DJ Peterson & the Wisdom of First Round First Basemen

In June the Seattle Mariners took the University of New Mexico’s D.J. Peterson with the twelth overall pick in the Rule 4 Amateur Draft. Peterson represented one of the safest, most easily projectable bats in the draft class. He had mashed the ball all Spring for the Lobos and led the team to a Super Regional berth. His 18 home runs were good for third most in Division 1 – although he did play his home games in a very homer-friendly park. His short, explosive swing and quick hands excited scouts and appealed to scouting directors looking for a bat that could help relatively quickly. With a strong pro debut Peterson finished 2013 looking like a player every team would be glad to have in their farm system. There remains some questions as to whether Peterson can stay at third base in the long term though, and where he plays could swing his value pretty drastically.

As someone who covers amateurs and the draft fairly extensively I often see fans that prefer their team avoid a player like Peterson if there is some question of him moving to first base. After all, the defensive spectrum and conventional baseball wisdom tells us that good teams are built up the middle, with players on the right side of the defensive spectrum. Talking to amateur scouts I encounter a different attitude. They find it more than difficult enough to “hit” on a player and are quite often happy to find a safer choice like Peterson than they can project as a major league bat. After all, the general success rate of any first rounder making the majors isn’t great, so for many it’s very enticing to find a player you’re reasonably confident will hit in the big leagues. Both viewpoints have merit, of course. Personally, I have to be really convinced a player has a special bat for me to endorse him as a top of the first round pick. The offensive threshold expected at first base is just so lofty that it troubles me some to spend early picks on players with uncertain profiles. A prospect can develop into an above average major league hitter and still be only the 16th best first baseman in the majors (as in the case of  Nick Swisher this season with a .336 wOBA). When calculating WAR the positional adjustment for third base is +2.5, which is the same as that for second base and center field. The adjustment for first base is -12.5. Given the broad range of available quality hitters in free agency at first base and the extreme developmental demands on a first base prospect’s bat the question that then comes to mind is whether it makes sense for teams to draft a first baseman in the 1st round.

History of 1st rd First Base Picks

To investigate this I looked at the first basemen drafted in the 1st round and 1st supplemental round over the last twenty years. Why twenty years? Teams are clearly approaching the draft differently in recent years so I didn’t want to go too far back. Why first round? Why not second and third also or early rounds? First round picks have premium money commitments and a stigma attached to them. Yes, this is somewhat arbitrary, but I wanted to see what I could find out by asking the question anyway. Here are the First Basemen drafted in the 1st and 1st Supplemental Rounds since 1993:


LINK

How we define a first base draft pick is obviously an issue. While there are many clearly first base only players, a good amount of players end up at first after not being able to handle another position – much as we fear in the case of Peterson. On this spreadsheet I have generally sifted the players into two groups – Type A and Type B. Type A players were draftees who were expected all along to play first base or designated hitter only. Type B players were drafted at or given a chance to play another position but couldn’t cut it. Sometimes it was a lack of skills or stunted development. Other times their bodies developed unexpectedly in a way that pushed them towards first base.

It’s also worth noting that Type Bs generally seem to come in a few recognizable flavors. A common archetype is slow, unathletic plodders who are given a chance to fit in an outfield corner (typically left field) but who remain firmly entrenched at the bottom of the defensive spectrum because of their athleticism or body type. Then there are fringy defensive catchers who have some modicum of ability behind the plate, but who will only fit at first base if they have to move off of catcher. Peterson is in the third base/first base/corners mold. This group is full of shaky defenders at the hot corner who lack the first step, footwork, range, actions or arm to stick at third base. When we sort the draftees into Types A and B we see a little better the type of players Peterson resembles. He’s not all that similar to a Prince Fielder, who we knew would be a first baseman or designated hitter by the age of 12 or so!

