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January 2, 2008

Fantasy Beat

First Base Review

by Marc Normandin

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Every year there are a few players at each position that outperform the fantasy expectations of almost every owner; on the flip side, there are also players whose performance is well short of what you thought you were getting on draft day. Knowing who to give up on and who to stick with is a key to building your new team and maintaining the old ones. We will begin the new year by reviewing some of the more surprising lines from each position in 2007, starting with first base.

The most significant surprise of 2007 was Carlos Peņa's performance. After a 2006 season split between the Triple-A affiliates of first the Yankees and then the Red Sox, Peņa was picked up by Tampa to replace the departed Travis Lee at first base. Peņa was more than up to the task of besting the sub-replacement level, and finished his season by putting up a line of .282/.411/.627 and hitting a club-record 46 homers. This performance put him third in VORP for first basemen, easily the highest ranking in his career.

A fascinating element of Peņa's production surge is that not much changed in his peripheral statistics: his strikeout rate is basically the same as in years past, hovering around 30 percent of his plate appearances, his fly-ball rate of 45 percent is around the same as his years with the Tigers, and his BABIP was .305, just seven points higher than his career average. That increase in homers resulted in a higher batting average, and those homers, rather than coming from additional fly balls, were a case of Peņa making the most of the ones he already hit.

What really changed? Peņa started to pull the ball much more than he had in his earlier days in the majors, hitting 78 percent of his liners to right field. Before, he was usually good for somewhere around 57 percent of his liners going to left, but it appears as if he took advantage of his power in Tropicana Field and came away with tons of extra-base hits:

chart 1

As long as he keeps the pull tendency in his swing, we should see Peņa continue to excel. We may see the shift employed more often in the future than before now that he's cranked out a season as a big-time power hitter, but that should only knock his average down so much. Expecting triple-crow rate stats of .270/.390/.560 or so from Peņa seems reasonable, and would keep him in the top five or six fantasy first basemen.

Lance Berkman was a disappointment to many-including this particular fantasy owner-for the first two months of last season, hitting just .244/.390/.350 in his first 180 at-bats. Thankfully, Berkman broke out of this slump with a bang, hitting .294/.384/.585 the rest of the way to finish the season ranked seventh in VORP at first base. If he had hit that way all season, he would have had a season more valuable than Ryan Howard, especially once you adjust for their home parks.

That's because Minute Maid is no longer quite the hitter's haven it once was. It still boosts homers somewhat for right-handed hitters, but is more pitcher-friendly for lefties. Berkman is a switch-hitter, which means he spends more of his time hitting from the left side of the plate. This keeps him from gaining the advantage that full-time righties get from hitting in Houston. As a result, Berkman hit .256/.372/.448 at home and .299/.400/.570 on the road for the season. Even after he broke out of his early slump, from June 1 onward the disparity between the lines remained: a .277/.376/.527 performance at home, and .311/.393/.642 away.

On the road, Berkman is one of the top hitters in the majors, never mind just first base. It isn't difficult to imagine Berkman outperforming his 2007 season in the coming year to regain his spot among the elite at his position, despite his age (32 this year) and poor performance for much of the first half. If his home park were more friendly to lefties, we would see even more of a jump in his numbers, but that's nitpicking.

Mark Teixeira is another hitter who performed below expectations in the first half, but exploded in the second following a trade to the Atlanta Braves. He hit .297/.397/.524 with the Rangers, which is very good, but not what we expected from him after his 2004 and 2005 campaigns. Following his shift to the Senior Circuit, Tex exploded, hitting .317/.404/.615 in his next 240 plate appearances. Despite including 95 fewer plate appearances than his stint in Texas, Teixeira's VORP as a Brave outshine his early-season Rangers work, by 1.1.

Whether it was intentional or not, Teixeira shifted his hitting a bit when he switched leagues. His liners and ground balls dropped, and his fly-ball rate increased along with his homers per fly ball. After hitting 38 percent of his batted balls as flies and 15 percent of those for homers in Texas, Teixeira boosted his Braves performance by hitting 45 percent fly balls and 23 percent of those for homers. Thanks to the decrease in liners, we may see Teixeira's batting average decline some in the long run, but with an increase in his power production. It's a worthwhile tradeoff, so he's worth a look as one of the top five first basemen yet again.

We will conclude with the biggest disappointment at the position in 2007, Adam LaRoche. Back issues slowed his initial production during his first year in Pittsburgh, and matters weren't helped when the Pirates didn't give him the days off that more than likely would have helped him rest up some. LaRoche finished with a line that makes his 2006 breakout campaign seem that much more fluke than reality, as last year's .272/.345/.458 isn't all that far off from his 2004-2005 production at the plate.

When gauging his 2008 numbers, there are a few things to look at. His batted-ball data from 2007 looks more like 2006 than his earlier years, despite the similarities in the slash stats to the previous period. He even struck out at a less frequent rate in 2007, and his BABIP (.321) was about the same as the year before (.325). The most significant difference came from his HR/FB, where LaRoche went from 21.2 percent to a career low 11.1 percent. LaRoche also hit .299/.358/.509 from June 1 onward, when his back had settled down somewhat.

Although that significant drop in power production can be explained away by his back issues, but that does not make him an early pick for 2008. First of all, he more than likely will continue to have some of these problems with his back now and again; you will not want to be stuck with him during these stretches.

Even if he bounces back, he was a little over his head in 2006; PECOTA had forecasted him for .283/.353/.526 last season, which seems like a reasonable bet for 2008 as long as his back doesn't come into play to the same degree that it did last year. Still, you will want to be careful with this pick on draft day, and may want to make a move on him as a backup first baseman or utility guy to shore up the position, instead of making him your primary choice.

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Wait 'Til Next Year: P... (01/02)
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