Analysis

A Quick Note About the Elephant in the Room, First Base

No article I have written recently has gotten me such e-mails and Twitter comments like the Pass or Play: Mike Napoli piece, particularly my assertion that “Napoli is a better offensive and defensive first baseman than Howard at this point in their careers.” Also asked is why would I even highlight first base as an area of need.

I’ll answer the latter first: the Phillies, from 2010 through 2013, were the 27th most productive team in Major League baseball at the first base position according to FanGraphs. This sample includes two healthy years from Ryan Howard and two not-healthy years from Ryan Howard. The not-healthy years, 2012 and 2013, would, as you expect show the Phillies as a team of disarray at first base, ranking 23rd in batting average, 23rd in on-base percentage, 17th in slugging, 21st in wOBA, 23rd in wRC+, and 24th in defensive runs saved. From 2012 to 2013, the Phillies ranked 27th among MLB teams in fWAR, including their surprising 19th place finish in 2013.

But an interesting thing happens when comparing those numbers to 2010 and 2011, when the Phillies had a healthy Howard: they’re not nearly as far apart as you would think. Their batting average rank is 14th, on-base 18th, slugging sixth, wOBA eighth, wRC+ eighth, and 26th in defensive runs saved. In most cases, the Phillies simply slipped from the middle of the pack, with some above-average power numbers, to firmly below average at first base over the course of four years.

In short, this is why it is important to get creative and start to think of alternate solutions for first base. As I posted in the comment section of the Napoli article, Napoli, since 2011, has been significantly better than Howard since 2011 and has come at a much cheaper price:

Napoli: (.268/.371/.523 in 1427 PA, 77 HR, 223 RBI, .895 OPS, 138 OPS+), 11.3 fWAR

Howard: (.248/.327/.467 in 1253 PA, 58 HR, 215 RBI, .794 OPS , 115 OPS+), 0.8 fWAR

This is not to bash Howard or advocate signing Napoli, these are simple facts. These facts add up to the following: there is an elephant in the room. There has been no production from first base since at least 2012 and, arguably, that may date back even further to 2010. While teams are signing Napolis, making smart trades for a bounce-back guy like James Loney (.299/.348/.430, 2.7 fWAR in 598 PA for the Rays), finding  Brandon Moss on the scrap heap (.256/.337/.522, 1.9 fWAR in 505 PA for the A’s), or finding Allen Craig in their farm system, the Phillies are stuck with one of the worst first base situations in baseball. And if they want to compete in 2014, they need to do something to address it that isn’t “hope Ryan Howard turns into 2006 Howard”.

That isn’t happening, folks.

15 Comments

15 Comments

  1. Beyondinfinity

    November 3, 2013 at 3:34 pm

    I say let teach franco to play first and forget abou next year and in 2015 you hopefully have a pretty good 1b platoon

    • Hogey's Role

      November 3, 2013 at 4:22 pm

      Platoon with Franco really?? Franco is one of, if not our best prospect, and he may be ready to play full time in 15 if not sooner and you wanna platoon him with Howard? Come on!!

      The fact is that even though Howard had put up Star Wars like numbers early in his career he’s never been supported by saber metric numbers in his career, his defense has gotten a lot better in recent years but his offensive production has slipped some and his health has been terrible…. Problem is his contract will likely never be moved, stranger things have happened before, a la Vernon wells contract being moved, but I highly doubt that happening

      • schmenkman

        November 3, 2013 at 4:36 pm

        Agreed that Franco may well be the Phillies’ best prospect. But what does that mean, exactly? Here is a projection by Chris Mellen at Baseball Prospectus (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=21791):

        I’d like to see Franco at the next step, but for now I feel he could eventually put up some seasons at peak as a .275-.280 hitter with 20-25 home runs.

        This translates to a .792 OPS (assuming 650 PA, .280 BA, 25 HR, 35 doubles, and a 7% walk rate), which is essentially the 2013 version of Howard, but for a full season. Granted, that’s only one projection.

      • schmenkman

        November 3, 2013 at 4:41 pm

        That should be in quotes, from “I’d like” to “20-25 home runs.”