I do have a couple other concerns here. First off, I worry that looking at just first rounders ignores the former economic realities of the draft. In fact, I’m quite sure this is the case, but the bottom line is that I have far less concern with a team giving a big first base bat first round money in the fourth or seventh round under the old rules than I do with the opportunity loss incurred taking a similar player tenth overall. Second, I worry that perhaps we’re just seeing how good teams are (or were) at evaluating bat-first amateurs rather than measuring the general wisdom of taking a first base prospect in the first round.  So to look a little closer, let’s parse by players taken in the top 15, too. Generally players taken in the first half of the first round would be more consensus first round types under any set of rules. Hopefully that will eliminate some of the noise of signability guys, etc… that we find in the supplemental round.

So how successful are teams at taking 1B only or probably 1B types in the first round?

Out of 54 total players identified:

  •  15 have accumulated career totals of WAR >5.
  • 8 players have accumulated >25 career WAR.
  • 14 players currently have a career wOBA >.330.
  • Todd Helton has the highest career wOBA at .405.
  • Lance Berkman has the highest career WAR accumulated at 55.8.
  • Todd Helton had the best individual season at .476 wOBA.

Among Type A’s (Always 1B only prospects)

  •  Out of 25 total Type A’s 16 have appeared in a major league game.
  • Type A’s as a group have combined for 202.83 WAR.
  • The average career MLB wOBA among Type A’s was ~.340.

Among Type B’s (Played other positions but ended up at 1B)

  • Out of 29 total Type B’s 16 have appeared in a major league game.
  • Type B’s as a group have combined for 180.5 WAR.
  • The average career MLB wOBA among Type A’s was ~.330.

Among College Draftees

  • Out of 28 total College Draftees 18 have appeared in a major league game.
  • College Draftees as a group have combined for 230.43 WAR.
  • The average career MLB wOBA among College Draftees was ~.330.

Among High School Draftees

  • Out of 26 total High School Draftees 14 have appeared in a major league game.
  • High School Draftees as a group have combined for 152.9 WAR.
  • The average career MLB wOBA among High School Draftees was ~.340.

Among Top 15 Overall Draftees

  • Out of 24 total  Top 15 Overall Draftees 20 have appeared in a major league game.
  •  Top 15 Overall Draftees as a group have combined for 272.73 WAR.
  • The average career MLB wOBA among  Top 15 Overall Draftees was ~.330.

So much depends on how we define “success.” A few years back Jeff Zimmerman placed the league average wOBA for a first baseman at .350 and replacement level for a first baseman at .313. That seems as good a measure as any other, and using it we find 13 out of 54 players have reached the majors and posted a career wOBA greater than or equal to .350. That’s a little more than 24% of the time. Again, I’m not drawing conclusions here… just observing and asking questions. As this series continues we’ll have a better scale for comparison.

Where Peterson fits

I haven’t gotten an extended look at Peterson in person, but from what I saw on the Cape, the broadcasts I’ve watched and the reports I get I really question whether Peterson has the actions or range to stick at third base in the long term. You can probably play him there and he can be a solidly below average defender that won’t embarrass himself… but it’s not going to be a great fit. Compounding the problem is how fast Peterson may advance through the minors. His bat may move quickly enough the M’s decide they don’t want to wait for him to try and improve at third base. At first base this is still a quality bat and a solid regular. I don’t see a special bat though, and that really limits how excited I can get about this prospect. In the context of the Mariners needing offense (and hopefully quickly) I do think this pick looks somewhat better. While I do think Peterson will be a solid major league hitter this just isn’t how I would prefer to use a top 15 pick in most years.

 



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Al Skorupa writes about baseball & baseball prospects for Bullpen Banter and Fangraphs/Rotographs. He lives in Rhode Island. He watches & videotapes a good amount of amateur and minor league baseball. You can follow him on twitter @alskor.


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Los
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Los
2 years 9 months ago

Rule 4, not Rule 5. Great read. Love seeing this type of analysis.

