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September 16, 2011

The BP Broadside

You Don't Need a Prince, Just a Few Paupers

by Steven Goldman

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I’m looking for Prince Fielder on our WARP leader list and I can’t find him. Oh yes, there he is, down at number 29. Hey, no shame in being the 29th-most valuable player in the majors—there are roughly 890 players who aren’t having seasons as good as you are. Fielder is also the fifth-ranked first baseman behind Joey Votto, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, and Miguel Cabrera. This is an exalted place to be, but does it make you irreplaceable?

On Wednesday, Fielder acknowledged that his stay with the Brewers is probably almost at its end: “Being real about it, it is probably the last year.” In their hearts, Brewers fans already knew this to be the case, but no doubt some have been holding out hope that a competitive offer and a tug on the old heartstrings would keep Fielder in Wisconsin. That seems unlikely to happen, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

The Brewers have an $84 million payroll this year, ranking 16th in the majors. Assuming that Fielder is going to receive a payday somewhere in the range of the $20 million presently paid to Ryan Howard, Miguel Cabrera, and Mark Teixeira (who leads first basemen with $23 million), he is going to consume a chunk of the team’s payroll as disproportionately large as his own body. It is the rare first baseman who is actually worth that kind of distortion, and Fielder is not one of them.

When looking at a first baseman, it is so easy to forget that his value is in the totality of his contributions in hitting, baserunning, and fielding, not just in his bat. We also tend to forget that while a first baseman may look terrific in a vacuum, the offensive bar at the position is so high that while the distance between a given first baseman and the league may be large, the gap between a given first baseman and the class of first basemen may be small.

This was a problem I often encountered writing about Tino Martinez for Yankees fans in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Martinez was a good glove at first base, if hardly Keith Hernandez, but despite averaging .279/.348/.488 during his first stint with the Yankees, he was only a middle-of-the-pack first baseman rather than the slugger he was perceived to be (the one exception was 1997). The overall class had, at different times, John Olerud, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Frank Thomas, Mo Vaughn, Carlos Delgado, Jason Giambi, Todd Helton… Martinez’s 25 home runs and 65 walks weren’t all that impressive.

Fielder’s bat is that impressive, but he has the opposite problem as Martinez—his fielding and baserunning contributions are in the red. Fielder has been worth a net -10.1 baserunning runs during his career, and -22.8 runs on the fielding job. That is why he’s never quite reached 5.0 wins above replacement in our methodology.  

When you only have to patch for a bat and can make up for some of the differences with improved fielding or baserunning, you don’t have as far to go in order to break even. Now, a four-win player is not one you would want to dismiss easily, but you wouldn’t want to dismiss $20 million from your wallet easily either. Assuming that a transplanted third baseman can make a better first baseman than an actual first baseman who is proportioned like Prince Fielder, it is likely that the Brewers could come close to approximating Fielder’s value by a platoon involving Mat Gamel or Taylor Green and a right-handed bat to be named later. As long as Doug Melvin doesn’t trade for James Loney or something equally loony and self-defeating, the Brewers should be okay with a cobbled together solution, particularly if they apply some of the savings—Fielder is making $15 million now—to other areas where they are deficient, particularly third base, shortstop, and middle relief, as well as the potential for a Nyjer Morgan regression/self-immolating Twitter explosion.

In John Lennon’s “Revolution 9,” he says, “Every one of them knew that as time went by they’d get a little bit older and a little bit slower.” We’ve only discussed Fielder’s annual salary, not how many years it will take land him. Fielder is already slow and is only going to get slower, meaning that while teams have the option of playing him at first base now, within a few seasons he might be strictly, incontrovertibly designated hitter material—in short, a poor fit for a National League team.

None of this is to say that the Angels, who need a left-handed power bat more than any team in the history of the world, would be wrong to sign Fielder in the offseason. Their incentives are different, and they have the DH option to fall back on should gravity begin to weigh on Fielder, or vice-versa. They also have heretofore had greater payroll flexibility—the qualifier “heretofore” thrown in because they haven’t acted as if this were still true in recent months. Still, they are spending far more than the Brewers are.

With the Brewers, though, the trick is staying competitive while remaining flinty with the budget, and that means giving Fielder the go-by and maximizing their other positions, particularly during the time they have the rest of the core—Rickie Weeks, Corey Hart, Zack Greinke, Ryan Braun, Yovanni Gallardo—intact. As successful as this season has been, they’ve earned an almost-certain playoff berth despite a nightmarish season from Casey McGehee. Last year vs. lefties: .316/.358/.489; this year: .176/.237/.193. Either he’s had the ultimate in small-sample bad luck against southpaws, or the laws of nature have been suspended in his case—it’s difficult to recall any right-handed batter being quite so poor against left-handers. His .208 BABIP against them does support the idea that despite what Einstein said, God is playing dice with the universe, at least where McGehee is concerned.

A McGehee rebound should be in order (for as much as that may be worth) but the same isn’t true of Yuniesky Betancourt, who is coming up on his team option, or any of the several hundred bench players the team has employed this year. Replacing ballclub-of-the-living dead types such as Craig Counsell and Mark Kotsay with breathing players would add a minimum of a win to the team’s record—make that four wins that have to be replaced when Fielder is gone instead of five. Sometimes you don’t need a star. Sometimes you just need to do the obvious.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

Related Content:  Prince Fielder,  The Who

19 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

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I love I wake up and there's a Steven Goldman article.

