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First Basemen in 2018: A Review

Heath reviews first base production from 2018.

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at Toronto Blue Jays Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

January 14th is the day, folks. The day when positional weeks commence here at Fake Teams. Here is a tentative schedule for all of our preseason content:

2019 MLB Positional Weeks Schedule

Position Dates
Position Dates
Catcher Jan 14 - Jan 18
First Base Jan 21 - Jan 25
Second Base Jan 28 - Feb 1
Shortstop Feb 4 - Feb 8
Third Base Feb 11 - Feb 15
Outfield Feb 18 - Feb 22
Starting Pitcher Feb 25 - Mar 1
Relief Pitchers Mar 4 - Mar 8
Fake Teams Draft Guide March 11th
Bold Predictions Week Mar 11 - Mar 15
FT and Friends Draft March 16th
Japan Opening Series Mar 20 - Mar 21
MLB Opening Day March 28

You’ll notice a couple of new things. First, our second annual MLB Draft Guide will drop by March 11th. It will be new and improved from last year’s draft guide, which was still pretty epic and comprehensive. Secondly, we are planning a 15-team mixed draft hosted by Fake Teams this year. Participants are to be determined, but the sole aim is to have FUN.

Last but not least, yours truly is planning to host a daily fantasy competition during the MLB season. Holding off until April 12th gives us the first Friday with a full slate of games. I’ve done this in the past with mixed results, so the hope is to secure a site that will host our competition. Stay tuned for that. In the meantime you can check out the site here or scope out 2017’s leaderboard to see who won and who participated. That year we were capped at 20 due to FanDuel’s Friends Mode limitations—this season I’d love to expand to 50 if we can.

Now that the preamble is complete, let’s move on to first basemen. For the purposes of this effort, I’m only looking at qualified hitters. And I’m existing where I always do, on Fangraphs and on Baseball Savant.

Power outage?

Headings are great, aren’t they? They help me stay organized and separate my thoughts. Anyway, first basemen slashed .250/.328/.432 in 2018, with a .327 wOBA and 105 wRC+. I checked, and you have to go all the way back to 1963 to find a lower wRC+ mark, when first basemen slashed .250/.320/.400 with a .319 wOBA and a 104 wRC+. I’m honestly not even smart enough (or old enough) to know how accurate those statistics are. I’m just telling you what I find, okay? Point is, on average, first basemen were only 5% better than league average last year, and that was the worst performance (according to wRC+) that we’ve seen since 1963.

Furthermore, if you consider the completely arbitrary (but nice and round) endpoint of 30 home runs, only five hitters hit that plateau in 2018, and one more hit 29. They are: Matt Carpenter (36), Max Muncy (35), Jesus Aguilar (35), Paul Goldschmidt (33), C.J. Cron (30), and Matt Olson (29). For reference, in 2017 there were 13 MLB first basemen who popped 30 or more home runs, while three additional guys had 28 or more. In 2016 there were 10 guys to crest 30+, while three more hit 28 or more.

Other noteworthy 2018 performances were: Cody Bellinger (25) and Anthony Rizzo (25). Bellinger crushed 17 home runs in the first half last year, while batting .245. In the second half he traded power for average, slugging only eight homers but batting .285. He is a candidate to dig into during first base week, for sure. Off the cuff, it looks like he was unlucky in the first half and lucky in the second half—at least according to batting average on balls in play (BABIP).

Rizzo failed to reach the 30-homer plateau for the first time in four seasons, after being remarkably consistent in that department since 2014 (32, 31, 32, 32). Rizzo’s first 18 games (March and April) were uncharacteristically bad, as he posted a .149 batting average with a single home run. He also had a .172 BABIP (MLB average is .300) and a 4.3% HR/FB rate (his career average is 15.2%). I think it’s safe to say he was a bit unlucky, but it’s also worth noting that his walk rate (4.7%), strikeout rate (17.6%), and hard contact rate (30.5%) were all well below his career norms. Perhaps the poor BABIP was a symptom of the weaker contact? Maybe Rizzo had to round into game shape? I don’t really know. It’s something to monitor this spring, but overall I feel pretty good about his chances of cresting 30 homers in 2019.

