2015 Positional Power Rankings: First Base

What do we have here? For an explanation of this series, please read this introductory post. As noted in that introduction, the data below is a hybrid projection of the ZIPS and Steamer systems, with playing time determined through depth charts created by our team of authors. The rankings are based on aggregate projected WAR for each team at a given position.

Yes, we know WAR is imperfect and there is more to player value than is wrapped up in that single projection, but for the purposes of talking about a team’s strengths and weaknesses, it is a useful tool. Also, the author writing this post did not move your team down ten spots in order to make you angry. We don’t hate your team. I promise.

Time to rate the sluggers! Your first base depth chart in bar form:


Oh Philadelphia. Our heart goes out to your slugging slugger and the slugs he used to slug. Maybe your team actually would be better without Ryan Howard, though. Let’s focus on the positive, at least at first. The two studs at the top have a lot going for them.

#1 Diamondbacks

Paul Goldschmidt 651 .282 .377 .522 .387 32.7 1.1 4.5 5.1
Mark Trumbo 28 .253 .307 .475 .339 0.4 -0.1 -0.3 0.0
Jordan Pacheco 14 .250 .291 .337 .280 -0.4 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Peter O’Brien 7 .236 .278 .473 .326 0.0 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .280 .372 .516 .383 32.7 1.0 3.9 5.0

Remember back when Paul Goldschmidt was a heavy right-handed first baseman that wouldn’t make enough contact for his power to play at first base? Good times. In fairness to most of us that were watching at the time and didn’t get it right, Goldschmidt has done a lot to get his body into better shape, and is a master at going the other way with power, which, along with a small change in swing rates, has helped him mash righties almost as much as lefties so far.

With Mark Trumbo, Yasmany Tomas, and the surplus of sorts in the outfield, Arizona might be decently set up for depth behind Goldschmidt. But that doesn’t matter as much at the top here. Even if your plan B is okay, when your plan A is one of the ten best hitters in baseball, you don’t want to see plan B in action.

#2 Tigers

Miguel Cabrera   525 .312 .386 .544 .399 33.3 -2.0 -0.1 4.2
Victor Martinez   140 .306 .368 .479 .364 5.1 -0.9 -0.1 0.7
Alex Avila 35 .230 .331 .376 .318 0.1 -0.1 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .307 .380 .523 .388 38.4 -3.0 -0.2 5.0

Speaking of opposite field power, Miguel Cabrera. What might be most compelling about Cabrera right now is that he was hurt for much of last year… and still managed to be about 50% better than league average while hitting .313 with an OPS near .900. It’s easy to point to his age (31) and the fact that his OPS last year was a six-year low, and say the decline has come. And indeed his projections, even as they feature a bit of a bounce back, do not reach the heights that Cabrera found from 2009 to 2013.

But what about the fact that Jeff Zimmerman found that hitters that played through injuries were underprojected, powerwise, the year after? And Zimmerman also found that leg injuries — like Cabrera’s right ankle bone spurs that required offseason surgery — are less impactful on the future of a hitter than upper body injuries. Because a more substantial bounce back would change these rankings quickly, even without the help of a (currently broken) Victor Martinez.

#3 Cubs

Anthony Rizzo 595 .270 .358 .498 .373 24.7 -1.1 7.1 4.1
Mike Olt 105 .206 .284 .384 .297 -1.8 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .260 .347 .481 .361 22.9 -1.2 7.2 4.1

There once was a time when the pendulum swung constantly in Anthony Rizzo’s career and he couldn’t quite get it done in consecutive seasons. A couple trades later — and possibly a little work on his swing, and the placement of his hands in particular — and now it looks like all this slugging was presaged. What makes Rizzo’s power so much more exciting is that it comes with decent contact rates. Among hitters that showed a better-than-average strikeout rate last year, the Cubs first baseman had the third-best power.

He is also one of the least replaceable players in baseball when it comes to the depth chart. Mike Olt, fixed eyes or broken, hasn’t been able to make contact enough to stick as a major leaguer, and Kris Bryant is projected for more valuable positions. Ah, but Rizzo is young and on top of his game. He may not even need a backup for much time — he’s averaged 150 games a season the last two seasons.

#4 Braves

Freddie Freeman 644 .285 .374 .475 .372 28.1 -1.1 0.8 3.9
Chris Johnson 35 .268 .305 .391 .306 -0.2 -0.1 -0.6 -0.1
Alberto Callaspo 21 .251 .325 .345 .301 -0.2 -0.1 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .283 .369 .467 .366 27.6 -1.2 0.1 3.8

If you’re counting at home, this is your third top-five first baseman that we didn’t really think would get here. Well, Freeman made it to 17th on Baseball America’s top 100 (Rizzo peaked at 47, Goldschmidt never made it), so he had some love.

But did we know that he would become a line-drive hitting BABIP monster? Guy’s pop-up rate is less than half the league average (1.5%), and his line-drive rate is almost Votto-ian. So we can probably believe his batting average on balls in play fortitude is a repeatable skill, and that Freeman is a top hitter despite less power than the names around him on this list possess. Let’s not get into defense here other than to say: if you think he’s better than bad with the glove, then you have some ammunition for moving him up on this list. Maybe one spot?

