Alex Presley: Why the Pittsburgh Pirates Traded Him for Justin Morneau

Tom AuSenior Analyst IISeptember 2, 2013

PITTSBURGH, PA - JULY 30:  Alex Presley #7 of the Pittsburgh Pirates hits the game winning single in the eleventh inning against the St. Louis Cardinals during the game on July 30, 2013 at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.  The Pirates defeated the Cardinals 2-1 in eleven innings.     (Photo by Justin K. Aller/Getty Images)
Justin K. Aller/Getty Images

The Pirates' former Alex Presley has, from time to time, shown glimpses of a good player. But his decline recently caused him to be traded to the Twins for Justin Morneau. That's a pity, because he could have filled the shoes Morneau is now supposed to.

Morneau is no longer the All-Star of the past decade, but based on their respective records in 2013, Morneau represents a one-win upgrade over Presley over the course of a whole season (per FanGraphs). More to the point, Morneau's recent "hotness," both in the absolute sense and relative to Presley, suggests that the extra win might well come in September.

That might just be the difference-maker for a Pirates team looking to win a division title (and avoid the one-game Wild Card round) for the first time in 21 years. Otherwise, paying the prorated difference of Morneau's salary over Presley's, or over $2 million, doesn't make much sense.

Presley was the best, and therefore the most tradable, of three weak hitters on the right side of the field: himself, Garrett Jones and Travis Snider. The acquisition of Marlon Byrd took care of one of those slots and made available a surplus of players for the others, meaning that one of them could be traded.

Unlike the much bigger Morneau, Presley is 5'10," 185 pounds. That makes him only average in size among American males, and "small" compared to most baseball players. Because of this fact, he lacks power and arm strength compared to his peers, but may compensate in superior speed and hand-eye coordination.

He will never hit for power or be a strong thrower, but has good enough eyes, hands and legs to catch, run and bat well (for average). In short, he is (potentially) a "three-tool" player who has to make the most of what gifts he does have. That archetype of such a successful small player is Boston Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

According to FanGraphs (which is the source of my other statistics as well), Presley's greatest strength is a career contact rate of nearly 94% against balls in the strike zone, a testament to his hand-eye coordination mentioned above. With a rate like that, he might never strike out because he can connect with most pitches that would be called strikes.

Except that Presley does strike out a lot because he also swings at a lot of balls outside the strike zone (at a rate of one out of three in 2013). Even when he connects, that means that there are a lot of first-and second-strike fouls that set up (swinging) third strikes. In fact, Presley's strike out rate of 25% is that of a power hitter who swings for the fences and hits a lot of home runs.

But Presley seldom does so.  And he also walks very little: in just over 1% of his plate appearances. Either his (former) team, or Presley himself, has been forcing him to bat in a manner for which he is completely unsuited. The fact that Presley does walk much more in the minors suggests that it is the fault of the team (who similarly damaged a future star named Jose Bautista in the past decade).

Presley first appeared on the scene (as a starter) in the summer of 2011, with a great series against the Toronto Blue Jays. With one home run, he matched Bautista RBI for RBI, leading to a one-run Pirates' victory in the first game. He also drew two walks and hit a triple in the later games of the series.

Then he seemed to decline in 2012 as opposing pitchers caught on to his natural lack of power. They noticed, for instance, that he hit an inordinate percentage of ground balls. That made him easier to field than most and it holding down his extra base totals.

According to the FanGraphs link above, their pitches to Presley consist of about 60 percent fastballs—an unusually high number. There are correspondingly fewer tricky pitches, such as curveballs and sliders, meaning that opponents feel that they can do well against Presley by pitching to him in a straightforward fashion without using deception.

Rather than try to compensate for his lack of power, Presley could make better use of his natural gifts by "playing defense" and directing his actions toward fending off called third strikes. The likely results would be a higher walk rate, and/or long at-bats that would tire the opposing pitchers and help the team.

Suppose Presley laid off pitches outside the strike zone. His strikeout rate could easily fall to 15%, and his walk rate could rise to 15% (both Bautista-like numbers). Change all of Bautista's home runs to doubles, and you get a facsimile of what Presley could be: "Bautista" without the power. (In fact, Presley's isolated power—the measure of extra-base potential—is about half of Bautista's.)

Then Presley could be batting something like .290, with a .400 on-base percentage, a level of production that would make him more valuable than Morneau for much less money.

If the Pirates go on to win the World Series, Morneau, and not Presley, will get the ring. That didn't have to be the case if Presley had shown more strength at the plate. The irony is that Bautista found himself on a team other than the Pirates; hopefully the same will happen to Presley.