Spreadsheet Baseball: They Can't All Lose...

Very high on my wish list for the upcoming year of baseball is for the Royals to find some way to get more production out of first base. One the ideas that gets hammered into your head consistently when you take up baseball analysis in a serious way is that first base and the other positions towards the wrong end of the defensive spectrum are the easiest ones to find decent production at. The thinking seems to go that while there really are not all that many guys who can hold down center or shortstop, really anyone can stand around at first base. Therefore, first basemen are usually there because of their hitting, and the candidates for the far right side of the infield are not only first base prospects, but thumpers who got too big for third or too clunky for the outfield during their minor league time. Anyway, the point is, it's supposed to be a pretty easy thing to do to find production there. Take a look at American League first basemen last year (excluding the Royals):

BAL - Kevin Millar: .254/.365/.420, .285 EQA, 14.4 VORP, 4.2 WARP3

BOS - Kevin Youkilis: .288/.390/.453, .299 EQA, 8.8 WARP3

CHI - Paul Konerko: .259/.351/.490, .290 EQA, 25.4 VORP, 5.5 WARP3

CLE - Ryan Garko: .283/.359/.483, .293 EQA, 27.8 VORP, 5.2 WARP3

DET - Sean Casey: .296/.353/.393, .269 EQA, 9.6 VORP, 2.4 WARP3

LAA - Casey Kotchman: .296/.372/.467, .297 EQA, 27.2 VORP, 6.3 WARP3

MIN - Justin Morneau: .271/.343/.492, .294 EQA, 28.8 VORP, 8.3 WARP3

NYY - No starter with significant PAs. Suffice to say that they were awfully poor at first considering the payroll.

OAK - Dan Johnson: .236/.349/.418, .285 EQA, 8.0 VORP, 2.9 WARP3 (it's hard to see anyone but Daric Barton getting the PT here in 2008)

SEA - Richie Sexson: .205/.295/.399, .255 EQA, -7.1 VORP, 3.8 WARP3

TB - Carlos Pena: .282/.411/.627, .350 EQA, 68.5 VORP, 11.9 WARP3 (holy heck!)

TEX - Mark Teixeira (traded to Braves at deadline): 297/.397/.524, .319 EQA, 26.0 VORP, 3.5   WARP3

- Brad Wilkerson (completing the picture for the Rangers at first): .234/.319/.467, .278 EQA, 6.2 VORP, 3.4 VORP

TOR - Lyle Overbay: .240/.315/.391, .256 EQA, -3.6 VORP,  3.1 WARP3

First of all, I think we all know that the DH makes a difference here. In our case, it's a moot point because our designated hitter spot was below average as well. While other teams might have had one good corner thumper who DH'ed instead of played first base, dragging them down on this list, we had no good corner thumpers for the first half of the season at all. Just Ross Gload's hustling adequateness, Shealy's "vortex of suck" bat, and then the good second halves from Butler and Gordon. For the purpose of giving Hillman the benefit of the doubt, Mark Teahen and Alex Gordon will not be discussed as first basemen. That's something that only happens in Buddy Bell's odd little world. And yes, I'm aware that to say it did significant harm to the team would be a gross exaggeration. It was just one of those head-scratchers that actually made me scratch my head instead of just being an overused expression.

Anyway, looking down this list, you'll see that Youkilis, Garko, and Kotchman, the first sackers for the playoff teams, hit particularly well this past season. Of course that's one player out a 25-man roster, but it's hard to say there's no connection between taking advantage of an offensive position and contending. The Yankees, of course, messed around with so many second and third tier jokers at the position that they demonstrated even better than the Royals how NOT to handle the position. Thing is, we have to throw the Yankees out because no other team in baseball--with the possible exceptions of Boston and the Mets--can spend the money to get offense from the other positions like New York can. Point is, of the first basemen who received the lion's share of PAs who finished the year in the AL, Youkilis, Kotchman, and Garko finished second, third, and fifth in EQA (which doesn't penalize Garko or Kotchman for the PAs they lost to their uncertain roles at the beginning of the year). Only the Captain Insaneo version of Carlos Pena and Justin Morneau crack the top five from non-playoff teams. Lesson? While you can get power production from other positions, it's sure as heck not recommended to ignore first base. The Yankees could have used Kevin Millar-level production in the playoffs.

