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Ian Desmond doesn’t make sense for first base

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The Rockies have said they signed Ian Desmond to play first base, but don’t believe them.

Colorado Rockies Ian Desmond Photo By John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

When the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a multi-year contract in early December, the team hinted that he was going to play first base. I didn’t believe them. Later, when the team made the signing official, the Rockies once again said that they signed Desmond with the purpose of him playing first base. I still didn’t believe them. Time has passed, and the Rockies haven’t added anybody else capable of handling first base, leaving Desmond atop the depth chart. And still, I don’t believe it.

That’s not to say that I don’t believe Desmond will ultimately be the Rockies’ first baseman. Rather, it’s to say that if he is, it won’t be by design, but because of a failure of plans to come together. Prior to Desmond’s signing, the Rockies were tied to first base free agents Edwin Encarnación, Mark Trumbo, and Chris Carter. They were also linked to José Abreu, who might be procured with a trade. Encarnación has since signed with Cleveland, so he’s off the market. But the others are still available. How do they compare with one another and ostensible first baseman Desmond?

Who is the best hitter?

We’re going to use the last three years of performance for these four 30-ish year old players (Abreu is the youngest at 29, Desmond the oldest at 31, and Trumbo and Carter are both 30). This sample provides a large sample snapshot of each player that’s most relevant for how he might perform in the next couple of seasons.

Abreu is easily the best hitter of the bunch. He’s the only player to combine high average with power. Abreu’s on base ability separates him from the other three players, whose on base percentages are clustered together at around .310.

Desmond is the weakest hitter of the bunch. His OBP over the past three seasons is roughly the same as Trumbo’s and Carter’s, but he doesn’t bring nearly as much power. Desmond has the lowest slugging percentage of the group by about 50 points. Combine all of this together, and Desmond’s bat turns out to be about league average. The other three players are either above or well above average.

2014-2016

Player Games PA AVG/OBP/SLG HR K% BB% wRC+
Player Games PA AVG/OBP/SLG HR K% BB% wRC+
Desmond 466 1966 .258/.313/.421 65 27 6.9 99
Abreu 458 1985 .299/.360/.515 91 19.9 6.9 137
Trumbo 389 1574 .253/.309/.477 83 24.8 7.3 110
Carter 434 1676 .218/.313/.477 102 32.2 11.3 114

One area where Abreu is not clearly better than the others is in earning walks. He joins Desmond and Trumbo with a below average walk rate at around seven percent. Abreu, more than the other two, makes up for it by getting more hits. Carter is the only player with a walk rate above 10 percent. He has the best eye among the four, and it’s necessary for him to maintain that in order to keep a respectable on base percentage. Abreu’s near 20 percent strikeout rate represents the best mark here. Trumbo, Desmond, and Carter have strikeout tendencies that range from a lot to a whole lot.

Abreu is the best hitter and Desmond the weakest. Notably, Carter and Trumbo clump together in the middle. They’re almost exactly the same in terms of on base ability (they just use different methods to get on base) and power.

What about plate discipline?

At Coors Field, putting the ball in play is an asset. The outfield is expansive, and the high run scoring environment at Coors Field might have much more to do with high batting average on balls in play than home runs. The Rockies should think about plate discipline when pursuing hitters.

Of the four players here, Carter swings the least and Abreu the most. Carter’s disinclination to swing a lot, especially at balls outside of the zone, could make him a good fit with Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado. Over the past three years, both players have become more passive and selective at the plate. They’ve also become better hitters for it. Carter fits that mold; however, he’s not the hitter either of those players are because he doesn’t make contact as much when he swings at pitches inside the zone. Carter brings the most swing and miss.

Plate discipline, 2014-2016

Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% BABIP
Player O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% BABIP
Desmond 33 67.4 48.4 55.4 83.6 73 0.329
Abreu 39.2 70.4 51.8 62.7 86.5 75.8 0.338
Trumbo 35 70.7 50.2 57.4 81.8 72 0.290
Carter 27.1 71.1 45.9 43.3 75.7 64.7 0.258

Conversely, Abreu makes the most contact, but he also swings at a lot of pitches outside of the strike zone.

