IT'S COME TO THIS
Mounting evidence reveals eye-opening solutions for Astros slumping slugger
It’s the issue that has dominated Astros conversation all season and it gets louder each time Jose Abreu strikes out or pops up with runners in scoring position.
All the announcers can say is, “Abreu’s been making better contact lately” or “Abreu’s long out in the third would have cleared the fences in 12 ballparks.”
Would have. Didn’t. Abreu is hitting .214 heading into Tuesday night’s game against the Blue Jays. And he appears stuck there. He’s mired in a two-month slump with a slugging percentage bogged down at .264.
What should the Astros do with Abreu – keep playing the $19.5 million disappointment or pull the plug and find anybody else?
Let’s put that debate to the side for the moment and dispel one excuse/explanation we keep hearing for why Abreu stays in the lineup.
“The Astros have to play Abreu because they don’t have anybody else on the roster with real experience at first base.”
Cue the sound bite from Moneyball.
Billy Beane: “(Playing first base) it’s not that hard, Scott. Tell him Wash.”
Ron Washington: “It’s incredibly hard.”
Actually, Beane was right. Playing first base may not be easy, but it clearly is the easiest position in baseball. Almost always, if you’re a Major League player, with a crash course in footwork, you can learn to play first base adequately.
Certainly adequately enough to replace a .214 hitter with no power and a $58 million contract.
From Abner Doubleday to Little League to high school ball to the big leagues, first base has been the best hiding place for a poor defensive player. First base is where a lousy fielder does the least damage. First base is where a big, tubby, slow fumble fingers can stay in the lineup and get his rips at the plate. Next stop: designated hitter or designated for assignment.
A first baseman rarely has to make a hard, accurate throw … or any throw other than an underhanded flip to the pitcher covering first, or tossing the ball back to the pitcher after an infield out. Jeff Bagwell injured his shoulder in 2001, could barely raise his right arm, and still played four more seasons at first base for the Astros. Bagwell could hit.
A first baseman doesn’t need to have much range. He has to protect only a few feet of fair territory to his left. Unlike other infielders, a first baseman can bobble a ground ball and still get the out at first.
A first baseman doesn’t need to be fleet of foot. In 2011, Bleacher Report featured “the 25 slowest players in MLB history.” Thirteen of them were first basemen, including Jim Thome, David Ortiz, Cecil Fielder, Mo Vaughn, Willie McCovey, and John Olerud.
Then there was Dick Stuart. He was a slugging first baseman who played in the ‘60s. He was such a disaster in the field that his well deserved nickname was Dr. Strangeglove. Also Stonefingers. Also the Man with the Iron Glove.
Despite his horrible fielding, he made two All-Star teams and finished his career with 228 home runs. He led the American League in total bases one year and finished Top 10 in homers five times. He couldn’t field. But he could hit. When it comes to first basemen, a good hitter will win you more games than a good fielder will save you.
You like analytics? Let’s crunch some numbers. Between 2000 and 2016 a study by the Hardball Times compared the fielding statistics of first basemen with veteran experience to first basemen with limited or no experience at the position. The study tracked 237 players and approximately 2,691 throws to first from second base, shortstop and third base.
Bottom line: a veteran first baseman doesn’t save all that many runs compared to a newbie at the position.
On average, there are 6.4 throws from an infielder to first base during a game. I know, Framber Valdez is a ground ball machine, but we’re talking average.
Most interesting and germane to the Astros current situation, a first baseman with limited experience at the position, less than 50 games, will cost a team 3.7 more runs over a season – an entire season – than a veteran first baseman.
A first baseman will less than 10 games at the position will cost a team 4.7 extra runs over a season.
A total newcomer to first base will cost a team just 5.4 extra runs over a season. That’s less than one extra run per month.
So just for argument sake, if the Astros were to move Yordan Alvarez or Yainer Diaz or Chas McCormick or Mauricio Dubon or (fill in the blank) to first base, the team would surrender only a handful more runs than continuing to play Abreu, who by the way has led the American League in errors four times.
Didn’t Alvarez work out at first base during spring training this year? Backup catcher Diaz got a start at first this week and promptly hit a home run. He’s 6 for 9 the past two games.
The question isn’t how many runs does playing Abreu at first save the Astros, but how many more runs the Astros would score with somebody else.
It’s not that hard to play first.