The 2022 Replacement-Level Killers: Introduction & First Base

© Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

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 — is 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 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, all of which have odds above 25% thanks to the new playoff structure (thanks for not saving me any work, Rob Manfred). 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 July 20.

2022 Replacement-Level Killers: First Base
Team AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Bat BsR Fld WAR ROS WAR Tot WAR
Red Sox .209 .275 .329 68 -13.2 2.1 -2.5 -1.0 0.6 -0.4
Astros .230 .283 .401 96 -1.7 -1.5 -2.3 -0.1 0.7 0.6
Giants .240 .321 .380 103 1.2 -1 -3.7 0.3 1.2 1.5
Brewers .227 .308 .453 110 4.6 -3.3 -1.8 0.6 0.9 1.5
Padres .267 .336 .396 109 4.4 -2.9 -1.5 0.7 0.6 1.3
Statistics through July 20. ROS = Rest-of-season WAR, via our Depth Charts.

Red Sox

After a tantalizing 23-game debut in 2020, Bobby Dalbec was subpar last year, hitting the ball very hard but striking out 34.4% of the time (second among all players with at least 400 PA) and finishing with a 107 wRC+ and 0.5 WAR. Even that version of Dalbec would be an improvement upon the current one, however. The 27-year-old is hitting .205/.286/.344 (76 wRC+) with a 31.3% strikeout rate and a barrel rate that’s dropped by more than half relative to last year (from 20.2% to 9.5%). Lately, he’s been serving as the short half of a platoon with Franchy Cordero, who himself has been pretty bad (.225/.299/.372, 87 wRC+) while striking out 32.4% of the time.

The Red Sox do have a first baseman of the future in 6-foot-5 lefty Tristan Casas, who topped the team’s prospect list and was 16th on our Top 100 heading into the season (he’s currently ranked 15th overall). Armed with a more mature approach at the plate and better contact skills than Dalbec, he wasn’t exactly lighting up the International League (.248/.359/.457) before suffering a right ankle sprain on May 17. After making a four-game rehab stint in the Florida Complex League last week, he’s likely to rejoin Triple-A Worcester this weekend. It’s asking too much for him to step into the big club’s job so soon, and so the team, which has gone just 5-12 in July after a 20-6 June, will need additional help. The Nationals’ Josh Bell and the Marlins’ Jesús Aguilar are both pending free agents who could fit, as could the Marlins’ Garrett Cooper, who has an additional year of club control and could also help in right field, where the team is below replacement level as well.

Astros

Yuli Gurriel had his best stateside season last year at age 37, hitting .319/.383/.462 (134 wRC+) with 3.4 WAR while taking home the American League batting title and a Gold Glove. On the offensive side, one key was a more disciplined approach; he chased a career-low 29.8% of pitches outside the zone, swung and missed at a career-low 5.1% of pitches, and walked a career-high 9.8% of the time. He seems to have abandoned that approach this year, as his chase rate is up to 37.4%, his swinging strike rate up to 7.4%, and his walk rate down to 5.8%. Worse, he’s not hitting the ball hard at all, with a feeble 2.3% barrel rate and .273 xwOBA en route to a meager .238/.289/.391 (95 wRC+) line.

Gurriel has started 78 of the team’s first 91 games at the position, with Aledmys Díaz making five starts, and Niko Goodrum and J.J. Matijevic getting four apiece. None of them profiles as an everyday replacement, though if the lefty-swinging Matijevic could hit big league righties consistently, he could fill a platoon role given Gurriel’s splits (99 wRC+ vs. righties, 139 vs. lefties since 2020, with marks of 85 and 117 respectively this year). In truth, Gurriel’s .284/.333/.474 line since June 15, as well as the team’s 10-game AL West lead, lessens the urgency for a move, but the Pirates’ Daniel Vogelbach (123 wRC+ career vs. righties, 149 this year) is one player who would fit the bill as a part-timer.