Carter and Abreu are each walking different fine lines that could suggest diminished hitting: if Carter’s plate approach gets worse, he’ll become a bad hitter because his OBP will start to trend toward his batting average, and if Abreu’s begins to lose the ability to make contact with balls in and out of the zone, his strikeout rate might start to look more like the other three players here, and he’ll be a worse hitter for it.

Trumbo and Desmond are nearly indistinguishable here. They swing and make contact at roughly the same rate. The difference is found in the first table: when Trumbo makes contact, better things tend to happen than when Desmond does.

And batted ball tendencies?

What tends to happen to balls in play is also relevant: are balls in play generally driven on a line, a danger to worms, or fly in the air? Line drive rate is a good place to start because they land for hits more often than any other batted ball. Here, Abreu is the best and Trumbo the worst, but the differences aren’t that significant, and each rate is fine enough. The dramatic distinctions are found in groundball and fly ball rate.

The fly ball/groundball negotiation goes something like this: fly balls usually turn into outs, but they also tend to turn into extra base hits, especially home runs, whereas groundballs more frequently result in hits, but they turn into the more valuable extra base hits less often, and they are almost never home runs. A little extra fly ball distance, however, helps mitigate fly ball outs and gives a bump to home runs. That’s why Abreu’s comparatively low fly ball rate doesn’t look like an issue; his fly balls go farther.

Batted ball, 2014-206

Player LD% GB% FB% HR/FB FB Distance
Player LD% GB% FB% HR/FB FB Distance
Desmond 18.1 52.4 29.5 17.3 292.32
Abreu 21.7 46.1 32.2 20 309.44
Trumbo 17.1 41.4 41.4 18.8 295.59
Carter 20 29.6 50.5 21.8 294.11

Carter and Desmond are the most significant contrasts here. Whereas Carter doesn’t put the ball on the ground much, which partially explains his low batting average, Desmond has a really high groundball rate. That will result in more hits, but the hits tend to be emptier. And, in any case, his OBP isn’t any different than Carter’s. In contrast, Carter has a fly ball rate of about 50 percent, making him a low-average power threat. Notably, Tony Blengino at FanGraphs has suggested that fly balls at Coors Field don’t have to be hit as hard to result in extra base hits as they do elsewhere, whereas groundballs probably don’t show much difference park-to-park. In other words, Carter would benefit from Coors Field more than Desmond will.

The final trait that separates Trumbo, Carter, and Abreu from Desmond is average fly ball distance. At first blush, it looks like Abreu stands above the other three, who glom onto one another between 292 and 295 feet on average; however, Desmond is the only of these three players to have his average fly ball distance drop in 2016. He averaged about 297 feet per fly ball in 2014 and 2015—it fell to 281 last season. The other three players saw their average distance increase. That doesn’t necessarily mean they got better, as home runs and fly ball distance increased league-wide. It means that Desmond’s average distance fell while most others, and the league, saw it increase.

Do any of them have notable splits?

All four of these players are right-handed. In general, righties hit better against left-handed pitching than against right-handers. But that doesn’t mean every player invites a platoon partner to maximize match-ups. Unsurprisingly, Abreu is a player like that. He doesn’t have a dramatic split against lefties and righties. There’s some difference in batting average, but he makes up for it in on base ability. And with a slugging percentage north of .500 against righties and lefties, there’s no reason to consider platoons.

Trumbo’s an exception to the general rule, and it needs clarification. For his career, Trumbo doesn’t exhibit much of a platoon split. He’s hit .251 against righties and lefties, and only six points separate his OBP against south and north paws. The only notable difference is that he’s shown more power against lefties—for his career, at least.

Over the past three seasons, Trumbo’s shown a reverse split. He’s hit right-handers better than left-handers. If this is a trend rather than a career blip, he would make a bad fit with the likely backup at first base, lefty Jordan Patterson. Patterson would probably end up limiting Trumbo’s strength against righties because the Rockies might want to keep Patterson away from lefties. Conversely, Carter shows a typical split for a right-handed hitter, and he would seem to pair well with Patterson.

