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Positional Standpoint Pt. II: First Base

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The series continues as we look at the Angels current first base issues

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Texas Rangers

Without looking, take a gander at where the Angels finished, by fWAR, in the majors this season? "Definitely not in the top 10, but maybe a few slots below that? 12-15 range?" That would be optimistic. "Sooooo are they in the top 20 at least?" You'd be wrong again. "Good lord, are they in the top 25?"

You should know this answer by know.

The Angels finished 26th in Major League Baseball at first base (0.7 fWAR) only ahead of the Pirates, Tigers, Rockies, and Mariners. It may not feel like it, but the Angels got some of the worst production from a position where offense reigns supreme.

To be specific, Halos first baseman pulled-together a pitiful .215/.294/.415 line, .304 wOBA, and 90 wRC+. That .294 OBP is the worst in baseball, an area Billy Eppler has already stated he wants to supplement this winter. If he were to look into getting that team OBP up, this would be a position he should give some attention to. Afterall, all of baseball got a cumulative average of .261/.343/.472 (.345 wOBA and 113 wRC+) from first this past season. That line would've been the Angels second best hitter on the team (sans a month of Justin Upton) and sure there are some outliers to the mean, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, and Freddie Freeman are all gods, but just keep going down the list to see the level of depth at this position. You don't need a superstar. All of the other top 15 teams got production from lesser names than the holy trio (Buster Posey/Brandon Belt in San Francisco, Matt Carpenter/Jose Martinez in St. Louis, Ryan Zimmerman, Jose Abreu, Anthony Rizzo, Matt Olson, Eric Thames, Justin Smoak, Carlos Santana, Logan Morrison, need I go on?).

But perhaps we're missing some context, it didn't feel like they were that bad at first, maybe there's even some leeway for the position to improve with the guys already in-house? Let's start with the guys who got the lions share of time at first: C.J. Cron.

Anyone who knows me, or who has been posting on Halos Heaven for the past few years, also knows I'm not a huge fan of Cron. I had some high hopes for him when he enjoyed a nice 2016 season before breaking his hand. So surely Cron would take full advantage of being the starting first baseman from day one, right?

Well, no, not really. After 34 games, Cron floundered to a .562 OPS and measly 2 home runs. The only thing he earned with the newfound title was a demotion to AAA Salt Lake City (sound familiar?) where he stayed until July. Only in the most Cron-fashionable way possible did he come back up and look like a superstar for the next 47 games, hitting .300 with a .944 OPS and 12 dingers. The honeymoon was short-lived as he descended back to earth, finishing the year out on a rough note (hitting .222 with a .669 OPS) during a pivotal month of September.

Sure, some fans probably thought "c'est la vie", that's baseball. My only thought, "that was such a C.J. Cron season". Let's use 2014 and 2015 as a litmus test. In 2014, Cron was madly inconsistent. His wRC+ by month was 151, 145, 53, 80, 89, 131, and 69. Okay, rookie season, now let's take that next step in the sophomore year. New year, same story with C.J. His wRC+ by month again, 72, -31, 75, 165, 149, 95, 97, 108. In 2016, Cron looked every bit of the first rounder the Angels drafted back in 2011, hitting .278/.333/.475 in the first half with a solid 119 wRC+, until he cooled back off in the second half. But it was something to build upon at the very least. He showed some consistency, but that was the very thing that continues to be his Achilles heel, he never seemed to piece it together over the course of a full season. The only thing he was consistent at, was being inconsistent. Maybe this was due to being shuttled up and down from Salt Lake or being forced to platoon with Luis Valbuena and not getting everyday at-bats.

I'm not inclined to think so.

The peripherals paint a much different picture. While Cron's BB% has increased slightly every year since 2014 (4%, 4.2%, 5.4% and 5.9% this year), his K% is a little more gloomy (24.1% in 2014, 20.3% in 2015, down to 16.9% in 2016, before skyrocketing to 25.7% in 2017). A career BB% of 4.9% is already pretty lowly, but it's a much tougher pill to swallow when you're striking out roughly a quarter of the time at the plate (career 21.3% K%). The discipline issues don't stop there. Cron's O-Swing% (the percentage of times he swung at pitches outside of the strike zone) was 37.7%...the Major League average was 29.9% this season. Meaning Cron swings at 7.8% more pitches outside of the zone than the average Major League player. He was the second worst by first baseman at swinging at pitches out of the zone. Just for perspective, Kole Calhoun had a 29.5% O-Swing rate. Just for fun, Mike Trout had a 19.7% O-Swing rate.

