June 26, 2009
First Base Cornucopia
Occasionally I like to check out the Equivalent Average Report as a quick reference to some of the things that are going on in the league offensively. I always look at the positional averages for EqA, just because it's one of those neat pieces of information that lets you see what positions are the weakest at the plate, and which ones are doing the most for their teams with the bat. Those of you who are unfamiliar with EqA may need a little context: .230 is replacement level, and .260 is average. If a position has a higher EqA than .260, then that position has a lot of above-average hitters. Knowing this is useful for fantasy, as it lets you gauge how well your player is doing in a contextual environment.
That's why one position in particular stuck out when I was checking out the report yesterday. First base is generally the most offensively productive position on the EqA report, and it was generating an average EqA of .293. The past two seasons saw major league first basemen post a .283 average, so that's a rather large bump; every other position is within a few points of last year's rates in either direction. To give the .293 mark some perspective, Ryan Howard has a .294 EqA. Howard is currently hitting .254/.331/.551 with 20 homers; that sounds good, but he's a league-average first baseman in 2009. That almost doesn't seem right; after all, how does a guy with an ISO of nearly .300 come to be merely average?
My initial thought was that there were probably a few players skewing the results for first base and bringing up the position as a whole. The first person I thought of was Albert Pujols, given he is slugging over .700, but because he lost over 20 points of on-base percentage between last year and this year, his extra power has been somewhat negated in value, and he's managed an EqA only two points higher than last season's. As I looked down the list to see what was causing the jump, it occurred to me that it wasn't a few players at the top, it was almost the entirety of the position that had brought about the increase.
Let's switch to VORP for a moment, and look at the first baseman report for that statistic. If you take those with a minimum of 100 plate appearances, you get a list with Pujols on top and Chris Davis on the bottom. Nearly six wins of offense separate the best from the worst at first, but in between there's a lot to love. Just in the top 10 after Pujols, you have Adrian Gonzalez hitting .275/.416/.602, Justin Morneau having a fine year with a .316/.390/.571 showing, Russ Branyan shining in his first legitimate opportunity as a starter in years and hitting .302/.401/.608, the rebound of Prince Fielder, Victor Martinez playing a lot more first base and hitting like he belongs there, Kevin Youkilis continuing to abuse Fenway Park to his advantage, Miguel Cabrera slugging .559, Mark Teixeira erasing any memory of his early slump, and Joey Votto, in the short time he has played, killing the ball by slugging .602.
That's an impressive group, and at many positions you would have begun to see a dip in quality this far down the list, but first base just keeps going. The next three players are all slugging over .500 and have Equivalent Averages of .303, .313, and .320, respectively. Of the starting first basemen in the majors, 16 have an EqA over .300, which is just an incredible amount of depth at one position. This basically means that no team should be without an above-average first baseman in most fantasy leagues-unless of course you have a team or two hoarding multiples for their utility slot. What's most unusual about this is that you have someone like Kendry Morales, who is hitting what appears to be an acceptable .269/.321/.506, as a guy who is nearly 20 points below average via EqA. You basically have to recalibrate the lines that might initially be quite aesthetically pleasing to you, and remember that the position is so stacked that perhaps Morales isn't as good as he would normally be given his slash stats.
Morales isn't the only one with the deceptively below-average line. Paul Konerko is hitting .293/.343/.486, and he's posted a below-position-average .285 EqA. Aubrey Huff has struggled relative to last year (.267/.333/.443), but maybe you held on to him hoping he would regain some of that magic; his EqA is .264, which is nearly 30 points below average, essentially killing the position for you considering the other talent that is out there. Billy Butler looks like he's making some progress at .283/.337/.445, but his .270 EqA is far from acceptable for the position.
While it is painful to carry a below-average first baseman in fantasy, it is mind-boggling what some real-life teams have put up with at the position this year (or have been forced to put up with). Bobby Crosby has started 14 games as the Athletics' first baseman, and has hit .125/.194/.193 there, and .190/.291/.306 overall. They are not the only offending Bay Area team either, as the Giants have Travis Ishikawa (.259 EqA) and Rich Aurilia (.186 EqA) at first base. The Braves have seen a little too much Casey Kotchman for their offense's liking (.266/.327/.374, .251 EqA), and the Dodgers have dealt with James Loney's struggles this year-though it hasn't exactly slowed down their run at the NL West. If you have been holding on to Loney, you may want to reconsider that position, given how well his peers are doing; he's 25 points below the average mark for a first baseman via EqA.
Back to fantasy, the question is now whether this is sustainable or not. The short answer is "probably". Most of the top 10 is made up of established beasts. Sure, Adrian Gonzalez is having a career year, but he's in the magical age-27 season, so maybe he will keep hitting like this until the calendar turns over. Kevin Youkilis couldn't do what he's doing without Fenway, but unless the Red Sox trade him for some inexplicable reason, he's still going to have that park working to his advantage. Even Russell Branyan may maintain his pace, though he's the one I'm most concerned about given his history and his current .363 BABIP.
Even if one or two of them do regress though, the middle of the list has a few rebound candidates, like Carlos Delgado (once he returns from injury) and Joey Votto, who is now back and already hitting again with his second four-hit game of the season last night. While it's too early to tell how much of this will carry over into 2010, at least in 2009 we have some incredible depth to utilize that no other position can lay claim to-how many other positions get to say someone like Ryan Howard is merely average?