I Feel the Need, the Need...for Speed

Who has wheels at first base? Not many, honestly. First basemen stole 156 bags (total) in the MLB last year, the lowest mark since 2013 (118). A quick look at Statcast sprint speed data shows that only a handful of regular (key word REGULAR) MLB first basemen are faster than the MLB average of 27 ft/sec. They are: Cody Bellinger, Hunter Dozier, Ian Desmond, Jake Bauers, Yuli Gurriel, Max Muncy, and Josh Bell. Paul Goldschmidt (26.9 ft/sec) was just below the cutoff, so I mentioned it. Now let’s scope out steals totals and see if we get the same names. Here’s last year’s Top 10 among first basemen basethiefs:

Ian Desmond (20), Cody Bellinger (14), Niko Goodrum (12), Freddie Freeman (10), Paul Goldschmidt (7), Eric Thames (7), and Eric Hosmer (7). After that you really get into part-time guys, so I think I’ll stop now.

What we see is that Statcast doesn’t classify Goodrum as a first baseman, but his speed is well above average at 29.1 ft/sec—higher than any first baseman on this list. So he fits. Thames didn’t fit initially because he only had 73 competitive runs and I was pretty much using 100 as my guideline. But his sprint speed is 27.1 ft/sec, right after Bell and just ahead of Goldy. Freddie Freeman (26.7 ft/sec) is 21st among first basemen in sprint speed, or three ticks behind Goldy. Hosmer—who I thought was faster—ranks 30th at 26.3 ft/sec. That’s pretty typical of Hoz, too—his high-water mark in sprint speed was 27.1 ft/sec (in 2015 and 2017). In 2016 he was down at 26.2 ft/sec. I’m not up on my Hosmer injury history since he’s not a player I typically draft, but maybe some of the discrepancies in speed can be chalked up to injuries. Still, the average speed numbers over the last four years should indicate to everyone that he isn’t a legitimate threat to suddenly reclaim double-digit steals as a 29-year-old.

The other “speedy” types didn’t total many stolen bases: Dozier (2), Bauers (6), Gurriel (5), Muncy (3), and Bell (2). Of this cluster, Bauers is the most interesting name. He got to six in only 388 PA in 2018, while Steamer projects 630 PA and 16 swipes in 2019. That jives with his track record in the minors, as he swiped 20 bags in 575 PA (132 games) in 2017 at Triple-A. And across the two levels in 2018 he played in 148 games, managed 610 PA, and stole 16 bags. So there’s some speed upside for sure, to go along with double-digit power.

Who is Better than Average?

Reminder, I’m sorting for qualified first basemen on Fangraphs. I want to know who is better than average in walk rate, strikeout rate, and ISO. Those marks in 2018 were 9.6% (walks), 22.5% (Ks), and .182 (ISO) last year. Here are the three men who were above average (compared to their peers) in all three categories in 2018: Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Santana.

FYI, three guys were disqualified for only one category: Jose Abreu (low BB%), Josh Bell (low ISO), and Joey Votto (low ISO). Of those three, I like Votto’s chances the most of rebounding, and am likely to own he and Abreu in some spots. I can tolerate Abreu’s 6.7% walk rate if I get the power. Bell’s 13.2% walk rate (5th-best among 1B) and 17.8% strikeout rate (8th-best) are pretty encouraging, honestly. I’m enough of a sucker to take a stab at him late in some deep formats given that he’s still only 26 years old (but the cost will be favorable, too).

Oh, and if you’re counting, that’s five guys (between my catcher review and my first base review) that are above average in BB%, K%, and ISO. Willson Contreras, Francisco Cervelli, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rizzo, and Carlos Santana. I see you, Carlos Santana. Maybe Seattle isn’t cray cray after all.

The Luck of the Irish...

Was not with Carlos Santana, who had the worst BABIP (.231) of any first baseman in 2018. Chris Davis (.237) and Ryon Healy (.257) were also on the extremely low end of luck. But is it all luck? Santana’s 16.0% line drive rate was the WORST among qualified first basemen, while only six guys posted a mark worse than Healy’s 19.2% rate. Chris Davis was middle-of-the-pack at 21.1%, but we weren’t interested in him anyway. Anyway, of this cluster I prefer Santana. His career average in LD% is 18.3% and he was at 20.0% in 2017. Furthermore, his .231 BABIP from a year ago was the worst mark of his career. Santana’s career .265 BABIP offers a little hope, too—perhaps we can expect an average more similar to his career mark of .247 instead of last year’s .229 mark.

Luck WAS with...

