Sabermetrics

Free Agent Matchmaker: First Base

From the moment the Rockies signed Ian Desmond to a questionable 5 year, 70 million dollar deal to be their new first baseman, just about every writer, analyst, executive, and fan was equally perplexed. Not only had Desmond never played the position, but Colorado was also forced to sacrifice the top unprotected pick (11th overall) in the upcoming draft. To make matters worse, Desmond has always hit a high percentage of ground balls, which isn’t exactly a batted ball profile suited for Coors Field.

If there was a bright side to this ill-advised acquisition, it was that Desmond was also capable of playing the outfield and was renowned as a great clubhouse guy. Unfortunately, dishing out 14 million dollars a year for a player whose best attribute is his character didn’t redeem his dreadful on-field performance. 

In the two years that Desmond has spent in Colorado, he ranks ahead of only two first baseman in the MLB in total WAR. Those players are Albert Pujols and Chris Davis. Chris Davis literally just had the worst season in MLB history and Pujols hasn’t produced a season in which he provided positive value in nearly three years. 

Despite the Rockies stubbornness to continue penciling Desmond’s name into the lineup, the front office has no other decision but to replace the struggling veteran. Luckily for the Rockies, their nucleus of young position players played well enough to lead the Rockies to a 91 win season, despite a roster littered with aging, unproductive veteran regulars. For example, if the Rockies had signed any of the inexpensive first base options this offseason (Mitch Moreland, Yonder Alonso, etc.), they would have likely won the NL West for the first time in franchise history.

Even if we excuse the Rockies front office for sticking with Desmond coming into the 2018 season, the failure to address this glaring need at the waiver deadline was inexcusable. Of all the playoff contenders, the Rockies had the top waiver priority and a chance to acquire Daniel Murphy, who not only ranks 8th among all National hitters in wRC+ over the previous three seasons but would also be a left-handed bat to break up Arenado and Story in the Rockies lineup. Murphy does have a reputation as a defensively challenged second baseman, but in the games that the Nationals moved him over to first, he has actually rated above average. 

Instead, of adding an elite middle-of-the-order bat to propel a struggling offense, the Rockies opted to defy rational thinking and instead stuck with their sub-replacement level first baseman. 

At this point, I have probably gone far enough in bashing Desmond’s anemic offensive ability, but in order to fully understand just how poor Desmond was at the plate this season, I believe historical context is necessary.

Below is a short list of the worst offensive seasons by National League first baseman in the previous decade. (minimum 450 at-bats)

Season Player wRC+
2018 Miguel Rojas 79
2018 Ian Desmond 81
2017 Tommy Joseph 85
2011 Aubrey Huff 89
2012 Jordan Pacheco 90
2012 Carlos Lee 91
2015 Ryan Howard 93
2014 Ryan Howard 94
2009 Daniel Murphy 94
2008 Garrett Atkins 94

At this point, my point has been made: Desmond can’t hit. Plenty of major league hitters struggle offensively. The problem with Desmond is he has found such a unique way to fail. Despite playing his home games in a ballpark that is far more conducive to offensive production than any other venue in the league, Desmond does the one thing that can prevent a hitter from succeeding at Coors Field.

The Rockies first baseman has led the MLB in GB% each of the past two seasons by putting over 62% of his batted balls on the ground. Since Statcast data became publicly available three seasons ago, hitters who hit either a fly ball or a line drive at Coors Field have a .534 batting average. For comparison, the league average for those same batted balls at other venues is .397. Coors Field is an anomaly like none other in sports in that adopting the right approach can provide most hitters with a definitive advantage in every plate appearance. 

Despite almost a quarter century of evidence to support the optimal batted ball profile to exploit the unique hitting conditions of Coors Field, it appears that Ian Desmond has adopted the complete opposite strategy. In 2018, Desmond’s average launch angle was exactly 0.0 (ranking only ahead of Eric Hosmer of the 332 qualified hitters). 

For a visual representation of what it looks like when a player does nothing but pound the ball into the ground, below is a spray chart of all of Desmond’s batted balls.

Desmond Spray Chart.png
The bulk of Desmond’s batted balls never make it out of the infield, but the ones that do appear to be shallow flyballs to the opposite field.

Coors Field is the best ballpark to hit in because the thin air makes the ball travel further, which forced the Rockies to push the fences back and as a result creating an expansive outfield that allows line drives and flyballs to fall for base hits. Rockies outfielders have to cover so much ground that opposing hitters can produce high averages simple due to artificially elevated BABIPs. In other words, most hitters will succeed at Coors Field. All they have to do is avoid imitating Ian Desmond. 

While it has become clear that the Rockies will have to add a first baseman this offseason, this crop of free agents leaves much to be desired. That said, the Rockies will likely fill the void with a cheap and reliable left-handed bat. 

The Rockies could also elect to roll with former prospect Ryan McMahon to help supplement the club’s first base depth. While opening the season with McMahon is not completely out of the question, the youngster will have to have a great offseason and incredible spring training in order to regain the confidence of the Rockies coaching staff after a poor 2018 campaign. McMahon’s role remains in flux as his role next season is will be influenced by the possibility of second baseman D.J. LeMahieu leaving in free agency. Regardless of how the offseason unfolds, the Rockies might prefer to take advantage of McMahon’s athleticism and use him in a super utility role. 

With all those considerations in mind, I believe the Rockies should ink Matt Adams to a one year deal and platoon him at the hitter-friendly Coors Field. Adams is not only a cheap option for a team that would prefer to be frugal ahead of Nolan Arenado’s walk year. In addition, Adams absolutely hammers right-handed pitching with a career .825 OPS and wRC+ against righties in his career. 

Of course, Adams would be thrust into a pure platoon role with Desmond taking the at-bats against left-handers, which is his one redeeming offensive skill at this point in his career. With a wRC+ of 109, a Matt Adams / Ian Desmond platoon would be a significant upgrade compared to Desmond being the everyday starter last season. 

In many ways Adams and Desmond are polar opposites in their approach. While Desmond leads the league in GB% and ranks second to last in launch angle, Matt Adams game revolves around elevating the ball to try to leave the yard. With a launch angle that ranks top 20 in the MLB and a .933 wOBA on fly balls and line drives this season, Coors Field could be the perfect fit for Matt Adams.

A quick look at the spray charts of the flyball hitting, left-handed slugger Adams and the groundball inclined righty Ian Desmond creates about as start of a juxtaposition as possible.

Matt Adams
With the bulk of his batted balls hit deep to the pull side, Adams batted ball profile is much more suitable for the dimensions of Coors Field.

With the possible departures of DJ LeMahieu, Carlos Gonzalez, and Adam Ottavino, the Rockies will have a few more holes to fill, but adding an adequate platoon partner alongside the offensively inept Ian Desmond would be a big step forward for an offense that ranked 21st in baseball a year ago.

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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