Predicting the AL East: First Basemen

As with the two previous predictive articles, the midpoint (or thereabouts) gives us a chance to look at where the AL East first basemen currently stand and where they’re likely to stand at the end of the season.

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As of July 7, the first basemen in the AL East shake out as follows, ranked by fWAR, which is shown in parentheses:

  1. Edwin Encarnacion (3.1)
  2. Mike Napoli (1.8)
  3. Mark Teixeira (0.9)
  4. James Loney (0.4)
  5. Chris Davis (-0.1)

But where will they stand after 162 games?

Edwin Encarnacion, Toronto Blue Jays

Encarnacion taking his parrot for a walk.

The Blue Jays are going to miss this.

The Jays’ first baseman ryas posted the same fWAR as Miguel Cabrera and just a few marks short of Paul Goldschmidt to rank third in all of baseball. He’s played in 88 of the Blue Jays’ 90 games this season, but he’ll be stuck at 88 starts for the time being: a quad injury has sidelined the star for the next 2-4 weeks.

Until the injury, Encarnacion was mashing the ball. His .277/.368/.591 triple slash includes the second highest slugging percentage among all MLB first basemen and fifth in all of baseball. He’s already got 26 home runs, 16 of which came in May, tying an American League record and setting a club record for the month.1 Walking at a 12.0% clip, just slightly above his career average, and striking out 15.5% of the time, a shade below his career average, suggest that Encarnacion wasn’t doing much differently besides pounding the baseballs he was thrown. Per FanGraphs, Encarnacion was the worst defensive first baseman in the American League to this point this season, clearly not something that was affecting his overall value to the Blue Jays.

Can he keep up this monstrous pace? If he were healthy, possibly. Encarnacion’s FB% (48.1%) isn’t too far out of line with his career FB% (45.2%), and his HR/FB% (20.0%) might be above the league average but isn’t wildly different than his two years (18.7% and 17.6%, respectively). In fact, nothing about this season seems terribly different for Encarnacion. After 36 home runs last year, he appeared to be continuing on the same pace; Steamer has him projected to hit 37 and ZiPS predicts 41. While his SLG might dip some, and it has been buoyed by that incredible stretch in May, it’s still predicting to stay above .400 by both Steamer and ZiPS.

This quad injury might take some of the pop out of Encarnacion’s swing immediately after he comes back, but it’d be a stretch to think that one of the game’s best power hitters will fall off the map entirely in one of his best seasons ever. Considering the injury, I’ll predict his total 2014 fWAR to land around 4.3.

Mike Napoli, Boston Red Sox

Napoli is on the left, taking shots with Bostonians after the team’s World Series parade. Whatever, bro.

The Red Sox first baseman and prolific beard grower is having himself a fine season. Napoli is slashing .267/.389/.441 with 10 home runs, a very Boston-like OBP and a SLG slightly below his career norm. Remember that Napoli too has been injured: a dislocated thumb earlier this season sidelined him for a time but he attempted to play through it and actually did alright in the process.

Napoli’s down year in slugging has the makings of bad luck and could turn around in the second half. His FB% is down (36.5%, compared to 43.0% on his career) and his HR/FB% (16.4%) is below career norms (19.9%). His splits against righties and lefties are actually better than normal, but he’s seeing far more right handed pitchers than lefties so far this year. That’s not unusual, but it is something to take note of: Napoli is batting .298 against lefties this year. A few more games against lefties, and he might get more pitches to hit and more opportunities to call pitchers idiots.

Napoli will probably perform slightly better in power numbers in the second half, but might not be able to maintain his average or OBP above the usual figures. ZiPS and Steamer have Napoli down for 2.9 fWAR and 3.2 fWAR, respectively, and I’m going with Steamer on this one.

Mark Teixeira, New York Yankees

firstbase_teixeiraMark Teixeira has 15 home runs? His name hasn’t really come up among top first baseman this season because, well, he hasn’t been a top first baseman. The Yankees have gotten decent production from their seemingly chronically injured first baseman this season. He’s missed more than 20 games but still has 15 home runs!

Teixeria has reached the point in his career where his numbers need to be compared to his most recent healthy seasons, because he’s well past his peak and he’s missed most of the last year. His ISO (.246) and SLG (.460) are well below his career levels but are just a bit below the numbers he put up in 2011 and 2012.

To be honest, nothing about Teixeira’s numbers this season seem out of the ordinary. His GB% and FB% are right around his career numbers. The only thing that stands out is a 21.4% HR/FB%. In 2011, the year in which Teixeira hit 39 home runs, he hit a home run on just 17.1% of fly balls. His HR/FB% will come down a little bit and his SLG might come up, but outside of that, it’s actually pretty safe to say that Teixeira’s second half will look a lot like his first – including a short-term injury. He just can’t seem to stay healthy.

