The 2019 Replacement-Level Killers: First Base

Albert Pujols has shown some life at first base, but the Angels are still almost under water at the position (Photo: Keith Allison)

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 remains inadequate 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. Particularly with so many teams within range of a Wild Card spot, the upgrades available as the July 31 deadline approaches make for some fairly slim pickings, and so some teams may prefer to shuffle through internal options.

Among contenders (which, for this series, I’ve defined as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%, a definition that currently covers 18 teams), seven have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at the position thus far. Again, a closer look at each situation suggests that not all of them will be in the market for external solutions. 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. Note that I’m skipping over the Yankees, for whom an 0-for-4 from Luke Voit on Sunday was the difference between slipping below the threshold or clearing it.

Replacement-Level Killers: First Basemen
# Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR
28 Rangers .223 .305 .393 75 -12.6 -2.7 1.3 -0.7
26 Red Sox .234 .302 .438 88 -6.8 -2.1 -2.5 -0.4
21 Angels .230 .296 .448 95 -3.0 -2.8 2.7 0.5
20 Twins .264 .321 .474 105 2.5 -3.3 -1.6 0.5
18 Cardinals .244 .328 .415 97 -1.9 0.8 2.0 0.7
17 Nationals .265 .309 .505 105 2.8 -0.3 -1.0 0.8
All statistics through July 21. Rk = WAR rank among all 30 teams.

Rangers

Here I am, picking on them again at a time when it’s fair to wonder if they really count as contender, and let’s face it, a sub-.400 slugging percentage from the first basemen of an Arlington-based team now that we’re past the halfway point of July is another data point that suggest, eh, maybe not. Ronald Guzman has made 56 starts at the position but has hit .193/.279/.396, good for a 67 wRC+, which won’t cut it, and every day that they’re playing Logan Forsythe (.256/.361/.430, 105 wRC+ overall) at first base, as they’ve done for 26 starts, is a day that they could instead be using him to replace Rougned Odor at second. The sudden reemergence of Danny Santana, who hadn’t been productive since his 2014 rookie season with the Twins until this year, is very interesting; he’s hitting .320/.352/.566 with 13 homers and a 130 wRC+ and has made at least one start at every position except catcher, including 13 at first base. Parking him at first base and riding his bat for as far as it will go probably makes more sense than sacrificing resources for what looks like a long shot chance at a playoff spot.

Red Sox

Role players who come out of nowhere to win World Series MVP awards at age 35 don’t make for strong investment propositions, but the Red Sox spent $6.25 million on another year of Steve Pearce’s services, only to see him hit .180/.245/.258 in 99 PA between being sidelined by calf and lower back strains. Then, on July 1, he sprained a posterior ligament in his left knee, and as of last Thursday, still hadn’t been cleared to do more than hit off a tee at the team’s spring training facility in Fort Myers. Mitch Moreland has been something of an offensive threat when available (.225/.316/.543, 115 wRC+) but he’s played just one major league game since May 25 due to his own back woes and a right quad strain; he’s played three straight games at Triple-A Pawtucket on a rehab assignment, suggesting he’ll be back this week. That pair has combined to make just 52 starts at first base (37 by Moreland), with Michael Chavis, who ably filled in at second base upon arriving, sliding over to make a team-high 41 starts there. However, his bat has cooled off after a hot start (82 wRC+ since the start of June). He and Moreland may not make for a very impactful platoon given their recent work, so it wouldn’t be a shock if the Sox add an alternative to the mix.

Angels

With Shohei Ohtani again tearing things up as a DH, any first base alternative for the Angels means confronting the reality of Albert Pujols‘ continued presence. The good news is that he’s hit much better as a first baseman (.270/.324/.512 in 238 PA) than as a DH (.179/.260/.239 in 77 PA), but he has just one calendar month in the past season and a half with a wRC+ above 100 (July 2018), and has rarely sustained above-average production for long in that span. Given that his work at first prorates to about 2.0 WAR over a full season, the odds are that the Angels won’t make a drastic change, but they’ve already begun cycling through supplemental options. Matt Thaiss, the team’s 2016 first round pick, wasn’t exactly tearing up Triple-A Salt Lake City when he was called up recently, and he’s off to just a 3-for-25 start in the bigs, but he could be a viable alternative. Justin Bour, who played first base while Ohtani was out for the season’s first month and a half, has hit just .183/.269/.387 in two stints with the team sandwiched around a four-week refresher course at Triple-A; he might just as easily wind up as some other team’s change-of-scenery alternative. Jared Walsh, who has added work as a lefty reliever to his resumé (three appearances totaling 3.1 innings), has gone just 6-for-35 in his brief stints with the team.

Twins

C.J. Cron’s overall numbers aren’t dreadful (.263/.320/494) but his 109 wRC+ is 13 points higher than his split at first base (where he’s started 77 times) thanks to an 8-for-14, 1.357 slugging showing in his brief time at DH. What’s more, he’s hit just .252/.295/.443 for an 86 wRC+ in any capacity since the start of June. Sliding Miguel Sano over from third base and using some combination of Marwin Gonzalez (95 wRC+ overall) and Ehire Adrianza (115 wRC+) there is an option; both are swinging hot bats and either would be a defensive upgrade at the hot corner. Again, the trade market isn’t exactly bursting with options, particularly with the Blue Jays’ Justin Smoak hitting just .170/.303/.310 (70 wRC+) since June 1, and the Astros’ recently DFA’d Tyler White managing just an 81 wRC+ overall. Garret Cooper has hit a meaty .311/.385/.507 (138 wRC+) and would give the Astros a longer-term solution, as he comes with four years of club control, but the Marlins will require a hefty package to acquire him. Given that 2017 supplemental first-round pick Brent Rooker is already at Triple-A and himself could present a plausible alternative once he returns from a “right groin contusion,” which, oof, this may be another team that stays in-house here while focusing on other needs.

Nationals

Both Matt Adams and Ryan Zimmerman have hit better as first basemen (108 wRC+ for the former, 97 for the latter) than they have overall, but theirs is a combo that doesn’t inspire much confidence. Zimmerman has hit just .246/.311/.390 (81 wRC+) overall, and continues to battle plantar fasciitis, which sidelined him for more than two months from late April to late June. Adams (.232/.269/.511, 93 wRC+) has become an all-or-nothing proposition, as he’s walking just 5.0% of the time and managing a .259 BABIP. Howie Kendrick has been a marvel at age 36 (.318/.370/.541, 132 wRC+) and has started 18 games at first while helping out at second and third as well. So long as Brian Dozier and Anthony Rendon remain healthy, giving him more playing time here might be as good a solution as the Nationals can muster from outside, particularly with the catching and bullpen situations more pressing.

Cardinals

Given the $130 million extension he signed this spring, Paul Goldschmidt was supposed to be a long-term centerpiece for the Cardinals’ lineup, but he’s hit just .248/.335/.424 (101 wRC+) overall. The good news is that he’s on the upswing, hitting .259/.328/.537 (121 wRC+) in 62 PA in July after scuffling mightily (.181/.274/.309, 57 wRC+) in June, and with that improvement has come a team-wide offensive surge; the Redbirds are scoring 4.75 runs per game in July after managing just 3.54 in June.

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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.

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cwood41
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cwood41

This is an awesome series.

Joe Don
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Joe Don

Unless you’re a Rangers fan.

MarioLopez
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MarioLopez

Glancing at the projections the Rangers might wind up here for every position except LF and CF

LenFuego
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LenFuego

Yeah, presumably next is second base, Odor’s position.

cardinalskenobi
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cardinalskenobi

Or a Cardinals fan