I agree that Fielder's importance to the Brewers is overhyped a bit. They have more problems beyond this though.

In assembling their core, they have completed gutted their farm system. I think Gamel can be an adequate 1B for them, but they have room to upgrade on SS, 3B, C, possibly CF, etc without spending money as they have no minor league assets left.

Their core is still young enough to stay competitive for a few years, but I feel they are going to have too hard a time complementing it to actually win enough for the playoffs every year.

Sep 16, 2011 04:55 AM
rating: 1
BP staff member Steven Goldman
BP staff

That's a wonderful thing for you to say. Thank you.

Sep 16, 2011 13:20 PM

Did you mean Taylor Green? Tyler Green plays for S.L.


Sep 16, 2011 07:52 AM
rating: 0

I like the idea of bringing Berkman onto the Crew to keep the window open during the Greinke/Marcum years ...

Sep 16, 2011 07:53 AM
rating: 1
Mike W

Excellent article. I would love to see the Brewers get a decent lefty hitting/good glove at 1B (Kotchman? LaRoche?) and use the remaining money to get a shortstop. The prudent and more likely thing is to use Gamel at 1B though, and he has a glove more commensurate with most other products of the Milwaukee farm system. Ah well, more money to sign a SS.

They also need to resign Hairston, and get a better lefty bat or two for the bench, one of them a CF for when Morgan's act gets old.

Sep 16, 2011 07:54 AM
rating: 0
Jason Wojciechowski

Anyone's an upgrade on ol' Yuni, but outside of Jose Reyes, I don't see a free agent shortstop to whom I'd commit stacks of dough.

Sep 16, 2011 15:49 PM
rating: 1

I'll defer to PECOTA regarding it, but my suspicion is that Berkman 2012 is very likely to be closer to Berkman 2010 than Berkman 2011. He'll be an awful signing for whoever wins that bidding contest.

Sep 16, 2011 09:43 AM
rating: 1


Sep 18, 2011 18:44 PM
rating: 0

After a (very) cursory search, I was unable to find how you folks define 'replacement level'. But I am confident other web sites define it in a very bogus manner.

James Loney is 'replacement level' at first base. Whatever MLB team punts it next year will start off the year starting him there, or some very close equivalent. Like Lyle Overbay the past few years. And his bat isn't all that much better than, say, Adam Kennedy's.

Any 'replacement level' system that figures 'average starter's performance' in will badly understate the value of slugging first basemen. Because they're well above what's freely available. The performance gap between the 5th and 32nd best firstmen is just much bigger than that between the 5th and 32nd best secondbasemen.

Sep 16, 2011 09:55 AM
rating: 3

Colin Wyers has an article on replacement level, Manufactured Runs, from November 2010.

Sep 16, 2011 12:49 PM
rating: 0
Jason Wojciechowski

By TAv:

5th-best 1B: Paul Konerko, .323
32nd-best 1B: James Loney, .258

5th-best 2B: Ben Zobrist, .299
32nd-best 2B: Gordon Beckham, .239

That gap looks pretty similar to me. Loney actually hits quite a bit better than Adam Kennedy, more in line with Alexi Casilla or Colby Rasmus.

Sep 16, 2011 15:57 PM
rating: 1

Wow, first time I've ever seen anyone quote from Revolution 9, as played normally, that is.

Sep 16, 2011 11:43 AM
rating: 2

WWJLS? (What Would John Lennon Say?)

Sep 18, 2011 18:45 PM
rating: 0

Maybe the Jays could loan the Brewers Lawrie and Escobar (and a case of real beer) next year so that they can make the playoffs again, and the Brewers could loan the Jays Marcum and Greinke in 2013, so that *they* can make the playoffs. Instead of the Jays making the playoffs every 20 years, they can play in the postseason every two years. Hey, a new market inefficiency!

Sep 16, 2011 12:27 PM
rating: 0

Thanks for the link, Lassaller. But though I found interesting stuff via it, it didn't answer my question. I still don't know what Colin considers replacement level performance to be for a firstbaseman, and why he thinks it's 'there', rather than a bit to the left or the right.

Sep 16, 2011 14:35 PM
rating: 0

Here I was, daydreaming about how nice it would be to see Fielder in Dodger Blue, and you go and dash cold water on my plan. Thanks a lot.

Sep 16, 2011 15:38 PM
rating: 0

Regarding the 1st/2nd baseman comparison, I'd prefer some form of Runs Created cumulative stat rather than TAv. Then the proper way to proceed would be with PECOTA. Identify the Replacement Level starters each year, largely the cheap veterans on poor teams. Then see what they do (Melky and Francoeur sure did Replacement Level OF proud this year). But even more importantly see what PECOTA projected for them, as I'd posit that approximated what their teams expected to get out of signing them.

Sep 16, 2011 20:10 PM
rating: 0
Replacement Cat

Thank you, Steve. More please.

Sep 17, 2011 05:21 AM
rating: 0

This sounds l a lot like the BP over-optimism on how the Padres would be better post-Gonzalez because of defensive upgrades elsewhere on the diamond. I'm with Reggie on this one- sometimes you need the straw to stir the drink.

Sep 17, 2011 10:33 AM
rating: 0
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