The Rockies Should Play Corey Dickerson at First Base

The Rockies officially signed Gerardo Parra the other day. It was an odd move, because it seemingly killed the team’s leverage to deal one of their existing outfielders, which is something that has been rumored to be in the offing all offseason. While that might be true, it doesn’t have to be true, because there is an easy solution to the logjam — playing Corey Dickerson at first base.

The Rockies have been searching for a first baseman for a couple of years. Over the past three seasons, the team has produced just 1.4 WAR at the position — 22nd in the majors overall. When Todd Helton retired, they went the veteran route and signed Justin Morneau. He helped improve the team’s performance at first base to 15th overall over the past two seasons, which is better but not spectacular. Morneau hit well when he played — a .316 average and 3.0 WAR aren’t too shabby — but he only logged 52% of the team’s plate appearances at first base the last two years. And now he’s gone.

In his wake, there are currently two main candidates for first base playing time, Ben Paulsen and Mark Reynolds. The Rockies quietly signed Reynolds to a $2.6 million contract last month. Reynolds has been around forever, but is just entering his age-32 season. If you’re wondering why a 32-year-old first baseman nets less than $3 million, well the answer is because he isn’t very good. Reynolds has been worth 0.3 WAR or less in four of the last five seasons, and in two of those five seasons — including last season — his value dipped below replacement level. He loses value in both defense and base running, which would be fine if he were a true masher. He isn’t. In fact, his wRC+ has topped 100 in any of the last three seasons, nor has his slugging percentage topped .400 in them.

Coors Field should help his raw offensive numbers, but given his negative value anywhere outside of the batter’s box, Reynolds’ role needs to be limited to platooning at best. Ideally, he’s a pinch-hitter who starts once a week. The good news is that Reynolds has never demonstrated much of a platoon split, which makes him an ideal bench player.

Paulsen is a bit of a newcomer to the Rockies, but he’s not new in the age sense. This 2016 campaign represents his age-28 season. He fared well last year, at least for a time. He hit very well out of the gate in May, but would drop off in June, July and August before really bottoming out in September. In September, he logged more strikeouts than hits. Paulsen got all those strikeouts because he swings a lot.

Of the 268 players who tallied at least 300 plate appearances last season, Paulsen ranked 11th overall in PITCHf/x swing percentage. There’s nothing inherently wrong with swinging a lot, of course, assuming you can make contact a lot. Players like Billy Burns and Yadier Molina all swing as often — or very close to as often — as Paulsen, but they also make contact more than 85% of the time (or, they did last season). Paulsen, by contrast, only connected 72 percent of the time. This combo sounds intuitive: if you swing a lot and miss a lot you’ll have a lot of strikeouts, but Paulsen is actually in select company:

> 55% Swing% and <75% Contact%, 2015 (min. 300 PA)
Name Team PA Swing% Contact% wRC+
Eddie Rosario Twins 474 59.10% 74.80% 98
Yasmany Tomas Diamondbacks 426 56.90% 73.50% 88
Ben Paulsen Rockies 354 56.70% 72.00% 97
Jonathan Schoop Orioles 321 60.80% 71.40% 112
Marlon Byrd – – – 544 60.40% 71.40% 100
Avisail Garcia White Sox 601 59.10% 70.60% 83
Rene Rivera Rays 319 55.90% 70.60% 33
Jimmy Paredes Orioles 384 57.90% 65.40% 96

This is not what you would call an encouraging list. And less than encouraging is how Paulsen fared against lefties. When he was allowed to face him, which wasn’t often — and that in and of itself is an indictment of his ability to hit them — he hit just .235/.289/.265, which translated to a paltry 36 wRC+. Again, it was 39 plate appearances, but again, he had more strikeouts than hits in that time. This isn’t much data to go on, but it certainly isn’t encouraging.

Corey Dickerson is also not a world beater against lefties, but he is a far pace better than Paulsen. And unlike Paulsen, who hit just average against righties, Dickerson crushes righties. There isn’t much debate as to who is the better hitter. The real debate is whether Paulsen is better than Parra. Let’s take a look.

Ben Paulsen vs. Gerardo Parra, 2015
Ben Paulsen 354 11 1 6.5% 26.0% 0.185 0.351 0.277 0.326 0.462 0.339 97 0.9 -0.3 -3.5 0.8
Gerardo Parra 589 14 14 4.8% 15.6% 0.161 0.325 0.291 0.328 0.452 0.334 108 2 7.4 -22.1 0.4

Parra wasn’t as valuable as Paulsen last year, but he was a better hitter. He projects to be a better hitter this year as well. From the Steamer600 projections (which prorate everyone to 600 plate appearances):

Ben Paulsen vs. Gerardo Parra, 2016
Gerardo Parra 600 13 13 0.291 0.336 0.436 0.333 94 0.3 -4.2 -5.3 1.0
Ben Paulsen 600 19 ?4 0.252 0.306 0.421 0.314 80 0.0 -14.0 -10.0 -0.6

Again, it would seem that Parra is the clear pick for more playing time. Especially because his defensive shortcomings in 2014 and 2015 may have been overstated. Let’s break down his advanced defensive metrics by position.

Gerardo Parra’s Defensive Performance
2009-2013 2014-2015
Position Inn DRS UZR Inn DRS UZR
LF 2521.7 26.0 22.2 570.7 1.0 -1.2
CF 1032.7 4.0 4.9 354.0 -7.0 -14.2
RF 1558.3 46.0 34.1 1400.3 -5.0 -2.5

Parra may no longer be a center fielder, but it’s clear that he was the victim of some small sample size voodoo the last two years. Given the small samples, and the fact that he had to transition from Arizona to Milwaukee to Baltimore, the drop in defensive performance makes sense. He may no longer be a plus fielder, but he should do just fine in either left or right field. And he may not be any worse than Charlie Blackmon in center, anyway.

Given Dickerson’s plantar fasciitis, there’s a decent chance that his days in the outfield are numbered. With Parra on board, Dickerson no longer needs to play the outfield, as the team can suit up Carlos Gonzalez, Blackmon and Parra, and move Dickerson to first base. There is the thought that Gonzalez could move to first, but he is a better defender, and given that he has been in the game longer, it might be harder on him to make a switch than it would be for Dickerson. At first, Dickerson can focus on hitting, which he does quite well.

The Rockies are a rebuilding team, and if they have the chance to get a good return for Carlos Gonzalez, they should take it and not look back. But given that there are still productive outfielders like Yoenis Cespedes, Dexter Fowler and Austin Jackson on the free agent market, it does not appear that the Rockies are going to be able to get a great return for Gonzalez this winter. But they don’t necessarily need to, either. The first base combo of Ben Paulsen and Mark Reynolds is far from solid, and the team could solve their outfield logjam and their first base troubles in one fell swoop by moving Corey Dickerson to first. As an added bonus, the move may help Dickerson stay on the field, which would be welcome news indeed.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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Brian Reinhartmember
8 years ago

Whoa. I honestly thought Corey Dickerson and Chris Dickerson were the same person all this time.