rangers into something they weren’t by himself, he fills a need with so little risk the Rangers could hardly afford not to sign him.

With Geovany Soto and Eli Whiteside, the Rangers already had catchers, but they didn’t have good catchers, or left-handed-hitting catchers with a fair amount of power. While it’s presently unclear exactly how Pierzynski and Soto will split time, Pierzynski has exceeded 500 plate appearances in every season but one since 2003. In that one, he reached 497. Pierzynski has proven that he can handle an awful lot of work, and Soto just batted .198.

This Pierzynski contract isn’t one to flip out about, by any means. Pierzynski is an aging, unspectacular player coming off a late-career year and coming out of a hitter-friendly ballpark. A $7.5-million salary isn’t something you find in the sofa unless you’re somewhere in or near Dodger Stadium. But the Rangers filled a need and didn’t have to go beyond 2013 to do it. For reference, the FanGraphs crowd predicted that Pierzynski would sign for two years and $18 million. The crowd has thus far been eerily accurate, and Pierzynski signed for a lesser commitment than almost everyone expected.

There are, of course, concerns, and all of them are legitimate. Pierzynski didn’t sign a multi-year deal, and there are reasons for that. In a few days, Pierzynski will officially turn 36, and that’s pretty old for a regular backstop. You expect that a player at this point will be in his decline phase, and you expect that the next season will be worse than the previous season. Seldom do players maintain strong performances as they approach 40.

There are questions about Pierzynski’s defense. This is reportedly the reason the Yankees stayed away, even though Pierzynski’s swing is a perfect fit for the ballpark. Looking at the pitch-framing numbers, Pierzynski is neither good nor bad, but he’s below-average at blocking pitches, he’s below-average at throwing runners out, and he’s had confrontations with his pitchers about game-calling. You don’t acquire A.J. Pierzynski as an alternative to Jose Molina.

Pierzynski is also known for his fiery, irritating personality, and he’s sort of the baseball equivalent of a hockey agitator. In the heat of competition, plenty of players can’t stand him, and away from the heat of competition, plenty of players still can’t stand him. Pierzynski was recently voted baseball’s most hated player, and so you can’t predict how he’ll fit into a new clubhouse. He could potentially be disruptive, or worse.

And then there’s the matter of Pierzynski going from 13 home runs to nine home runs to eight home runs to 27 home runs. Pierzynski, in 2012, beat his previous career-high for dingers by 50%, and there’s every reason to be skeptical of such a late-career spike. His 118 wRC+ was his first above-average wRC+ since 2003, and you just can’t expect that sort of performance to repeat, at Pierzynski’s age.

All of these are valid. No one’s going to tell you that Pierzynski is guaranteed to be a good player and a good teammate in 2013. He could be unpopular, and he could be unsuccessful, and then the Rangers would have a mess on their hands. But it would be a minor mess, because Pierzynski isn’t costing a fortune and he’s only got the one-year commitment. There’s so little risk with a one-year deal like this, and consider what Pierzynski just did.

At 35, Pierzynski set career highs in home runs and wRC+. One can’t just pretend that didn’t happen, and one can’t just erase that from his performance history. You expect that players at Pierzynski’s age will get worse, but Pierzynski just performed a lot better and that has to be factored into any future projection. Specific data points are probably more meaningful than general principles.

Pierzynski’s defense isn’t a strength, but that’s only a part of the whole picture. Michael Young‘s defense wasn’t a strength, but the Rangers still loved him. And as for Pierzynski’s personality, that could realistically go either way, and there’s no way to predict it. Odds are, Pierzynski is one of those guys you hate to play against but love to play with, and it’s not reasonable to think that Pierzynski might bring down the whole clubhouse. He’s one guy, and he’s driven by a desire to win, and that’ll probably do more good than harm. Even if you disagree, there’s no basis for asserting the opposite.

This past season was an interesting one for Pierzynski. Aside from the home runs, he reduced his groundball rate while making less contact and striking out more often. That doesn’t confirm anything, but that suggests an adjustment to his swing, which would imply that the homer spike might not have been a complete coincidence. Pierzynski might have made an effort to make power more of his game. And while it’s unquestionable that Pierzynski benefited from his environment — over his White Sox career, he hit 74 dingers at home and 44 dingers on the road — he isn’t leaving U.S. Cellular for a neutral park. Texas is actually more friendly to left-handed batters than Chicago is, with a similar home-run factor and a higher overall runs factor. Pierzynski might not post the same sort of power numbers in Los Angeles or Oakland, but he didn’t commit to playing half his games in Los Angeles or Oakland.

