2015 First Base Recap: Defense Was a Problem For Pedro Alvarez and Josh Bell

Heading into the 2012 season, there were concerns about whether Pedro Alvarez could hit in the majors. Playing third base at the time, Alvarez was coming off a year where he posted a .191/.272/.289 line in 262 plate appearances, which was a far cry from the numbers he put up in his 2010 debut, where he had a .256/.326/.461 line in 386 plate appearances.

The Pirates stuck with Alvarez, and he responded with a .244/.317/.467 line, while hitting 30 homers in 586 plate appearances. It wasn’t the most dominant performance, but it was enough to get the Pirates, and Pirates fans, comfortable with Alvarez in the majors. Those numbers were extremely valuable from the third base position, where Alvarez didn’t have the best defense, but was passable.

Alvarez had a repeat of those numbers in 2013, but something changed in 2014. His power dropped, and he suddenly couldn’t make accurate throws from third base anymore. The defensive problems were so bad that the Pirates ended up replacing him at third with Josh Harrison, and eventually moved him to first base. And so, heading into the 2015 season, there were more concerns about Alvarez, only this time the concerns surrounded his ability to play defense.

Unfortunately, those concerns ended up being legit, and unlike 2012, Alvarez wasn’t able to make people comfortable with the idea that he could start for the Pirates in the future. The irony here is that Alvarez posted almost the exact offensive numbers that he had in 2012. However, those same offensive numbers at first base, combined with horrible defense at first base, were worth far less than the same numbers combined with poor defense at third, as you can see in the chart below.


Alvarez had a -9.1 UZR/150 at third base in 2012. He had a -26.4 UZR/150 at first base in 2015. That difference was primarily the reason he went from a guy you start to a replacement level player, despite the same offense. And the defense didn’t look to be getting better any time soon.

The Pirates switched Aramis Ramirez over to first base in the second half, but that was short-lived, as he moved back to third after Jung-ho Kang went down with an injury. They acquired Michael Morse as a right-handed platoon option at the deadline, and saw him put up good numbers down the stretch. They also used Sean Rodriguez in a defensive-replacement role, getting offense from Alvarez early in the game, and defense from Rodriguez late when they had a lead. This led to some controversy in the Wild Card game when they started Rodriguez to get defense early, although Alvarez didn’t provide any offense when they made the switch after two and a half innings, striking out three times.

The defensive problems at first base for Alvarez make it seem unlikely that he will return for the 2016 season, especially since he is due for a raise in arbitration to a projected $8.1 M.

The Future

Defense was a problem not just for Alvarez, but also for the first baseman of the future, Josh Bell. The Pirates moved Bell to first base over the off-season, due to the fact that they had their outfield set for the future in Pittsburgh with Andrew McCutchen, Gregory Polanco, and Starling Marte. They also didn’t have any first base prospects in the upper levels, which made the move of Bell to first make sense across the board.

Bell struggled with his defense throughout the year, and while there were times he showed improvements, he’s not yet a finished product. This was shown at the end of the year when he missed two routine catches in the playoffs.

The defensive struggles are a bit more expected in Bell’s case. He’s an outfielder who is now getting his first experience in the infield. Not only does he have to learn a new position, but he also has to adjust to the speed of the game and being involved in every play. In Alvarez’s case, you’ve got a third baseman moving across the diamond to the opposite corner, which isn’t exactly easy, but isn’t as difficult with the speed of the game aspect.

Bell also had to focus on improving his hitting at the same time, and those results ended up much stronger than the defense. He experimented with a leg kick throughout the year, but never became fully comfortable with the addition in Altoona. After making an adjustment in Triple-A, Bell started seeing better results, especially in the power department. He put up a .347/.441/.504 line in 145 plate appearances, with a .157 ISO, showing an improvement over his .120 ISO in Altoona.

There is a lot of raw power from Bell that is largely untapped, and the hope is that this adjustment will finally tap into that raw power. The power largely comes from the left side, with Bell showing some alarming platoon splits. He had a .334/.419/.501 line in 415 plate appearances from the left side this year, compared to a .275/.323/.310 line in 157 plate appearances from the right side. The swing from the left side is smooth, and the power comes easy. The swing from the right side can look awkward at times, is largely inconsistent, and as a result, lacks power.

