The Pirates Have a Bright Future at Shortstop, But Questions to Answer in 2021

The Pirates have an advantage that most rebuilding franchises don’t have: Depth at shortstop.

This month I’ll be breaking down every position, looking at the 2020 season in the majors, and what the future could bring from the farm system. There is no position stronger or more interesting in this system than the shortstop position. Typically that’s not the case, with a lot of rebuilding franchises looking for their shortstop of the future. But the Pirates have four of their top ten prospects in the system at shortstop, including three guys who rank among the top 100 prospects in the game.

The Pirates have options for the future, and I’ll detail those tomorrow. Today we’re going to look at who they have in the majors, since this group will ultimately be fielding the position in 2021, and will set the bar for the prospects in the system to jump over.

Kevin Newman

2020 Stats: 156 AB, .224/.281/.276, 12.2 K%, 7.0 BB%, 1 HR, 0 SB

Heading into the 2020 season, the hope was that the Pirates had found their shortstop for at least the next few years. Kevin Newman had an impressive season in 2019, with a .308/.353/.446 line in 493 at-bats, with 12 homers and 16 stolen bases, resulting in a 2.4 fWAR. Newman wasn’t anywhere close to those numbers in 2020, as seen in the stats above.

Behind those numbers, there wasn’t a lot that seemed to change for Newman. His strikeout rate stayed low, and the walk rate actually increased. His power dropped off, despite a similar average exit velocity and a higher hard hit percentage this year than last year. He hit slightly more fly balls this year, at the expense of a one percentage point decrease in grounders and liners. He went opposite field more often, diving his spray chart almost equally around the diamond, and using the middle of the field slightly more than the corners.

I haven’t been putting a lot of stock into the 2020 stats, but I also don’t think we should be putting full stock into Newman’s 2019 rookie numbers. He’s shown almost identical performances in each of those seasons, with vastly different results.

I think Newman will ultimately end up closer to his 2019 numbers. He’s too good of a hitter to struggle like he did in 2020. His contact skills are some of the best in the majors. It’s encouraging that his walks continue to trend upward, as I’m not sold his power will return to 2019 levels. His speed provides value on the bases, while also leading to a career 11.7% infield hit rate so far. I could see Newman being a .280-.300 hitter with a .330-.350 OBP or higher, and a slugging percentage that is either equal to or less than the OBP.

Newman is going to be a guy who succeeds with his contact skills, ability to hit to all fields, and the added value of his speed. It would help his game if the walk rate continued trending up. A bonus would either be a boost in power or a boost in defensive value.

The defensive value at shortstop hasn’t been good. It’s hard to get a feel for a player’s defense based off of stats in a limited sample, but Newman’s numbers haven’t been good. His UZR/150 so far is -12.7 in his career, which is better than his brief 2020 results. He’s been worth -13 Defensive Runs Saved in 1191 innings over the last three seasons, and has a -14 Plus/Minus rating.

Newman projects as a second baseman going forward, which means the bat can’t have seasons like he saw in 2020. He should get time at shortstop in 2021, but I think he should be behind Gonzalez, getting more of his time at other positions.

Erik Gonzalez

2020 Stats: 181 AB, .227/.255/.359, 26.4 K%, 4.1 BB%, 3 HR, 2 SB

Gonzalez got cold at the plate at the end of the 2020 season. After carrying a nine game hitting streak into early September, he went .111/.138/.159 for the final 65 plate appearances of the season. Prior to that, his .288/.315/.466 line during the season looked much better, and had him in line to be an easy choice to start in 2021.

The selling point for Gonzalez at shortstop isn’t so much on the offense, but on the defense. He’s the best defender at the position the Pirates have in the majors right now. He has a career 2.0 UZR/150, and is +3 DRS and +1 PM in 645 innings in the majors. He’d be an upgrade over Newman defensively, while providing a different type of offensive outlook.

