Player Rater Watch: First Base, 2014 season

Is there anything more warped right now than the first baseman player rater? It’s nice to see Pujols back on top, but with all the talk of his decline, who knows if it’s for real. (I’ll take a stab at it in a second.) Cuban wunderkind Jose Abreu and his alleged “slider-speed bat” are punishing the league right now. Is Adrian Gonzalez back? Justin Morneau and Adam LaRoche, too? Who are you, Chris Colabello, and what have you done with Chris Davis and Edwin Encarnacion?

Albert Pujols, LAA | #1 1B
I’m honestly puzzled by Pujols’ stats viewed through a sabermetric lens. He is striking out in only 7.9 percent of plate appearances, down from 12.4 percent last year and second-best of his career (good thing). He is walking in only 7.9 percent of plate appearances as well, good for second-worst of his career (bad thing). He’s sporting a .240 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) (good thing, in terms of his future batting average). However, he’s hitting more ground balls than fly balls for the first time in his career, and by a wide margin (bad thing). More than a quarter of his fly balls are leaving the park, too, when his career rate is around 15 percent (bad thing, but not as bad as it sounds).

So what I’m expecting from here on out is some weird combination of: he’s not going to get as lucky on fly balls, but perhaps he will start hitting more fly balls, which will counteract some of the regression he may experience in the power department. His batting average will rise with his BABIP but fall as he hits fewer home runs, two effects that also may counteract each other.

If I’m a Pujols owner, I would watch his strikeout and fly ball rates religiously. As the season wears on, I think they will be the difference between a .265/30/100 Pujols and a .290/40/120 Pujols.

Jose Abreu, CHW | #2 1B
Abreu is about as WYSIWYG as it will get, save maybe his home run total. His batting average isn’t so high that you’ll expect him to ever hit .280, let alone .300. His ratio of home runs to fly balls (HR/FB) is identical to Pujols’ — 25.7 percent, or nine homers in 35 fly balls — but it would be wise to expect something closer to 15 percent to hedge your bets. Still, that makes him a good bet for somewhere in the 32- to 36-homer range, given that he doesn’t get worse or tire out as the season progresses. Will he still be the 2nd-best first baseman come October? It’s hard to say; Paul Goldschmidt is doing his best impersonation of Paul Goldschmidt, and it’s only a matter of time before Miguel Cabrera, Encarnacion and Davis find their respective grooves (although the latter-most name just hit the DL). For rest-of-season production, I would still take Goldschmidt, Cabrera, Encarnacion, Pujols and Votto over Abreu at this point. However, he has a legitimate chance of being a top-3 first baseman for the season.

Adrian Gonzalez, LAD | #3 1B
Here’s your first sell-high candidate. He’s striking out at a career-worst rate, and his HR/FB rate is a career best — almost double his 2013 rate, in fact. Given his recent history, he can’t feasibly maintain any of this. His strikeout rate could lead to his first batting average below .293 since since 2009, and the home runs will eventually slow to a crawl. It would be nice to see him crack 25 home runs again, but delusions of 30 home runs are exactly that: delusions. I’ll give him 24 home runs, 26 if he’s fortunate. Either way, he’s not hitting 40 and batting .300 like his pace indicates, so if you can swindle another owner, do it!

Justin Morneau, COL | #6 1B
In his defense, his strikeouts are way down, but so are his walks. Frankly, he’s not going to hit .349 (although, after Michael Cuddyer‘s showing last year, maybe Colorado has a lucky charm stored in it somewhere), but with his much more contact-oriented approach, he could hit for a higher batting average than he has in recent years. Moreover, his 12.8-percent HR/FB, his best since 2009, could actually be sustained considering he gets to call hitters’ haven Coors Field his home park. Still, I can’t imagine he will end up in the top 10 by season’s end, as when the batting average starts to tank, so will the RBI and everything else.

