How Much Difference Would a New First-baseman Make?

The 86 wins I have predicted for the Pirates might be enough to get the team to the playoffs, but the odds would seem to be against it. So, after I made that projection I got even more curious about how the Pirates might improve their chances of reaching the postseason. And my immediate, logical landing place was first-base.

It has been said ad nauseam – and even enough to make one nauseous – both here and everyelsewhere, that the Pirates have a question mark at first-base. It has been said equally enough to make one nauseous – and even ad nauseam – that General Manager Neal Huntington is – or ought to be – looking to upgrade the position through trade or free agent acquisition.

Fans, followers, freelance bloggers, and other full-blown windbags just aren’t all that excited with the prospects of rookie Andrew Lambo or Quad-A star Travis Ishikawa manning the left-handed portion of the Pirates first-baseman platoon.

So, I asked myself, “Can the Pirates do better than those two players and, if so, how much of a difference would it make to the team’s win total?”

As I was working out the SABERBUCS player projections and arriving at my 86-win prediction for 2014, I calculated that the Pirates would score 708 runs and allow 666. I, then, plugged those numbers into a formula that produced a .531 winning percentage for the Pirates – 86 wins.

I came to the 708 runs scored total by projecting batting lines for the Pirate players and converting them to a statistic known as “Runs Created.” The sum of the players’ Runs Created totals was 708.

So, I wanted to see how many “Runs Created” the Pirates might add by acquiring one of the available – or potentially available – first-baseman; in comparison to Lambo or Ishikawa.

I projected Andrew Lambo’s 2014 batting line at .240/.295/.419 — .714 OPS. Given the same 440 plate appearances that Garrett Jones had, last year, as the Pirates lefty platoon first-baseman, Lambo’s batting line would amount to a total of 51 “Runs Created” in 2014.

Travis Ishikawa, over the course of his major league career, has a batting line of .260/.324/.398 — .721 OPS. He has 99 Runs Created in 859 career plate appearances. Given Garrett Jones’ 440 plate appearances, Ishikawa’s 99 career Runs Created pro-rate to 51 Runs Created – the very same number that I project for Andrew Lambo.

It’s pretty clear that among the “available” first-baseman, free agent Kendrys Morales is the best hitter and would be very likely to “Create the most Runs” in 2014. So, I decided to look at his batting line, plate appearances, and Runs Created totals and see how he compares to the 51 Runs Created that I projected for Lambo and pro-rated for Ishikawa.

In 2013, Morales hit .277/.336/.449 — .785 OPS. In 2012, he hit .273/.320/.467 — .787 OPS. That a nice upgrade over Andrew Lambo’s projected .714 OPS. But the issue is runs. How many more runs would be created by Morales in comparison to Lambo and Ishikawa?

Over the course of the last two seasons, Morales has “Created” 156 runs in 1,179 plate appearances. Pro-rated to the same 440 plate appearances that I am giving to Lambo or Ishikawa, Morales would create 58 runs. That’s just 7 more than I project for the lowly likes of Andrew Lambo and Travis Ishikawa in 2014.

Once I had that surprising information, I went back to the winning percentage formula that resulted in my 86 win prediction for the Pirates 2014 season. I added Morales’ 7 extra runs into the formula and it produced a .535 winning percentage. That’s just 86.7 wins.

If Lambo and Morales played similar below average defense – which is likely, given Morales fielding in recent years and Lambo’s inexperience at the position – replacing Lambo with Morales would add a grand total of 0.7 wins to the Pirates season total.

0.7 wins!

My guess is that, for most, that is hard to believe; and well-past miserable for those who do believe it. And what’s worse is that Morales has the best career hitting numbers of any of the first-baseman who are likely to be available.

Maybe it’s best for the Pirates to hope that Lambo exceeds projections.



8 thoughts on “How Much Difference Would a New First-baseman Make?

  1. That’s almost an extra win which is pretty big in that 86 win range. But not worth losing the draft pick.

    However, assuming Ike Davis, Smoak, etc would produce… say… the same 7 runs, then it’d be worth giving up… something…. for.

    • I believe Davis and Smoak would project to slightly fewer runs than Morales. But you’re right. There have been quite a few teams who reached the end of Spetember and wished they had just one more win.

  2. The problem here is that by pro-rating Morales’ plate appearances, you assume he would hit the same against righties (and mind you he is a switch hitter with good splits) as he did against BOTH righties and lefties.

    Wouldn’t it be reasonable to conclude that if he hits righties better than lefties that increasing his PAs against righties from, say, 60% to, say, 85% that his numbers would increase in correlation?

    But, to me, the larger point is that Morales hits well against BOTH handedness, and outhits any current Pirate first base candidate. So why limit his PAs anyway?

    Also, your predictions of Runs Scored and Prevented do not account for Polanco or Taillion, and we all know they’ll be on the Pirates sooner rather than later. They’re clear upgrades over who they’ll replace.

    This is a 90-93 win team waiting to happen.

    • Morales career OPS vs. left-handed pitchers is .736. Gaby Sanchez’s career OPS vs. lefties is .895. Sanchez had a .987 OPS vs. lefties last year.

      I’m far from convinced that Polanco will be an upgrade over Tabata and Snider. Baseball Prospectus projects a .664 OPS for him. Zips projects a .701 OPS. He has had only 9 plate appearances at AAA and hit for just a .761 OPS at AA last year. I believe he is an excellent prospect, but the Pirates should not be counting on him to put up big numbers this year.

      Taillon needs to get healthy and prove that he is ready at AAA.

      • Ok, fine. My main point is this:

        “The problem here is that by pro-rating Morales’ plate appearances, you assume he would hit the same against righties as he did against BOTH righties and lefties.”

        Tell me your thoughts on this.

      • My first response is that even with a platoon, Morales would get some at-bats against left-handers.

        Second, I used Morales overall numbers from the last two years, but they are nearly identical to his numbers versus right-handers – the pitchers against whom he would hit in a Pirate platoon.

        In 2013, Morales overall OPS was .785. Against right-handers, his OPS was .780.

        In 2012, Morales overall OPS was .787. Against righties, his OPS was .791.

        Those numbers are so similar that they would make only a fraction of a difference in Morales runs created total.

  3. Saberbux – nice post. The only 25 cents I’d like to add to this conversation is this: Have I not read about Kendrys Morales’ knees being wobbly? Nothing would be more Pirates-of-old than to go out and spend money on a Scott Boras client just to watch him report directly to the training table.

    That could happen.

    Just sayin’.


    • I haven’t read anything about Morales’ knees. But he did break his leg in an on-field celebration in 2010 and it kept him out for a year-and-a-half. He was once a good fielder, but, since the injury, he has only started 59 games at 1B.

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