The situation is bad behind Freeman, or he might have been traded this offseason. Well, Chris Johnson is a starter at another position, but he’d be below replacement at first — which is saying something not entirely glowing about this Braves offense as it’s currently projected — and so Freeman is another one of baseball’s least replaceable dudes.

#5 White Sox

Jose Abreu 350 .292 .369 .549 .395 20.7 -0.8 -1.3 2.6
Adam LaRoche   315 .239 .338 .448 .343 6.0 -1.0 0.5 1.1
Andy Wilkins 35 .240 .290 .428 .314 -0.1 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .266 .351 .498 .368 26.6 -1.9 -0.8 3.7

The difficulty projecting Jose Abreu is a little different this year. Last year, it was a complete lack of American data, as well as the quirks of Cuban baseball that were gumming up the works. This year, the issue is two-fold.

The first is a similar problem. One season is nice, but it’s still not a huge sample size. So when Abreu hits a grounder and a half per fly ball and leads baseball in home runs per fly ball… we’re not sure which way to project his future. Will he continue to be Stantonian on fly balls, or will he just adjust and hit more fly balls? The bet here is on continued adjustment. Yes, he didn’t hit as many home runs in the second half of the season last year. He still had a .513 slugging percentage, and he made the second-biggest improvement in the second half when it came to his strikeout minus walk rate. He’s crafty.

The second is really a question of defense. Will he play first more, or will Adam LaRoche play first more? Yes, they are one-year, small-sample defensive numbers, but only one year in LaRoche’s last six was he as bad as Abreu’s first shot with the glove… last year. Abreu is 28, LaRoche is 35, but Abreu is listed at 255 pounds, and LaRoche at 205. On top of this, designated hitting is probably a skill — one that we don’t know if either hitter possesses. The good news for White Sox fans is that the two of them together make a top-five first baseman, and a pretty good DH to.

#6 Dodgers

Adrian Gonzalez 616 .279 .336 .457 .344 16.0 -2.2 7.9 3.2
Scott Van Slyke 49 .249 .333 .428 .337 1.0 -0.1 0.2 0.2
Yasmani Grandal 35 .242 .336 .411 .331 0.6 -0.1 -0.2 0.1
Total 700 .275 .336 .453 .343 17.6 -2.4 7.9 3.4

How easily we forget that Adrian Gonzalez once had labrum surgery on his shoulder in late 2010. He brushed aside questions when I asked him what that shoulder meant for his ability to pull the ball, but look at his pull percentages over the years, and they took a big dip in 2010, when he was hurt, and 2011, when he complained of fatigue after the surgery:

Year Pull%
2007 41.6%
2008 43.0%
2009 39.7%
2010 34.6%
2011 37.4%
2012 36.1%
2013 42.4%
2014 37.6%

The last couple of years he looks more himself. It probably doesn’t make sense to project him back into peak power — he is 32, after all — and those walk rates aren’t coming back, since teams stopped intentionally walking him. But Gonzalez still combines above-average power with above-average contact, average patience, and a passable glove. And the combo is more attractive than any one tool he brings to the table, especially now that his shoulder looks healthy.

When it comes to the guy behind him, nobody’s played more games than Adrian Gonzalez since 2007. So yeah, Scott Van Slyke and Yasmani Grandal *could* play first base, in a pinch. But that pinch isn’t likely to come.

#7 Giants

Brandon Belt 525 .263 .342 .444 .345 15.4 -0.1 3.3 2.7
Buster Posey 84 .300 .367 .474 .367 3.9 -0.2 0.5 0.6
Travis Ishikawa 42 .232 .299 .354 .291 -0.5 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Adam Duvall 28 .224 .276 .384 .292 -0.3 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Joaquin Arias 21 .254 .282 .333 .270 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .264 .338 .436 .340 17.8 -0.4 3.6 3.2

Speaking of the sum being more attractive than the parts, here’s Brandon Belt! Not talking about the baby giraffeish combination of body parts, though. We’re talking about how this former college pitcher has just enough patience, power, and defense to be a top-ten first baseman. Despite not having enough power to normally register as such.

Part of the problem with his perception is probably just about the fact that he ranks better against his peers when sorted by patience stats than by power stats. Nothing can be done about that.

The other part of the problem is that we are yet sure of Belt’s profile as a hitter, not completely. He has, over the course of his career, been different guys. In 2012, he was more of a spray hitter with strong batted ball averages. In 2013, he added power to that package and had his best year. Last season, he got power-happy, perhaps, and was more of an all or nothing slugger type. Brandon Belt is still making adjustments — even after changing his stance, and his grip, and his approach — but maybe now he can make them at a higher velocity, since he’s had more experience making them.

If he went down again, the team would likely see a little more of Andrew Susac by the transitive property of Buster Posey. Or maybe last year’s postseason hero Travis Ishikawa could take on half of a righty/lefty platoon. They’d be able to muddle along with out him, but this offense, especially with the injuries they’ve seen this spring, could use a young hitter with upside. That’s a precious commodity, especially on the Giants.

