Season review: first basemen

So far in this series we have covered the catchers, the third basemen, the shortstops, and the second basemen. Technically we covered the first basemen too, but that was before the season ended so we will revisit them in the structure of the previous articles. Onto the chart!

En Masse

| Year | First Basemen |  OPS  | WPA/LI |
| 2004 |	   28  |  .855 |  1.81  |
| 2005 |	   24  |  .856 |  2.00  |
| 2006 |	   30  |  .870 |  1.89  |
| 2007 |	   27  |  .846 |  1.56  |
| 2008 |	   28  |  .838 |  1.72  |

Several things you can interpret from this chart: First and foremost, that first basemen are an offensive-minded bunch. You knew that. You also probably knew that first basemen as a whole have been declining slightly over the past couple of years.

Back in 2006, Albert Pujols was in his prime and surrounding him was a host of other first basemen who were terrorizing pitchers. Ryan Howard had a tremendous sophomore season, the veterans Lance Berkman and Jason Giambi were continuing what they had done in the past, and a fellow by the name of Nick Johnson would post an OPS of .948. In 2006 even Nick Swisher would blast 35 home runs!

Even though it appears from the chart that in 2007 and 2008 first basemen performed significantly worse, for fantasy purposes, the first base position has remained surprisingly stable. In Yahoo’s player ranker, in 2006, 15 first basemen were in the top 100 ranked players. That number rose to 16 in 2007 and rose to 17 in 2008. So in terms of positional depth, which is what we’re looking at to determine the optimal spot to take a first baseman, things have not gotten thinner but actually slightly deeper.

I am not a fan of taking a first baseman early. My strategy is to find the tier—that sort of dropoff spot when you go from the true 35-plus home run sluggers to the more average 20-25 home run-hitting first basemen—and take the last available first baseman from the top tier. That spot changes every year and in some years, like 2008, there is no real dropoff. (Although if you look at 2007 numbers, there is a clear dropoff after Mark Teixeira and Adrian Gonzalez.) Home runs are not the only thing I look at when judging first basemen, but I do prefer sluggers to contact guys, particularly at this position.

Some years, I either wait too long on a guy or my spot in the draft order is not at the right time to have the Adrian Gonzo fall to me, so I miss out. This is usually not an issue, because I tend to have plenty of sleepers every year for first base and I simply select one of them. I would call that flexibility.


The Risers

I try not to form too strong an opinion on too many players, but one player I did this year was Carlos Delgado. I live in the New York area and even though I’m not a Mets fan I catch many Mets games and saw him at the plate a lot in 2007. I’m no “scouting” expert, but I felt Delgado was guessing on a lot of pitches and had lost bat speed on an already somewhat loopy swing. His stats reflected the decline and most telling was the seven-point spike in swing percentage on balls outside of the strike zone.

In 2008 that same high O-Strike percentage remained, but somehow Delgado also increased his home run per flyball rate (HR/FB%) by 10 percent, leading to his 38-home run renaissance of a season. Derek Carty wrote extensively about Delgado recently in this article and concluded that Delgado’s season is not likely to be repeated in 2009.

Lance Berkman had a tremendous 2008 season—that’s nothing new—but he surprisingly also stole 18 bases this year, his career high. Most players do not set their career high stolen base total at age 32 in their ninth MLB season. Can we expect this many stolen bases from Berkman in 2009? Is he all of a sudden a speedster?

| YEAR | AGE | TEAM   | AB  | SB | SBA | SBO%  | SBA%  | SB%   |
| 2004 |  28 | Astros | 544 |  9 |  16 | 0.323 | 7.21  | 56.25 |
| 2005 |  29 | Astros | 468 |  4 |   5 | 0.285 | 3.11  | 80.00 |
| 2006 |  30 | Astros | 536 |  3 |   5 | 0.271 | 2.86  | 60.00 |
| 2007 |  31 | Astros | 561 |  7 |  10 | 0.280 | 5.35  | 70.00 |
| 2008 |  32 | Astros | 554 | 18 |  22 | 0.274 | 12.09 | 81.82 |

Taking a look at his speed stats over the last few years, we can decide if Berkman is likely to repeat his success on the base paths. Berkman did not put himself in a position to steal any more than he did last year (SBO%), and although he stole successfully at a higher rate than his norm, it was not a dramatic jump in percentage (SB%).

The major difference was the Stolen Base Attempt percentage (SBA%), or the percent of the time Berkman attempted to steal after reaching first. The SBA% is more managerial preference than actual skill, so as long as Cecil Cooper keeps giving Berkman the green light, he should continue to steal at the decent pace that he does. As soon as you see his SBA% drop, though, that signals a loss of skill and I would expect Cooper to show the green light less and less.

Will Prince Fielder shake off the symptoms of Prince Fielder’s Disease in ’09? (Icon/SMI)

If players have been eligible at two positions I’ve been listing them under the more desirable one, but I’d figure I would still give Kevin Youkilis and Aubrey Huff a shout out for their tremendous seasons. You can read what I said about them in the third basemen article linked to above.

The Fallers

Prince Fielder was the third highest first basemen drafted and finished with the 11th-best stats. Fielder suffered from what I named Prince Fielder’s Disease in this article back in July (for another site) called Powerful Tendencies Building. In that article I mention how Fielder’s HR/FB percentage and flyball percentage are both down compared to his 2007 figures. That means that Fielder is hitting fewer fly balls—or balls that have the potential to be home runs—and when he does get baseballs in the air, they are going for home runs at a lesser rate. That is a deadly combination for a guy who makes a living off hitting home runs.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

From when I wrote the article to the end of the season, Fielder’s homer/flyball percentage and flyball percentage returned to their 2007 rate and that explains why Fielder was able to hit 12 home runs over the final two months, compared to 22 over the first four months. The difference in average per month is less than I expected, but overall what’s important to figure out is if Fielder can ever get off that diet of his and blast 50 home runs in a single season again. A more in-depth look is required to find out.

Travis Hafner and David Ortiz are both designated hitters who, at least in Yahoo leagues, achieved first base eligibility this year and who also struggled at the plate and with injuries. According to an article by Chris conveniently published a few days ago, Big Papi’s struggles at the plate had more to do with his wrist injury than skill deterioration and he believes Ortiz will bounce back in 2009.

Chris also throws in Hafner’s name, implying that Hafner’s struggles are not so much the result of injuries. It is rare for a hitter who had seasons as good as Hafner did from 2004 to 2006 to completely fall off the table, especially at the age of 31. But it has been two full years since Hafner has had a good season and heading into 2009, it is tough to predict he will ever get near his former production level.

Although not drafted terribly high in 2008, Todd Helton and Paul Konerko still managed to fall short of expectations. These aging sluggers finally showed signs of their age and despite the large amount of money their teams are on the hook for, both figure to struggle to find playing time as younger players begin to see time at their spots. Recognize the greatness of their careers and move along.

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