The 2020 Replacement-Level Killers: First Base

In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. And yet all too often, for reasons that extend beyond a player’s statistics, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could improve their teams, allowing subpar production to fester at the risk of smothering a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’ 2007 book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, I compiled a historical All-Star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. I’ve revisited the concept numerous times at multiple outlets, and have presented it at FanGraphs in an expanded format since 2018.

Things are different this year, as you may have noticed. With six days to go before the August 31 deadline, just a month’s worth of performance to analyze — if, that is, a team has avoided a COVID-19 outbreak that has blown a hole in its schedule — and 23 teams within two games of spot in the expanded playoff field through Monday, putting together this year’s set of Replacement-Level Killers is a challenge like no other. The sample sizes are tiny, especially when players are sharing a position; month-long slumps are hardly unique. Even without being a complete devotee to exactitude, normally I’m able to curate a tidy list at each position by focusing on the subset of contenders (teams with .500 records or at least a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs) who have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at that spot through roughly two-thirds of the season. Scale that down to 30 games, and the threshold becomes 0.3 WAR or less, in which case a single good day by a player at the position in question might boost him from Killer to mid-pack producer.

Thus, I’m doing things a bit differently this time around. While still focusing upon teams that meet the loose definition of contenders (apologies in advance to fans of the Royals, Angels, Tigers, Red Sox, Rangers, Mariners, and Pirates), I’ll incorporate our Depth Charts rest-of-season WARs into the equation, considering any team that comes out with a total of 0.4 WAR or less to be in the replacement-level realm (that’s 1.1 WAR over the course of 162 games, decidedly subpar), though I may give a few teams in each batch a lightning round-type treatment, as I see their problems as less pressing given other contexts (returns from injury, contradictory defensive metrics, bigger holes elsewhere on the roster etc.) and I’ve pledged to keep these from becoming 3,000-word tomes.

I’ll begin this year’s series with first base.

2020 Replacement Level Killers: First Base
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Orioles .202 .254 .303 50 -7.3 0.2 -1.1 -0.7 0.0 -0.7
Rockies .239 .294 .394 70 -4.6 -0.4 1.0 -0.2 -0.1 -0.3
Diamondbacks .179 .263 .302 54 -6.9 0.3 -0.4 -0.5 0.2 -0.3
Rays .202 .286 .413 90 -1.5 -0.9 -0.9 -0.2 0.3 0.1
Brewers .221 .268 .490 97 -0.6 -0.1 -2.0 0.0 0.1 0.1
Blue Jays .238 .298 .410 93 -1.0 -0.9 -0.8 -0.2 0.4 0.2
Marlins .278 .316 .444 106 0.7 -0.8 -0.2 0.1 0.1 0.2
Reds .206 .330 .361 88 -1.8 -0.5 -1.2 0.0 0.3 0.3
Nationals .271 .330 .500 118 2.4 -0.7 0.0 0.2 0.1 0.3
Statistics through August 24. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Orioles

Shockingly, the O’s own the American League’s ninth-highest winning percentage (.500, via a 14-14 record) and have a 17.2% chance at the playoffs. After accumulating -4.5 WAR over the past two seasons, Chris Davis has hardly rebounded; he’s hitting .122/.173/.184 through 52 PA, with a -7 wRC+ — a performance that can only be understood in the Upside Down — and -0.8 WAR. Still owed $46 million over the next two seasons, he’s at least out of the picture for the moment, as he went on the Injured List on Friday with patellar tendinitis in his left knee. Renato Núñez, who clubbed 31 homers last year yet still finished with a 99 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR, had already begun to take playing time away from him and will likely to continue to do so, though defensively challenged 23-year-old prospect Ryan Mountcastle, a 2015 first-round pick who replaced Davis on the active roster, could get a look as well.

Diamondbacks

Christian Walker did a more-than-serviceable job of replacing Paul Goldschmidt last year, and while his overall numbers this year are hardly replacement level (.287/.347/.454, 116 wRC+), for some reason, he’s saved his best production for his time at DH while failing to produce when slotted at at first base. Jake Lamb, who’s started at first sometimes against righties while Walker DHs, is just 1-for-23 with a walk in that capacity, further dragging the numbers down. Given that the Diamondbacks (13-17) are running 11th in the playoff race and always shaking the couch cushions in search of spare change, all signs point to them riding out the likelihood that Walker’s production split between the two positions evens out.

