Yesterday in my September call-ups preview, there were some questions about Matt Hague. Most of the questions revolved around his upside, which I’ve always believed was an average Major League first baseman at best. In those types of previews, I try to go with what I think the Pirates will do, although I include my own thoughts on the subject.
When it comes to the Pirates and Hague, things don’t look promising for a September call-up. Let’s start by considerig the Pirates situation at first base. Through the month of June, Lyle Overbay had a .230/.307/.358 line in the majors, which is far from what you want to see from your starting first baseman. Meanwhile, Matt Hague was coming off a month where he hit for a .402/.449/.645 line. The combination of the two stat lines started the #FreeMattHague chant on Twitter.
June was really a breakout month for Hague. In April, he started off slow with a .271 average and a .699 OPS. That could be chalked up to being just his first month in AAA. In May he hit for a .308 average, but had a .782 OPS, which isn’t really ideal for a first baseman, and was mostly due to a lack of power.
It didn’t help matters that Hague struggled some in July, with a .279 average and an .812 OPS, again seeing a bit of a drop off in power. The Pirates were obviously looking at a first base upgrade, and opted to trade for Derrek Lee at the end of the month. If there was a time to give Hague, or even John Bowker, a shot, it was in July.
After Derrek Lee was acquired, he went down with a hand injury, and is now currently on the disabled list. The Pirates have been going with Garrett Jones at first base. Meanwhile, Hague is heating back up, with a .313 average in August, and an .871 OPS. Once again, this marks a perfect time to see what Hague can do in the majors.
There’s a few things to consider about Hague’s future, and his success this year. First of all, he has one really outstanding month in AAA, and for the most part he’s been around an .800 OPS outside of the month of April. We also have to consider that his numbers in AAA won’t translate over to his numbers in the majors. He’s got a .317 average and an .857 OPS, with 12 homers in 470 at-bats. That doesn’t mean he’s going to put up the same stat line in the majors.
Consider for a second that John Bowker has a career .313/.390/.539 line in over 1000 AAA at-bats, yet he has a .237 average and a .679 OPS in 561 major league at-bats. Or there’s Steve Pearce, who has a career .281/.352/.483 line in 940 AAA at-bats, but a .234 average and a .673 OPS in 461 career major league at-bats.
History is littered with players who have had success at AAA, only to wash out in the majors. That doesn’t guarantee that Hague will be one of those players. It just means that you can’t look at his numbers in AAA and compare them to the numbers of someone in the majors, then suggest Hague would be a guaranteed upgrade.
As far as Hague making the jump to the majors, the biggest issue would be a lack of power. You can point out his high batting average in AAA, but the key for a first baseman is power. Guys who hit for a good average and get on base, while having little power, tend to be fringe starters in the majors. And what if the average doesn’t hold up? What if Hague hits for a .270 average with no power in the majors?
Another issue has been Hague’s history against left handed pitching. He’s gradually gotten better, going from a .750 OPS in 2009, to a .762 OPS in 2010, to his current .802 OPS in 2011. One encouraging sign is that most of the production this year has come in the last two months, although I hesitate to weigh two months over two and a half years of a platoon split.
Looking at Hague in a vacuum, you see a first baseman with a history of a platoon split, and lacking the power you want from a first baseman. Hague hits for average, and gets on base at a good rate. He also plays strong defense. However, there’s no guarantee the average translates to the majors, and the defense is more of the icing on the cake for first basemen.
When you look at the Pirates’ situation, they’ve had Lyle Overbay struggling all year, Garrett Jones showing that he’s not really a starting option, and no first base options in the near future, with the closest after Hague being Matt Curry, who could arrive in June 2012 on a very optimistic timeline. Derrek Lee is currently hurt, and the Pirates have no starter going in to the 2012 season.
Hague isn’t a guaranteed upgrade, and at best, he profiles as more of a stop gap player than a starter for the future. I’ve always said that his upside is an average major league first baseman, which would have been an improvement throughout this season (hence, the #FreeMattHague talk). There is the concern that Hague might not live up to that ceiling, as there is a concern with any prospect.
The way I see it, the Pirates don’t have anything to lose here. Once again, they have a need for a first baseman, at least until Derrek Lee returns. Maybe Hague won’t be any more than an average first baseman. Maybe his numbers in AAA won’t translate over to the majors. However, the Pirates have very little to lose. Hague turns 26 years old tomorrow. If he’s not in the long term plans, then calling him up to see what he can do in the final month of the season doesn’t hurt the Pirates. If he doesn’t carry his success over to the majors, nothing lost. However, if he can prove to be an average first baseman, maybe the Pirates stick with him in 2012, thus allowing them to pass on a first baseman over the off-season, and focus on other positions, while waiting for Matt Curry or Alex Dickerson to eventually upgrade the first base position.
Hague might not carry his stats over to the majors. He might not be an upgrade for the Pirates. He might not even live up to his “league average” potential. But the Pirates have nothing to lose by giving him a chance. I’d much rather see that happen, and see Hague sink or swim, rather than just passing him over and assuming one of those two results would have taken place. Considering there are no long term first basemen on the major league team, I don’t see the harm in this approach.