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A.L. East First Baseman 2009

March 6, 2009

Welcome to the next stop in a trip around the diamond! Earlier this week I went into a comparison of the catchers in the division, examining the PECOTA projections of the top two catchers on each team, weighted by playing time and combined to form a hypothesis on how much production each team can expect out of the position. This time I want to  do the same for the first baseman for each team. This, and the rest of the hitting positions, are a bit different than catcher. They don’t don the tools of ignorance, for one. They also tend to have more stable, every day players. There are always platoons, like what we will probably see in Toronto, but even an “everyday” catcher can not catch every game. That makes the comparison that much easier, though in the case of potential platoons I will of course account for that. Perhaps this will also show that two mediocre players who hit their opposite handed pitcher well can in the end add up to more than a single above average hitter who hits both hands equally.

Let’s start once again with the Red Sox, and their first baseman Kevin Youkilis. Owner of the worst facial hair in the world Youkilis is a far more athletic man than you would expect from someone of his build. He plays an excellent first (as well as a good third), draws a good share of walks and has good power, taking advantage of his home field in Fenway (he slugged 88 points higher at home last season).

Mike Lowell’s age and injury history could always shift Youkilis over to third, where he is still an excellent player, but for the time he is the everyday first baseman in Boston. Next year could bring the arrival of top prospect Lars Anderson, which would also shift Youkilis over, but Lowell is signed for another year after this at $12 million. In the mean time, what does PECOTA expect from Youkilis, coming off of a career year? A regression back to his 2006-2007 levels and a .267/.360/.480 line and .290 EqA. That, coupled with high quality defense, still leaves Youkilis as an above-average first baseman, with a bat most teams would love to have at any corner position. His 2007 OPS+ of 117 would have placed him 15th in the league last year at his position without considering his defense (He actually finished 4th in the league at first base with a 143 OPS+). While a drop is to be expected, his numbers exceeding those projections wouldn’t be extraordinary circumstances, particularly in Fenway.

Next in line is the newest member member of the 100 million dollar club, Mark Teixera. The Yankees were (and always are) linked to every single free agent, particularly all-star worthy players. Ironically though, with the early off-season acquisition of Nick Swisher, the Yankees seemed set at first and were fine letting division rival Boston and playoff nemesis L.A. of A. duke it out for the his services in 2009 and beyond. Two days before Christmas the Yankees announced him as their newest player as he signed an eight year, $180 million contract.

While it may seem exorbitant, from the Yankees stand point he will actually cost $1 million less than Jason Giambi cost last season. Teixeira is not a superstar player, but he is most certainly in the next tier of first baseman below Albert Pujols. Tex plays an excellent first base, gets on base at an above average clip, is very durable (averaging 150 games per year his career, including two years of playing every game) and is a lock for 30 homers. He is only twenty eight, solidly in the midst of his prime, and has the type of swing and on base skills that should carry throughout the duration of his contract, even if the Yankees had to overpay to bring him in.

Now that’s all well and good but how does PECOTA foresee his 2009 season? .285/.383/.527 with an EqA of .308. Essentially, right in line with his career averages, and exactly what the Yankees should expect for the next several years.

What is one thing that the Red Sox and Yankees have in common? Annoying fans. Oh, they also both gave away Carlos Pena (as did the Tigers, Rangers and Athletics). Pena has a valuable skill set, including massive power, a very good eye and a great glove, but often had those overshadowed by what he could not do: hit for average or make consistent contact. So, he made his rounds until he ended up in Tampa, where he broke out in 2007 to the tune of a 46 homer year. His batting average was abnormally high that year, 31 points above his career norm, which skews his line a bit, but even with last year’s regression he proved that he is still a high quality major leaguer, not the journeyman he was playing like earlier in his career.

Pena followed the 46 homers with 31 last year, to go along with a .377 OB%. PECOTA expects him to keep that up, as 2009’s projection is very similar to 2008’s, with a slight drop in OB%. Quoth the BP: .243/.363/.500 and an EqA of .294. A great line for a former scrap heap pickup.

The Blue Jays have been using Lyle Overbay as their everyday first baseman since 2006, when he came over from Milwaukee. Overbay has been a fine player in his career, an average power hitter with a good eye and potential for a lot of doubles each year.

When a right hander is in need of a platoon partner, teams typically don’t wait around to go get one. Since a majority of the pitchers in the world are right handed, anyone who can’t hit them is at a disadvantage more often than not. However, when a lefty has trouble against lefties, the problem is more easily passed over (see Curtis Granderson circa 2007). If they hit righties well enough to keep their line afloat, even while the flail against lefties, than the problem stays hidden. Overbay is one of those everyday players who is in need of a platoon partner. The difference in his line against righties vs. lefties is -.012/-.063/-.057. That is quite a drop for a guy who is to begin with only an average at best offensive first baseman. The Blue Jays finally came around, though, adding another player who last year did not hit his pitching counterparts as well in Kevin Millar.

Millar is still a sub par hitting first baseman with an abysmal glove, but he will be a significant upgrade on Overbay on the days when a lefty is on the mound. In 2008 26% of Major league pitchers were left handed, so to find the combined line for Toronto’s first baseman I am going to weigh the line as if Overbay wil play 74% of the time with Millar taking the remaining 26%. That produces a projection of .250/.330/.407 with an EqA of .264. A pretty weak line, but the platoon will at least squeeze the most out of each player.

Finally, once again, we end up with the Orioles. The Orioles lost Kevin Millar, but upgraded his spot with the addition of Ty Wiggington. Aubrey Huff, primarily DH last year, will probably see more time at first this year. Overall, there will probably be a three way rotation at first base and DH, amongst Huff, Wiggington and Luke Scott. Scott should be used primarily against righties (at DH and LF), Wiggington Primarily agianst lefties, and Huff against both. Huff is much more fun to listen to than to watch in the field, but Wiggington is hardly a gold glover himself. What will probably be seen is Wiggington at first and Huff at DH against lefties, and Huff at first and Scott DHing against righties. Using the stat mentioned above that 26% of major league pitchers are lefties, that would leave Huff playing 74% of the time at first and Wiggington playing the other 24%. Unlike the Blue Jays, the first basemen/DH’s for Baltimore all have the versatility to play in the outfield or third base as well, so that will likely muddle up the percentages, but in any case Huff will be playing every day regardless, so the estimate should not be far off either way. The projected combination of Huff and Wigginton produces, via PECOTA lines, a season of .274/.339/.471 with a .277 EqA. A very respectable line for a solid offensive team.

The Yankees went from the up and down Giambi to the supremely consistent Mark Teixera, and in doing so gave themself the best first baseman in the division, especially once you account for the expected decline of Youkilis, who is still a very good player himself. Pena should repeat last year’s performance; Toronto has a long way to come at the position, and Baltimore, while aging, has a solid offense all around at first base.

Next time: the second basemen!

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