Season in preview: First base

I’m going to be honest: I started this whole series of season-preview pieces as an excuse to write about Daniel Murphy again.

It seems like everyone in every corner has decided Murphy is not and will never be a starting Major League first baseman. Sabermetricians, beat writers, newspaper columnists, WFAN callers. Everyone.

I don’t necessarily disagree. I’m just not willing to make any definitive conclusions about the career of a soon-to-be 25-year-old (hey, happy birthday, Murph!) who didn’t completely embarrass himself (at the plate) in his first season and two months of big-league play.

Of course, now Murphy’s limping around Port St. Lucie with a sprained knee, and there’s been some speculation he could start the season on the Disabled List. I’ll proceed as though he won’t, or that he’ll at least return to being the Mets’ everyday first baseman in short time.

The Major League first baseman in April: Murphy, Fernando Tatis and one of Frank Catalanotto or Mike Jacobs.

Overview: Look: I’m not aiming to defend Murphy for being among the worst starting Major League first basemen in terms of on-base percentage and slugging average in 2009. He did not hit like a capable starting first baseman on a competitive team. That’s for certain.

But that’s not to say he will never hit like a capable starting first baseman on a competitive team. That’s my point. Murphy’s season — on some surface level — appeared to pick up down the stretch in 2009 when he started hitting for more power, but a closer investigation reveals that he almost entirely stopped walking.

That would be a damning sign for a more experienced hitter, but for a young player like Murphy — one who entered the big-leagues in 2008 with only four plate appearances above Double-A — I’ll chalk it up to him honing his game and hope that the patience develops.

Murphy’s defense continues to subject him to beat-writer snark, even though he was statistically among the best in the Majors at first base by both UZR and +/-. He certainly made a few missteps at first base to go with his one ridiculously amazing (and certainly ill-advised) behind-the-back assist, but I thought he looked plenty rangy in the infield, if occasionally confused.

Of course, I pay attention to those stats, so maybe my eyes are biased.

I’ll hold out hope that Murph’s defensive excellence was for real, and that he can hit well enough to give the Mets the right type of problem with Ike Davis coming up the pike.

Few doubt that Davis has more offensive potential, and I am not among those few, but perhaps if Murphy can hit like, I don’t know, Aubrey Huff with plus defense, it will be enough for the Mets to consider shifting Davis to right field if Jeff Francoeur’s not performing. Granted, they’ve got Fernando Martinez for that situation, but that’d be the best kind of logjam. Well, maybe the second best kind of logjam.

I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. Here’s the point: Murphy sucked at hitting last year. Despite what you may think, he was probably actually good at defense. And no matter what anyone says, a little over a year of Major League service time is not enough to predict certain doom for any 25-year-old. Ask Huff or Lee May or scores of other guys who went on to productive careers after shaky starts.

Not to say Murphy will, of course. For every guy that does, a dozen more never do. That’s how baseball works. But stop telling me he’ll never be a Major League first baseman. No one knows what he’ll never be.

Spelling Murphy, the Mets will have Tatis, who’s a lot better than most Mets fans think he is. Of course, he’s most valuable for his defensive versatility, something that won’t be put to great use when he’s backing up first base, and he doesn’t hit lefties much better than he hits righties, so he’s not an ideal platoon partner. But he’s pretty good nonetheless.

Sometimes, probably, the lefty bench bat — be it Jacobs or Catalanotto or (fingers crossed) longshot candidate Chris Carter — will see some time at first. If it’s Jacobs, he’ll hit home runs and play poor defense. If it’s Catalanotto, he’ll get on base and play better defense than Jacobs. If it’s Carter, he’ll likely hit more home runs than Catalanotto but fewer than Jacobs while playing better defense than Jacobs but worse defense than Catalanotto.

The Major League first basemen in September: Davis, Tatis and Jacobs/Catalanotto.

I realized today that using “September” as the endpoint here is weak due to 40-man roster expansion, so I figured I’d throw in a bold prediction here and guess that Murphy’s not even on the team by the end of the season.

