Drawing Conclusions About First Base
By Andy Singer
Photo Credit: Sarah Stier, Getty Images
For a team that entered 2020 season as favorites to represent the American League in the World Series, the Yankees are a team with a lot of decisions to make this offseason. Their best player in 2020, DJ LeMahieu, is a Free Agent (assuming, of course, that he doesn’t accept the Qualifying Offer). DJLM’s double play partner in 2020, Gleyber Torres, may not be a championship caliber shortstop, which would seemingly make LeMahieu a square peg in a round hole. Given these two facts, many observers have argued that the Yankees should consider re-signing LeMahieu, but allow him to play first base regularly, pushing current starter, Luke Voit, to either DH or as an enticing piece in a trade. The situation becomes even cloudier when one considers how right hand heavy the Yankee lineup has been for a couple of years now.
Our Editor-In-Chief, Paul Semendinger, provided his plan for first base on Monday. Paul’s post has me thinking a lot about the Yankees’ options at the positions this offseason. The statistics have lead me to a relatively definitive answer in that regard if the Yankees seek to put the best team on the field in 2021.
A Blind Comparison
It’s been awhile since I’ve done this, but now that the offseason is here, and we’re evaluating multiple players for a variety of positions, this is as good a time as any to really look at the numbers without allowing preconceived notions or bias to cloud our evaluations. This is the first of many you will see from me this offseason.
Below are the cumulative offensive numbers for 3 players between 2018 and 2020. I have used a mix of traditional statistics, ratios, one measure of normalized total batting value, Statcast, and bWAR to evaluate these players’ contributions. Their numbers are as follows (click to enlarge):
Player A does a little bit of everything. He makes a fair amount of contact, while combining a high walk rate with an elite strikeout rate. He has decent power despite a lackluster Hard Hit % in 2020. Player A is also a solid 27% better than the rest of the league via OPS+. Overall, Player A is a solid offensive contributor.
Player B operated with a much smaller sample size than either Player A or C (approximately a full season’s worth of Plate Appearances). However, Player B hit for significantly more power than either Player A or C, swatting almost as many homers as Player A despite almost a full season’s fewer Plate Appearances, while doubling Player C’s Home Run per Fly Ball rate. Player B roughly doubled both Player A and C’s strikeout rate, but he maintained the highest walk rate of the group while making as much contact as Player A. Player B was 43% better than the rest of the league according to OPS+.
Player C profiled very differently than Players A and B from 2018-2020. Player C put far more balls in play than Player A or B, displaying elite contact skills while avoiding strikeouts at a similarly elite level. Player C walked far less than either Player A or B, but the walk rate was still playable. Player C hit for significantly less power than either Player A or B, but his 2020 Hard Hit % was higher than either player. Player C had the lowest OPS+ of the group, though he had the highest bWAR by a large margin.
Which player would you take? Despite the smaller sample size, I think it’s pretty clear that Player B has the highest probability of being an elite offensive presence based on previous performance. Player C has a high contact profile that is intriguing due to a lack of strikeouts and significant recent history of hard contact, and Player A does a bit of everything, but nothing as well as either Player B or C. Player A though is in a different class offensively.
Are you ready to learn the identities of the mystery players? Here they are:
Player A: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Cubs, 31 Years Old
Player B: Luke Voit, 1B, Yankees, 29 Years Old
Player C: DJ LeMahieu, UTIL, Yankees, 32 Years Old
Rizzo is among the players that could be available via trade this offseason, as the Cubs are rumored to be willing to shake-up their core prior to 2021. In fact, our own Paul Semendinger listed Rizzo as a potential trade target should the Yankees seek to find a regular left handed bat in the lineup at first base. Rizzo is 31 years old, and he has just 1 year remaining on his deal, valued at $16.5 million. Given that price, a known down year in 2020, a cumulative effort that is not significantly better than LeMahieu, while being well short of Voit’s offensive contribution, I’m not really interested in giving away player capital to acquire Rizzo as he leaves his prime with just 1 more year of service time prior to Free Agency.
