When it comes to replacement level, first base is a very different beast than catcher. In general, teams prioritize catcher defense and staff handling over offense, and even in this age of advanced analytics, there’s room to quibble over whether the available metrics — including the pitch-framing sort — capture enough of their value. As we lack a good staff-handling metric (catcher ERA isn’t it due to sample-size issues), there’s a whole gray area that, among other things, allows teams, particularly contending ones, to convince themselves they’re getting enough value behind the plate.
First base is another story. Offense is comparatively easy to measure, and the expectations for the position are high. A contending team that lacks a heavy hitter at the spot, or at least an adequate one, is bringing a spork to a knife fight. At this end of the defensive spectrum, it shouldn’t be that hard to find alternatives, even if they possess relatively clunky gloves; in this day of shortened benches, you can generally find a utilityman to fill in defensively at first in the late innings. With upgrades available as the July 31 deadline approaches, there’s no excuse for letting a Replacement-Level Killer drag your contending team down.
Among contenders (which, for this series, I’ve defined as teams with playoff odds at least 15.0%, a definition that currently covers 15 teams), five have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at the position thus far. That said, a closer look at each situation suggests not all will be in the market for external solutions (an area that colleague Dan Szymborski will examine). Between early-season injuries and slow-starting veterans, some of these teams aren’t in as dire a shape as their overall numbers suggest, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re out of the woods.
Working from the order of the table above, from the worst to the most borderline…
As I noted in the catchers’ installment, eight out of 12 Rockies with at least 100 PA have a wRC+ below 90. While it’s understandable how the team could convince itself that the defensively sound Chris Iannetta and Tony Wolters might be adequate enough, there’s no fig leaf of an excuse to cover the team’s ongoing inability to find competence at first base, where Ian Desmond, Ryan McMahon, and Pat Valaika have combined for an 85 wRC+. Desmond himself hasn’t been quite that bad with the bat (.238/.309/.468, 92 wRC+), but his defensive numbers at the position are lousy (-1.7 UZR, -4 DRS), and at this point it feels like the Rockies are playing him mainly because they still owe him about $50 million, preferring a sinking ship to a sunk cost.
McMahon, a lefty-swinging rookie who placed 83rd on Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel’s top-100 list this spring, should at least be able to outproduce Desmond, but despite a strong spring training from the 23-year-old, the team has yo-yo’d him between the minors and the majors. The results have been grim (.211/.283/.337, 50 wRC+), but he’s hardly gotten a fair shake; he’s started just 19 of the 47 major-league games he’s played, nine at either second or third base instead of first, and never more than four games in a row. Meanwhile, whatever voodoo utilityman Pat Valaika used to bop 13 homers in 195 PA last year is gone. He’s hit for a 1 wRC+ (.137/.212/.211), which at least matches his home-run total in 105 PA this year. Say, what’s Todd Helton up to these days?
Speaking of an ongoing inability to find competence, the Mariners haven’t gotten 1.0 WAR out of a first baseman since Russell Branyan in 2009. This year, starter Ryon Healy has bopped 20 homers, but thanks to his 3.7% walk rate, his offensive production is barely above league average (.244/.274/.466, 102 wRC+), and the wRC+ is seven points shy of the average for first basemen. And we haven’t even talked about his defense, about which the less said, the better (-3.5 UZR, -6 DRS). His iron glove has dragged his WAR down to -0.2. The top in-house alternative, Large Adult Son Dan Vogelbach, has hit just .200/.333/.323 in 78 PA.
The M’s do have something of a solution in store thanks to the play of Dee Gordon at second base — not center field, where they originally planned to play him — during Robinson Cano’s PED suspension. The 35-year-old Cano, who was on a Hall of Fame track before failing a drug test in May, is now taking grounders at first base as well as second, and according to general manager Jerry Dipoto, he’ll see time there as well as at DH when Nelson Cruz needs a day off. Cano has never logged a professional inning at first base, but even if he’s learning on the job, he should be an upgrade, at least if he can approximate anything like his line (.287/.385/.441, 132 wRC+) before he was pinched. Still, the Mariners will need depth here if they make the playoffs (which they haven’t done since 2001), because the suspension makes Cano ineligible for October baseball.
It’s fair to quibble with the Yankees’ inclusion here thanks to the return of Greg Bird from a seemingly never-ending series of shoulder and ankle injuries. After he slugged .575 with eight homers in 87 PA last August and September following right ankle surgery, Bird appeared ready to take his rightful spot among the increasingly youthful Bronx Bombers, but the need for a second surgery in the spring kept him out of action until mid-May, and the Tyler Austin/Neil Walker platoon that replaced him struggled mightily. Bird has hit a modest .223/.324/.459 for a 112 wRC+ and 0.7 WAR, while Austin, Walker, and Brandon Drury have combined for -0.8 WAR in that capacity, and -0.9 overall. So long as Bird stays healthy, the Yankees are probably in the clear at first, but we are talking about a player who has appeared in just 142 games since the start of 2016, so perhaps some insurance is in order.
The Astros may be a juggernaut, but even juggernauts have their weak spots now and again, and first base is one for Houston. That said, as with the Yankees, this is a situation that appears to have shored itself up without intervention. Yulieski Gurriel underwent surgery on the broken hamate in his left hand in late February, didn’t debut until April 13, and hit a measly .281/.304/.368 (84 wRC+, -0.2 WAR) through the end of May. Since then, the 34-year-old Cuban defector has gotten his groove back, hitting .323/.357/.497 (136 wRC+) en route to 0.9 WAR. Meanwhile, versatile Marwin Gonzalez, whose 20 starts at first base cover the majority of those that Gurriel missed (J.D. Davis, A.J. Reed, and Tyler White have the balance) has heated up as well, with a 73 wRC+ through May and 116 since. Move along.
In a winter during which most teams shrugged their shoulders and sat on their checkbooks, the Phillies were laudably aggressive, though the free-agent signings of Jake Arrieta, Tommy Hunter, Pat Neshek, and Carlos Santana aren’t the primary reason they’re atop the NL East with a 55-43 record; of that group, Arrieta is the only one with at least 1.0 WAR. Santana, whom the team signed to a three-year, $60 million deal, has played every game, but has hit just .209/.353/.400 for a 105 wRC+. He’s walking 18.4% of the time, his highest mark since his abbreviated rookie season in 2010, and he has 15 homers in 419 PA, a rate on par with last year and his career; however, the 32-year-old switch-hitter’s .204 BABIP is 70 points below last year’s mark and 60 points below his career mark; basically, the rest of his offensive game is being smothered by the shift. He has an 18 wRC+ when facing the shift as a lefty (166 PA), down from a 72 wRC+ last year, and a -4 wRC+ as a righty (albeit in a much smaller sample of 31 PA), down from 44 last year. Even including the balls that he’s hit over the wall when facing the shift, he’s still slugging just .349 under those conditions via Statcast. On the other side of the ball, by both UZR and DRS, he’s slightly below average defensively instead of being a plus, as he was last year (10 DRS, 5 UZR).
The Phillies aren’t going to punt Santana given his contract, but they do have an alternative at first base in Rhys Hoskins, who was defensively average in 27 games at first last year and was considered by scouts to be adequate if below average at the spot; by comparison, he’s been dreadful (-8.6 URR, -17 DRS) in 113 carer games in left field. If the Phillies aren’t going to trade for a full-blown first-base upgrade, they could instead add to their outfield mix in a way that effectively creates a multiposition platoon, minimizing Santana’s exposure offensively as well as Hoskins’ defensively.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.