Giants

Last year, Brandon Belt was limited to 97 games by three separate stints on the injured list, but Darin Ruf, LaMonte Wade Jr., and Wilmer Flores picked up the slack; the team finished with a major league-best 158 wRC+ at the position. The Giants haven’t been so fortunate this year. The 34-year-old Belt’s availability has been limited to 52 games by a bout of COVID-19 and chronic inflammation in his right knee; he has hit just .216/.325/.306 (88 wRC+) in 36 starts and 39 total appearances while playing first, though he’s added five of his eight homers in just 36 PA as a DH to boost his overall line to .243/.355/.426 (125 wRC+).

Belt played first on Thursday night against the Dodgers for the first time since July 9, and the Giants hope he’ll be able do more of that going forward. Lately it’s been Ruf (98 wRC+ in 107 PA while playing first) and Wade (116 wRC+ in 20 PA) getting the reps when Belt is out of the lineup or DHing, with the more potent Flores (141 wRC+ in 93 PA in the role) playing more second base. So long as Belt remains available, the Giants will likely continue to mix and match among this group rather than seek an outside solution.

Brewers

Rowdy Tellez got off to a very strong start in the season’s first month, and after homering on July 1, was still carrying a .247/.319/.498 (124 wRC+) line. From July 2 to the All-Star break, however, he hit just .122/.232/.245, dropping his wRC+ down to 109, and dragging the Brewers to the fringes of Killers territory.

To be fair, Tellez has hit the ball about as hard during the skid (91.9 mph average exit velocity, 10.3% barrel rate, 46.25% hard hit rate) as before, save for a couple points of barrel rate, so this may be a fleeting slump. If not, the Brewers do have a ready alternative in Keston Hiura, who has played 15 games at first and has hit .238/.354/.451 (129 wRC+) in 144 PA overall while adding 12 games apiece at second and DH, and four in left field. While Hiura was just optioned to Triple-A Nashville on July 13, he remains just a plane ride away. That said, the Brewers have been particularly aggressive about upgrades at first base in recent years, trading away Jesús Aguilar at the July 31 deadline in 2019 and acquiring Tellez last July 6. A similar move wouldn’t be a surprise here.

Padres

I said I’d use 0.6 WAR as a general cutoff for the Killers lists, but the Padres are just an eyelash above that, and their situation has gotten somewhat dire. Eric Hosmer hit a scorching .382/.447/.579 start through May 1, when I wrote about him, but since then he’s hit just .235/.295/.309 (72 wRC+) with -0.7 WAR, easily the worst performance by a first baseman on a contending team during that span, and one that’s hardly out of place with Hosmer’s body of work in San Diego, where he netted -0.1 WAR in the first four seasons of his eight-year, $144 million deal.

With the Padres dropping 14 of their last 21 games of the first half to fall 10 games behind the Dodgers, it’s worth plugging such a major leak before the team slides further. While Hosmer is still owed $39 million beyond this year, it may be time to concede the sunk cost and move on. General manager A.J. Preller will likely be a busy man as August 2 approaches, and it wouldn’t be surprising if he brings in an alternative.





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.

61 Comments
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CC AFCmember
2 months ago

Don’t make Dan Vogelbach play the field. You wouldn’t like him when plays the field.

EonADS
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Josh Bell isn’t much better.

David Kleinmember
2 months ago
Reply to  EonADS

Bell’s defensive metrics have improved this year sss caveats of course.

MikeDmember
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

Vogelbach is the only player I can think of who I’m 50-50 sure might have a heart attack while playing.

sadtrombonemember
2 months ago
Reply to  MikeD

Unfortunately Kenley Jansen is the winner there.

tz
2 months ago
Reply to  sadtrombone

For this very reason, as a major Kenley Jansen fan, I hope that he (a) catches on with an AL team playing at sea level for 2023 and (b) goes into a late-career resurgence that makes him a first-ballot HOFer, so he’s around for his induction.

(And if the folks in Cooperstown don’t have a special exhibit for The Intentional Balk, they need to do that pronto. Ask Jomboy Media to donate a family-friendly version of their breakdown.)

cartermember
2 months ago
Reply to  tz

I just want to see him catch

fjtorres
2 months ago
Reply to  CC AFC

The Mets don’t plan to.
They got him to DH.

Last edited 2 months ago by fjtorres
cartermember
2 months ago
Reply to  fjtorres

Meant Jansen