Bell is in no way a finished product. He’s still in the minors for a reason, and still making adjustments to try and fix the issues he currently has. So while it’s a possibility that he will result in a poor defensive option who is only good at the plate against right-handers, there is still time for him to show improvements. He’s a very smart player and is open to coaching, even when the adjustments make him uncomfortable, which means he could make the necessary changes quickly.

The Pirates will need a first baseman for at least the first half of the 2016 season, and it doesn’t look like Alvarez will be that guy. They do have Michael Morse on the roster, and he wouldn’t be a bad stopgap until Bell arrives. It was only a year ago that Morse put up a .279/.336/.475 line with the Giants. He had a .275/.390/.391 line in his short time with the Pirates, and while the power was down, he showed tremendous raw power in batting practice, including putting home runs on the upper levels of the rotunda at PNC Park on several occasions.

Morse doesn’t have good defense, but he’s much better than Alvarez, and his offensive upside would be enough to take a gamble on. He also doesn’t really have platoon splits, so he could be a regular starter during the first half, and an insurance option for Bell as a platoon guy in the second half if Bell doesn’t fix his issues from the right side of the plate.

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Bell will never be now than barely adequate defensively @ 1B IMO

Barry R

Don’t worry people! Pedro is working on his fielding at Vanderbilt University right now!

Bruce Humbert

Take the money that Pedro would make via arbitration and invest it in Park – the Korean 1b slugger 50 + HR the last two years


Lets all be smart about this please!
Bell will NOT be up here to start we all know that. He shouldn’t be up either. End

Morse has always been hurt. Counting on him to produce and stay healthy is highly unlikely.

Pedro. Does 23 errors all the sudden send Pedro out? All your looking at is WAR. he is 0.2 War so he’s garbage. Be real. He’s our main HR Threat. He is our big bat. Because WAR says 0.2 we have to get rid of him now. I don’t get it.

Walker at 1B. Is this the option we should go? I disagree. I’m bringing back Pedro. Take your WAR and shove it where the sun don’t shine.


You kinda have a point here. I don’t believe in using WAR or OPS as gospel, but they are a brush that helps you paint the story. He only really has value to an american league team unless he can fix his fielding issues. As many have said, he really NEVER had fielding problems in his career. Only at first. He also threw (for the most part) better at first, but couldn’t at third. It’s just weird. Is there an answer that allows Pedro to be a 2 WAR player next year? There is really no reason why he can’t get better at first because he can’t literally get worse


I was a big Pedro fan, now I wouldn’t mind seeing him in another uniform next year. For all his power, he normally has a low slugging percentage, why? Is boom or bust, now if the boom equals 100+ rbi then I’ll take it, but is does not. So his only tool is barely productive, there is a reason we have people like Marte, Kang batting behind McCutchen…..because all that power can’t be counted on to produce or protect. I just hope he is at least able to bring back anything in trade, but perhaps the best the team could hope is something along the lines of C.J. Wilson and money


I would take that happily


Spot on piraterican21,

An OPS of .686 with RISP from your power hitter who can field. I’ve always been a Pedro supporter. Thought the move to first would make him take off. Unfortunately it didn’t and now it’s time to move on. I think he will still take off. Just won’t be in Pittsburgh

Chuck C

Can you say Yankee’s???

IC Bob

Not sure Bell can’t handle a FT job if he gets it (in June of coarse). Though 275 is not near 344 from the Left side 275 is way better then Pedro from his good side and the same as Morse. I know power is down but given time to work on it (while still hitting for average) it should increase in time. Now about the defense I have a feeling he is going to need a lot of work on that part before he can play with the big boys.


The weirdest thing about Pedro, is that he made ONE fielding error in 2014. He moves across the diamond and all of a sudden he can’t catch. I wonder if he ever bought into it?


I never understood it either. The only thing I can think of is a dominant eye- opposite perspectives giving him problems, taking throws giving him problems. I really don’t know. I’d like to look over all his errors again and see what pattern emerges


Dominant eye? That’s interesting. Although I wouldn’t recommend looking for any patterns in all those errors with children in the room.


