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February 6, 2007

Lies, Damned Lies

PECOTA Takes on First Base Prospects

by Nate Silver

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It's not a good day to be writing. Sunday was the Super Bowl, and while I managed to avoid a serious hangover, our spirit is down in Chi-town, and so is the temperature, which at last glance was lower than Rex Grossman's passer rating. On the four-block walk to Best Buy to purchase a new mouse, I encountered no fewer than three frozen-over piles of vomit; that sort of encapsulates the mood of the city.

Fortunately, writing about first base prospects gives me something of the day off, since there aren't very many of them. A lot of this flows from sabermetric first principles; first base is the endpoint of the defensive spectrum, which not only means that you have to hit a whole lot to make a name for yourself at the position, but also that there's nowhere to go if your defense gets any worse.

First basemen are also hurt by our use of the Upside metric, which only gives players credit for the probability that they're able to turn in a performance above league average. When Keith Woolner did his initial research for VORP, which was based in part on identifying the worst regulars in the league at any given time, he found that there was a particularly large difference between league average and replacement level for first basemen. Generally, if you look around the league at any given time, you'll find a few pretty bad starting first basemen (think Travis Lee or Jeff Conine or Doug Mientkiewicz), but the overall standard of competition is very high.

I suspect the reason for this stems from the fact that almost anybody can play first base. Teams sometimes use first base as a dumping ground when the roster has other problems: let's throw Travis Lee or Ty Wigginton out there hopefully he'll hit .270 we've got bigger fish to fry. But this solution rarely sticks once a team has the chance to jigger up its roster in the off-season--it's just too easy to find a Erubiel Durazo or a Chris Shelton. Or, you can move your aging third baseman over to first base, and target a solution at the hot corner instead. The work I did on freely available talent last year suggests that it's quite a bit easier to find an adequate first baseman for next to nothing than it is an adequate corner outfielder.

Put differently, perhaps the reason why there's a large difference between the very worst first basemen and an average first baseman is precisely because decent first basemen are so easy to find. When a team settles on an inadequate solution at the position, it's giving up a lot of ground; the cost of making inefficient decisions is high. Not coincidentally, Keith also found that there is a particularly small difference between league-average catchers and replacement-level catchers. Since it's very hard to find someone who can play catcher, in some sense it's more difficult to mess that decision up. It's sort of like this: the difference between the worst meal and an average meal at Chez Panisse is larger than the difference between the worst meal at McDonald's and the average McMorsel.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that I think it's okay that the Upside ranking is very unforgiving of first basemen. Over the long term, an adequately bankrolled club has lots and lots of choices for what it wants to do at first base, and a J.T. Snow-like performance won't do. Well, unless you're Dusty Baker. Moving on to the list, after the player's name, you'll find his 2007 age and his Upside score, the prospect ranking metric I introduced last week.

Excellent Prospects

1. Joey Votto, Reds (23)     105.3

Votto had an essentially flawless year at Chattanooga. He hit for power, average, and walks, radically improved his defense, and even managed to steal 24 bases. Better still, he did all this in his first exposure to Double-A, in a neutral ballpark in the pitching-friendly Southern League. There's no way you can contort that performance without acknowledging that Votto has a good chance of being a good major league player.

Even so, Votto only barely qualifies for 'excellent' prospect status, just creeping in over the century mark with a 105.3 rating. Some of this is for the obvious reason that Votto's performance heading into 2006 wasn't so impressive. The bigger issue is that PECOTA doesn't expect Votto to get a lot better; it credits him with a small spike in his age-27 season, but otherwise his development curve is very flat. Look to his comparables and you'll get some sense of the reason why; a number of those players either qualified as abject disappointments (Carlos Pena, Hee-Seop Choi, Eric Hinske, Dallas McPherson, Jeremy Giambi), or perhaps got a little better, but didn't quite live up to All-Star expectations (Brad Wilkerson and probably Pat Burrell). There are exceptions, certainly; it's hard to find two better hitters than Travis Hafner and Lance Berkman, who also make Votto's comp list. But these "old players' skills"--and that's what Votto has, his stolen base spike to the contrary--have a fairly high incidence of burning twice as bright but for half as long.

There may even be something about the dynamics of the first base position that makes life harder for these players. The standards at the position are very high, so guys like Pena and Choi that struggled at the outset wound up getting jerked around quite a lot. Being jerked around is not one of those things that we can quantify, but it can't be good for a player's development. The Reds, for their part, are well positioned to commit their next 2000 PA at first base to Votto, and see whether one of those Hafner or Berkman scenarios comes up on the die.

