State of the Sox: First Base
Updated: Feb 12, 2020
Over the next ten days I will be posting an overview of every position on the Red Sox. Today we will be looking at first base.
*Click here for an explanation of wRC+*
First Base in 2019:
First base was not a position of strength for the Red Sox in 2019. Mitch Moreland, Michael Chavis, Sam Travis, Steve Pearce, Christian Vazquez, Brock Holt, and Sandy Leon all played at least an inning at first, and combined for only 0.9 bWAR while playing the position—good for 20th in MLB. All of that WAR came from the offense those players provided, and the 0.9 offensive WAR ranked even lower at 22nd in baseball. Mitch Moreland was the only one of the bunch who even hit at an above average rate, slashing .249/.318/.498/.816 with 17 home runs, 16 doubles, and a wRC+ of 107 in 308 plate appearances while manning first. Michael Chavis wasn’t bad while playing the position, hitting .267/.323/.450/.773 with 8 homers in 195 PAs, but his 96 wRC+ indicates that he was a slightly below average hitter. Sam Travis had 69 PAs as a first-baseman and managed only 3 home runs and a wRC+ of 74 while slashing .254/.275/.418/.693. The at-the-time reigning World Series MVP Steve Pearce, who was supposed to be the right half of a platoon with Moreland, only managed to walk up to the plate 56 times, and his stats were absolutely abysmal. He hit just .173 with a .218 on-base percentage. His slugging percentage was somehow only .212, which gave him an OPS of just .430, which would have ranked 14th among pitchers with at least 50 PAs. His wRC+ was 8(!!).
Depth chart for 2020:
Travis, Pearce, and Leon are all gone, and Brock Holt is still a free agent. I don’t expect Christian Vazquez to play much first (he only played 63 innings there in 2019, almost all out of necessity), so that leaves Moreland and Chavis. Bobby Dalbec is a promising prospect who split time between AA and AAA last season, and he could be called up at some point in 2020. Pending any trades or signings, those are the three that the Sox will go into the season with at first base.
How first base can be better than 2019:
This is pretty easy. Losing Pearce and Travis is addition by subtraction. If Moreland can stay at least somewhat healthy (far from a guarantee) and match his production from last season, the position will instantly be better off than it was. Chavis exploded onto the scene when he first got called up, but his production tailed off as the league seemingly adjusted to him (his OPS by month: 1.061, .788, .730, .786, .436). This happens all the time to young guys getting their first taste of big-league pitching, so now it’s a question of whether he’ll be able to adjust back. If he can strikeout less and walk a bit more, he should be able to improve on what was a promising rookie campaign. Additionally, it's easy to imagine whoever else has to play the position on occasion outperforming the horrendous production of Travis and Pearce, which would further solidify the position.
How first base can be worse than 2019:
Unfortunately, it is equally easy to envision a scenario in which the Red Sox get even less production from first base than they did last year. Moreland has gotten hurt each of the past two seasons, and 34 years old isn’t when most players get improved injury luck. Chavis is an exciting young player, but his strikeout rate is in the stratosphere, and some players can never recover after the league adjusts to their hot start (see: Middlebrooks, Will). If Moreland gets hurt for any extended period of time, and if Chavis struggles the way he did in the second half of 2019, things could get ugly quickly. Dalbec is talented, but not yet ready to be a full-time major leaguer, so if Moreland and Chavis can’t carry the load, Boston could see a lot of replacement-level—or worse—players at first base in 2020.
I don’t foresee Moreland staying fully healthy, but I do see him playing more than the 91 games he played in 2019. Likewise, I don’t think Chavis will truly breakout (yet), but absolutely envision him performing much better than he did towards the end of last season. I think those two should provide a decent baseline of first-base production for the Sox. That, plus the fact that the third and fourth options will almost definitely be better than they were a season ago, leads to my prediction that first base production will improve on 2019, but won’t be a true strength of this Boston team.