To date, it hasn’t been the offseason that the Texas Rangers wanted it to be. There’s still plenty of time, and the team still has plenty of talent, but the Rangers have been looking to make a move of significance. Later Thursday, they were able to make one, locking up free-agent catcher A.J. Pierzynski. And more, while Pierzynski is coming off arguably the best season of his entire big-league career, the Rangers got him for one year and $7.5 million. While Pierzynski doesn’t make the Rangers into something they weren’t by himself, he fills a need with so little risk the Rangers could hardly afford not to sign him.
With Geovany Soto and Eli Whiteside, the Rangers already had catchers, but they didn’t have good catchers, or left-handed-hitting catchers with a fair amount of power. While it’s presently unclear exactly how Pierzynski and Soto will split time, Pierzynski has exceeded 500 plate appearances in every season but one since 2003. In that one, he reached 497. Pierzynski has proven that he can handle an awful lot of work, and Soto just batted .198.
This Pierzynski contract isn’t one to flip out about, by any means. Pierzynski is an aging, unspectacular player coming off a late-career year and coming out of a hitter-friendly ballpark. A $7.5-million salary isn’t something you find in the sofa unless you’re somewhere in or near Dodger Stadium. But the Rangers filled a need and didn’t have to go beyond 2013 to do it. For reference, the FanGraphs crowd predicted that Pierzynski would sign for two years and $18 million. The crowd has thus far been eerily accurate, and Pierzynski signed for a lesser commitment than almost everyone expected.
There are, of course, concerns, and all of them are legitimate. Pierzynski didn’t sign a multi-year deal, and there are reasons for that. In a few days, Pierzynski will officially turn 36, and that’s pretty old for a regular backstop. You expect that a player at this point will be in his decline phase, and you expect that the next season will be worse than the previous season. Seldom do players maintain strong performances as they approach 40.
There are questions about Pierzynski’s defense. This is reportedly the reason the Yankees stayed away, even though Pierzynski’s swing is a perfect fit for the ballpark. Looking at the pitch-framing numbers, Pierzynski is neither good nor bad, but he’s below-average at blocking pitches, he’s below-average at throwing runners out, and he’s had confrontations with his pitchers about game-calling. You don’t acquire A.J. Pierzynski as an alternative to Jose Molina.
Pierzynski is also known for his fiery, irritating personality, and he’s sort of the baseball equivalent of a hockey agitator. In the heat of competition, plenty of players can’t stand him, and away from the heat of competition, plenty of players still can’t stand him. Pierzynski was recently voted baseball’s most hated player, and so you can’t predict how he’ll fit into a new clubhouse. He could potentially be disruptive, or worse.
And then there’s the matter of Pierzynski going from 13 home runs to nine home runs to eight home runs to 27 home runs. Pierzynski, in 2012, beat his previous career-high for dingers by 50%, and there’s every reason to be skeptical of such a late-career spike. His 118 wRC+ was his first above-average wRC+ since 2003, and you just can’t expect that sort of performance to repeat, at Pierzynski’s age.
All of these are valid. No one’s going to tell you that Pierzynski is guaranteed to be a good player and a good teammate in 2013. He could be unpopular, and he could be unsuccessful, and then the Rangers would have a mess on their hands. But it would be a minor mess, because Pierzynski isn’t costing a fortune and he’s only got the one-year commitment. There’s so little risk with a one-year deal like this, and consider what Pierzynski just did.
At 35, Pierzynski set career highs in home runs and wRC+. One can’t just pretend that didn’t happen, and one can’t just erase that from his performance history. You expect that players at Pierzynski’s age will get worse, but Pierzynski just performed a lot better and that has to be factored into any future projection. Specific data points are probably more meaningful than general principles.
Pierzynski’s defense isn’t a strength, but that’s only a part of the whole picture. Michael Young‘s defense wasn’t a strength, but the Rangers still loved him. And as for Pierzynski’s personality, that could realistically go either way, and there’s no way to predict it. Odds are, Pierzynski is one of those guys you hate to play against but love to play with, and it’s not reasonable to think that Pierzynski might bring down the whole clubhouse. He’s one guy, and he’s driven by a desire to win, and that’ll probably do more good than harm. Even if you disagree, there’s no basis for asserting the opposite.
This past season was an interesting one for Pierzynski. Aside from the home runs, he reduced his groundball rate while making less contact and striking out more often. That doesn’t confirm anything, but that suggests an adjustment to his swing, which would imply that the homer spike might not have been a complete coincidence. Pierzynski might have made an effort to make power more of his game. And while it’s unquestionable that Pierzynski benefited from his environment — over his White Sox career, he hit 74 dingers at home and 44 dingers on the road — he isn’t leaving U.S. Cellular for a neutral park. Texas is actually more friendly to left-handed batters than Chicago is, with a similar home-run factor and a higher overall runs factor. Pierzynski might not post the same sort of power numbers in Los Angeles or Oakland, but he didn’t commit to playing half his games in Los Angeles or Oakland.
If Pierzynski simply goes back to what he was before 2012, he’ll be more or less worth the contract the Rangers gave him. But 2012 happened, too, introducing new information. In the simplest of terms, Pierzynski’s player page gives him a 2012 WAR of 3.4, and the Rangers got him for a year and $7.5 million. Of course Pierzynski probably won’t WAR 3.4 again in 2013. But if any of those gains carry over, he could be a small bargain, and if they don’t, he could and should be just fine. That makes this a perfectly sensible acquisition.