Talking Baseball

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Posted by Jon on Tuesday, March 09, 2004

First Base and DH: A Rebuttal

On Sunday, Ben wrote an extensive analysis examining production between American League players who spent some time in the field and some time as the designated hitter. Ben’s piece comes in defense of his previous post, in which he gave Jason Giambi’s dramatic DH/1B splits and stated that "Clearly, when Giambi plays the field, he is more focused on all aspects of his game, including his potent offense." People (Talking Baseball readers and writers) jumped all over him for ignoring the difference between causation and correlation, and not entertaining the possibility that Giambi spent much of 2003 at first base when healthy and at DH when less healthy, and therefore, less apt to hit. After an analysis of seven DH/1B cases, he comes to the conclusion that "I believe that something else [aside from injury] affects their production, and that something else is a lack of focus from not being totally involved in the game. Players on the bench are never as focused on the game as those in the field, and the Designated Hitter is no exception to this rule." Even after his defense, I still find myself unable to accept Ben’s reasoning. What follows is a critique of his methods and my opinions, but my intention is not to bash his work. He was merely theorizing about the Jason Giambi case.

Ben examines seven cases of first-basemen/designated hitters from 2003 in his argument. Giambi, Frank Thomas, Raphael Palmeiro, Erubiel Durazo, and Tim Salmon all played better as first-basemen than designated hitters. David Ortiz was the only player listed who certainly plays best as the DH. Aubrey Huff I count as a wash because his production when in the field (both infield and outfield), is remarkably similar to his production as DH.

My overall critique of this analysis is that generally, these sample sizes are way too small to be considered statistically significant. For example, Frank Thomas excelled at first base in 2003, but he only had 91 at-bats at that position compared to 453 as DH. Naturally, one would assume, with equal amounts of playing time at each position, the numbers would even out. The next logical step would be, as Ben suggests, to examine players’ career numbers at each position. Unfortunately, this creates a new problem. Wouldn’t first basemen, as they age and become less productive with the bat and especially in the field be shifted to DH? Frank Thomas’ career 1B/DH splits show significantly better hitting from first base, but more than half of his at-bats as a DH have come in the last five years of a fourteen year career. In this latter portion of his career he's still a monster hitter, but not nearly as productive as he was when he was predominantly a first baseman. Could it be that as Thomas got older (1) his production began slipping (more than one more AB/HR since 1999, in addition to lower aggregate OPS in this span), and (2) he began hitting more exclusively as the DH? In fact, over 80 percent of the Big Hurt’s at-bats as DH have come over the last five years, when his production began dropping. I do not dispute that Thomas has hit better in games as a DH, and that he continues to do so. What I object to is accounting for this discrepancy solely as a measurement of Thomas’ level of comfort on the field versus as designated hitter.

Raphael Palmeiro, too, had better numbers at first base than as DH in 2003. But in his long career, he has actually performed better when DHing than when planted at first base. In noticeably fewer at-bats (5870 fewer, to be exact), Raphy has a higher slugging percentage, a higher OBP, and hits a homer roughly four at-bats more frequently than when he plays at first. In fact, although he hit better as a first baseman last season, Palmeiro's overall performance has been better as a DH, but in many fewer chances.

A number of players have fared better or no worse as designated hitters than as first basemen. Kevin Millar, Ellis Burks, Manny Ramirez, and Nick Johnson serve as examples. It is possible that 2003 was not a representative year for 1B/DH hitting splits.

But I digress. I have no definitive thesis to present regarding this quandary, but I hope to take the issue up with a more statistical research approach in the future. The point of my rebuttal is merely to point out that for a number of reasons – a lacking statistical significance of one seasons’ worth of split at-bats, and the eventual decline of a first-baseman to a designated hitter due to age – that a 2003 case study analysis may be inadequate. As much as some players excelled in 2003 as first basemen, plenty of others have faired well or decently well when slotted as the designated hitter.

Finally, in regards to Giambi in particular, while I do not deny that he has shown a penchant for hitting as a first-baseman over his last two seasons, I am not convinced that injury or a general wearing down of his body is not the cause. As I found that Derrek Lee’s home and away splits from 2003 were nothing more than an aberration, I question whether Giambi’s splits are more indicative of his preference for playing first base, or his superior production as an Oakland A. In 1999, 2000, and 2001, Jason’s last three seasons with the A’s, he rarely played as a DH and was better, worse, and no different, respectively, in those seasons as DH in comparison to his time at first base. Perhaps as he has grown older, Giambi’s superior production in the field is a result of playing (DHing) through injuries, or maybe it's just a fluke. Either way, the Yankees should be worried. With Giambi’s degenerative knee, he will be playing fewer and fewer games at first as the seasons pass. Baseball Prospectus 2004 warns that Giambi will not reach his peak performance levels again (2000-2002), and that he’ll be a "full-time DH who can’t run by the end of his contract." It appears that for whatever reason, the Yankees should be ready for Giambi’s diminished production level as a DH (.220/.377/.452, 12 AB/HR in 2003), and not as a first baseman (.277/.441/.592, 15 AB/HR in 2003), in the future.

Falling Like Flies

If you didn’t believe me when I said it a few weeks ago, even after the A-Rod deal, the Red Sox and Yankees are essentially equals coming into the 2004 season. And if some Sox fans still feel a bit queasy looking at the Yankees’ recent acquisitions, the events of the last week may be enough to soothe their souls.

Even before the regular season begins, two members of the Yankees’ Opening Day lineup could already be scratches. First, Bernie Williams, thirty-five this year, recently underwent an emergency appendectomy, and may not be ready for New York’s Opening Day in Tokyo. Also thirty-five this season, Gary Sheffield, steroids aside, may too be unable to begin the season after hurting his thumb in Spring Training and GM Brian Cashman is "officially worried about it." With the possibility of losing their Sheff for upwards of three months, we’ll see what Brian Cashman can cook up for New York. Hopefully for Yankee fans, his absence will bring about possible outfielders more palatable than Darren Bragg, Tony Clark, and Travis Lee. Ask the Sheff if the wine is supposed to be so aged?

Puns aside, we are witnessing the beginning of what must be a concerning trend for Yankee fans, especially compared the relative health of the Red Sox. Of the eight former All-Stars signed during the off-season, five are at least thirty-five years old. Javier Vazquez, my ex-favorite Expo, is the Yankees' future, but the man who may very well hold the Yankees’ season in the balance is none other than thirty-nine year-old, Kevin Brown, who has had numerous injury problems over the last few years. But don’t worry, New York. If Brown goes down, you’ll have Orlando Hernandez back in pinstripes at the ripe old age of thirty-eight.

"Bad Andy, Good Pizza!"

The baseball season is soon to begin in earnest, but sadly, we have another five months to anticipate the ultimate battle of morality. Mark it in your calendars, folks. On the sixteenth of August, a truly monumental match-up may occur: baseball’s first moral showdown. Former PawSox star Andy Abad’s Pittsburgh Pirates will face pitcher Andrew Good’s Arizona Diamondbacks. If both players sustain themselves in the majors, Abad Andy may face the Good. It's more than a battle of Andy’s. Good will be pitching for all that is righteous in this battle of Good and evil. But first things first. Let’s hope these guys make it out of Spring Training so we can begin anticipating this ultimate showdown.

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