Scouting the First Basemen

added 11/22/2005 by Scott Barzilla

Hey, you might laugh, but I always get excited when I get my updates on my favorite sabermetric tools. This time of year it happens to be the Lee Sinins Sabermetric Encyclopedia and the Bill James Handbook. Armed with these two sources (I've had the encyclopedia for a few weeks now) I can throw out a whole lot more when it comes to ranking players. Since we are not in the market for a first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, or centerfielder I decided to save them for last.

For the Astros and first base, the 1000 pound gorilla in the room is Jeff Bagwell. Will Bagwell be healthy enough to play everyday? Will he be healthy enough to hit for power? Will he be healthy enough to play in the field at all? Yes, we are all concerned about the seventeen million Bagwell is getting, but that didn't concern them when they signed Lance Berkman. Before we go too far into answering those questions let's take a look at all of the first basemen that have been regulars the last three seasons and their win share totals.

Win shares is a nice and tidy statistic that includes all offensive and defensive contributions. What we're going to do is not only provide an average win share total for the three seasons, but also factor in the percentage of available win shares. The one weakness that the win share model has is that it is directly tied to a team's win total. This can hurt players that play well on bad teams. Percentage win shares will help eliminate this bias.

                 2003   2004  2005  Tot      AVG
Jason Giambi       28      8    24   60    20.00
Kevin Millar       16     17    11   44    14.67
Rafael Palmeiro    19     12    11   42    14.00
Eric Hinske        12      6    11   29     9.67
Travis Hafner       7     21    26   54    18.00
Paul Konerko        4     20    24   48    16.00
Mike Sweeney       15     14    16   45    15.00	
Carlos Pena         9     11     7   27     9.00
Mark Teixeira      13     24    33   70    23.33	
Scott Hatteberg    14     17     8   39    13.00 
Richie Sexson      26      3    24   53    17.67	
Darin Erstad        3     15    15   33    11.00
Julio Franco        6     12     7   25     8.33
Jim Thome          30     20     4   54    18.00
Carlos Delgado     32     16    29   77    25.67
Nick Johnson       14      6    20   40    13.33
Doug Mientkiewicz  20      6     4   30    10.00
Albert Pujols      41     37    34  112    37.33
Jeff Bagwell       22     22     3   47    15.67 
Lance Berkman      25     30    20   75    25.00
Derrek Lee         25     19    33   77    25.67
Lyle Overbay        6     17    17   40    13.33 
Sean Casey         17     28    13   58    19.33
Ryan Klesko        13     18    15   48    16.00
Tony Clark          4      7    18   29     9.67 
Todd Helton        34     30    25   89    29.67

For our purposes, 20 win shares is the bench mark of a good season. A decent regular at first base should have fifteen win shares on average. What we will do now is eliminate everyone that averaged fewer than 20 win shares a season and compare the top first basemen in the game on percentage win shares.

                  WS  Team shares    Pct
Albert Pujols    112      870       12.87
Todd Helton       89      627       14.19
Derrek Lee        77      777        9.90
Carlos Delgado    77      708       10.88
Lance Berkman     75      804        9.33
Mark Teixeira     70      717        9.76
Jason Giambi      60      891        6.73

Some of you may be wondering what a win share is. Simply put, it is a measure of a player's contributions to his team's wins. Three win shares equal one win, so the team shares are simply the team's win totals over the three year period multiplied by three. What you see is that these players averaged a little more than ten percent of the team's win shares. So, what does this have to do with the Houston Astros?

Currently, the Astros have two players at first base (we know Berkman will be shifted to left field if Bagwell is healthy) making 14 million and 17 million. If the Astros have a 90 million dollar payroll they end up having two players that take up 15.55 and 18.88 percent of the overall payroll. This isn't about those guys underachieving. Berkman would likely come closer if we assume total health, but not one of the first basemen achieved that. Albert Pujols is the reigning MVP and he has only accounted for 12.87 percent of his team's win shares.

Part of this is a warning to those teams looking to throw huge money at Paul Konerko. Even if we erase his 2003 season, he still has averaged 22 win shares a season in the last two and will not even come out as good as the seven players listed above. It doesn't take much imagination to put Lance Berkman in third behind Pujols and Lee in the National League, but even then you don't get the bang for your buck with the big money contracts.

Ah, but I'm reminded of phrases of spilled milk and what not, so let's leave the economics lesson aside. How much would a healthy Bagwell improve the Astros? Well, we should start by looking at his three year average and assume he would collect those win shares in a healthy season. However, it's not as easy as inserting Bagwell and adding the win shares. He will be replacing the monolithic left fielder Burke/Scott/Lamb in the lineup. So, we have to find the difference between Berkman plus Bagwell and Berkman plus those three.

        AVG WS         AVG WS 
Berkman     25    Berkman  25
Bagwell     15    Lamb      6
Total       40    Burke     6
                  Scott     0
                  Total    37

So, we can estimate that a healthy Bagwell would account for one additional victory next season. So, the Astros would go from 89 to 90 wins if everything else were equal. As we know, everything is not necessarily equal. The Astros have four prominent players on the wrong side of 35 including Bagwell. Brad Ausmus, Roger Clemens, and Craig Biggio had seasons that were better than expected. We cannot expect them to repeat that next year.

Of course, players like Willy T, Adam Everett, Luke Scott, Zeke Astacio, and Wandy Rodriguez could be considerably better next year. However, the focus for us at this time has to be the above list. The notion that a healthy Bagwell would actually improve is based on two assumptions: Bagwell would be good enough to get to fifteen win shares in 2006 and the trio that played in 2005 do not improve. Five players approached that total last season. We can look at their numbers to see if that is realistic.

              PA    AVG   OBP   SLG    HR    R    RBI  
Ryan Klesko   520  .248  .358  .418    18    61    58 
Darin Erstad  663  .273  .325  .371     7    86    66
Sean Casey    587  .312  .371  .423     9    75    58 
Lyle Overbay  622  .276  .367  .449    19    80    72
Mike Sweeney  514  .300  .347  .517    21    63    83
Average       581  .282  .354  .436    15    73    67

Jeff Bagwell has never put up numbers exactly like the average. He has always had a bigger differential between his batting average and on base percentage. However, Bagwell hasn't hit .280 or better since 2002. The .790 OPS is a pretty decent barometer for what we can hope for from Bagwell. Of course, those of you that are paying attention are saying, 'wait a minute Barzilla, didn't you say win shares accounted for both hitting and fielding. Jeff Bagwell can't throw the ball so wouldn't that negatively affect his projected win shares?'

Kudos to those of you who were thinking that. According to James' model, first baseman typically don't account for more than two and a half defensive win shares per 1000 innings. Bagwell can still do some things defensively (pick balls out of the dirt and field grounders) so he wouldn't be a complete basket case. So, we could generously say Bagwell would need an extra offensive win share to make up for the missing defensive win share. That would put him into the Lyle Overbay, Tony Clark, and Mike Sweeney territory. Excuse me if I have my doubts that Bagwell can be that productive.

The other assumption is harder to assess. Young players don't have the track record to project. We know Luke Scott can't do any worse than zero win shares and the stories of him tearing up the Winter Leagues are promising. The majority of the hope probably resides in Chris Burke and his .790 OPS in the second half. The odds that both of them will combine for six win shares in the same amount of plate appearances is slim.

All in all, Jeff Bagwell doesn't add anything to this team unless he returns to the 22 win share level he reached in 2003 and 2004. That's certainly possible, but the 15 win share mark is much more realistic. More and more, we return to the need to improve the catcher or shortstop position.