Auditing the 2010 Colorado Rockies: First Base

For those of you who missed it, here is the premise and methodology of this series. To recap though:

The primary metrics I'll use to evaluate performance will be Fangraphs WAR (the calculation of which I explained last year), sOPS+ (which I wrote about last week), and wRC+ (explained by Andrew Martin here, but it's basically applying park factors to wOBA, the hitting stat used in WAR, and placing it on a scale with 100 as average) among others. Most every stat referenced here can be easily found either on Fangraphs or Baseball Reference. That's not to say that I'll only be looking at stats when evaluating players. Contracts, for one thing, help to define expectations and can color the lens through which we observe performance, as do the presence of injuries. I'll do my best to consider these factors in my analysis.

 I plan on cranking these out at a rate of greater than once per week beginning next week, after the full unveiling of the PR Awards. Today, let's look at one of the hot topics of discussion this week at Purple Row, a topic that will surely continue throughout the offseason, the state of first base.

It's a position that's near and dear to my heart as I played there in high school, and it has historically been the model of stability for the Rockies. No other position comes close, in fact. Colorado has had only two Opening Day first basemen in their history, Andres Galarraga (El Gato Supremo) and Todd Helton (The Toddfather). While Helton is signed through 2013 for over $40 million (Andrew Fisher broke it down on Tuesday), his job as the Opening Day first baseman might not last long given his 2010 performance.

First Base

Expectations

To understand the expectations for first base going into 2010, we must first go back to 2008. Helton's power had been slipping since age 31 season (2005), in which he reached only 20 home runs (though his OBP skills remained). One cause that had been brought up for this was his aching back.

In 2008, this pain finally culminated in Helton getting surgery and missing half of the season. Not only did he miss almost 80 games, but Helton had his worst offensive season by far, hitting .264/.391/.388 (which was still good enough for an above-average .347 wOBA). So, in other words Helton in an injury-plagued year still was an asset at first base because of his great OBP skills.

The newly-healthy Helton's resurgence in 2009 was one of the major reasons that Colorado returned to the postseason. Every month he posted an above-average sOPS+ en route to a great bounce back season (.325/.416/.489, .392 wOBA, 134 wRC+, 3.7 WAR). Though Helton was aging and it was obvious that he was never going to hit for a lot of power, it seemed reasonable to consider his relatively poor 2008 an outlier and to expect at least a league-average season (2+ WAR) from him in 2010.

As for Helton's back-up, the Rockies' late August pick-up of a jobless Jason Giambi worked wonders for them in 2009, as Giambi mashed in a 31 PA sample size (.292/.452/.583, .445 wOBA, 162 OPS+). Colorado re-upped with the 39 year-old Giambi for 1 year, $1.75 million, expecting him to spell Helton on his off-days, be a fearsome left-handed pinch hitter, and to serve as DH during Interleague play.

Results

Obviously, Helton didn't live up to expectations in 2010. First of all, he only played in 118 games due to injury, but he was playing very poorly before injuries set in. In the first three-plus months of the season, Helton's sOPS+ totals were 90, 100, 56. In other words, not acceptable. His first half sOPS+ was 78.

After he returned from injury in August, Helton went on a tear, showing us a glimpse of what might have been in 2010. In 88 August PAs Helton hit .307/.398/.560 with four bombs, five doubles, and a triple (good for a .411 wOBA and 163 sOPS+). Helton followed that August up with a September in which, in 99 PAs, while his batting average fell to .240, his OBP rose to .404 and he finished with a 119 sOPS+ month. His second half sOPS+ was 140. In addition, Helton hit at home (108 sOPS+) relatively as well as he hit on the road (97).

However, even with his strong finish, Helton's final line of .256/.362/.367 (.328 wOBA, 87 OPS+) with only 8 homers and 37 RBIs was simply not good enough, especially from a position that is expected to carry a heavy load offensively. Add in Helton's negative fielding value at 1B (-1.9 UZR), and you get a first baseman who was only worth 0.4 WAR in 2010. It is the first time since his 1997 cameo in the big leagues that Helton was a below average hitter.

As for Giambi, despite a low batting average (.244) and sporadic playing time with a lot of pinch-hitting appearances, he actually had a decent year for the Rockies in 2010 with a .378 OBP and a .398 SLG, good for a .344 wOBA and 107 wRC+ in 222 PAs. When given more playing time when Helton went down, Giambi responded with a 173 sOPS+ in July (.409/.527/.455 in 55 PAs). On the season Giambi also posted 0.4 WAR.

Some more things to think about with Giambi: in 59 PAs against left-handed pitching Giambi hit .277/.390/.489, good enough for a 157 sOPS+. However, he was very susceptible to H/R splits, as his 157 sOPS+ at home was neutralized by his 82 sOPS+ on the road. His PH skills were very good (151 sOPS+ in 34 PAs), but his DHing left something to be desired (81 sOPS+ in 31 PAs).

Overall, when compared to the rest of MLB's first basemen, the Rockies' duo (with cameo appearances by Melvin Mora, Brad Eldred, and Chris Iannetta) was 9% below average (91 sOPS+). Among position players, only the Rockies' second basemen performed worse relative to the rest of the league (more on them next time).

Analysis

Helton's late season surge gives us hope that he can return to at least becoming an OBP machine, but at this point we can't count on it. Despite his poor offensive season, when Helton's name was in the starting lineup he never hit lower than sixth. This needs to be changed next year, as at this point Helton profiles as little better than a seven hole guy unless he shows his second half wasn't a mirage.

What has become obvious is that Helton can no longer be the full-time first baseman for the Rockies. He's going to need at the least a platoon partner that can smack lefties around. Given that the Rockies' championship window is pretty small, a more drastic and expensive solution like bringing in a full-time guy to play first base and another position (Lance Berkman and Victor Martinez have been prominently mentioned) might be required.

Personally, I am somewhat of a believer in a bounce back season for Helton -- not to the extent that 2009 was, but a return to league-average performance on a rate basis wouldn't be unreasonable to expect. As for a player to split time with Helton, Giambi isn't actually a terrible option if he can replicate his success against left-handed pitching.  Chris Iannetta represents another decent option, as he has really hit lefties hard in the past and certainly has the raw power potential to supply offense at the position.

I'd understand if the Rockies went in another direction than using in-house guys at the position (well, Giambi is a FA), including a bounceback candidate like Conor Jackson, but I don't necessarily see the need for a drastic change here in 2010 -- at least, not given the FA options out there. If Colorado were able to swing a trade for a decent first base prospect that would be another intriguing solution. However, I'm going to get into all of that later on in the offseason.

In conclusion, after reviewing the numbers from Colorado's first basemen in 2010, I can see that the Rockies have what could potentially be a crippling hole in their offense in 2011, especially if Todd Helton can't pull himself together offensively. However, I see reason for optimism even looking at potential in-house options for drumming up more offense out of the position in 2011. Given Colorado's relative payroll flexibility this offseason, I expect them to get a bat that can play first base, though it might not be the big ticket guy many are looking for. If the 37 year-old Helton can bounce back, the Rockies will be fine in 2011. Otherwise, it will be another sub-par season at first base for Colorado.

Next up...Second Base

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