#8 Reds

Joey Votto 490 .279 .411 .467 .384 24.7 -1.3 3.5 3.6
Brayan Pena 84 .253 .288 .354 .284 -2.2 -0.5 -0.3 -0.2
Donald Lutz 91 .220 .268 .371 .281 -2.6 0.0 -0.1 -0.2
Josh Satin 35 .241 .322 .365 .309 -0.3 -0.1 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .265 .373 .433 .354 19.7 -1.9 2.9 3.2

Here’s why we do these things, really. Joey Votto, first baseman, ranks much higher than this. But “Cincinnati Reds first baseman” has to take into account the entirety of the situation. And that entirety includes the fact that Votto’s leg problems have to be accounted for, and the guys behind him on the depth chart aren’t ideal backups for a guy with that kind of leg situation.

If Votto got healthy, and stays healthy, then this ranking will be light in retrospect. Even with leg issues, he’s been good the last three years. He owns the best line drive rate, the best on-base percentage, and the best walk rate in baseball since 2012. Average power for a first baseman has replaced upper-tier power, though, and that’s where we’ll all be looking, to save from watching Brayan Pena take more at-bats. (Wir koennen ja alle nicht Deutsch sprechen mit Donald Lutz.)

#9 Orioles

Chris Davis   455 .241 .325 .485 .350 11.8 0.0 1.0 2.1
Steve Pearce 175 .266 .346 .471 .358 5.6 0.0 0.7 1.0
Christian Walker 35 .247 .297 .403 .309 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Steve Clevenger 35 .249 .303 .349 .291 -0.7 0.0 -0.2 0.0
Total 700 .248 .328 .470 .347 16.6 -0.1 1.4 3.1

It’s tempting to draw a line right from Davis’ stats to the fact that he was suspended for taking Adderall after previously having an exemption for the drug. After all, he really has attention deficit issues, and he quit taking the drug, then he might have had issues at the plate. But the suspension was for taking the drug. So he didn’t quit taking the drug. He still took it. He just forgot to get the doctor’s note.

Instead, the problem might be more substantial. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out, Davis stopped hitting offspeed pitches in the second half last year. And pitchers threw him fewer fastballs than they did in his breakout 2013. This doesn’t work out perfectly, though. Davis saw more fastballs in the second half (57.7% to 54.9% by BIS). He also saw fewer fastballs in 2012 than he did in 2014, and yet he had a pretty good year in 2012.

I prefer to think of Davis as a powerful, flawed hitter. There’s something about his adjustment process that has led to pronounced slumps and season-long breakouts as well. The good news for the Orioles is that they have Steve Pearce just in case things don’t work out for Davis this year. The bad news is that Pearce took until he was 31 to break out, and the right-handed batter had a career-high batting average on balls in play against righties last year (.331). Regression could be harsh for him, even if the projection systems seem to like him for a soft landing.

#10 Indians

Carlos Santana 490 .247 .365 .437 .355 17.3 -1.3 -1.7 2.3
Brandon Moss 105 .242 .325 .479 .351 3.3 0.0 -0.4 0.5
Nick Swisher   56 .231 .317 .384 .313 0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.1
Jesus Aguilar 49 .233 .296 .375 .297 -0.5 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .244 .351 .435 .347 20.3 -1.5 -2.1 2.9

When the Dodgers traded Carlos Santana for Casey Blake, at least you could wonder if he had the glove to be a catcher in the bigs (otherwise, gah!). That worry has been proven correct. But the bat has answered all questions even as the player has worked his way down the defensive spectrum.

Even cutting off his 2011 breakout season from our sample, Santana compares well against the average first baseman. Since 2012, he’s walked 15.5% of the time against 17.4% strikeouts, with a .184 isolated slugging and an overall offensive line that was 28% better than league average. The American League first basemen averaged 9.2% walks, 20% strikeouts, a .160 ISO, and offense that was 6% than league average last year. If you think Adrian Gonzalez is a fine first baseman, then Carlos Santana can handle the bat enough for the position.

The glove is a question, but if he was good enough to be considered for third base, we may find he’s a good first baseman. And, at least anecdotally, players prefer certain positions defensively and think that preference makes a difference at the plate. (There is some evidence for this in the numbers, namely the demonstrated pinch-hitter penalty.)

Should Santana falter, first base is actually a position of decent depth, considering the quality of Brandon Moss, and the possibility that Nick Swisher could find what he lost. And as bad as it sounds, the resulting David Murphy / right-handed bat combo that would result from Moss taking over first base was actually the plan in 2014, so it’s not that bad.

#11 Red Sox

Mike Napoli   560 .242 .352 .440 .351 13.7 -1.4 4.4 2.7
Allen Craig 70 .267 .324 .418 .328 0.5 -0.3 -0.2 0.1
Brock Holt 42 .268 .319 .358 .302 -0.5 0.0 0.0 0.0
Daniel Nava 28 .261 .341 .377 .322 0.1 0.0 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .247 .347 .430 .344 13.7 -1.6 4.2 2.9

Mike Napoli can breathe while he’s sleeping now! This is not a joke. The Mayo clinic cites attention problems and daytime sleepiness as symptoms of sleep apnea, so those are real problems that the Red Sox first baseman has hopefully fixed with surgery. But my college professor William Dement is at the forefront of sleep research, and his class taught me that long-term repercussions of apnea include “heart attacks, strokes, impotence, irregular heartbeat, high blood pressure and heart disease. In addition, obstructive sleep apnea causes daytime sleepiness that can result in accidents, lost productivity and interpersonal relationship problems.” So yeah, good news for Mike Napoli.