For the upcoming 2008 season, Butler, Shealy, and Gload look like the candidates to man the 1B/DH slot for the Royals, as really no one in the minors is on the radar yet. German might pick up a few starts there, but we all know he's basically the utility man who can get on base, not a first basemen. The question, of course, is if there's anyone on this roster that can actually be a first basemen, where a "1B" is defined as a "guy who can hit twenty home runs, go to the opposite field and up the middle enough to hit .280, take a few walks, and not be an unqualified disaster in the field." Seriously, if someone from this group could combine the not-too-amazing feat of OPSing 850 and playing first base without looking like Bobby Bonilla in the field, I'd be pretty happy. So let's take a look at our candidates for the first base job.

Ryan Shealy

Three-year trend:

  1. .226/.291/.308 (188 PAs), 55 OPS+
  2. .277/.333/.450 (219 PAs), 100 OPS+
  3. .330/.413/.473 (less than 120 PAs). 122 OPS+
Career (those three years: .267/.333/.402

Advantages:

-Promise shown in minors in Colorado system, 2006 hints he might still break out
-Cheap cheap cheap through the alleged prime of his career
-Injuries may have affected him more than we thought in 2007
-Is better in the field than Butler! Probably!
-Did I mention breakout potential already?
-Infinitely more chance of Shealy slugging .500 than Gload.

Disadvantages:

-The guy could have been swinging a whiffle bat and he'd have been be late on Jamie Moyer's fastball last year
-Being better in the field than Butler last year means absolutely nothing
-Giving another year of PT to Shealy waiting for a breakout guarantees...nothing. Potential is just that, and thousands of ballplayers never realize their "potential."
-Time in minors was in good hitting parks, so projections may have been skewed too positively

Everyone knows that Ryan Shealy was a huge disappointment. Sadly, some of that has to with expectations being set too high. PECOTA liked Shealy to be a secondary cog in the line-up, and while he ended up being a whatever-comes-after-tertiary not-really-a-cog-so-much-as-a-vortex, his ceiling never was that of a star. It was as a guy who could do all the things I wrote above in my definition of a first basemen, playing third or fourth fiddle in the Royals line-up that was centered around Gordon and Butler. Sadly, Colorado Springs probably influenced his projection a bit, and it may be that Shealy is just one more big guy who can't hit outside the thin air.

Realistically, looking at the Royals roster right now, it's darn hard to look at Shealy and say "no playing time for you" despite his 2007 performance. Are you seriously going to tell him "we think Ross Gload gives us a better chance to build towards our 2009 championship season" with a straight face? I can't, but I never was incredibly high on the Shealmeister in the first place compared to some (remember how Will was immortalized with "blogger likes Shealy"? I wasn't stupid enough to go out on a limb like him). I acknowledge that injuries probably played some role in his abysmal .308 slugging percentage last year, and that he's probably a lot better than he showed in 2007.

Problem is, you can be "a lot better" than a 600 OPS and still be a bad hitter. Shealy's upside is not so much that the Royals should not be looking for our possibilities to compete with him in 2008 and beyond. The fact of the matter is that the "break out" potential I'm talking about includes getting back to his 2006 level, and not much more. More realistically, see that career line up there? I'm afraid I can't in good conscience say that I think he's much better than that. I don't mean to be Neyer Negative here, just trying to make it clear that you should temper your expectations for Shealy to suddenly become a bopper when his good reputation was based on thin air, the low minors, and a small sample of at-bats in '05 and '06 at the ML level.

NHZ Wild Guess: in starting line-up, OPSes over 100 points better than last year and still can't keep Ross Gload from stealing playing time.

Ross Gload

Three-year trend:

  1. .288/.318/.441, 95 OPS+ (346 PAs)
  2. .327/.354/.462, 106 OPS+ (164 PAs)
  3. .167/.205/.214, 11 OPS+ (PAs<50)
Advantages:

-Late bloomer who tries really hard
-Reliable mediocrity rather than high upside with a good chance of suckitude
-Gamer, whatever the hell that means
-Professional, like Esteban German
-Probably the best defensive first basemen on the team
-Outhit Shealy over the past two years

Disadvantages:

-Reliable mediocrity rather than suckitude with a chance of improvement
-No upside whatsoever
-Never has learned how to walk, and thus if he hits .268 he goes from useful to a major liability if he gets 350 PAs again
-Really the type of guy you'd rather have as a bench player/spot starter, as he's never started a whole year in the majors and he's already 31

Ross Gload, with all the positive accolades he gets from the coaching staffs and sportswriters, had a VORP of 5.7 last year during the season where he accumulated the most PAs of his career, which suggests heavily that Gload was exposed to some degree as the season went on. This is not to say he was not leaps and bounds better than Shealy on offensive and better defensively than Butler, but lots of other people can claim both things and it does very little to qualify them for 650 PAs and a spot in the middle of the Royals batting order.