I’d rather watch video of Ryan Doumit playing 1B or Jason Kendall in left. Wait, maybe not. That was pretty horrific. I think there is no doubt Pedro has a little of the Steve Blass thing going on. He’s a thinker not a reactor. Baseball can be cruel to even the finest talents if they are the deep thought type of guy.

Arik Florimonte

I think it’s possible Pedro’s defense gets better. But can you commit the money to him without seeing it happen first?


He’s not stupid. He knows he’s never going back to 3B and this is his only chance of remaining a fielder. Besides, I cannot imagine a man willfully committing such acts of public embarrassment.


I complained about Pedro not going to play winter ball. Would it have helped? Who knows with that guy but it couldn’t hurt…I know he’s a vet and veteran players that grew up in America don’t do that but he definitely could have used the reps. Still, playing there all season didn’t help him either so chances are he is just completely done as a fielder…I’d be shocked if he played over 100 games in the field the rest of his career. Something drastic would have to happen. He makes David Ortiz look like Keith Hernandez at 1B.


Don’t forget Lambo….he may play some 1b?


Yes, starting for the Nippon Ham Fighters.


I just snorted- thank you NMR


I can’t remember a more interesting and inconsequential player to discuss than Pedro Alvarez. Given the Pirates apparent payroll crunch he pretty obviously won’t be with the club next year, but I think he’ll be an excellent buy-low option for another team.

The defense was undeniably horrible and little if any progression was shown, but it can’t be dismissed that the two players who he was most often compared to, Kevin Young and George Scott, both went on to be competent defenders as soon as the very next season. His throwing in 2015 wasn’t great by any means, but it was exponentially better than what most expected. I don’t see why it’s out of the question that he could make similar improvements to catching baseballs.

As for the bat, it was a tale of two seasons. His first half saw a continuation of the contact approach that killed him in 2014 while the second half saw a return of the strikeouts, but also the contact quality. Seems fairly obvious at this point that the club wasted a year and a half trying to turn him into a hitter he is not.

If his next club has a hitting coach that can actually help him, namely turn more pulled contact into fly balls, he’s an easy 30 home run, 120 wRC+ hitter even as a platoon.

The Pirates at this point are more or less forced to convert Neil Walker into a 1B, or at least 1B depth. Far, far too much uncertainty surrounding Mike Morse and Josh Bell, without anything close to resembling a backup plan.


As much as I can’t stand Pedro…and this is well documented on this site…I would rather keep Pedro for the 8 mil or so and then have him and Morse for a few months until Bell presumably gets the call…or sign Pedro with a plan to deal him as soon as a deal comes up. As bad as Pedro is defensively, I would hold out hope he cuts his errors by 10-20% early next season and then they just deal him for something of use while hopefully getting good production similar to this year out of him. What we do know is he is a valuable lefthanded DH…especially considering he wasn’t helpless against lefties last year. James Loney isn’t particularly good offensively or defensively anymore. I would rather sign Pedro with a plan to deal him, than deal him and have to figure out what to do with Loney in June when you don’t need him and he has 4 HR. Morse is a better player than Loney anyways.

Arik Florimonte

I figure they won 98 games with a 0 WAR player at 1B, then it will likely get better with Morse/Ishikawa and later Bell there.

Moving Walker to 1B makes no sense to me. He is a slightly better hitter than Pedro, but he is a below average defender at 2B so there’s no reason to believe he would be above average moving to a new position. And he’s set to make around $10.5M.

Trade Walker, Trade Alvarez, trade Melancon, use the $30M on pitching and bench improvements, and bite the bullet and go with Hansen at 2B until Kang gets back and Morse at 1B until Bell is ready.


They won 260 games the last 3 years with about a 0 WAR at 1B. It’s time for that to end and quit sandbagging the first few months with a lesser team. A few extra wins in April and May would have made all the difference this year.


Remind me again why there’s no reason to believe a sure-handed but range-challenged second baseman would get better moving to first base?