This is sort of silly, but I can kind of envision a situation playing out similar to the one the Mets endured in 2004: Murphy, like Ty Wigginton that year, plays well but unexceptionally. The team, fumbling on the fringes of contention and in need of a spark, calls up Davis, rendering Murphy redundant. Murphy gets traded, and goes onto a reasonably productive career as a poor-fielding but versatile and decent-hitting journeyman.

That’s a very specific prediction. Oh, and the pitcher the Mets trade Murphy for has a wife who poses for Playboy and wears inappropriate clothing to the team’s annual Christmas charity event for local schoolchildren, and they’re forced to cut bait on that pitcher just to get rid of his loudmouthed wife, even though they’ve just signed him to an expensive contract he clearly didn’t deserve. But the upside is they land John Maine in the deal.

How they stack up: This is funny. For all that “Daniel Murphy is the worst first baseman in the Major Leagues” stuff bandied about this offseason, the first basemen in the N.L. East leave a lot to be desired. Ryan Howard’s pretty awesome. That much we know.

But Adam Dunn, the Nats’ first baseman, was so bad defensively last year that by WAR — a stat that accounts for both offense and defense — he was only barely better than Murphy despite hitting 38 homers with a .398 on-base percentage.  Actually, if you go by WAR, Fernando Tatis was more valuable to the Mets than Dunn was to the Nats last year. That’s how much Dunn hurt Washington with his glove, according to that stat.

The Braves will start Troy Glaus, a converted third baseman who will likely hit better than Murphy if he’s healthy, but who missed nearly all of 2009 with shoulder problems. The Marlins have pegged to start Gaby Sanchez, a rookie who is actually a year and a half older than Murphy. Sanchez hit well in the hitter-friendly Pacific Coast League last year.

All three of the non-Howard guys could be better than Murphy, but I’m not willing to say any of them will certainly be. Glaus will if he stays healthy, but that’s far from a lock given his history. I’ll guess Murph, as long as he’s around, plays as the 4th best first baseman in the division, maybe 3rd if he’s lucky. Not great, but probably not befitting all the rage this offseason.

UPDATE, 4:45, p.m.: According to SNY, Murphy has been diagnosed with a Grade 1 MCL sprain and the Mets have given the massively vague window of 2-6 weeks for his recovery. Omar Minaya has pegged Mike Jacobs as the favorite to start in his stead, but I’ll go ahead and assume everyone will be clamoring for Murphy once Jacobs exposes his inability to get on base or play defense in those 2-6 weeks.

12 thoughts on “Season in preview: First base

  1. Wow. A fair and even-handed analysis of Danny Murphy. This must be an internet first. And isn’t it great when defensive metrics support what you see with your eyes but no one else believes? Murphy was very rangy at first and has good hands, but his footwork was a mess because he was learning the position.

    As for his hitting “sucking”, I would like to point out that he had 8 more extra basehits last year than the “Captain”, in a lot fewer at bats. How many NY sportswriters would guess that? But I’m 100% with you on Murphy. While there is no reason to like his game, it is also too early to write him off. If given a chance to play every day, he could develop into a .285 hitter with 15-20 homers and 40 plus doubles. That’s not bad, but its probably not enough upside to merit a big market team sticking with him at first and allowing him to develop.

    The Ty Wiggington analogy is excellent.

    And I have to admit that I hadn’t noticed how weak the NL East is at first, excluding Ryan Howard. That’s encouraging.

  2. My money is still on Murph. He became a good defensive first baseman very quickly. His problems there were mostly of over-aggressiveness. He’ll learn, and perhaps become very good defensively. At the plate, first he proved he could get on base and hit the other way. Then he was awful for 3 months, probably because pitchers adjusted and he didn’t. Then he showed he could hit for power, with 37 extra base hits after the break. I think he’ll prove more valuable than Anna Benson. Well, a better hitter, anyway.

  3. Ted, you prescient bastard. I hate that you were right on this.

    Ted Berg on Feb. 10:
    That’s not to say it’s a bad move for the Mets to scoop [Jacobs} up on a Minor League deal. It’s a Minor League deal, after all. It will likely be a bad move if they cite his Major League experience and 32 home runs in 2008 and give him a 25-man roster spot over a more capable and deserving player, but since they haven’t done that yet, I’ll wait on it.

