Pittsburgh Pirates Roll With Upside Of Yoshi Tsutsugo Over Colin Moran

The Pittsburgh Pirates were busy on Monday ahead of the tender/non-tender deadline of November 30th. When looking at their roster, it was known that some of the players eligible for arbitration weren’t going to be tendered contracts, as they had two pending free agent signings they needed to make space for.

They freed up one roster spot to finalize the Jose Quintana signing and traded their Gold Glove winning catcher Jacob Stallings to the Miami Marlins.

Another move they made was to designate for assignment first baseman Colin Moran to make room for another free agent signing, Yoshi Tsutsugo.

The 30-year-old import from Japan quickly reached cult status with the Pirates’ fanbase for providing some much-needed power into the lineup. Pittsburgh was able to retain his services for $4 million, the same amount that Moran was projected to make in arbitration. Add in the fact they are both left-handed hitters that are mostly limited to first base, the writing was on the wall.

Especially when you factor in the injury-plagued 2021 that Moran went through.

Moran spent multiple stints on the injured list last season and was never able to rebound from his strong April to start off the year.

The former North Carolina Tar Heel, who was the last player left from the Gerrit Cole trade, posted a 120 wRC+ and .823 OPS in the month of April, and had a hard-hit percentage of nearly 40. Bouncing in and out of the lineup due multiple injuries, Moran posted just a .687 OPS and a 90 wRC+ the rest of the way.

Dealing with a broken bone in his hand from a hit by pitch, and then another close call later in the year, you can see where Moran struggled to make solid contact. Only 27.7% of the balls he put in play were hit hard, and certainly played a major factor in the lack of power the rest of the way.

For Tsutsugo, the Pirates were his third stop of the season playing for the Tampa Bay Rays and Los Angeles Dodgers before finding his way to Pittsburgh in the middle of August.

He hit a double against the Dodgers in his first at bat for the Pirates, as a matter of fact, his first two hits for Pittsburgh went for two bases.

He acquainted himself quickly to the Pirates-St. Louis Cardinals rivalry by hitting his first two home runs in back-to-back games.

All total, Tsutsugo slashed .268/.347/.535 with the Pirates, while hitting eight home runs, driving in 25 runs and scoring 20 of his own. He provided a much-needed jolt in a lineup that otherwise really lacked a legitimate power option behind Bryan Reynolds.

That was quite the difference from his combined time with the Rays and Dodgers, where he barely looked like a player deserving of a roster spot in the majors. Before coming to Pittsburgh, Tsutsugo hit .155 with a .451 OPS and stuck out 33.1% of his plate appearances. 

So, what changed once Tsutsugo made it to Pittsburgh? One of the biggest adjustments players from Japan must make is turning on fastballs in North America. Pitchers in the majors use their fastball to set up their breaking pitches, where it is generally the reverse overseas.

That’s rung mostly true in his time in the majors, feasting on the curveball and changeup, while struggling with the fastball (and surprisingly the slider). Tsutsugo has been a slightly above average hitter against each of the major pitches except the slider when it comes to wRC+ and has destroyed the curveball in his career.

Yoshi Tsutsugo 2021 per Fangraphs

He did make strides, mostly due to his late season surge with the Pirates across the board, finishing with better than his career marks in OPS, ISO, wRC+ and wOBA, all the while cutting back on the strike outs, all against the fastball.

So, the Pirates are really banking on the final stretch of Tsutsugo is what we are going to see going forward, that he finally made the adjustments to make him the kind of hitter most thought he could be when he came over from Japan.

Yoshi Tsutsugo Career per Fangraphs

Tsutsugo really teed off on the curveball when he saw it in 2021, also when he was actually able to make contact with it. The 36.4% strikeout rate against the curve was the highest mark against any other pitch, both in 2021 and throughout his career.

He’s put up a respectable mark against the changeup throughout his career, but as he continues to succeed against the pitch, it will just tempt pitchers to not throw it against him. So while he showed he could hit the fastball in his brief stint with the Pirates (.275 average, .360 wOBA and 3 HRs with a 31.1 K%), he will have to show he’s turned the corner and wasn’t a result of a small sample size.

Pittsburgh only had two players reach double digits in home runs in 2021, and one of them is Moran. With eight home runs last year, there was little doubt about Tsutsugo reaching that mark if he was with the team longer.

While Moran didn’t have the best of seasons, injuries never really let him get things going, and historically he has been about an average hitter in the majors.

That isn’t the most exciting thing to say, but it’s a known quantity. It’s just not something that the Pirates wanted to go with in 2022, so they went with the upside of the power-hitting Tsutsugo.

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