I think Teixeira will finish this season with about 1.9 fWAR, right in line with ZiPS (1.8) and Steamer (2.3). Like I said: everything stays the same, including the power results. How he gets them will change.

James Loney, Tampa Bay Rays

firstbase_LoneyI didn’t think I’d ever see a list that ranked James Loney ahead of Chris Davis.2

James Loney is slashing .278/.331/.379, which, hey, look, his power numbers are worse than Chris Davis’! Loney has never been a world-beater but gave the Rays his best season ever in 2013. He’s come back to earth since, posting numbers in line with his career averages, albeit with slightly less power.

Like Teixeira, nothing in Loney’s 2014 looks like an aberration. There aren’t any career highs or lows to be found, and he’s performing like the below-average player he is. His HR/FB% (5.1%) is the only thing not almost identical to his career rate (7.7%), so it’s possible that Loney will hit a few extra round-trippers in the second half.

Steamer and ZiPS seem to agree that Loney will be about the same but in the second half, projecting him to be at 1.1 fWAR and 0.9 fWAR, respectively. I think Loney’s power numbers will rebound a bit more than these projection systems simply by virtue of more fly balls leaving the park and the fact that no matter what the Rays do, things seem to work out for them. I’m comfortable going with Steamer on this one, predicting 1.1 fWAR for James Loney.

Chris Davis, Baltimore Orioles

Doesn't matter; still dreamyMake no mistake about it, Chris Davis is having a down year. Nobody expected him to duplicate his 53-home run effort from 2013, but 2014 so far has been a shock. Davis is slashing .201/.319/.386. I guess teams respect the potential and walk him often, but that compare that slash line to Mystery Player B: .272/.301/.397. Pretty comparable, right? Mystery Player B is Billy Hamilton, the rookie Reds outfielder best known for being incredibly fast.

Despite missing a little bit of time with an oblique strain, an injury that can derail the best power hitters, Davis has put up 13 home runs this season. As mentioned, Davis is walking a bunch this season: 13.3% of the time is far better than his career average and his magical 2013 number, but he still strikes out 30% of the time. If you’re walking more and striking out just as much, you have to make the most out of the balls you put in play. Davis hasn’t been; with just a .255 BABIP, there’s evidence that he could simply regress to the mean in the second half.

Along the same line, Davis’ rate of infield fly balls is 6.3%, the highest it’s been since seeing real time at the Major League level. It’s a problem also being experienced by another Orioles power hitter currently in a serious drought. He’s also not hitting as many fly balls as last season, but is only two percentage points below his career average in that area – same with HR/FB%. He’s been horrendous against righties this season, batting .194, which is well below his career average of .267.

Even the most cynical Orioles fans didn’t expect Davis to turn back into the potential-filled, power-hitting pumpkin that the Rangers tried out in 2008, 2009, and 2010. There’s reason to believe that this extended slump could turn around, but Davis has also exhibited weaknesses in swinging at bad pitches and failing to push the ball into the opposite field.3 The power is real, and a little bit of luck (or even an absence of bad luck) in the second half could push Davis’ season-long fWAR over 1.o. ZiPS and Steamer both project 1.2 fWAR which isn’t really a way to win a major contract, CHRIS, but represents a large enough turnaround that it would really help the Orioles make a playoff push. I’m going to conservatively estimate a 2014 fWAR of 0.9 and cross my fingers that Davis proves me very wrong.

So where does that leave us at the end of 2014? My projections are as follows, and don’t change from the current standings:

  1. Edwin Encarnacion (4.3)
  2. Mike Napoli (3.2)
  3. Mark Teixeira (1.9)
  4. James Loney (1.1)
  5. Chris Davis (0.9)

1. Holy arbitrary endpoints, Batman! But seriously, that’s a ton of dingers in a very short period of time.

2. Sorry for the boring writeup on James Loney, but seriously, James Loney? Yawn.

3. Which is exactly the opposite of what Davis did in the 2013 Home Run Derby, where he slugged one oppo-boppo after another. 

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Written by Patrick Dougherty
4 years ago
Baltimore Orioles,

Patrick Dougherty

Patrick was the co-founder of Observational Studies, a blog which focused on the analysis and economics of professional sports. The native of Carroll County graduated with a Bachelor’s degree in Economics from Loyola University Maryland. Patrick works at a regional economic development and marketing firm in Baltimore, and in his free time plays lacrosse.


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