What this means for his play on the field is impossible to know. Even without the fix. Napoli has easily cleared the benchmarks for an average American League first baseman, and he’s compared well enough to the guy just ahead of him on this list. If the 33-year-old can use his new health to find some of his lost power, good for him. At least the former catcher’s defense at first gives him a soft landing should that power not return.

The Red Sox are ridiculously deep everywhere, so it should come with no surprise to find a formerly above-average starting major league first baseman sitting behind Napoli on the depth chart. Allen Craig needs to recover from a bad foot problem, and has had some issues with beating the ball into the ground, but if Napoli’s hip issue flares up again, they’ve got options.

#12 Nationals

Ryan Zimmerman 560 .275 .341 .446 .346 12.5 -0.6 6.2 2.7
Tyler Moore 105 .241 .301 .420 .318 0.1 -0.1 0.2 0.2
Kevin Frandsen 35 .266 .305 .344 .290 -0.7 -0.1 -0.1 -0.1
Total 700 .269 .333 .437 .339 11.9 -0.8 6.3 2.8

The day we all knew was coming when we saw Ryan Zimmerman first floating and dinking throws has finally come. Zimm with one ‘n’ is now the first baseman in our capital. It could have some impact on his health — Alex Gordon did think that third base exacerbated some of his hamstring issues when I asked him — but it can’t solve everything. Because not only has Zimmerman had oblique and hamstring issues, but he’s also had issues with both shoulders that probably don’t have a ton to do with playing third.

So maybe he’ll be in the lineup a little more, but we can’t give him 162 just because he switched corners on the infield. That’s too bad, because the backup situation isn’t in the Nationals’ favor. At 28 years old, it’s a little late to be asking too much of Tyler Moore — he’s not made the contact or shown enough power to be league average with the bat yet. Maybe a few more walks will make him more passable in the days when Zimmerman needs a breather. The team is stacked enough that this might not be a big deal, too.

#13 Mets

Lucas Duda 630 .247 .342 .450 .347 18.4 -0.4 -0.2 2.8
John Mayberry 35 .226 .291 .377 .297 -0.3 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Eric Campbell 35 .243 .319 .349 .302 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .246 .339 .441 .342 17.9 -0.4 -0.3 2.8

This ranking may very well change shortly. We’ve got Lucas Duda down for a full slate at first base, but his team is considering platooning him. Last year, El Duderoni was a whopping 46% worse than league average against lefties, so you can see why. But for his career, dude’s been 25% worse than league average, and usually around 15% worse. Steamer only projects backup Eric Campbell to be 11% worse than league average…. of course, that’s against batters of both hands, and so Campbell may prove to be an upgrade against lefties.

But because projections don’t take things like this into consideration — how would they know that a player was set to get x% of their at-bats with the platoon advantage, anyway — we may see a downgrade of this ranking even as the expected real-life output is improved by a straight platoon.

No matter. It’s still great to see Lucas Duda finally figure it out. From a guy that went from hitting one homer in 34 games his freshman year at USC to hitting 30 homers at 28 years old in the major leagues, he showed quiet fortitude and lots of hard work. He’s past his athletic peak, but so much of Duda’s game is about the tension of aggressiveness and passivity that it seems likely that continuing to figure out this aspect of his game will help him retain many of his gains. In other words, dude’s big, and has a good sense of the zone — it could be his power is decided more by his decision when to swing than it is about the actual speed of his bat in any one swing.

#14 Angels

Albert Pujols 490 .271 .328 .470 .344 14.1 -2.4 3.8 2.5
C.J. Cron 140 .248 .285 .408 .305 -0.1 -0.3 -0.1 0.2
Efren Navarro 35 .241 .297 .332 .281 -0.7 0.0 0.1 0.0
Kole Calhoun 35 .264 .321 .437 .334 0.8 0.0 0.1 0.2
Total 700 .264 .318 .449 .332 14.1 -2.7 3.9 2.8

Man, was vintage Albert Pujols amazing. Not only did he lead everyone in wins for his Cardinals career, but he did it from first base and by combining Ichiro’s strikeout rate with Alex Rodriguez’s slugging percentage. But time for comes for all, and so we’ve seen Pujols drop off. Nearly everywhere. Check out what he’s done in each uniform:

Cardinals 13.1% 9.5% 0.311 0.328 0.420 0.288 0.430 167 3.4 7.4
Angels 7.7% 11.2% 0.270 0.273 0.332 0.204 0.345 124 -19.7 2.3

That walk rate. The missing 20 or so intentional walks don’t explain the big dip in the walk rate, but we know that pitchers avoid the zone more for sluggers. So as his power has waned, pitchers have challenged him more. Pujols has worsened the problem by reaching more, too.

There’s a young guy behind him should he need a 15-day (or longer) vacation, so that’s good news. And the young guy has been compared to Mark Trumbo, so at least it’s a powerful young man. But when Trumbo was 24 and in the same park and league as CJ Cron was last year, Trumboned for a .276 ISO, while Cron managed only a .195 ISO. And you pretty much need Trumbo’s power to overcome the questions created elsewhere in his profile.