If Pierzynski simply goes back to what he was before 2012, he’ll be more or less worth the contract the Rangers gave him. But 2012 happened, too, introducing new information. In the simplest of terms, Pierzynski’s player page gives him a 2012 WAR of 3.4, and the Rangers got him for a year and $7.5 million. Of course Pierzynski probably won’t WAR 3.4 again in 2013. But if any of those gains carry over, he could be a small bargain, and if they don’t, he could and should be just fine. That makes this a perfectly sensible acquisition.

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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.

23 Responses to “Rangers Nab A.J. Pierzynski”

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  1. Steve says:

    Hi Jeff. :-)

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  2. Jerry says:

    Good article, Jeff. Catcher, I think, is definitely the toughest position to evaluate from a sabermetric perspective. UZR cannot always paint an accurate picture of a catcher’s defense. Pitch framing and pitch calling metrics continued to get tweaked , and the impact of these metrics has yet to be fully integrated into WAR. More and more teams are taking defensively challenged catchers and giving them playing time at 1st or DH. From this perspective, AJ is a slightly older, worse, but much cheaper version than Mike Napoli for Texas. Unspectacular signing, but as you say, a sensible one for a short term solution.

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    • Angus Archer says:

      Remember last week when the entire fangraph community reveled in pointing out J.P. Arencibia’s inability to walk? A.J. Pierzynski has made a career of not taking pitches. In fact, Arencibia’s 2011 BB total was 27% higher than Pierzynski’s career best.

      The difference is that Pierzynski’s I-don’t-walk mentality is mitigated by his league average contact rate. Despite the last two seasons of career numbers, you would assume age will become a factor and his bat will start to slow down.

      Right? RIGHT? Well…

      If Pierzynski does show his age next year. If he makes less contact the Rangers are left with an old cranky (relatively) expensive catcher who can’t hit, walk and plays below-average defense. In other words, he will be keeping the bench warm for the less unspectacular alternatives for like Soto and Whiteside.

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  3. Tom says:

    George W. Bush did WTC

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  4. kevinthecomic says:

    Whenever I hear AJP’s name, all I can think of is Ozzie Guillen’s quote:

    “When AJP is on the team you are playing, you hate him. When AJP is on your team, you hate him a little less.”

    That being said, I’d rather have a cancer in the clubhouse with talent than a leader in the clubhouse with no talent.

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  5. Will H. says:

    You were going fine until this:

    “At 35, Pierzynski set career highs in home runs and wRC+. One can’t just pretend that didn’t happen, and one can’t just erase that from his performance history. You expect that players at Pierzynski’s age will get worse, but Pierzynski just performed a lot better and that has to be factored into any future projection.”

    If I am going to use his HR going – from age 28 onward – 18, 16, 14, 13, 13, 9, 8 … before then exploding up to 27 HRs in his age 35 season, I am going to use it as a massive sign of caution. He did that not only after what he did worse and worse at since aging from his peak every single year, but also did so on knees that were in their twelfth year as the #1 catcher for his team.

    But you seem to imply it needs to be factored into his future projection because, well, he just did it, despite the reams of context the rest of your article laid out up till this point. I don’t know, clearly you’re not alone as Bill James has him now returning to his age 28 and 29 year peak in terms of homers based on just that.

    My prediction is a 50-game suspension.

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    • KDL says:

      The thrust of your point seems to be: a mountain of evidence says 27 HR was fluke. And that’s a reasonable point.

      But if you’re championing reasonable, fact-based arguments…why no evidence supporting your 50-game suspension prediction?

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      • Cidron says:

        rarely is there evidence outside circumstantial (until some news outlet reports the suspension, then we go “ok, no surprise there” )

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    • CJ says:

      He hit 27 home runs. He hit 27 home runs. You don’t get to think he didn’t. Projection systems will take a weighted average of his production over 4 years, regress to the mean, and age.

