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Jaso turns patience into production for Pirates

| Saturday, March 18, 2017, 8:36 p.m.
Christopher Horner | Tribune-Review
Pirates right fielder John Jaso tosses his bat after working a walk during a game against the Phillies Saturday, March 18, 2017, at Spectrum Field in Clearwater, Fla.

BRADENTON, Fla. — Last season, 105 major league batters drew more bases on balls than John Jaso. Yet, no one was more productive than Jaso at creating runs via walks.

Jaso drew 45 walks, an average of one per every 9.6 plate appearances. Instead of power — Jaso's career slugging percentage is a mere .408 — he uses patience at the plate to reap rewards.

“I like walking. It's cool,” Jaso said. “There's more ammunition in a walk than people realize.”

According to Bill James' run-expectation metric, a generic walk has a value of .284 runs. That measure changes given the situation.

A leadoff walk is worth .356 runs. A bases-loaded walk, of course, produces 1.000 runs. A two-out, bases-empty walk has a value of .113 runs. A walk with two outs and a runner on second increases the expected runs in the inning by only .103 runs.

When James ran his numbers, he found Jaso's 45 walks created 16.2 runs for the Pirates last season.

Jaso's rate of .360 runs per walk was the highest in the majors. The runner-up was slugger Albert Pujols at .345 runs per walk.

“I don't know if I'm just lucky statistically or what,” Jaso said with a laugh.

Manager Clint Hurdle believes there is more to Jaso's success than simply good fortune or a rash of poor control by the pitchers he has faced.

“He has a good eye, and he knows the strike zone,” Hurdle said. “You know what's amazing about him? I don't remember one time when he ever complained about a call. That man just goes to work, and that might work to his favor.”

Timing is important. Twenty-two of Jaso's walks came with at least one runner on base. Overall, he had a .436 on-base percentage with a man on, compared to a .305 OBP with the bases empty. That means he helped set up some big innings.

Jaso walked more often when the Pirates were trailing (18 times) than when they were ahead (11) or when the score was tied (16).

Twenty-two of Jaso's walks came with nobody out. There were 13 leadoff walks, including four that opened games. Per James' research, a leadoff walk scores 38 percent of the time.

“Pete Rose once said he never gave away an at-bat in his life,” Jaso said. “Every at-bat meant something. It didn't matter if it was the first inning leading off or the last at-bat of a game. That kind of programming sticks in your brain.”

It sticks in the pitcher's mind, too.

“There's that feeling in the back of your head, telling you that (walks) always score,” pitcher Trevor Williams said. “But it's not just leadoff walks. It's any walks. In general, they all just stink.”

Having started his career as a catcher, Jaso knows a lot about what makes pitchers tick — and what drives them nuts.

“I can tell you, for any pitcher, a walk is definitely always a moral defeat,” Jaso said. “Pitchers are programmed that way. Sometimes, it seems like the walk does more damage to a pitcher's (mindset) than a double or a single or something like that.

“The pitcher is beating himself up, the manager is getting upset, the pitching coach is getting upset, his teammates who are standing around in the field are getting upset. That puts a lot of pressure on pitchers.”

Last season, the Pirates drew walks in 9 percent of their plate appearances, the fifth-highest rate in the majors.

In 2015, a year before Jaso arrived, the Pirates ranked 19th with a 7.3 percent walk rate.

Patience can be contagious. It starts with confidence, and a bit of aggressiveness.

“When you're laying off those pitches, it means things are working in the right way,” Jaso said.

“I have the confidence like, ‘You ain't blowing a fastball by me. My foot's going to be down, my hands are going to be back, I'm going to be able to get to anything.' That allows you to see the ball and evaluate whether to swing or not. It all starts with the mindset. The physical aspects — timing, your mechanics —all flow from there.”

Rob Biertempfel is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at rbiertempfel@tribweb.com or via Twitter @BiertempfelTrib.

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