#15 Royals

Eric Hosmer 630 .285 .341 .440 .342 13.3 -0.2 -0.1 2.4
Kendrys Morales 42 .262 .317 .418 .323 0.3 -0.2 0.0 0.1
Cheslor Cuthbert 28 .237 .283 .352 .282 -0.7 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .282 .338 .435 .339 12.9 -0.4 -0.2 2.5

How much credit do we give a young player for his age? Eric Hosmer is 25, and so he’s *probably* pre-peak, but the track record so far is inconsistent. Seen in sum, he’s been average for a first baseman (104 wRC+), and so this ranking is solid. But he’s only had one year in which his walk rate was above average, and a different year in which his isolated power was above average. The only thing we’ve seen consistently is the ability to make contact, at least now that he’s not adding much value on the basepaths any more.

But even a conservative appraisal of power peaks suggests that 25 is pre-peak, and if Hosmer managed his better power numbers along side his good contact and decent patience… he could be an above-average first baseman! And, in fact, at least one projection system has projected Hosmer into his best season with the bat by doing exactly that.

Of course, by now the athleticism that gave him any benefit on defense and also a smidgen of value on the basepaths is beginning to erode. So the sum of the parts will likely end up here. At least he’s been generally healthy — you don’t really want to run Kendrys Morales out there in the field.

#16 Brewers

Adam Lind 455 .281 .346 .457 .352 11.2 -1.2 -1.6 1.5
Jonathan Lucroy 175 .287 .349 .444 .349 3.9 -0.3 1.2 0.8
Luis Jimenez 70 .247 .278 .394 .294 -1.4 0.0 0.2 0.0
Total 700 .279 .340 .447 .346 13.7 -1.5 -0.2 2.2

For $12 million, the Brewers have an average first baseman and one of the league’s best catchers. Because this is how free agency/life works, $7.5 of that goes to Adam Lind, and the rest mostly goes to Jonathan Lucroy, who’s good enough to make two positions work.

Against righties, Lind should be fine. Even in his worst power years — last year was one of them — Lind has managed a .179 ISO or better against them. For a 31-year-old, the fact that his career ISO against righties was higher (.213) sill represents some capability for bounce-back. Even if his homers and flies lost ten feet of distance last year, and his home runs per fly ball rate was the worst of his career, by far.

Against lefties, Lind should be fine, on the bench. Lucroy can’t frame pitches at first, but the righty has been 41% than league average to date against lefties, and he can step in and give his knees a rest. All together, not a bad deal for $12 million.

#17 Twins

Joe Mauer 448 .284 .369 .397 .338 8.1 -0.1 2.3 1.8
Kennys Vargas 252 .246 .303 .416 .316 0.3 -0.1 -1.0 0.3
Total 700 .270 .345 .404 .330 8.5 -0.2 1.3 2.2

Especially when you consider what the Twins are getting for their $23 million at first base right now. Well, hold on, maybe that’s unfair. It could just be a one-year blip for Mauer. He’s been as bad as he was with the stick last year twice before, and each time, he came back with offense that was 40% better than league average the next year.

Unfortunately, the science of bounce back years probably takes a back seat to the science of aging, and the last two times Mauer did come back from a poor year, he wasn’t 32. Three straight years now, Mauer has set a new career high in strikeout rate. The distance on his homers and fly balls has steadily gone down over those years, too. Joey Votto once told me he wants to swing as little as Joe Mauer, so Mauer will always be one of the most patient hitters. But a little power bounce back would be huge for his value.

This year, the personal stakes might be higher. With Mauer signed with guaranteed money until 2018, maybe it doesn’t matter, but this year, Kennys Vargas provides a credible option when Mauer is out with injury. The free-swinging switch hitter couldn’t be any more different than Mauer, but he’s got power.

#18 Yankees

Mark Teixeira 455 .229 .319 .422 .328 3.7 -1.2 4.9 1.5
Garrett Jones 175 .245 .304 .447 .328 1.5 -0.5 -1.0 0.3
Brian McCann 70 .250 .315 .437 .329 0.7 -0.3 0.1 0.2
Total 700 .235 .315 .430 .328 5.8 -1.9 4.0 2.0

Some time in the middle of the 2011 season, Mark Teixeira’s average homer or fly ball stopped going 300 feet for the first time in Baseballheatmaps.com’s data set. It hasn’t returned to that average since, and he’s seen his power output decline each year since. Of course, he still has a good idea of the zone, makes contact well enough, and has above-average power, even for a first baseman. A full season from him might mean an above-average first baseman, but then again, he’s 34 and has averaged under 100 games a season for the last three. So his backup matters.

As far as Teixeira may have fallen, he’s weaker from his left side, so there’s probably no risk that this devolves into a straight platoon. Lefty Garret Jones may give him a blow against some righties, but the 33-year-old who has made a career of mashing righties has only been 4% better than league average against them the last two years. He’ll have to do better than that to push his way into regularly scheduled playing time.

#19 Rangers

Prince Fielder 595 .270 .368 .454 .356 16.0 -3.0 -5.0 1.8
Mitch Moreland 35 .246 .305 .409 .314 -0.2 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Kyle Blanks   35 .248 .317 .435 .331 0.3 0.0 0.0 0.1
Ryan Rua 35 .240 .292 .378 .298 -0.6 0.0 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .266 .358 .446 .350 15.4 -3.0 -5.0 1.9

When Detroit signed Prince Fielder to a big long contract, we took a look at how bigger players age. We found that they peak earlier and fall of faster. At 27, he had a good first year with the Tigers, one of his best actually. But then he followed that with his worst year since his rookie season, so it was fair to worry that he was following this path set by other heavy-set players before him.