Simon
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Simon
2 years 9 months ago

The key thing that’s missing is a comparison with non-1B 1st rounders.

bob dole
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bob dole
2 years 9 months ago

this

Dingbat
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Dingbat
2 years 9 months ago

Exactly. If the point of the column is to answer the question, “is drafting a 1B in the top of the 1st round a good idea?” then you absolutely have to compare that decision with the decision to draft for a different position.

yep
Guest
yep
2 years 9 months ago

Of course if the -12.5 WAR positional adjustment for 1B is wrong (and I believe it is) then this changes the whole argument.

pinch
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pinch
2 years 9 months ago

-12.5 WAR???? That’s a lot!

Dingbat
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Dingbat
2 years 9 months ago

Over a ten-year career, of course.

David
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David
2 years 9 months ago

I found it interesting that 3B had the same positional adjustment as 2B and CF when I had understood the latter two were more difficult positions to play.

P. Hertz
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P. Hertz
2 years 9 months ago

Bryant was drafted as a 3rd baseman not a 1st baseman.

Rafi
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Rafi
2 years 9 months ago

Sometimes when I fart, I shit

Jake
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Jake
2 years 9 months ago

One of the things that is lost in this I feel is that first base also tends to be one of the most expensive positions on the field. That said there is additional value to having an above average bat under cheaper club control in their early years as opposed to the elite bats that cost 15-25 million per season. Having a success story here would allow a team to spend more money on proven entities in the middle of the diamond. The biggest drawback to having that position filled by a young prospect isn’t the lack of value of their bat but the flexibility of the position for the team. It can be a convenient location for aging veterans whose contract teams are stuck with or players who have experienced an injury.

jesse
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jesse
2 years 9 months ago

Lance Berkman was never drafted with the intent of putting him on 1B. They had a guy named Bagwell and Berkman had played OF in college.

bookbook
Guest
bookbook
2 years 9 months ago

Context is all. The best alternative uses of the draft pick this year were probably pitchers. Given the strength of the M’s farm system at pitching (and incidentally up-the-middle), and the fact that the team has struggled to fill any one of LF, 1B, and DH for more than a decade, drafting a promising bat in this position didn’t feel like a mistake.
(Yeah, I know you should always draft the best player available, but when trading from surplus, you rarely get a full buck on your dollar, even if you are a better trader than any recent M’s GM.)

We shall see…

Shankbone
Guest
2 years 9 months ago

I enjoyed this analysis. Its hard to take on the draft as a subject, so carving it up is the way to go.

This year I thought there were at least a handful of options that were better than going bat first with DJ Peterson. There is so much pressure on the bat when the glove can only fit at the corner. Renfroe can run, field and throw and played against better competition already. There were a lot of good pitchers there. And while the SS class was a tad weak, I think a Crawford or Anderson would have been a better use of resources as well.

joel
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joel
2 years 9 months ago

I read somewhere that some Seattle scouts were saying he’s Jeff Bagwell. Maybe they view him as a special bat worthy of the first round regardless of draft strategyconditions

Bookbook
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Bookbook
2 years 9 months ago

Yep. Like Jesus Montero.

siddf
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siddf
2 years 9 months ago

or Jeff Clement

siddf
Guest
siddf
2 years 9 months ago

Nice article, and I like how you handled the certain 1Bs vs the ‘tweeners by classifying them into separate groups.

Berkman is a weird case, but important to get right because his rousing success means he exerts a relatively large effect on this group. On the one hand, he was a complete Group A here, playing 1B all thru HS, collge, and minors.

But then, he shifted to OF and was pretty darn average there, not fringy liability a Group B would suggest. +2 UZR/150 in CF in 2002, for example, then + 6 in RF/LF the next year. He didn’t really move to 1B until 05, when recovering from a torn ACL while Bagwell was concurrently hurt.

It’s almost like you need a 3rd category, even if just to throw them out of the analysis: 1B draftees who then moved UP the defensive spectrum for the first part of their careers.

What other 1st Round draftees have done that recently? Chris Yelich? he’s now listed as having been drafted as an OF, but the critique at the time was that he was high school 1B destined to stay there.

Spa City
Member
Member
Spa City
2 years 3 months ago

D.J. Peterson is a Third Base Person. Not a First Base Person.

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