      • schmenkman

        November 3, 2013 at 4:53 pm

        FYI, the median career WAR compiled by Phillies’ “best prospects” of the past 31 years (i.e. those who were #1 on BA’s top ten list since 1983) is 1.8.

  2. Lefty

    November 3, 2013 at 5:22 pm

    Ian, I understand exactly what you are saying, the facts don’t lie, and I agree. You are absolutely correct, 2006 Ryan Howard is never to be seen again. But I think maybe there’s a fact you are not considering.

    He’s ours. –
    For at least three more long years, he’s ours. Period.

    The contract is spilt milk, it can’t go back into the carton, he’s our first baseman like it or not.

    You want us to believe the Phils will spend 10 million MORE dollars on the position?
    That isn’t happening either my friend.

    If you have the 20th something ranked first base position in all of baseball for 25 million dollars, you don’t solve the problem by spending 10 million more. IMO- You give 200-ish AB’s to Darin Ruf at first base without spending an extra cent, and hope for the best out of the combination of the two of them.

    • doug badger

      November 3, 2013 at 6:46 pm

      You’re right, I’m afraid. Best move is to convince some AL team that he’d be a good DH and agree to eat some of his contract and make Ruf 1B in 2014, Franco in 15. If not, platoon Howard in 14.

      • schmenkman

        November 3, 2013 at 7:11 pm

        I think it’s extremely unlikely that Ruf full-time is better than a Ruf-Howard platoon

    • wbramh

      November 4, 2013 at 12:13 am

      You’re on the money, Lefty.
      Howard and Ruf need to be platooned at 1st.
      The team we’ll never get their money’s worth out of Howard’s last 3 years but as long as he’s still able to hit right-handed pitching and given rest his on-fiel value versus salary won’t be as crushing. Ruf is more than adequate at 1st and should should bring some power against righties that Howard has really never supplied. Who knows, if Howard stays healthy, perhaps the two of them will combine for 45-50 HRs.

      Outfield and pitching.
      Outfield and pitching.
      Outfield and… well, you get the idea.

  3. CS

    November 3, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    “If you have the 20th something ranked first base position in all of baseball for 25 million dollars, you don’t solve the problem by spending 10 million more. IMO- You give 200-ish AB’s to Darin Ruf at first base without spending an extra cent, and hope for the best out of the combination of the two of them.”

    I agree

  4. Joe

    November 3, 2013 at 7:08 pm

    Lets not forget that mike napoli has played for the angels.rangers and red sox all stacked lineups that makes a huge difference when you got pop in front of you and behind you the stats you gave me hasn’t swayed me the slightest because howard still has 200 fewer abs and isn’t trailing napoli by much. look at It this way: if napoli and howard were both making 13 mil annually who would the majority of mlb gms take. 99.9 percent would take howard over napoli. And honestly were talking about two players not in their prime they both won’t get any better so howards proven track record of when he was in his prime crushes napolis when he was in his. Sir I really think your holding howards crazy contract against him. Ryan howard 2014- .249. 37 hr 119 rbi. Book it!

    • hk

      November 3, 2013 at 7:16 pm

      C’mon Joe, take off your Phillies colored glasses and admit Ian’s right now that he’s produced the numbers. The 174 extra PA’s are nearly irrelevant when looking at .268/.371/.523 vs. .248/.327/.467. Throw in that Napoli’s a much better fielder at 1B, is two years younger and provides some flexibility in that he can be an emergency catcher and I think 96.7% of MLB GM’s would take Napoli over Howard if they both made the same money.

  5. Bart Shart

    November 3, 2013 at 9:13 pm

    Howard was wonderful for the first five years. We cannot blame him for the contract. If he stinks next year he should go on the disabled list or be sent to the minors for a tune-up. I really don’t care if this is not thought of as an option. We need production from Howard at first base. If he cannot provide it, then let someone else play and try to fix him in the minors. I

    • Hogey's Role

      November 3, 2013 at 9:16 pm

      I agree Bart and even if he is out of options and someone claims him, which I doubt will ever happen, I would say good riddance my friend

  6. bacardipr

    November 4, 2013 at 4:58 am

    Sucks one of Rubens first major mistake.

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