When Boston signed Pablo Sandoval to a big long contract, I took a look at how bigger players age with respect to health. Before last year, Prince Fielder would have been the case against those findings — he averaged 160 games a season before last season.

Unfortunately, now the full force of both results are staring him in the face. At 30, he’s well beyond peak for his group of peers, and no matter what his size says about his health, the most predictive thing you can say about health is that what happened last year matters. And though a healthy Mitch Moreland is a better backup than Adam Rosales at first base, and Kyle Blanks offers some upside against lefty pitching, this team probably needs Fielder to be healthy and beat this projection.

#20 Cardinals

Matt Adams 490 .274 .314 .456 .335 8.2 -0.5 1.5 1.6
Mark Reynolds 175 .216 .309 .399 .315 0.2 -0.2 -1.1 0.1
Xavier Scruggs 35 .220 .296 .374 .300 -0.4 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .258 .312 .439 .329 8.1 -0.7 0.3 1.7

Here’s a fun fact about Matt Adams. Nobody had a better batting average on balls in play into the shift last year than Big Mayo. Only 11 batters were shifted more often, but Adams beat the shift by going the other way, and now he’s looking at bunting, too. With his power numbers down, it’s worth wondering if the shift is still ‘working’ against Adams by turning him into a doubles and singles hitter. But that’s not the sort of thing we’re likely to sort out here.

In the meantime, Adams is a powerful first baseman with some powerful flaws. He doesn’t walk much and he strikes out too much, sure. But worse for his team, maybe, is that he looks like he’s not great against lefties. We like to shy away from using results on balls in play split by handedness, but Adams has walked in 3.4% of the plate appearances he’s seen against southpaws, and struck out in 30%. It’s only been 203 PA, but those sorts of numbers stabilize fairly quickly.

So you have Mark Reynolds. Of course, if you run an unregressed straight Marcel-type weighted projection on his splits against lefties the last three years, you’d find that Reynolds might be 20% worse than league average against them this coming year.

#21 Athletics

Ike Davis 490 .228 .332 .402 .326 6.3 -1.3 0.4 1.4
Billy Butler 105 .272 .342 .408 .330 1.6 -0.8 0.0 0.3
Mark Canha 70 .239 .307 .376 .305 -0.2 0.0 0.0 0.1
Nate Freiman   35 .239 .298 .398 .307 -0.1 -0.1 0.0 0.0
Total 700 .237 .330 .400 .324 7.6 -2.2 0.3 1.7

Another fun shifting fact — of the 45 players that were shifted 100 times or more last year, only David Ortiz and Pedro Alvarez had a relatively better shift BABIP with respect to their out-of-shift BABIP. In other words, Adams had a high BABIP in both cases. Ike Davis hit .308 on balls into the shift and .232 when it wasn’t on. Maybe just a twist of randomness, but then there’s this table, which shows Davis’ pull percentage over the years.

Year Pull%
2010 42.0%
2011 41.0%
2012 52.5%
2013 47.7%
2014 36.9%
Total 44.6%

Of course, there’s still the same question as you’ve got with Adams, since Davis showed basically league-average power last year, and that can happen when you’re trying to go the other way to beat the shift. And just to cap this decent mirror of the Cardinals situation, it looks like the A’s are likely to platoon as well. Billy Butler’s been told that he’ll take the field against lefties, and rule five guy Mark Canha might get a shot to show that his 13% walk rate, 17% strikeout rate, and .181 ISO against lefties in the minors will translate.

#22 Padres

Yonder Alonso 462 .266 .327 .402 .321 4.3 -0.7 3.1 1.3
Tommy Medica 140 .228 .292 .398 .306 -0.3 0.1 0.2 0.2
Carlos Quentin 70 .238 .327 .420 .332 1.3 -0.1 -0.8 0.1
Jake Goebbert 28 .228 .306 .379 .304 -0.1 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .254 .319 .402 .318 5.3 -0.8 2.5 1.7

With a nigh-three-year-old toddler in the house, I now really know the meaning of the saying “it’s time to poop or get off the potty.” I have a feeling Padres fans feel the same way about this year and Yonder Alonso. He came to them with promises of patience and opposite field power that would play in any park. After some initial promise in those arenas, Alonso hasn’t quite proven himself in any of the categories. His career walk rate (8.6%), opposite field percentage (27.1%, 25.1% is average), and power and oppo power (.125 and .117 ISO respectively) are all either average or worse.

Are there reasons for optimism? Last year was Alonso’s best power year in a season with at least 200 plate appearances. He hit for the highest fly ball rate of his career. He hit the most homers per fly ball of his Padre career. He made the most contact of his career. And now, projections have him, on average, putting up the best year of his career. Unfortunately, this is where all that optimism leads you. It’s a tough position.

Some clamor for Tommy Medica to take over, but there are a few warts on Medica’s resume as well. He’s right-handed, so he doesn’t get the benefit of the platoon advantage as often as Alonso. He’s shown power in the minors, but he was in some nice parks and was at least a year older than league average at every stop save the last. He’s also had trouble making contact, his patience hasn’t translated yet, his defense has been up and down, and his power hasn’t (yet) been enough to make up for some of these issues.

