This is the second article in series where I'm looking at how the Royals compare at each position to their peers in the American League Central. This week, I'm going to be looking at first base.
I'm almost exclusively looking at these positions through an offensive lens, which will leave out some important facets of a players value but makes the analysis easier. The Royals struggled to score runs in 2012 and they desperately need to improve to make a run in 2013. This kind of analysis is more difficult when looking at up-the-middle guys, but it's particularly useful for comparing first baseman.
This season the Royals started only two different players at first base: Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler. Butler got 20 starts (including the final 6 after Hosmer was injured) and Hosmer logged 142. The position unquestionably belonged to Eric Hosmer and Butler was only looked to fill in as needed. Here is how they performed when they played the position.
*I know that I'm kind of changing metrics mid-stream but I realized that the way FanGraphs puts it's data on a per position basis is not what I was going after. It shouldn't effect the catcher numbers last week, but it would be incorrect with first basemen.
Butler was a better hitter than Hosmer in 2012 that isn't exactly breaking news. But the last column is interesting. It compares a players OPS to other first basemen. Roughly speaking, Butler was 33% better than an average first basemen offensively when he played and Hosmer was 30% worse. Ouch.
How did the Royals compare to their division foes, which is what matters most?
Amazingly the Indians found a way to field more offensively challenged first basemen than the Royals. But the differences here are stark. This position flat killed the Royals at the plate. Teams lean heavily towards having an offensive stud play first base. The Royals sent out a struggling player day after day after day. When we get down to why the Royals struggled to score runs it will almost assuredly come down to first base and right field.
A contending team cannot have an offensively important position like first base perform this poorly. The question is what the Royals can do about it. They're clearly committed to Eric Hosmer and he has shown flashes of the kind of offensive talent to at least hold his own.
It's probably not a top priority for the Royals to go out looking for a free agent first basemen this season. Staying the course with Hosmer is likely the best way to go. However if there isn't any improvement in 2013 or if the franchise doesn't think he can be at least league average, then it may be time to start looking for plan B. If the Royals find themselves contending mid-way through 2013 and they still aren't getting decent production out of Hosmer they can find a fill in for DH or 1B to platoon with Billy Butler to help them over the hump.