Rockies

Daniel Murphy is hitting just .258/.295/.382 (63 wRC+) overall and is carrying a subzero WAR (-0.3) for the second season in a row. Ryan McMahon has fared better in limited duty at first base while also seeing time at second. While he should be free for more first base duty given the recent arrival of top prospect Brendan Rodgers, a 24-year-old second baseman who was the third pick of the 2015 draft, the fact that Rodgers has started just two of the five games for which he’s been up, with McMahon at second and Murphy at first, suggests the Rockies are determined not to make things so simple. If they don’t trade for some real help here — admitting that Murphy is a mistake, anathema when it comes to free agents in Colorado, as riding Ian Desmond’s 80 wRC+ for nearly 1,500 PA has shown — they might as well bring Todd Helton out of retirement.

Brewers

They traded Jesús Aguilar, let Eric Thames depart as a free agent, and all they got was this lousy production from Justin Smoak, who was mediocre for Toronto last year and has managed just an 89 wRC+ overall this year, thanks in big part to a walk rate that’s plummeted from 15.8% to 5.0% while he again flirts with the Mendoza Line. While Jedd Gyorko and Ryan Braun have a smattering of experience playing first base, the Brewers are another team that should seek out an upgrade from outside, particularly given that the loss of Lorenzo Cain has thinned the ranks in the outfield and that the 12-15 team is second-to-last in the NL with an 81 wRC+.

Marlins

They’re 12-11, with the NL’s sixth-highest winning percentage (.522) and Playoff Odds of 23.9%, so yes, they’re plausible contenders even after a recent 2-8 skid. Aguilar has hit .333/.361/.561 (146 wRC+) in his time at first base, while the other players who have spotted here, most notably Logan Forsythe, are just 3-for-24 with two walks. Lewin Díaz, a 23-year-old lefty who placed seventh on the team’s prospect list and grazed the Top 100 (at 119th), arrived last week and could continue to get a taste of the action, while Garrett Cooper, who’s been out since the first weekend of the season as part of the leading edge of the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, has been cleared to resume baseball activities and should provide additional depth at the position — or at DH, or even as trade bait — as soon as this weekend.

Rays

Despite that surprising home run from the right side of the plate, Ji-Man Choi has hit just .203/.293/.380 (83 wC+) with two homers in 92 PA overall, and he’s been slightly worse than that at first base. Superutilityman Mike Brosseau has raked in his brief time there, though José Martínez and Yandy Díaz have not. Obviously, the Rays — who at 19-11 have taken over the lead in the AL East — are awash in options, and they’re tied for the second-best rest-of-season projection among the teams here, so don’t bet on a big change so much as a reshuffling in the pecking order if Choi doesn’t come around quickly.

Blue Jays

The mid-camp shift of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to first base has not resulted in a breakout for the 21-year-old phenom, who’s hitting just .248/.333/.436 (112 wRC+) overall, and has managed just a 96 wRC+ in 16 games at first, and neither Rowdy Tellez nor Travis Shaw has been particularly successful in limited duty there while the kid DHs. Even given that modest production and the Jays’ surprising return to relevance at 14-13 — with Playoff Odds of 61.9% — they have no reason to give up on the position change after a month, and it’s worth noting that Guerrero’s rest-of-season production is tops at the position among this group.

Reds

Joey Votto’s going to Cooperstown someday, but his decline is beginning to look decidedly Heltonesque as he plays through a contract that lasts another three decades — I mean, seasons. After posting a 101 wRC+ last year, he’s down to 85 thus far (.200/.333/.341), and his 85.6 mph average exit velocity is in the 16th percentile, his 25.0% hard-hit rate in the 12th percentile. The Reds aren’t likely to punt a player whom they owe at least $82 million beyond this season, but they ought to find Votto a platoon partner given his 75 wRC+ and .303 SLG in 204 PA against southpaws dating back to the start of last season. In-house, righty Matt Davidson might fit the bill, as he owns a career 126 wRC+ against lefties, but it wouldn’t hurt to shop around before this season gets away from the Reds, who at 11-16 might be the NL’s most disappointing team (said the wag who predicted they’d win the NL Central).