The sad thing is, if Gload was 28 I might feel good about saying that he's better than Shealy and should grab the lion's share of the PT in the absence of a Nick Johnson trade or some other limited miracle. However, just because you arrive late does not mean you're going to leave late, and Gload is going to be 32 and he's taken 24 walks in the last three years (about a full season of playing time). The only thing he's got to stave of a tragically inevitable decline in batting average (if not this year, then the next almost certainly) is his doubles power, as he isn't much of a home run threat and he has no speed.

NHZ Wild Guess: fights his way into a time-share arrangement at 1B/DH, steals bigger half of PT from Shealy based on a prettier BA without actually outproducing Ryan by more than 10 OPS points.

Billy Ray Butler

Three-year trend:

2007: .292/.347/.447 (I knew that without looking it up, isn't that cool?), 105 OPS+ (360 PAs)
2006 (AA): .331/.388/.499
2005 (AA): .313/.353/.527
2005 (A) .348/.419/.636

Advantages:

-Out of these three players, he's the only one who can actually honest-to-jebus hit
-Yes, you read me right when I compared his stats to John Olerud's
-Walked more last year than Ross Gload did in three years, and actually remembered to bring his bat speed to the park unlike Shealy.
-Is only 22. Upside! Upside! Upside!
-Probably will be a better hitter than Gordon long term. He's that good
-Actually GIDPed into less DPs than Gload. And people think he's slow

Disadvantages:

-Sources are split on whether he can even achieve below averageness at first
-Might be trapped at DH thanks to the Ryan Shealy reclamation project
-Um...he's kind of fat. That's about it.

Butler is one of the guys on this team that it's safe to get excited about, and I'm dead serious when I say he'll be a better hitter than Gordon in his prime. Thing is, Gordon will probably still have more value due to defense and a more difficult defensive position, but Butler could be a fixture in the KC line-up...forever, if they can resign him. Toss that .447 SLG percentage as a negative out the window: he's just not close enough to his physical prime to predict how much power he'll add as he goes. And with more power, I think Butler will walk more.

The problem here is defense, and the simple lack of good options the Royals have at the two spots (1B and DH). The organization doesn't think much of his defense--no one does really--and it remains to be seen if he can improve enough to get himself on the field. Ideally, I'd like to see Butler get PT at first because he's the only one I'm profiling here that I think will be on the team in three years. Nothing is more conducive to improvement than actually getting a frigging chance to improve.

NHZ Wild Guess: plays primarily DH, wasting a bit of an opportunity as defense at first really isn't as important as, say, at a position that requires one to move. Either way, he should be in the middle of the order all season long, and improve on his rookie year (say...840 OPS).

Justin Huber

Advantages:

-He's the baseball equivalent of a back-up quarterback, a guy who has the combination of playing little enough and producing enough in the minors that prevents us from fully souring on him.

Disadvantages:

-He is actually an evil alien from Xargon-452 who exudes an aura of menace that prevents him from ever getting people to like him. Or, you know, play him.

I had to get that in, sorry.

It would be hard for the Royals not to improve on their production from the corner spots this year, but first base is one of those positions where how great of an improvement is made will be key to the Royals making a push for .500 and beyond. I'm hoping that Butler gets his shot at first because I think he's going to be a complete stud for years to come, and I hold out hope that the Royals will continue to explore other options for the other "wrong end of the spectrum" spot or 1B or DH. When you're picking between Ross Gload and Ryan Shealy for a starting spot, there really are no winners.

Spreadsheet Baseball returns next week, possibly on a different day, with more exciting analysis and Hobson's Choices for everyone. In the mean time, happy reading. Questions/comments are, as always, welcome/encouraged.

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