See Pedro Alvarez to prove your point NMR…although I do think Walker would be close to average or a little better at 1B…just because he has nice size and reactions of a middle INF and a good arm. He would make 18-20 less errors than Pedro, that’s for sure…I am not for Walker becoming the 1B, but I do like the idea of him playing there 1-2 times a week early next year to get other guys in the lineup…then again Kang’s injury may make Walker have to stay at 2B the first few months. I do think Hanson could surprise and make the team a few weeks into the season though. Despite the mediocre 2015 it might not take much for the lightbulb to come on.


Well Mike Morse was literally just worth about one negative win in less than 200 PA, so yes, it could absolutely get worse.

I can respect wanting to go into a rebuilding year, but I’d rather not waste a season in Cutch’s prime.

Paul Newmeyer

The more I think about it from Walker’s viewpoint, a move to first may not be the worst thing. A move to first may add years to his baseball career. He could return his body back to the days he caught and played third and thus add more power. The reduction of the wear and tear of playing second and the greater risk of injury make first sound appealing. I also believe Walker would be an above average 1B and he has adapted well to position changes in the past. He is simply a baseball player.

Luke S

Lotta risk for him though. If he doesnt add power his first year at the spot, and hits roughly 15 HRs, he’ll get a big pay cut in FA as opposed to him as a pure 2Bmen. Even with his defensive issues, he’s a top 10 like guy at 2B in baseball. If his power doesnt improve, he’s more like 15th at 1B.

If he trusts his power to increase and to have a better year than he just did, good move. But he does risk earning potential by entering FA as a 1B with a bit lacking power as opposed to a 2B with a good bat.


Don’t laugh.

Would you consider Mark Reynolds to play some 1st and 3rd off the bench?


But if the club somehow did find a way to fit Alvarez’s salary but not the player, I bet Tampa would be willing to shed James Loney’s $8m salary for just about nothing in return.


And you would want Loney why?
If he is the best the Pirate’s can do, they are in trouble.


Because he’s a plus defender who makes a ton of line drive contact to all fields with only one year remaining on a reasonable contract.

Find another fit and I’m all ears.


What’s made you change you’re tune on the Walker/1st base thing? I thought it was clear awhile ago he wasn’t making a position switch in a contract year. Did you hear something?


Lack of options, frankly. I’m not sure the Pirates have much of a choice at this point if they want to build quality depth.

Also, please don’t mistake this as anything more than what *I* think should happen.


Personally, no.

I tired of the club nickle and diming themselves to death with crappy $2m veterans. Corey Hart was a dumpster fire before he even took the field, and while I assume Mark Reynolds has two functioning knees he’s still bad at baseball.

Given the context of the situation, I’d much rather Neil Walker be used as the 1B depth or follow what the As and Marlins did this year in giving a rookie a chance. Worst case is that it doesn’t work out, but at least the player is free.

Arik Florimonte

When I looked closely at Morse’s history, I was surprised by his lack of platoon splits. I am feeling comfortable with him as the everyday 1B going into the season.


Was he hurt this year?


Is the Pope Catholic?

Seriously, though. Mike Morse’s career has been defined by injury and fleeting windows of good performance.

Counting on him to be both productive *and* healthy at the same time is foolish at this point in his career.

Kevin O

Similar story with Cervelli coming into this year. I know the backstory on both and have checked baseball reference for Cervelli’s past etc. Obviously not the same, but similar high upside scenario when healthy. Sounds like a reasonable first half option to me.


As was the story with Corey Hart.

Which is the point.

Of course any given player *may* stay healthy, but you’re lying to yourself if you think relying on a player this risky without any sort of reasonable backup is a good baseball move.


Same was said about Cervelli.
How did that work out?


Other than the fact that Morse has that reputation over more than twice the playing time and for non-fluke injuries, you have a point. Meaning not at all.


Ah yes. The only one to have a point is yourself 🙂 Waste of time for all the rest of us who have a conflicting opinion to even express our views once you have spoken! (bows to his greatness chanting “we are not worthy” 🙂


Remind me how that worked out for the Marlins?


I was being serious. I’m at work and not on lunch. I don’t have time to research it right now. I really should be posting on here right now. I’m kinda leery of starting the season with Morse as the “stopgap”. I’d prefer to have the guy we intend on playing there all year starting the season at 1B.

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