Oh but there’s more, Cron swung more overall than the Major League average as well. The Major League average swinging percentage, Swing%, was 46.5, Cron’s was 52.7%. So he’s swinging at pitches outside of the zone, swinging at more pitches than the average player in general, and whiffing more when he swings (13.2% swinging strike percentage against the Major League average of 10.5%).

In a league that shifts more-and-more towards working the count and getting on base, Cron bucks the trend and does neither. His BB%, 5.9%, and OBP, .305, were both well below league average (league average BB% and OBP were 8.5% and .324, respectively). This is another big problem when you're not particularly strong in the extra base hits category either. Cron's ISO (isolated power) ranked 33rd in baseball among all qualified first baseman with at least 300 plate appearances. His SLG% alone was 32nd in the same context. Here’s a visual representation of Cron’s BB/K rate, followed by his OBP compared to the MLB average.

Cron’s BB/K

Cron’s OBP vs. League Average

Cron’s defense has made some strides since he first entered the league, he had 3 defensive runs saved this season (DRS) which was 9th overall for first baseman who played at least 800 innings at first base. His UZR/150 was 10th overall and he seemed to match the eye test of improvement. So at least there’s that.

What are we left with? Well, we have a first baseman who will be entering his age-28 season and first year being arbitration eligible (meaning he’s going to start getting more expensive by simply being on the roster). He doesn’t walk or showcase any plate discipline, he doesn’t hit for power, he’s become a decent defender at first, but you’ll obviously never mistake him for Keith Hernandez, and the only position he can play is first base. In a league that values on-base percentage, the long ball, defensive value/versatility, and athleticism, Cron portrays none of these characteristics. Once again, this is a significant problem when first base is supposed to be an offensive position.

Jefry Marte’s production took a nosedive after bursting onto the scene in 2016, I wouldn’t feel comfortable counting on him to be major factor into the clubs future plans. He’s in trouble of staying in the org after this season.

I’m sure, by now, you expect me to suggest what the team could do to make the position better. But I might surprise you with this; I don’t really think they’ll do much this winter to make first base better. Yeah, there’s Eric Hosmer out there on the free agent market. But he’ll get a fat payday after a big year and the dearth of bats on the market. Aside from that, we don’t even know how much payroll space Eppler has to work with when accounting for Upton’s possible opt-in/new deal and the big raises due to Trout and Pujols, all while taking into consideration that they also need to fix second base, third base, and the pitching staff. There are lesser options in Carlos Santana, Logan Morrison, and Lucas Duda, but again, money could be tight after filling in those other needs.

The farm system’s not a great place to check either. The guy with the most games at first base for the Bees, Sherman Johnson, struggled to hit in the thin air of the Pacific Coast League, and the next two top guys played for the parent club...those were Jefry Marte and CJ Cron. First round pick, Matt Thaiss, is trying to make some noise in the Arizona Fall League after a promotion to AA Mobile, but I’m concerned about his ability, or lack thereof, to hit for power. The farm does not offer any alternatives.

I’ll end it here, but as you can tell, I am not a fan of Cron and I don’t really think he has a future in the organization other than being a potential placeholder until a more permanent substitution is either obtained or produced (and I would not count on the latter happening anytime soon). There’s one big fish on the market, Hosmer, a couple of intriguing players, Santana, Morrison, and Duda, but other than that, it’s a pretty barren market for first baseman. Unless the Angels are willing to shell out a bunch of cash, foolishly, or try and get crafty (Walker at first, yaaaalll), I’d imagine Cron will be the everyday option there in 2018. With that being said, I think the leash is starting to tighten a bit with his rising cost in arbitration and lack of consistency/offense. Valbuena was also a problem here, but he’ll be in the third baseman section of this series.

Time will tell and it could be argued first base is further down the list of needs for this club, but I wouldn’t be too shocked, one way or another, if Eppler decided to make a change here. Could be one of the more interesting story lines of the winter.