Four first basemen, if you exclude the recently retired Joe Mauer (.330 BABIP). Goldschmidt (.359), Freeman (.358), Jose Martinez (.351), and Joey Votto (.333) were the leaders. These four represent the guys who were solidly above .300, though there were a handful of guys that barely made it over that mark. These guys are all high BABIP guys over the course of their careers, no doubt aided by making loads of hard contact and hitting lots of line drives. Martinez is interesting in that he is only 30 and would be an excellent draft day target if he were assured of at-bats. As is, Goldy has taken his job in St. Louis, which currently relegates Martinez to bench bat duty—unless St. Louis wants to replace Dexter Fowler’s anemic right field bat. If they did that, though, they’d be saying yes to Martinez’s awful defense. A situation to monitor, especially if Martinez garners full-time DH duty somewhere—but those spots are filling up fast.

C.J. Cron vs. Justin Smoak isn’t close...

I chose these two guys because they are the non-obvious names that were above average in the ISO department last season. You guys already know about Carp, Aguilar, Goldy, Bellinger, Abreu, Olson, Freeman, Rizzo, Santana, and Desmond...right?

Anyway, I like Cron, whose .240 ISO ranked fourth behind only Matt Carpenter, Jesus Aguilar, and Paul Goldschmidt. Cron and Smoak are similar, but Cron is more powerful and struck out less than Smoak a year ago. The big difference is Smoak’s walk rate (14.0%) if you play in OBP leagues and care about that sort of thing. I don’t, so if I’m taking on strikeouts from a first baseman, I’ll take the power from Cron.

The First Strike Myth...

Is something I believe in, but I still like to look at which hitters get the least and most amount of first pitch strikes. By the by, here’s a sweet piece from Grantland about the first pitch myth and the importance of the 1-1 pitch. Anyway, it’s curious to me that Matt Carpenter saw the fewest percentage of first pitch strikes (only 52.9%) despite having the second-best chase rate among all first basemen. Only Joey Votto (16.4% O-Swing%) bested Carpenter’s 21.0% mark. So Carp didn’t get a lot of first pitch strikes, but he didn’t chase, either. Weird. I guess his 15.1% walk rate makes sense (only Votto and Santana were walked at higher rates).

I Lied About C.J. Cron

Holy mother at his 14.0% swinging strike rate. That’s second-worst, behind only Chris Davis (14.2%). Not good company to keep. What’s worse, Cron chased outside of the zone more than any other qualified first baseman last year, at 38.5% of the time. Bear in mind, the average O-Swing% in the MLB was 30.9% in 2018. Cron’s career mark in this regard is 38.6%, so it’s not like this was a new thing. He’s only 28 years old (29 this January) but his swinging strike rates are moving the wrong direction. If he has stabilized at a 25% K-rate and 25-30 homer power, then he’s a buy. But it’s not without risk.

Don’t Chase, Don’t Miss?

Okay, I don’t have a name for this idea yet, but I’m piggybacking off of some previous digging I did into starting pitchers. The idea being that the best pitchers generate a lot of swing-and-miss, AND they get hitters to chase plenty. Some “sleeper” names popped up on those lists, including Dylan Bundy, Luis Castillo, Andrew Heaney, Jameson Taillon, and Zack Wheeler. All interesting guys for one reason or another.

Anyway, I wanted to look at the inverse of that for hitters. So, which first basemen are better than average with regard to SwStr% and O-Swing%? That’s a 10.7% swinging strike rate and a 30.9% chase rate (both marks taken from last year’s MLB average). Nine guys made the list, eight if you exclude the guy who retired:

Justin Bour, Jose Martinez, Paul Goldschmidt, Josh Bell, Justin Smoak, Carlos Santana, Joe Mauer (now retired), Matt Carpenter, and Joey Votto.

Honorable mentions go to Cody Bellinger and Matt Olson, who have better than average chase rates but a little higher than average swinging strike rates. Anthony Rizzo pairs his 7.1% SwStr% with a worse than average chase rate, at 32.8%. That one seemed strange at first glance, but his career mark is 32.2%. He’s not bad, he’s just consistently a hair worse than average.

In summation, I was wrong about Smoak. Give me the Smoak-monster over Cron. Now I’m sad that Smoak to Colorado did not come to fruition, as was the rumor. Anyway, if you missed out, here are the links to the other two reviews so far:

Catchers

Top 10 Pitchers

Until next time...enjoy those holiday travels.