Buccos infield progresses in 2016
By Zack Zeigler
For the Pirates in 2016, the infield was a series of moving parts with many different players playing many different positions. Whether it was because of injury or a platoon situation, the Pirates had multiple infielders play in 2016. The four we will look at for our 2017 grade are Jung Ho Kang, Jordy Mercer, Josh Harrison and John Jaso.
Jung Ho Kang was back for his second season with the Pittsburgh Pirates and built off of an impressive rookie campaign, in which he fell short of the Rookie of the Year Award. He finished the season hitting .255 with 21 home runs and 68 RBI. While the average dropped for Kang, the run-production increased and Kang fit in quite nicely in the clean-up spot for the Pirates.
Kang did start the season on the disabled list after suffering a torn ACL at the end of the 2015 season, but recovered nicely in 2016. While he didn’t play as much as he did a year ago, his offense stayed where it was.
The power that Kang is able to produce is going to be key for this Pirates lineup that doesn’t have the definitive long ball threat. In 103 games, Kang hit 21 home runs this year compared to last season where he only hit 15 in 126 games a year ago.
The downfall with the power that Kang brings is his vulnerability in the strikeout category. We see it with so many of the great power hitters in the game, where the home runs are great but they strikeout a ton.
Kang ended up striking out in 24 percent of his at-bats this season, 79 in 318 at bats. If he can get that number down to 15-18 percent, it would put himself and the Pirates as a whole in a much better situation.
One thing that changed for Kang when he came over from the Korean Baseball Organization is the position he played. A natural shortstop, the Pirates moved him over to third base after the struggles of Pedro Alvarez at the position. In his rookie season at third base, he had a subpar .971 fielding percentage, 5 errors in 174 chances. Well, that defense took another dip in 2016, as his fielding percentage dropped to .934, 17 errors in 257 chances.
With a team full of ground ball pitchers, it is crucial that Kang pick up his defense in the 2017 season. Kang will be entering year three of his four-year $11 million contract, and he will look to lead the Pirates in the middle of the order.
Jordy Mercer struggled offensively in 2015, but rebounded nicely for a productive 2016 season. He ended the year hitting .256 with 11 home runs and 59 RBI. It was the second time in his major league career where he hit double-digit home runs and had more than 50 RBI. Mercer’s 59 RBI were a career high for him in his fifth MLB season.
Mercer has been known to be a slow starter throughout his career, but 2016 was a totally different story. Mercer finished the month of April hitting .318 with one home run and 13 RBI – the best start to a season in his career. He continued his great offensive output until the month of August where his average was .179 and it continued into September where he hit .235.
Mercer enjoyed his most productive year at the plate as a major leaguer. His previous career high in RBI was 55, which he set back in the 2014 season. His .256 average was also second in his MLB career behind his 2013 campaign when he hit .285. Mercer spent all of the 2016 season in the number seven or eight hole for the Pirates, and it was good to see him be able to drive in the runs he did.
As Mercer enjoyed success at the plate, he continued his success in the field. He was fifth among MLB shortstops in fielding percentage with .985, nine errors in 607 chances.
Defense has been what Mercer has been known for since joining the Pirates. He has never let his poor offensive numbers bring down his defense throughout the years.
With all of the ground ball pitchers the Pirates have, double plays are a big part of their game. Mercer was a big part of that in 2016 starting 95 double plays, good for second in the National League and fourth in the entire major leagues.
The Pirates have always had good shortstops in their history from Honus Wagner all the way to Jack Wilson, and Mercer has done a great job of keeping that success going for the Pirates.
After bouncing around for the past couple of seasons, Josh Harrison finally found a home as the everyday starter at second base for the Pirates. Harrison finished 2016 hitting .283 with four home runs and 59 RBI in 131 games played. Unfortunately, Harrison would end the year on the 60-day disabled list.
Harrison is two years removed from his All-Star campaign in 2014, and his average has dropped slightly in every year since. His .283 average is his lowest average since the 2013 campaign.
Even with the lower average he still managed to drive in a career high 59 runs in the top of the Pirates order. Harrison continued to control the base paths as he has throughout his career. He stole a career-high 19 bases in 23 chances this season. He was second on the team behind Starling Marte who had 47 stolen bases. Harrison is one of the hardest workers on the Pirates team and uses that hustle everyday on the field.
Harrison also was able to find a defensive home at second base as well. He was drafted in the sixth round of the 2008 first year player draft by the Chicago Cubs as a second baseman. He brought back that natural second base talent in 2016 as he finished fourth among NL second baseman with a .989 fielding percentage, seven errors in 635 chances. That was better than guys like Neil Walker, Brandon Phillips and Ben Zobrist
Double plays were a big part of the 2016 season for Pittsburgh and both middle infielders did their parts. Harrison finished second among NL second baseman turning 97 double plays on the season. The Pirates were second in all of major league baseball behind the Texas Rangers in double plays per game with 1.06. Harrison turned into one of the top defensive years of any Pirates infielder this season and will look to recover and continue that string in 2017.
The final member of the Pirates infield was trying his hand at a new position in 2016. John Jaso was trying his hand at first base for the first time in his career in 2016. He had been a catcher and an outfielder in previous seasons, but was signed to a two-year deal to help the Pirates at the first base position. He performed rather well with a .994 fielding percentage, five errors in 800 chances.
Jaso was a welcome sight in the field for the Pirates this season and played like a natural first baseman. The Pirates have been known for wanting versatility in their players and Jaso will have to resort to that in 2017. With Josh Bell at the major league level the Pirates are asking Jaso to take reps at third base for the 2017 season.
Jaso’s offense was league average in 2016, finishing the season hitting .268 with eight home runs and 42 RBI.
The one stat that jumps out is the career-high 74 strikeouts in 380 at-bats. In 2017, he will work to lower the number of strikeouts for 2017 so he can be a productive member of the Pirates bench.
2016 Pirates Infielder’s Grade: B+
The 2016 Pittsburgh Pirates infielders produced impressive defensive numbers all season long. The middle infielders were some of the top in all of major league baseball in terms of double plays turned and fielding percentage, and we saw the emergence of John Jaso at first base. Offensively, the Pirates infielders had some of the best production numbers on the team. Three of the infielders had career highs in RBI in 2016 and will look to continue to build on that in 2017.