      I’m fairly sure there’s been studies done over at The Book Blog showing that “career years” have no special predictive value; that is, you just treat all the years the same way. Of course AJ’s power projection will go up.

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    • Angus Archer says:

      There is little doubt in my mind that the Game is any cleaner than it was 10 years ago. I’m certain performance-enhancing drugs are still being taken, and that the science is ahead of the regulations.

      Only in the steroids era do you find players posting career power numbers in their late thirties. Any other historical comparison shows a correlation between age and decreased power. Take, for instance, the three best (non-steroid era) catchers in MLB history–Berra, Bench and Carter–whom each had their power statistics deteriorate as they aged.

      Certainly players are cheating – See Braun, Cabrera, etc. Anyone here would put cheating past the AJ “me, me, me” Pierznski? A player who probably recognizes his tenure of a baseball player is in its twilight. A player who figures he will not make the cut for Hall of Fame recognition. A player who knows he only has a few pay cheques, signed by the MLB, remaining.

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      • Stringer Bell says:

        “Only in the steroids era do you find players posting career power numbers in their late thirties.” Is it fun living in such a delusional place, and having such a broad and ridiculous view of steroids?

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      • Cidron says:

        yeah. there used to be this guy …forget his name, but, over a 23 yr career, hit on avg 37 homers a year.. but, spiked up to 44 three times, and 47 once.. including at ages 37 (47hr) and 35. Profiles as a steroid user, right? Oh, Now I recall his name.. Hank Aaron.

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    • Otter says:

      I’m not sure… I put this together in early September, so the last 20 or so games of the season aren’t included, but it still pretty much works:
      AJ’s walks are the same as always. However, his K rate is above his career average and his power numbers are through the roof. We see this a lot with guys who are swinging for the fences, higher K rates but increased power numbers. AJ would fit that criteria.

      His BABIP is a tad below his career average, his batting average is right on his normal mark, as is OBP… but again, slugging sticks out like the outlier of ourliers in his career numbers. He’s also posting career bests in wOBA and wRC+.

      So AJ is hitting for a lot more power this year, and at the same time he’s seen a spike in his K rate. He is playing more than usual, but AJ has always played a lot for a catcher. There’s a case to speculate that he’s been juicing, but you can also say that AJ’s always been a pretty big guy and instead of focusing on making contact, he’s attempting to kill the ball in order to get another contract.

      Let’s dig a tad deeper: line drive rate is about the same, ground ball rate a tad down, and fly ball rate a tad higher than career averages. Oh wait, what’s this? A 19.5% home run to fly ball ratio… might this be the reason he’s seen a huge spike in power? Yes, it’d be a great reason as to why, it’s twice his career average. AJ’s fly balls are leaving the yard this year…

      Seems to me either AJ is swinging for the fences making a little less contact but hitting the ball harder, getting lucky, he’s got a little extra in the tank or the hot summer has lead to his fly balls carrying just a tad bit more. Maybe there’s another reason, but those are my four best guesses.

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  6. channelclemente says:

    “Nab” as a deal term says so much. Sort of like spinach between your teeth, or a mosquito in a zapper.

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  7. Scott says:

    Funny… as a CWS fan, I wish he was coming back. Rangers don’t get much better it seems, everyone seem apathetic, but the CWS sure got worse. Flowers… please.

    I’ll always love him for 2005′s play vs. the Angels where he deceived the umpires.

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  8. DRM says:

    Here in San Francisco, Pierzynski is most famous for a newspaper story alleging that he kneed trainer Stan Conte in the groin.

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  9. MikeS says:

    I think the Angels still remember the 2005 ALCS, and not just for the drop third strike. He was in the middle of several…odd…plays. That will never show up in WAR, but neither does catcher defense.

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  10. Sourbob says:

    Soto was awful last year, but given that he’ll only be 30 next year and that, even including his awful 2012, he’s still 11th in WAR among all MLB catchers since 2008, you’d think someone would be willing to give him a starting job.

    Mind you, I’m not saying he’s ever going to be the player he once seemed he’d be. I’m not saying teams should be brimming with confidence on him. But given how shallow the talent pool is for catchers these days, you’d think someone would roll the dice on him. Four years of being useful-to-good, one year of bad play and he’s a benchwarmer? Yikes.

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