Nationals

Ryan Zimmerman opted out, but between Thames, Asdrúbal Cabrera, and Howie Kendrick, the Nationals’ bats have been fine, collectively. Somehow, though, they’ve lost 0.7 runs on the basepaths; Cabrera’s at -1.3, which is tough to do in this few games unless you’re hauling a minifridge around with you. Between the losses of Stephen Strasburg to carpal tunnel surgery and Starlin Castro to a fractured right wrist, the Nationals have much bigger problems elsewhere.





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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Anon
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Anon

Votto’s season looks even bleaker since the hot start the 1st 4 games of the year when he went 7-18 with a couple bombs. Since game 5 he has a .149/.305/.239 slash line in 82 PA.

dl80
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dl80

And I wouldn’t be so sure he gets into the Hall. If he continues at this pace, he’s going to barely clear 2000 hits and 300 homers, and the rate stats are going to continue to nosedive.

I would still vote for him, but I don’t think he’s a lock at all.

dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu

This. Love Votto but he’s no shoe in. At this rate he might not make it to 2000/300 and he might not end up with more than 55 WAR. Not sure that makes him a HOFer.

Francoeurstein
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Francoeurstein

I’m hoping he can return to his ’18 form for a significant stretch, but it’s looking pretty bleak. I’ve written Votto off before though

32roland
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32roland

The one silver lining in Votto’s season so far is that his BABIP is .194, which is obviously ridiculously low. He also mentioned the other day that missing a few games because of the COVID scare was more disruptive than you might expect, so hopefully he can get himself right again.

tung_twista
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tung_twista

Whether Votto gets in the HoF by BBWAA is arguable and will be a function of how well Votto ages and how much the electorate changes in the next 15~20 years.
But I think it is safe to say if he doesn’t make it by BBWAA, he will eventually get in by Veterans Committee.

Tulo2low
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Tulo2low

Helton’s upcoming performance should be informative for Votto, as they are extremely close in WAR and JAWS.

matthayden4
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matthayden4

I understand the Votto/Helton comparisons, but I think Votto has a few things swinging the pendulum in his favor that Helton doesn’t have. Helton’s highest MVP finish was fifth, and his 0.90 MVP shares ranks 303rd all-time. Votto has his 2010 MVP, and also a second- and third-place finish, and his 3.06 MVP shares is 34th all-time. Votto’s 149 OPS+ (which won’t stay that high, I know) is 36th all-time, while Helton’s 133 OPS+ is 142nd. I think Votto’s biggest boon, though, is that he’s a SEVEN-time OBP champion. Barry Bonds is the only guy since Ted Williams to get on base at a greater rate than Votto.

Mean Mr. Mustard
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Mean Mr. Mustard

I do like this argument that you put forth…until you remember that the majority of the HoF voters haven’t figured out the magic of fire, relatively speaking. I know it’s changing, but the change hasn’t fully taken hold yet. Probably never will.

He doesn’t first base properly, you see. He should be nailing homers at roughly the rate that Wilt Chamberlain nailed…well. You get the idea.

dodgerbleu
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dodgerbleu

You’re right, but this is the BBWAA. Helton has over 800 more R+RBI, over 650 more hits, 82 more HR and 185 more doubles. Those traditional counting stays are still weighed heavily, so not sure Helton is the best comp.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Although, the Coors Field argument is a problem for Helton that Votto doesn’t have even though stats like WAR and wRC+ are supposed to account for that.

Anon
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Anon

I was curious if that is the worst 20 game stretch ever for Votto. So I overburdened the FG computer with a rolling 20 game graph from 2010 to the present. Votto has had some pretty low valleys over the years, some even worse than this> Here are the bottoms of each of those that were under .300 wOBA:
– 4/10/12 .273
– 7/5/14 .296
– 5/29/15 .262
– 7/6/15 .279
– 4/21/16 .221 (his low since 2010)
– 5/29/16 .283
– 4/22/18 .272
– 4/10/19 .287
– 5/22/19 .246
– 7/28/19 .258
– 8/24/20 .256??? (don’t know if this is the bottom or not)

Definite theme there with almost all of them being in the 1st month or two of the season so this is not unusual for him. What has to be most concerning is the frequency with which he falls into these holes. 2014 was a shortened season due to injury so you can write that off as a fluke so after doing it once from 2010-2015, he’s now done it 9 times in the last 5+ seasons