    The wait is over.

    • Dammit, you know what sucks most? I’m tinkering with new themes for this blog, and the one I’m (eventually, down the road) going to use is going to have a “quote” function, so I can just drop in a line of text you want to quote and it formats it really neatly and links the name of whoever said it to the original website it’s from. So in this case, it’d be funny to quote myself, linking back to that post. So it sucks that I don’t have that up and running yet, because it’d be funny to do that in this case.

      But actually, Mike Jacobs as the starting first baseman sucks the most. Not being able to use that quote function, that sucks the second most. A distant second.

      (Paraphrasing Dirty Work.)

  4. Reason number 101 why I should never be a GM: When I saw that picture of Anna Benson on the backpage of Newsday after the Christmas party, my first thought was that they should give Benson a contract extension with a full no-trade clause.

  5. Lowest slugging % + doesn’t walk = lousy 1B. Defensive excellence? You’re kidding! Good defensive 1B? Not in the games I watched. To go into 2010 with Murphy the starting 1B was something that made no sense to me. It was just as stupid as not signing any starting pitching. It really makes me wonder if money is a real problem after the Madoff ripoff.

    • Murph’s offensive struggles and lack of walks are explained above by Gil Reich, who is absolutely correct in his analysis of Murphy’s first full season and the adjustments he made once pitchers learned to pitch him inside.

      As for Murph’s defense, its often difficult to assess a first baseman’s defense. A polished player with good hands and good footwork can look stellar despite a complete lack of range. Murphy was the opposite. He was not polished at all and thus looked awkward and bad, although he made a lot of plays. He had excellent range, and he started a ridiculous number of 3-6-3 and 3-6-1 double plays. His biggest in defensively was being too aggressive — which is just another reason to like the kid in my eyes. After all, how may force outs at second can you recall on grounders to first during Delgado’s tenure?

      And why should the Mets have spent any $ at 1B they believe that Ike Davis will be taking over by next year? Better to fault them for failing to spend elsewhere.

  6. If you people would just watch the games you would see that Jacobs is not the worst 1B in the history of baseball.. which is what everyone makes him out to be. I have watched pretty much every inning of spring training that has been on TV and have not seen 1 bad defensive play by Jacobs. In fact, he has been pretty good. Jacobs is a guy that can get hot for a month and hit 10 homers. Im sick of everyone bashing him because of his low UZR. A stat that has no clue how to measure 1B (Teixeira had a negative UZR last year). At least Jacobs has the potential to hit 25 homers. I’m not sayin play him vs lefties. But playin 1B vs only righties we can hope for .265 25 and 80 with average defense. Not bad for a fill in.

    • Tex had a negative uzr because of the shifts the Yankees used, it’s also a big reason why Jeters improved so much. It has nothing to do with the validity of the stat and a little bit of research would have led you to that answer.

      And you need to actually read what people sare saying about Jacobs. he’s not just bad defensively he’s bad offensively, he’s NEVER even been close to average offensively for a first basemen.

      • Stop making excuses for a stat that even admits it is not accuare when it comes to 1st basemen or catchers. I dont care what kind of shift or rotation or whatever the Yankees did. If you just use common sense you cannot have a stat that has Mark Texeira as a below average 1st basemen. If you know anything about baseball you would have to agree.

        When stacked up against other 1st basemen in the league, yes Jacobs is below average. But compared to the options we have, he is the best option vs right handers. Murphy does nothing well, at least Jacobs is capable of putting up 30 homers. Something Murphy is not. Neither are the future of the Mets, so I don’t care about developing Murphy. I dont understand why you and plenty of other Mets fans defend Murphy because he is home grown. He is a 0 tool player.

  7. The fact that we will have Mike Jacobs, Francouer, Cora and Castillo all in our opening day lineup is just too depressing. It’s basically still 2009. It’s Groundhog Day. “Wake up kids, it’s cold out there today, it’s cold out there everyday…what is this Miami Beach?”

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