It may look hopeless to some, but with the group of outfielders on this team now, the solution may not even come from this duo. Maybe Matt Kemp would make a good first baseman!

#23 Astros

Jon Singleton 280 .216 .318 .407 .322 1.9 -0.1 -2.3 0.4
Chris Carter 266 .225 .313 .460 .339 5.2 -0.2 -0.3 0.9
Evan Gattis   154 .245 .296 .462 .330 2.0 -0.2 -0.9 0.3
Total 700 .226 .311 .440 .330 9.1 -0.5 -3.5 1.7

Here come the Astros, winners of the award for Most Spread Out Allocation of Plate Appearances, First Base. Unfortunately for them, the guy atop the current heap was tabbed by his general manager as likely to start the season in the minor leagues, the guy second in line has a designated hitter’s glove, and the last guy is currently hurt.

Of course, these things have a way of working themselves out. In that, you could probably describe half of the positions on the Astros this way, and yet they’ll eventually sort out the starters from the backups. In an ideal world, both Gattis and Carter are probably DHes that rarely see the field, and Singleton figures out how to corral the strikeouts just even a little bit. Spring training quality of opposition and sample size caveats aside, Singleton has struck out in 32.5% of his 40 plate appearances so far this spring.

#24 Rays

James Loney 525 .273 .323 .378 .310 1.5 -1.1 3.4 1.2
John Jaso 105 .249 .338 .387 .325 1.5 -0.1 -0.7 0.2
Brandon Guyer   70 .253 .313 .372 .306 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.1
Total 700 .267 .324 .379 .312 3.1 -1.0 2.7 1.6

The league’s shortstops had a .105 isolated slugging percentage last year, and James Loney only a .090, so when someone jokes that he has the punch of a middle infielder, they aren’t wrong. Of course, his career number (.130) trumps that. But he’s 30 now and has been under .100 two of the last three years, so his ‘bounce-back’ projection doesn’t have him putting up his career-average power.

He makes up for this lacking in other ways, or we’d leave Loney alone on the wire. The fielding is usually good and he makes a lot of contact with decent batted ball mixes. But that’s not enough to push his production better than average, and it only really comes in 2/3 of the playing time due to his platoon splits.

Backing him up is John Jaso, whose days catching are behind him. Jaso could be the next Loney if he takes to the first base position defensively, actually.

#25 Rockies

Justin Morneau 525 .293 .348 .470 .356 6.6 -1.9 2.4 1.5
Wilin Rosario 154 .275 .310 .474 .340 0.1 -0.2 -1.4 0.0
Ben Paulsen 21 .247 .299 .421 .315 -0.4 0.0 0.1 0.0
Total 700 .287 .338 .469 .352 6.3 -2.2 1.0 1.5

Look at Justin Morneau’s projected batting line (.293/.348/.470 by the Depth Charts), you’d think he’d rate better than this. But the park adjustment takes much of the steam out of that line, and then Morneau takes a bit away with his glove and his feet and his lack of patience recently. He’s being platooned more often these days, and he’s always had health issues, too, so his plate appearance projection isn’t up there with the top halfers.

Speaking of his projection partner, Wilin Rosario’s time behind the plate may be coming to an end, and his right-handedness makes him a perfect match for Morneau as he transitions to a new position. It does seem like a waste to use Rosario this way, though, and the direction of the team might mean something for this duo by the end of the year. Will the team re-up with Morneau or use that flexibility to get a young return on the trade market? The difference between the veteran and the kid right now by projections over 600 plate appearances is less than a win, and that’s without giving the 26-year-old Rosario much growth.

#26 Blue Jays

Justin Smoak 420 .239 .318 .409 .322 1.3 -1.5 -0.5 0.6
Daric Barton 175 .239 .328 .360 .310 -1.0 0.0 2.0 0.4
Edwin Encarnacion   70 .268 .357 .512 .376 3.2 0.0 -0.2 0.4
Chris Colabello 35 .234 .292 .411 .310 -0.2 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .242 .323 .407 .324 3.3 -1.6 1.2 1.4

2200 plate appearances into his career, Justin Smoak is below replacement. Despite above-average patience and average power, he just hasn’t been able to do enough with balls in play to be league average with the bat. He’s not Loney with the contact rate, and he’s not Daric Barton with the glove. In order to bet on him, you have to simultaneously bet on him to improve his walk and strikeout rates while also taking advantage of his new park to improve his batted ball luck and power rates.

All those things aside, Justin Smoak turns up as one of the more replaceable players in baseball this year because his backup’s WAR/600 projection is a half win better than Smoak’s. Of course, that backup actually *is* Daric Barton, who hasn’t been above league average with the bat for more than 150 plate appearances in a season since 2010. AKA his one good season.

With first-base type bats at third base, designated hitter, and in the outfield, the Jays can skimp at the position and probably get away with it. Doesn’t mean the position is one of strength, though.

