The 2021 Replacement-Level Killers: Introduction & First Base

In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. 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.

When it comes to defining replacement level play, we needn’t be slaves to exactitude. Any team that’s gotten less than 0.6 WAR from a position to this point — prorating to 1.0 over a full season — might be considered fair game. Sometimes, acceptable or even above-average defense (which may depend upon which metric one uses) coupled with total ineptitude on offense is enough to flag a team. Sometimes a team may be well ahead of replacement level but has lost a key contributor due to injury; sometimes the reverse is true, but the team hasn’t yet climbed above that first-cut threshold. As with Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of hardcore pornography, I know replacement level when I see it.

For this series, I’ll go around the diamond, pointing out the most egregious examples of potential Killers at each position among contenders, which I’ll define as teams who are above .500 or have playoff odds of at least 10.0%. That definition covers 17 teams (sorry Braves, Cubs, Cardinals, and Nationals, but you’ll have to do this without my help). If one of the aforementioned fringe teams gets their record or odds above the threshold this week, I’ll do an additional Very Special installment at the end. And while I may mention potential trade targets, I’m less focused on these teams’ solutions than I am the problems, because hey, human nature.

This first installment will cover first basemen. All statistics within this piece are through Saturday, July 17.

2021 Replacement Level Killers: First Base
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Red Sox .215 .261 .385 71 -12.4 -0.6 -2.6 -1.1 0.2 -0.9
Cleveland .184 .264 .345 65 -14.0 -1.7 0.5 -1.1 0.5 -0.6
Yankees .202 .289 .331 73 -12.6 -0.4 3.4 -0.3 1.2 0.9
Brewers .211 .311 .365 87 -6.5 -1.1 0.3 -0.2 0.4 0.2
Mariners .216 .285 .345 78 -10.0 0.7 4.1 0.0 0.4 0.4
Padres .280 .336 .403 105 2.7 -2.7 -5.6 0.0 0.4 0.4
Statistics through July 17. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Red Sox

For all of the things that have gone right for the Red Sox in the wake of last year’s debacle, first base is not one of them. Bobby Dalbec, who hit .263/.359/.600 with eight homers in 92 PA over the final month of last season, has been the regular since Opening Day but has hit just .219/.262/.405 (76 wRC+) with 10 homers and -0.6 WAR. While he’s produced a 16.6% barrel rate and a 91.0 mph average exit velocity, he’s struggled to hit four-seam fastballs (.163 AVG, .313 SLG) to the point that his -8 runs against the pitch places him in the fourth percentile. Both his 4.6% walk rate and 36.9% strikeout rate are similarly extreme and call to mind Eric Longenhagen’s caution from Dalbec’s prospect report: “Short of guys with elite power like Miguel Sanó and Joey Gallo, there’s virtually no precedent for any corner bat to strike out as much as Dalbec does and still have sustained success as an everyday big leaguer.”

Neither Michael Chavis nor utilitymen Marwin Gonzalez and Danny Santana — both of whom are currently on the Injured List — have been much better in their limited chances at first. On Sunday night, an experiment with Christian Arroyo playing the position for the first time led to a left hamstring strain after just three innings. Ouch! Gallo is approaching a crossroads in Texas — he has one more year of club control remaining, but his value is at a high coming off a first half that landed him on the All-Star team — and makes sense as a trade target. He has some experience at first base and would help to balance a righty-heavy lineup that features only two lefty-swinging regulars (Rafael Devers and Alex Verdugo). But even bringing back Mitch Moreland (now in Oakland) might be preferable to watching Dalbec flail around.

Cleveland

For as bad as the ranking is, this situation might already be fixed. Through the first two months of the season, lefty-swinging Jake Bauers took starts against righties, and Josh Naylor and Yu Chang started against lefties. Bauers hit just .190/.277/.280 before being dealt to the Mariners on June 10; Bobby Bradley has taken over more or less full-time since then, hitting .225/.323/.541 (131 wRC+) with 10 homers in 127 PA. As Chet Gutwein noted recently, after struggling mightily in his first taste of major league action in 2019, the now–25-year-old Bradley has substantially cut down his chase rate against all pitches and has particularly shored up his results against sliders. He still has a ton of swing-and-miss in his game; his 18.3% swinging-strike rate places him in the third percentile among batters with at least 120 PA, just below Dalbec’s 18.5%. So long as he provides walks and power, Cleveland has other issues to consider.

Yankees

Luke Voit led the majors with 22 homers last year and put up a stellar 152 wRC+, but he hasn’t been right for long this season. After tearing the medial meniscus in his left knee and undergoing surgery in late March, he didn’t debut until May 11 and played just 12 games before straining his oblique, sidelining him for another four weeks. He homered in two of his first three games back, but just before the Yankees returned to action in the second half, he returned to the IL with a bone bruise in his left knee. Between that and his limp .241/.328/.370 showing, it’s not clear that the team can count on much from him; I’m taking the under on our projection for Voit to produce 1.0 WAR over the remainder of the season.

