John Jaso lives in the Bradenton area, just north of the Sunshine Skyway in St. Petersburg. That location means he is just a phone call and a 30 minute drive away from arriving at Pirate City for some work before the season begins. And with his move to first base in the upcoming season, Jaso could be making that drive quite often in the next month.
“Preparation is basically going to be the same every year,” Jaso said of his work leading into the season, noting that taking ground balls would be the big change. “I might come down here more often before Spring Training starts, because I think a lot of the coaching staff lives around here in this area. So just a phone call and come down here and work on the new position. That’s really the only thing I would change [to get ready] for Spring Training.”
Jaso is embracing the move to first base this season, looking forward to playing a position consistently after being a catcher and a designated hitter throughout his career. He added some time at first base last year, and some time in the outfield, but the Pirates signed him to be their left-handed hitter in their first base platoon. Clearly there is some work to be done on the defensive side of the ball, as seen in the video I uploaded today. But Jaso sounds like he’s willing to put in the work.
“This year, getting to do more work at first base, I like it,” Jaso said. “I like going out and playing defense. Doing new things, and not just DHing every year. I did like DHing, I can’t complain. But it’s going to be fun to have this new thing to work on this year, and keep my brain and everything occupied.”
I talked with Jaso today before and after the first day of mini-camp, discussing several topics from his success against right-handed pitchers, to the platoon and his concussion history. Here are the highlights.
His Success vs Right-Handed Pitchers
After Jaso was signed, Forbes to Federal had a great look at the best left-handers who hit right-handers over the past few years, with Jaso ranking in very favorable company.
best left-handed hitters vs. right-handed pitchers, past four seasons, by wRC+ pic.twitter.com/FtwpJgo1Wb
— Forbes to Federal (@ForbesToFederal) December 23, 2015
I asked Jaso what led to this level of success, figuring there was a chance to get the usual canned response to follow, but hoping to get more. Jaso definitely gave more, providing his history with former Rays manager Joe Maddon as the key to his success as a platoon guy.
“It all really started when I first broke into the big leagues,” Jaso said on his success against right-handers. “Joe Maddon had that thing going on, and he kind of started my path there. I know his philosophy was if I only see strictly right-handed pitching, it won’t mess up my swing. Whereas if I do face a lefty every once in a while, it could mess up a swing. So have it tuned towards right-handed pitching. You could say that that’s kind of provided success for me. I don’t really know. I like hitting. I would like to hit off of everybody, but I’m also here to do what the team expects of me. I know my role here in the big leagues, and just do my best at it is my plan.”
I noticed while watching Jaso during batting practice that he has a very unique stance, starting his front foot back in the box, very open. You can see what I’m talking about in the video below.
After batting practice, I asked Jaso about the unique stance, and he said it was something he added in Oakland in his constant changing of batting stances.
“I think the only person who changes his stance more than me is [Ben] Zobrist,” Jaso joked.
In the past, Jaso would have a very wide stance, with a deep crouch, almost in a sitting position. As a catcher, this wore on him throughout the year, and he looked for more of an upright stance that put less stress on the knees. He got the current stance working with Chili Davis, who tried to get him upright and open at the same time. It reduces wear and tear on his legs, while allowing him to see the ball better.
His Role in the First Base Platoon
The Pirates have attempted the first base platoon many times. Every year it works out on paper, in part because of stats like you see above, where a player has amazing numbers against one side of the mound. And every year the platoon struggles, primarily because the players can’t replicate their season numbers in a platoon role.
That might not be the case for Jaso, as he seems to be more comfortable with a platoon situation than wanting to play daily.
“The platoon thing is nothing that I’m new to,” Jaso said. “It’s been my whole career. I love it. There’s no competition [with Michael Morse or the right-handed hitting first baseman] there for me whatsoever. It’s actually more friendly, cheer on your teammate kind of thing, because I want to see him succeed. I would want him to [want to] see me succeed as well. It definitely becomes a camaraderie.”
His Move From Behind the Plate
Hitting won’t be the issue for Jaso, so the big focus this Spring will be the defense. As noted above, he’s got some work to do, and you’d expect that from someone who has only played the position in 20 innings since the first year of his career. If there’s one sign of hope, it’s that the move from catcher to first base is made often, and the results have been pretty strong. I asked Jaso about that trend, and why catching might help him with the move to first.
“I guess you just got to catch the ball, right? That’s really it,” Jaso said. “I don’t know. There’s not very far that you have to move. Range doesn’t have to be there as much. I can’t really tell you. I think as a catcher, you are in tune with the way the infield is set up. Cut off and relay, that sort of stuff. I guess it is just an easy transition. I’ve seen a few names popped around there from a few articles, on different guys who have went from the catcher position to first base. I’m looking forward to making the change myself.”
**I asked Jaso about his concussion history, and whether the move to first would help reduce that risk. His simple response? “Definitely.”
“Catching, you’re in harm’s way every single pitch,” Jaso said. “It definitely it going to be a little lighter over there at first base. It definitely puts my mind at ease.”
**I also asked Jaso if he’s played any other positions that would allow him to be a utility option one day: “Not unless you go back to high school. It’s always been solely catching and DHing all the way up, and last year playing the outfield a little bit.”