#27 Mariners

Logan Morrison 560 .247 .318 .413 .322 5.6 -0.7 -2.0 1.2
Rickie Weeks 70 .223 .308 .361 .302 -0.4 0.0 -0.6 0.0
Dustin Ackley 35 .250 .313 .383 .309 0.0 0.1 0.2 0.1
Jesus Montero 35 .249 .297 .404 .307 -0.1 -0.1 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .245 .316 .406 .319 5.2 -0.7 -2.5 1.3

Of course, Justin Smoak didn’t leave a healthy position in his wake in Seattle. Well, health is the key word at least. Because when he was in there, Logan Morrison did pretty much equal Smoak’s best season in a half-season of a first try, due to a 57-day thigh strain. This, after knee injuries limited him in Florida.

If healthy for a full season, Morrison could easily do something that his predecessor didn’t manage — be league average at his position. But that’s not much to bet on, and though the team did bring in a few options for depth, it’s hard to project much for Rickie Weeks and Jesus Montero, given their recent history. At least Weeks has bashed lefties for most of his career and can give LoMo a breather in those cases — and that’s something that won’t show up in a projection that isn’t weighted for the platoon advantage. This group could end the season better off than they start.

#28 Pirates

Pedro Alvarez 455 .236 .309 .442 .327 5.4 -0.5 -1.0 1.0
Corey Hart 168 .251 .311 .408 .317 0.7 -0.2 -1.4 0.1
Andrew Lambo 56 .245 .298 .423 .315 0.1 0.0 -0.2 0.1
Sean Rodriguez 21 .238 .298 .387 .304 -0.1 0.0 -0.1 0.0
Total 700 .241 .308 .430 .323 6.1 -0.7 -2.7 1.2

Pedro Alvarez is already 28. It seems like he’s been the next big thing for the Pirates for a while, and it is actually his age, so it’s not crazy. But it seems crazy.

In some ways, Alvarez finally did what everyone wanted from him last year. He cut his strikeout rate 5% and increased his walk rate to above league average at least. But inconsistencies on defense and a drop in his power frittered away all the good will he might have created with his improvements, and now he’s a platoon first baseman, or just another Gaby Sanchez.

Maybe this will rescue him. Not from a wake up and take notice standpoint, but from a freeing of the mind. No longer will his glove be the subject of constant debate. No longer will he be forced to face lefties for the chance that he improves against them. No, his work against them is taken for fact now — he’s got a 64 career wRC+ in 558 plate appearances, even regressed to the mean for the final 442 PA, that won’t look good — and so his overall line will be free from their shackles.

If he’s merely another cheap platoon first baseman, he’ll fit right in. Corey Hart will play his right-handed version, though older and much more grizzled by now.

#29 Marlins

Michael Morse 490 .261 .314 .438 .330 5.0 -2.4 -2.5 0.7
Justin Bour 140 .249 .304 .387 .302 -1.6 -0.1 0.1 0.0
Jeff Baker 70 .251 .299 .386 .301 -0.9 -0.2 -0.5 -0.1
Total 700 .258 .310 .422 .322 2.5 -2.6 -2.9 0.6

Cards on the table, I love Michael Morse. That Jamaican bad boy has made the most of one skill and really enjoys playing baseball for a living. He’s boisterous, fun, and likes to laugh. I could write his OKCupid profile. I just did, maybe.

But from a baseball standpoint, he’s a one-tool guy who’s had trouble staying on the field. Of course, if you’re going to pick one major league ability, then power’s the one. The list of one-tool power guys goes about 20 deep right now, meaning someone will always give Dayan Viciedo a chance.

The nice thing for the Marlins is that Morse has proven he can hit it out of a tough home park. The bad thing for the Marlins is that their team depth at the position might not do great things once Morse — who’s averaged 416 plate appearances a year since his breakout season — goes down with an injury. Well, maybe Justin Bour can show his patience and pop in the majors, even if he was old for his levels and never really considered a prospect. Kiley McDaniel has a 50 value on his power, and that’s enough for him to get a chance here.

#30 Phillies

Ryan Howard 385 .230 .307 .407 .313 -1.0 -2.0 -3.5 -0.2
Maikel Franco 210 .252 .283 .429 .311 -0.8 -0.1 -0.2 0.2
Darin Ruf 105 .238 .309 .398 .314 -0.2 -0.1 -0.5 0.0
Total 700 .238 .300 .413 .312 -2.0 -2.2 -4.1 0.0

If your General Manager says the team would be better without you, it’s not a good sign. But the last three years haven’t been pretty for Howard. He’s been below average with the bat while being the worst defensive first baseman in the game. Since he’s cost his team almost a win over the last three years, any team in baseball would be better without him, and that’s why, despite offering to swallow all but $10 million of Howard’s remaining $60 million contract, the Phillies have not found a taker.

Next year’s projection, due to the nature of projections, continues to project below replacement work, so if no American League team needs a half-time DH, we may see the team release Howard if just to see more of Maikel Franco. A combination of 60 future power and 50 future hit tool is enough to look past Franco’s relatively poor showing last year. He’s still 22 and interesting, which is something Ryan Howard (and I) can never manage again.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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8 years ago

You forgot to include the Phillies on that chart.

Oh, wait, no you didn’t.


Ruben Amaro Jr.
8 years ago
Reply to  Phillies113

Hang in there! We’re reaaaaaaly close to getting Rizzo for Hamels, it’s just a matter of what prospects the Cubs will agree to throw in.