Not only have the Yankees gotten sub-replacement work from fill-ins Mike Ford (now a Ray) and Chris Gittens, but DJ LeMahieu also hasn’t been able to recapture his 2020–21 magic, hitting just .270/.350/.365 and even worse than that during his 27 starts at first. The Yankees would be better off returning him to second base or a multi-position role and finding a first baseman who can outhit Rougned Odor, which shouldn’t be too hard. If not Gallo — who makes all kinds of sense for New York given its numerous needs and righty-heaviness, as he could play first or any outfield spot — then an Anthony Rizzo rental could help; for that matter, so could Kris Bryant, who’s played 12 games at first this year.

Brewers

Since hitting .303/.368/.570 in 84 games as a rookie in 2019, Keston Hiura has been downright dreadful, managing just a 75 wRC+ in 432 PA and striking out 36.3% of the time. He’s been adequate defensively since moving to first at the start of this season — a huge plus given his subpar work at the keystone and the superior play of newcomer Kolten Wong. But Hiura has the majors’ highest swinging-strike rate (23.9%) and lowest zone contact rate (60.8%) of any player with at least 150 PA, and it’s not particularly close; he’s about 10 points ahead of any other player in the latter category, and his 38.7% strikeout rate is the majors’ third-highest among that group. Two stints at Triple-A Nashville, where he’s hit .403/.506/.722, have failed to translate to the majors, and his .167/.261/.309 (58 wRC+ line) is nowhere close to cutting it for a cellar-dwelling team, let alone a first-place one.

While Daniel Vogelbach has provided better production at first base than Hiura (.224/.330/.414, 103 wRC+ in that capacity), his lack of defensive ability has canceled out his value there, and he’s out until at least early August due to a hamstring strain anyway. Rowdy Tellez, whom the team recently acquired from the Blue Jays, is hitting just .203/.272/.324, and he’s no threat to win a Gold Glove, either. Manager Craig Counsell has begun experimenting with Jace Peterson at the spot, as he’s hit a respectable .263/.390/.432, but neither his track record nor his Statcast numbers suggest that’s sustainable. Jesús Aguilar, who played for the Brewers from 2017 to mid-’19 and has since fared well with the Marlins thanks to improved plate discipline, would be a sensible pursuit.

Mariners

Evan White hit an unfathomable .144/.202/.237 before being sidelined by a left hip flexor issue injury, and after two months of rehab, he and the team decided that he needed season-ending surgery to repair a torn labrum. After giving José Marmolejos and Jacob Nottingham brief opportunities, manager Scott Servais has turned to Ty France, who’s hit a respectable .268/.350/.414 and seen the bulk of the duty over the past seven weeks. Primarily a third baseman in the minors, France has added second and first to his repertoire in the majors. That could come in handy if the Mariners want to fortify their roster and aggressively pursue a Wild Card spot, as they’ve gotten replacement-level work from Dylan Moore and their other second base options. That’s a story for another day, but it gives the team two paths toward upgrading the right side of the infield, which leaves only [checks notes] three other positions that need fixes.

Padres

The Padres have done a lot of things right in recent years, but signing Eric Hosmer to an eight-year, $144 million deal was not one of them. Through his first four seasons, Hosmer has managed just a 97 wRC+ and 0.1 WAR, and only last year was he above replacement level. This year, he’s hitting a meager .272/.330/.384 (99 wRC+) and has been particularly subpar defensively (-5 UZR, -5, DRS) en route to -0.4 WAR. As Dan Szymborski noted a few weeks ago, according to ZiPS, San Diego’s first base situation is the weakest of any position among the three NL West contending teams.

I mentioned the Padres’ multi-year pursuit of Gallo last week, but he’s just one player who could help. Rizzo, who reached the majors with San Diego in 2011, would be an upgrade, too; the Padres and Cubs have been frequent trade partners in recent years, making five deals since the start of 2017, with the Yu Darvish trade the largest of them. Szymborski raised Trey Mancini as a potential target, but like Gallo, he has another year of club control remaining and won’t come cheap. Still, the position is an ongoing problem, and a solution that lasts longer than two months is in order.





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.

newest oldest most voted
TheGarrettCooperFanClub
Member
Member
TheGarrettCooperFanClub

Hey Yankees: Garrett Cooper is available. Bring him home.

(He got injured again though yesterday, unfortunately. Somebody needs to give this dude every day playing time though)

Willians Astu-stu-studillo
Member
Member
Willians Astu-stu-studillo

“He got injured again though yesterday”

He’d fit right in.