By Paul Sporer
As you almost certainly already know, two weeks ago the Pirates brought in Clint Barmes on a free agent deal worth $10.5 million dollars over two years to be their shortstop. What you might not know is this fascinating tidbit sent over to me by ESPN’s Mark Simon from this piece:
Amazingly, this deal was the Pirates first free-agent signing to a contract with a total value of at least $10 million since inking third baseman Steve Buechele for four years and $11 million in the 1991-92 offseason.
Wow, that’s pretty interesting. By the way, Buechele didn’t last long in the Steel City with his four year deal. After being acquired by the Pirates on August 30th in 1991 and signed in the subsequent offseason, he was dealt to the Chicago Cubs on July 11th of the 1992 season after just 111 games as a Pirate. He hit .248/.327/.396 (good enough for a 105 OPS+) in 399 at-bats for the Pirates with 12 home runs. He brought back Danny Jackson in the Cubs trade (who pitched well enough for Pittsburgh but was subsequently drafted by the Florida Marlins as the 53rd pick in the expansion draft that November).
OK, that was a fierce little tangent there, back to Barmes. For those wondering, it is pronounced “Bar-mess”, but I prefer to pronounce it as “Barmz” because it is funny to me (and probably me alone). If you clicked through to Simon’s piece you saw some interesting notes about Barmes’ defense including his ranking 4th amongst shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved with 12 behind Brendan Ryan (18), Alex Gonzalez (15) and Elvis Andrus (13). Katie Sharp, who did the Barmes tidbit in the article Simon sent, noted that Pirates incumbent Ronny Cedeno checked in with eight DRS. While Cedeno was a positive for the 20th-ranked defense, Barmes is an improvement at the most important position.
While the Barmes signing is far from a big splash, it is similar to the Rod Barajas move in that it offers an incremental improvement over last year’s production at the position without costing an arm, a leg or both. Barmes was better than Cedeno with both his bat (.308 to .271 in wOBA) and glove (7.9 to 6.1 in the FanGraphs fielding measure as well as the aforementioned DRS from ESPN/BIS). Cedeno held an edge in base running (2.6) according to FanGraphs, but Barmes (1.9) was still an asset on the basepaths and ranked 9th amongst shortstops with at least 450 plate appearances.
What remains to be seen with Barmes is how much of his hitting advantage he can maintain when playing half of his games at PNC Park instead of Minute Maid Park. As Sharp mentions:
He’ll be challenged to retain that home-run power as a Pirate. Minute Maid Park in Houston boosted homer production by seven percent for right-handed batters in 2011. PNC Park deflated right-handed batters’ home runs by 16 percent over the last three seasons, according to ballpark factors from Baseball Info Solutions.
A quick look at Barmes’s Minute Maid hits laid on top of PNC Park’s dimensions shows all five of his home runs in Houston wouldn’t have had a shot in Pittsburgh:
Three didn’t even make it to the warning track. A silver lining within his 2011 stats is the fact that he mashed in PNC Park albeit in a miniscule 31 plate appearance sample. He hit .385/.484/.615 with two home runs in eight games, far and away his best numbers in any venue during 2011. For his career, he has a .276/.347/.425 line in 99 plate appearances with four home runs. His .772 OPS is his 3rd-highest of any venue where he has had at least 65 plate appearances. Coors Field, his former home, is unsurprisingly the best at .794 with Busch Stadium III just behind at .784. Thankfully for Barmes, Cedeno didn’t really set the offensive bar too high.
The bottom line is that Cedeno was the 2nd-worst shortstop in baseball with the bat (according to wRC+ & wOBA) amongst those with 450+ plate appearances and while his defense gave him positive value overall, he only “rose” to 5th-worst in total WAR at 1.4, tied with Ian Desmond. That needed to be improved and we all know the Pirates weren’t going to lure Jose Reyes in even if they topped Miami’s offer.
Barmes is a cost-efficient, sensible alternative. According to FanGraphs, he’s been valued well over $5 million dollars (his 2012 salary) three of the last four years ($8.8, $7.7, $2.5 and $14.1 million since 2008) so there is wiggle room for his current production level to slip and still be worth his contract. If prospect Chase D’Arnaud proves himself ready for a full-time spot at shortstop in either of the next two years, Barmes can slide over to second base without incident. This was another positive move by the Pirates front office.