The differences between Voit and LeMahieu are pretty clear offensively, so I won’t explain them further now. However, we do have one more item with which we need to reckon: the difference between LeMahieu’s bWAR compared to Voit and Rizzo.
Positional Adjustment and Defensive Value
Based on their relative offensive contributions, it is pretty easy to deduce that the majority of the difference between Voit, Rizzo, and LeMahieu from a total value perspective comes down to defense. Without even looking at the metrics, we all know that LeMahieu has a reputation as a very good defender, particularly at second base, but other infield positions as well.
However, it is important to verify that LeMahieu has produced good defensive numbers recently. LeMahieu was a defensive monster in his last year in Colorado in 2018 at second base, with both Defensive Runs Saved (+14) and Ultimate Zone Rating (+11.0, +12.5 UZR/150) validating DJLM’s reputation. Despite fewer innings at second base in 2019 due to his utility role, UZR/150 rated LeMahieu’s defensive contribution as similarly excellent, crediting LeMahieu with +13.2 UZR/150. It is important to note that LeMahieu’s defensive numbers in 2020 are much closer to average according to the metrics, but the sample size is small enough that it’s possible LeMahieu would have rebounded some with more chances.
On the other hand, it is entirely possible that at 32 years old, we are witnessing the beginning of DJLM’s decline phase, which would eat into the value he provides defensively. Even more to the point, we need to deal with the additional hit DJ LeMahieu’s value takes if he becomes a near full-time first baseman. Currently, LeMahieu plays one of the most valuable defensive positions on the field, and he gets credit for playing a difficult position when the statistics are tabulated. Below, you can see the positional adjustment Fangraphs makes when calculating a player’s defensive value for time accrued at each defensive position:
In layman’s terms, even if LeMahieu were slightly below average defensively at second base, he would still have value defensively based on the fact that he’s playing a difficult position. At first base though, LeMahieu would have to be fantastic defensively to cover the value deficit first basemen inherit based on the relatively low bar one needs to clear to play the position even marginally effectively. Thus far, as good as DJLM has been at second base, the small sample size returns on his play at first base are somewhere between slightly below average to slightly above average (2019: +3 DRS, -3.5 UZR/150 in 262 innings; 2020 0 DRS, 0 UZR/150 in 24 innings). Even with identical offensive performance in 2021 as his average between 2018 and 2020, LeMahieu would be far less valuable at first base than he was at second base (and third base), likely closing the gap significantly between his value and Voit and Rizzo’s value.
We cannot view any player in a vacuum; they need to be evaluated in the context of what the Yankees have currently. Luke Voit has been an elite offensive performer since 2018, even accounting for time lost due to injuries and his injury-impacted 2019 campaign. While a left handed bat sounds great at first base, Rizzo is really not better than Voit or LeMahieu offensively, he’s expensive, and he has only one more year of team control remaining, after which he will firmly enter a decline-phase.
As intriguing as the idea of playing LeMahieu at first base sounds at first thought, it really doesn’t add up when we view the full impact of the move. Sure, moving LeMahieu to first base allows Torres to move back to second base while the Yankees acquire a better all-around shortstop, but the Yankees are likely to significantly weaken first base by doing so. LeMahieu is likely entering the beginning of his decline at least as a defensive player, and playing him at first base will only exacerbate his loss of defensive value. Given that LeMahieu is not likely to match Voit’s offensive performance, it is really tough to see how the Yankees aren’t getting worse at the position in both the short-term and the long-term by putting LeMahieu at first base based on age-based decline and positional adjustment.
Overall, Voit is elite offensively, will be relatively cheap for the next couple of years, and has at least 2-3 prime seasons remaining. As much as the Yankees would likely love a left handed bat in that slot, taking on a left handed bat for the sake of lineup balance doesn’t make sense if it doesn’t improve the position. I love LeMahieu, but he makes the most sense for the Yankees either at second base or as a super utility player. Luke Voit is likely the best option the Yankees have at the first base position, and he earned the right to maintain his position for the Yankees for the foreseeable future. While reasonable minds can disagree, the numbers and likely aging curves are fairly clear.