Platoon splits, 2014-2016

Player vRHP vLHP
Player vRHP vLHP
Desmond .249/.305/.409 .288/.342/.461
Abreu .305/.360/.518 .282/.362/.502
Trumbo .260/.316/.484 .237/.290/.460
Carter .216/.303/.473 .222/.335/486

Desmond also shows a typical righty-lefty split and seems ripe to be platooned as well. Except, the Rockies didn’t just pay him $70 million dollars to primarily hit left-handers, who make up only about 30 percent of pitchers. Aside from Abreu, the best batter to have at the plate against a lefty in a critical situation would be Desmond; against a righty, Trumbo and Carter would both be better options.

Who is the best defender?

It took a lot of words to get to defense, and there’s a reason for that: it’s not as important as hitting. Based on Defensive Runs Saved over the past three seasons, Abreu has been worth -14 runs at first base; however, his bat more than makes up for any defensive weaknesses. Carter has also posted a -9 DRS over the past three seasons, and while his offense doesn’t make up for his defense in the way Abreu’s does, it’s still in the “I’ll live with it space.”

It’s tougher to determine what kind of defense Trumbo and Desmond would provide at first base. Trumbo has made it clear that he shouldn’t sniff the outfield, and that insight has come from him playing a lot more outfield than first base over the past three seasons. He hasn’t played much first base, by my guess is that he’s no worse but not that much better than Abreu and Carter.

Desmond has never played first base, so there’s no sample at all for him. Russell Carleton at Baseball Prospectus has shown that it’s a fallacy to assume that a player can just move from a difficult position, such as shortstop, to an easier one, such as first base, and excel. It requires work and seasoning.

But Desmond was able to transition smoothly from shortstop to left and center field in 2016. Because of that, it’s reasonable to assume that he can transition to first base as well. That might be a safe assumption, but I wouldn’t push it to assume that he’ll be a markedly better defender than the other possible options, and I most certainly wouldn’t assume that the defensive difference between him and the others at first base will be so great as to make up for the highly pronounced differences on offense.

So...

Given all of this, the answer to the question, “who would you most like to have play first base for the 2017 Rockies?” is easy. It’s José Abreu, and it’s because he’s the best player. Unfortunately, he’s blocked by not being on the actual team. He’s also the player here who might not be available at all and the player it would be most difficult to procure. It would require negotiation and willingness from the White Sox.

If Abreu is out of the mix, my next choice would be Chris Carter. His batted ball profile would fit Coors Field beautifully, he could share playing time but still get the majority of it in a sensible platoon with Jordan Patterson, and he gets on base enough to help the hitters around him. Carter also wouldn’t cost very much compared to Trumbo.

Indeed, Trumbo doesn’t seem much better than Carter, if he is at all. Trumbo strikes out less but also walks less. He and Carter have almost identical on base percentages over the past three years. Trumbo’s batted ball doesn’t look like it would play up as well at Coors Field, and he also comes with strange platoon splits in recent years that could neutralize any advantageous platooning with Patterson. Given that the superior Edwin Encarnación only received three guaranteed years from Cleveland, Trumbo might be able to be had on a two-year deal, but they would be costly, and the Rockies would also have to give up their compensation round B selection in this year’s draft.

Desmond would be my fourth selection to play first base, but he’s the only one who is actually on the Rockies right now, and they keep saying he’s the first baseman. If the Rockies spent the prospects to get Abreu or the money to get either Carter or Trumbo, Desmond would be consigned to a versatile depth option—someone who can start four days a week at four different positions. He’d be high paid for that role, but it’s the way the team gets better with Desmond on it.

As a depth option, Desmond raises the team’s floor and helps keep players like Cristhian Adames and Alexi Amarista in strict bench roles; as a first baseman, he’s an average bat with less than ideal batted ball tendencies who doesn’t hit right-handers very well. He could fill in for Trevor Story or DJ LeMahieu in the event of injury, but that might push Patterson into a starting role for which he’s not really fit. And Desmond’s versatility, like a chef consigned to make nothing but scrambled eggs, is useless if all he does is play first base.

I don’t believe the Rockies signed Desmond to play first base. But if time passes and the Rockies patience turns to passivity as other options begin to disappear, I, and the Rockies, will have to accept that he will.