The archetype of the slugging first baseman is over. After trending downward, this year's cold corner is the worst it's been in at least six decades.
It started, like most things in my life do, with an argument about Joe Mauer.
In trying to figure out the Twins’ best (or perhaps more accurately least-worst) option to be the mandatory All-Star rep for a last-place team I noticed that Mauer ranks third among American League first basemen in OPS+ and fourth in WARP despite a modest-looking .281/.388/.409 line in 56 games. Basically, only Miguel Cabrera and Eric Hosmer have clearly been better than Mauer this season.
I never pass up a chance to paint Mauer in a positive light, but that surprised me. He’s having a good, solid season—and taking a big step in the right direction after back-to-back rough years following a career-altering concussion—but the notion of a first baseman with a .409 slugging percentage and sub-.800 OPS ranking among the league’s best is hard for my brain to comprehend.
The small move that went so, so bad in a season that is sliding in that direction.
The Braves aren’t playing Tyler Flowers all that much, which is smart. The entire plan in Atlanta this season is to lose games, after all, and Flowers poses a threat to that mission. In 115 plate appearances thus far, Flowers has a .260 TAv, and he’s been his usual (very good) framing self behind the plate. He’s been worth 0.8 WARP already, despite his part-time role, but A.J. Pierzynski has saved the team from disaster with his .185 TAv and -0.8 WARP. The best news for the Braves, though, is that their two backstops make just $5 million combined this season. To take up two roster spots, keep the team replacement-level or worse, and leave so much money in the pockets of corporate owners is about as much as the team could ask from a catching tandem. Every nickel not spent on payroll is another nickel the team can spend on the effort to get their next new stadium built with other people’s money.
Let’s say that you weren’t the Braves, though. Let’s say you’re a team that wants to win games this season. If you were such a team, you probably wouldn’t want Pierzynski and Flowers for your catching duo. At the very least, you might seek to play Flowers more often, and Pierzynski less, so that you would get at least the half a win or so above replacement that $5 million usually buys in free agency. Really, though, it’s a pretty unappealing catching situation. It’s hard to imagine a contender who would envy it. There is one, though, and here’s the funny part: It's the only other team that has employed this exact pair in the past.
The White Sox ace finally gets hit, while Matt Harvey continues to get hit and Jackie Bradley continues to get hits.
The Tuesday Takeaway
In his first nine starts, Chris Sale has been brilliant at best and close to it at worst. In his tenth start, though, he was far from either.
Sale entered Tuesday following back-to-back complete games, with just one run allowed in each and no walks in either. Against the Indians, he was at first business as usual—five strikeouts through his first eight outs, scoreless. But with two outs in the third, he started missing his spots, and Cleveland took full advantage. It began with something Sale hadn’t allowed in his last 26 innings at that point: a walk, thanks to a slider that was a bit all over the place and a Jose Ramirez who refused to fall for it.
The more things change, the more they stay the same, except for when they change.
We’re basically a quarter of the way through the season. About 60 percent of the league will have played at least 40 games by the time you read this. This early landmark of the season has a funny way of sneaking up on us, because of the disruptions in the early-season schedule—extra off days, rainouts, and so on—and because of the distractions that keep baseball off the front page of the sports section until summer: the NFL Draft, the NBA and NHL playoffs, etc. We spend so much time (rightfully, by the way) reminding ourselves that it’s early that we eventually risk doing so even when it’s no longer so.
I’m not sure we’re there yet. I’m not sure it’s not still early. Rather than revisit this in two weeks and find I missed the crossing of the Rubicon, though, I figure it’s worth taking stock of what’s changed so far. To do so, let’s examine the 10 teams whose Playoff Odds have moved 12 percentage points or more since the season began. This is an imperfect way of deciding how much has changed, of course. It embraces both PECOTA’s initial estimation of each team’s true talent level, and the system’s rate of change—the way it incorporates new information without giving up the value added by maintaining a long memory and healthy skepticism about relatively small samples. Still, it’s something, so let’s test out the relationship between our intuitions and PECOTA’s projections.