Brandon Belt, SF | #7 1B
I wrote about selling high on Belt. Your window of opportunity may have closed — which is not to say that he’s going to be a bad player, but his value will never be as high as it was two weeks ago. He has hit only two home runs with four RBI in the last 14 days which striking out in almost a quarter of plate appearances. Belt’s a line drive hitter, so his above-average BABIP should keep his batting average from ever becoming a liability. But career-worst strikeout, walk and fly-ball rates coupled with an unsustainable 20.6-percent HR/FB rate make Belt’s stock in continual decline. I question now if he can even hit 20 home runs given the peripheral data. He needs to tighten up his zone and hit more balls in the air to realize his true potential, or he will drop to the back-end of the top-15 first basemen or disappear from it completely.

Chris Colabello, MIN | #8 1B
His RBI pace is near impossible. So is his batting average: a non-power hitter who strikes out in more than 25 percent of plate appearances (not to mention a .410 BABIP) is a recipe for a sub-.250 batting average. The home runs, however, could be real, and he could hit 20 home runs with 80 RBI at this point. But the chances of that happening will become more slim as the batting average plummets. Still, he’s worth your extra corner-infield (MI) or utility slot until further notice. Just be aware of the regression when it starts so you can limit the damage he does to your batting average. However, if he’s your main first baseman, I would sell high, and quickly, to get a reliable (if underperforming) first baseman in return. There’s probably no better time to simultaneously sell high and buy low given how wild first base has been this year.

Adam LaRoche, WAS | #9 1B
It’s the batting average, folks. It’s coming down. Again, in his defense, it appears he has made adjustments at the plate for the better this year. But all his value stems from his high batting average relative to his career. Sell high, ride the hot hand, whatever. But I don’t think is a repeat of 2012 by any means.

Chris Davis, BAL | #15 1B
Buy low, buy low, buy low! He’s actually striking out and walking at career-best rates. He’s even hitting a normal number of fly balls relative to recent years. He’s just getting unlucky on said fly balls, to the tune of a 6.1-percent HR/FB (compared to 22.6 percent in 2013 and 16.9 percent in 2012). Even his batting average is right where it should be. It’s only the home runs that are out of sorts. You’re a fool to think he’ll hit 50-plus home runs again, but if you buy low now, you could be the beneficiary of a big burst of them come late-May or June.

Miguel Cabrera, DET | #26 1B
Patience, young Padawan. The Magic 8-Ball says “all signs point to yes.” He’s already starting to get hot, and he’s going to get hot in a big way. One problem: he hasn’t struck out this much since his days with the Florida Marlins, and he’s not walking as much. Boy, was he ever in a slump to begin the season, though. If that has anything to do with the abnormalities in his plate discipline, then you can expect them to be corrected over the next five months. As a Cabrera owner in one of my leagues, I’m still a bit nervous, but I’m also excited for a thrilling five months.

Matt Adams, STL | #27 1B
The opposite of Pujols: lucky batting average, unlucky home runs and RBI. He’s hitting a ton of fly balls and line drives, and he’s striking out a whopping 6-percent less than last year. Me gusta. Again, patience is a virtue.

Edwin Encarnacion, TOR | #28 1B
If Cabrera was mired in a slump, then Encarnacion is in a super slump. Like Adams, given his batted ball profile, the home runs will come in due time. The most alarming statistic is the strikeouts, coming 1-in-4 plate appearances compared to 1-in-10 last year. I drooled over Encarnacion’s plate discipline last year, and how he had, by far, the highest ISO of any player to walk more than he struck out. He was, and still is, a very special hitter because of this. But if he’s devolved into a stereotypical free-swinging power hitter, he may hit close to 30 home runs than 40, and at the expense of his batting average, too. I still hold out hope — it’s hard to believe a player of his caliber can go sour overnight. It would make sense, though, if his wrist problem from the end of last year is still bothering him. That would be especially bad news, news I’d like to hear sooner rather than later.

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