The Mets’ First Base Situation

The Mets have four first basemen in the field right now, or so the joke goes.

Well, David Wright has been a -10 fielder at third for three straight years, but he’s been scratch this year, and the eye test isn’t so harsh on him. Daniel Murphy, listed as a first baseman in our database, faked a decent second base in 2011, but has twice been felled by a perhaps avoidable accident on the turn of a double play. Now both the eye test and his numbers don’t speak well of his work in the middle infield.

But both of these guys will stay at their respective positions for the time being at least, and their long-term futures with the team are up in the air. It’s the two other first basemen on the team that may come into conflict soon. Once interleague play is complete, the Mets will be faced with a bit of a roster crunch with the way Ike Davis and Lucas Duda have been performing.

If you remove team competitiveness this year from the equation, the question is simple. Would Davis be best served by going down to work on his craft, or should he figure it out against major leaguers?

Scan across his line, and the problems become obvious. He’s striking out too much and he’s not showing even the power he did even in his rookie year, when his .176 isolated slugging percentage was modest but just enough for a first basemen with a good glove and some patience. And these problems aren’t BABIP-solvable. ZiPs projects a .229/.312/.407 line over the rest of the season with a .286 BABIP. He started the season with a .164/.237/.282 with a .207 BABIP.

Let’s focus on the strikeout rate first. He’s striking out in 28.9% of his at-bats this year after following up a 23% strikeout rookie effort with a short-sample 20.9% strikeout rate in 2011. Those numbers seem fairly diverse, but let’s instead list his contact rates for those three years, consecutively: 75.6%, 78%, 75%. The league average is about 80%, so he’s never been destined for a good strikeout rate.

On the other hand, Ike Davis’ contact rate wouldn’t be one of the worst 25 contact rates in baseball, and there are plenty of first baseman on the list in front of him. Another Davis, even — Chris Davis — has had contact issues, and his story may prove to be a template for the Mets’ front office. Chris Davis spent 2009 striking out 35.8% of the time after debuting with a 27.8% strikeout rate, and his team sent him down for 444 Triple-A plate appearances in 2010. In Triple-A, that Davis improved his contact rate, and the work carried over into the big leagues when he returned. His strikeout rate has been under 30% in the 500-plus PAs since. He hasn’t fixed it, but he’s been better than he was at his worst, and that’s something that Ike Davis would like to do.

Maybe Davis can go down to the minors and make some adjustments against easier competition. Take a look at his swing, and you might see the hitch that creates the movement that may be the problem — but Mets coach Dave Hudgens seems to think that Ike can make it work. If he doesn’t change the swing, just swinging against slower fastballs and less impressive breaking balls might make him look better, but it won’t make him actually be any better. Maybe some confidence is all he needs — but a little BABIP luck could give him that without a demotion.

The power? Not so simple. He’s pulling about the same (check his batted ball angle on the left, from — negative is the pull field) and hitting balls the same distance (see the batted ball distance on the right). His home run per fly ball rate (12.2%) is right at his career rate (12.9%). Maybe the problem is in his batted ball mix — he’s hitting too many ground balls right now (1.41 ground balls per fly ball this year, 1.12 career) — or maybe this all goes back to his contact issues.

The fact remains that there is still a long-term problem with the Mets’ roster construction, even if Ike Davis puts up something similar to his .248/.333/.422 career line going forward.

Lucas Duda has similar patience, power, and better contact rates — and his defense is pretty terrible both in person and in the numbers (-37.6 UZR/150 in 981 outfield innings so far). He’s destined for first base on the Mets or on another team. Playing him in the outfield has removed more than half of his modest value to date — he has 18.9 batting runs above average, and he’s cost his team 25.8 runs on defense. That’s how a player with a career .348 wOBA (21% better than league average) has yet to put up a full win above replacement in the big leagues.

Though Ike Davis has shown a better ‘best’ wOBA than Lucas Duda, his career number is .328 to Duda’s .348. If Duda is a -10 outfielder, he’ll be a -5 first baseman by the defensive spectrum, and Davis is at least a scratch defender at first, if not better when his head is on straight. If Davis plays to his upside (both offensively and defensively), he still has a higher ceiling than Duda. But obviously the downside is worse.

Something will have to give in New York. Keeping Duda in the outfield robs him of half his value, and keeping Davis in the major leagues right now might be robbing him of the chance to improve. Since the team is currently competitive, the guess here is that Davis will go down to Triple-A, Duda will move to first, and the overload of first basemen will be solved. For now.

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With a phone full of pictures of pitchers’ fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A’s or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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Shouldn’t this be on Notgraphs?

(This is not a serious post)