Very Good Prospects

2. James Loney, Dodgers (23)    81.8
3. Daric Barton, A's (21)       73.7
4. Mike Carp, Mets (21)         50.1

Like Votto, Loney had an excellent 2006 that came on the heels of a rather checkered development history; an optimist could look at Loney's 2002 and 2006 campaigns as bookends that represent his true ability level, and the soft filling in between the result of his having been advanced too aggressively through the system. One advantage of being young for your levels, certainly--Loney was in Double-A as a 20-year-old--is that a stumble here or there doesn't necessarily ruin your prospect status. Loney has a different profile than Votto, featuring lots of contact-hitting ability but an uncertain capacity to hit for power. The good news is that these players have a little bit more development potential--look at Justin Morneau and Adrian Gonzalez--but the bad news is that they have a little bit further to go. All things considered, including his very productive big league trial, I tend toward the optimistic slant--that Loney was doomed by his initial success, as the Dodgers promoted him prematurely, and that he's only now had time to catch up. I'd slightly prefer him to Votto in an Ultimate Fantasy Draft scenario.

Daric Barton, for his part, has also had his trials and tribulations, including elbow and hamstring injuries that kept him out of action for the greater part of 2006. Nevertheless, he was playing in Triple-A as a 20-year-old, and PECOTA has some trouble finding comparables for him--note the very low comparability score--but concludes that while Barton will probably never be a great power hitter, he might do enough to be reasonably valuable in spite of it, sort of a Mark Grace type without the Gold Glove defense. That's not what Barton fanboys were hoping for a year or two ago, but at least the perception has caught up with the reality.

Mike Carp should really be grouped in with the handful of guys below him; there's a pretty big gap between Votto, Loney, and Barton, each of whom might look like the best first base prospect in baseball on any given day, and everyone else on this list. Even so, Carp is perhaps overlooked by virtue of the tough hitting environment he faced in St. Lucie; he draws a lot of Loney's comparables. In the near term, the concern will be getting him to hit lefties.

Good Prospects

5. Justin Huber, Royals (24)               46.7
6. Paul McAnulty, Padres (26)              45.8
7. Kala Kaaihue, Braves (22)               38.0
8. Bryan LaHair, Mariners (24)             27.9

Justin Huber's comparables aren't impressive--it's hard to look at the name David Kelton without retching a bit--but he deserves credit for dealing with a series of position switches and injuries without missing much of a beat with his bat. Still, it appears likely that he'll pass through his age-24 season without having nailed down a major league job, which could make his failure something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. That's what's happened to Paul McAnulty, more or less. When your first professional season comes in your age-21 season, and you're advanced up the system one rung at a time, what happens is that you wind up as a 26-year-old whose only promotion left is to the majors, and the big league club is just not going to go out of its way to make room for you. The Padres tried to find a way by giving McAnulty 50 games at third base at Portland, but his defense over there wasn't much better than you'd expect from his squat frame, and with Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Kouzmanoff locking down the corners, he's probably screwed.

The guy to like a little bit here is Kala Kaaihue, who is sort of the Hawaiian Russ Branyan, and showed the ebbs and flows that this kind of player can give you with a dominating performance in the South Atlantic League and a disappointing one at Myrtle Beach. In another organization, he'd be little more than a curiosity, but the Braves are still the Braves, and they're looking for a long-term answer at first.

Average and Marginal Prospects
(Players Ranked in Kevin Goldstein's Positional Top Ten or other noteworthy names with Upside scores below 25)

Chris Carter, Diamondbacks (24)            22.1
Travis Ishikawa, Giants (23)               21.1
Kyle Blanks, Padres (20)                   11.8
Mark Hamilton, Cardinals (22)               9.0
Joe Koshansky, Rockies (25)                 3.8

No disrespect intended either to Kevin or to the players on this list. If you're going to prepare a list of ten first base prospects, a position at which there are perhaps five or six legitimate prospects in the minors right now, you're going to wind up with some filler. Kyle Blanks is assuredly the most interesting of the group, since he looks a lot like that kid from the Saudi Arabian Little League team, but to the extent it can write off a 20-year-old, PECOTA thinks that if Blanks' weight doesn't doom him, his high strikeout rate almost assuredly will.

The Big Picture: Rankings Combined With Non-Rookies 25 Years Old Or Younger


1. Prince Fielder, Brewers (23)           164.5
2. Adrian Gonzalez, Padres (25)           129.2
3. Joey Votto, Reds (23)                  105.3
4. James Loney, Dodgers (23)               81.8
5. Daric Barton, A's (21)                  73.7
6. Conor Jackson, Diamondbacks (25)        71.3
7. Mike Carp, Mets (21)                    50.1
8. Justin Huber, Royals (24)               46.7
9. Paul McAnulty, Padres (26)              45.8
10. Jason Kubel, Twins (25)                44.1

No major surprises here, except perhaps the presence of Jason Kubel's name; PECOTA considers him a DH, and we're lumping designated hitters in with first basemen. Prince Fielder is a big breakout candidate... hold on, there might be a pun there.

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

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