Gonzalez doesn’t walk much and he strikes out too often for his current power levels. His value at the plate will largely be driven by hard contact and the power that results from that contact. The .133 ISO he had this year won’t be enough to justify him as a starter. The .164 ISO range that he had in 2017 with Cleveland, or the .178 he had prior to September 9th in 2020 would give him enough offensive value to keep the glove on the field every day.

Looking behind the numbers for Gonzalez, the trends are interesting. His hard contact went up from last year, and was in line with his best season in 2017. His average exit velocity was also consistent with 2017.

He saw a two percentage point increase in pulling the ball, and a five percentage point increase in using the middle of the field, dropping his opposite field usage from 35% to 28% in the process. He also saw more line drives and fly balls this year, with three and five percentage point increases, respectively, reaching career highs in each.

This was the first ever season in the majors that Gonzalez put the ball in the air more than he put it on the ground. That’s largely due to a change in his swing. This is a good video comparison demonstrating the difference:

Last year Gonzalez would start upright, and once the pitcher would start his delivery, Gonzalez would move to a position similar to his starting position in 2020. This also results in his hands being in a ready position to swing. Cutting that move out shortens the swing, putting Gonzalez in swinging position from before a pitcher throws a pitch. He’s also shifted more toward his back leg, which can help generate more power.

In the comparison of Gonzalez versus Newman, I like Gonzalez as the starter for shortstop in 2021. The defense is much better from Gonzalez. They’re both question marks offensively, with reasons for optimism on both sides. I would like to see what Gonzalez can do with more time under his new approach, and with more time working with the Pirates’ new coaches.

Cole Tucker

Tucker didn’t play shortstop in 2020, spending his time in the outfield for some reason. I’d like to see him back at shortstop in 2021, working into the mix with Newman and Gonzalez. As far as total upside, Tucker is the best of the three.

Defensively, I’d put Tucker between the two, closer to Gonzalez in being able to provide positive value.

Offensively, Tucker has shown good raw tools throughout his minor league career, but has never shown an ability to carry those into the game. He’s made adjustments to his swing, his stance, and his approach, but has yet to have found something that worked. He didn’t find anything in 2020, with his.220/.252/.275 line being a slight downgrade from his 2019 numbers.

While those numbers are disappointing, they’re only disappointing in the sense that Tucker was expected to produce more as a former first round pick who routinely showed the tools necessary for better results. Compared to the results from Newman and Gonzalez this year, they’re not bad. The question is whether one of them can improve, and I’m not seeing as many positive trends for Tucker.

His average exit velocity was down from 87.9 MPH in 2019 to 83.1 MPH in 2020. His hard hit rate went from 32.4% to 20%, being almost entirely replaced by soft contact. He did start hitting the ball to all fields more often, but is still largely an extreme pull hitter at 41%. His fly ball rate went from 27% to 34%, but that all came at the expense of his line drives, with his ground ball rate starting at 49%.

Tucker is a guy who will succeed as a line drive hitter who can generate some home run power from his frame. He needs to find a way to get the ball off the ground more often, similar to the results Gonzalez saw after his swing adjustment this year.

I like Tucker as a wild card at shortstop next year. I have no reason to think everything will just click for him, and he’s heading in the opposite direction of that type of result. I do think he’s just one adjustment away from being an MLB hitter who can hold down a starting middle infield role. I don’t think he would need to see a massive improvement with his bat to emerge as the leader of this trio of shortstops. I do think he’ll need such an improvement to stave off the prospects in the minors.

JT Riddle

Riddle only played 50 innings at shortstop, and that’s not a high crime, considering the quality of the 2020 Pirates. It would have been preferred to see Tucker getting time at the position, rather than learning a new position. There’s no room for a guy like Riddle at shortstop in 2021. The Pirates need to figure out what they’ve got with the above trio, all before the prospects from the minors start to arrive, which we’ll get into tomorrow.