Position Roundtables: Starting First Baseman

Dave · February 14, 2005 at 6:08 am · Filed Under 2005 Roundtables, Mariners 

We continue our overviews of each roster spot with a look at the Mariners shiny new $50 million first baseman today.

Jeff: Starting First Baseman: Richie Sexson

If there is a bright side to getting nothing for a position, here it is: whoever takes over afterward is almost certain to look good by comparison. The revolving door-sinkhole that was first base last year (and how’s that for a mixed metaphor?) has given way to Richie Sexson. However observers felt about his exorbitant contract, he’s just about certain to be a performance upgrade, given just two words as a caveat.

Those words are: If. Healthy. And unfortunately, it’s far from certain that he will be.

Sexson is a huge man who generates tons of power with his swing. So much power, in fact, that just checking his swing popped Sexson’s shoulder out of joint, causing a bone bruise upon reattachment. As age sets in — he turned 30 in December — likelihood of injury doesn’t decrease. Even if the maladies aren’t of the season-ending variety, a power outage similar to Shawn Green’s is possible.

When watching Sexson this year, think: this is the season when his productivity is likely to be highest.

Maybe a combination revolving door-sinkhole isn’t such a bad image for this position after all. It conveys something spinning, spinning and heading ever downward.

Derek: Didn’t we think the same thing about Spiezio being an upgrade over Cirillo at third, though?

I’m going to ignore for now the issues of his contract, and his DUI.
What Sexson is likely to contribute next year would be great: a
power-hitting right-handed bat who’s also a top-tier defensive first
baseman. That’s what the Mariners are paying him for. If you place your
faith for a moment in the team’s doctors, figure in some decline from
aging, maybe a slow return from having not played regularly for a year,
the bottom of a healthy Sexson expectation is .260/.320/.500. That would have
made him the second-best hitter on last years team, behind only Ichiro! The best
outcome for a healthy Sexson is a return to peak form, maybe a
.270/.360/.550 season.

The unhealthy Sexson scenarios get ugly quick: Spiezio as a regular
no-hit first baseman, Ibanez as a no-glove option, possibly some
combination of players — it’s all unappealing.

To the larger long-term picture, though, maybe we are better off with no
solution here, even it means ugly play now. I’ve heard the argument that
Sexson, because he displays what are commonly called “old player”
skills, should age well because those skills will expand. But on the
largest level, that’s not what happens. Players who, while young, hit
for average, power, and have speed tend to lose speed as they age while
they draw more walks and hit for more power. Then as strength and
reflexes erode, the average and power decline.

A young player with low contact numbers, no speed but power, who relies
on walks as a big part of their game have in general shorter careers.
They don’t add walks and power. Sexson isn’t going to become infused
with Super Old Man powers and draw 200 walks and hit 90 home runs at age
33 — we’ve likely already seen close to his max there.

If Sexson’s healthy next season, he’ll be an asset to the team and
contribute to returning them to respectability. In future seasons, I’m not so sure.

Dave: Sexson requires two different discussions, really. We should know fairly
quickly if the shoulder is going to be a performance issue. There is a
possibility that he’ll perform at a lower level than expected, ala Shawn
Green, but I’d guess that the more realistic scenarios involve him either
being 100 percent healthy or spending significant time on the DL. If he
shows up to spring training, taking hundreds of cuts a day and whacking the
ball all over the field, I’ll feel a lot better. If something in the
shoulder pops early on, well, this will go down as one of the biggest free
agent blunders in recent memory.

So, in the discussion of healthy Sexson, what should we expect? As Derek
said, Sexson’s contact issues point to a historical trend that his type of
hitter does not age particularly well, but let’s also put this in context;
he’s 30, which is just barely past his prime years and not even
significantly into the decline phase yet. While the discussion of aging
patterns of players with old man skills is interesting and relevant to his
contract, it isn’t particularly pertinent to his 2005 performance. The
difference between the expected performance of a 28-year-old healthy Richie
Sexson and a 30-year-old healthy Richie Sexson aren’t going to be
tremendously different. His 2000-2003 performances paint a fairly
consistent picture of his prime level of production; .270/.340/.530 or so.
Those are good but not great numbers for a first baseman, but his defense
was well above average by most metrics (though not by UZR, probably the best
of the flawed metrics we have for measuring defense at the moment, which had
him as the equivalent of Jason Giambi with the glove).

So, depending on which defensive metric you think is most likely to nail
Sexson’s worth with the glove, we should reasonably expect Sexson to be
worth something like 5-7 wins over replacement level. If he’s healthy.

If he’s not, well, I don’t think its quite as dire as Derek makes it sound.
Speizio isn’t nearly as bad as he was last year, and Ibanez’s problems with
the position would probably be minimized by regular playing time at the
position. But we certainly don’t want IbanZio in the lineup at first base
too often. If the M’s hope to contend at all this year, they need a healthy

Derek: I’d say this, though — we don’t know what his level of performance is
going to be. The Mariners think they do, or they wouldn’t have signed
the deal, but until he’s out there we don’t know if we get a 100%
Sexson, a 70% Sexson, or a 0% Sexson. That scares me a lot.

As for Ibanez at first — here’s my problem with the “regular playing
time improves play” argument. How often is that really true? Are there
that many cases of a player who looked horrible at a a position
initially getting better? Even an improved version of Ibanez at first is
pretty bad.

Dave: I don’t know that this type of injury lends itself to the likelyhood of
there being a 70 % Sexson. To me, it seems like the shoulder’s either
permanently broken, taking his career down the drain with it, or it’s not,
and he’s fine. I think if we’re going to assume that Sexson is playing
regularly, that would lend itself to the assumption that we’ve got 100 %

Players changing positions, struggling initially, and improving as the year
goes on? How about Randy Winn, circa 2004?

Playing first base just isn’t all that hard, especially if you have some
kind of lateral mobility. Ibanez isn’t quick by any means, but he’s got the
athletic skill to move side to side better than most major league first
baseman, and I fail to see why his reactions wouldn’t improve with

Jason: The consensus seems to be that if Sexson’s healthy, he’ll hit; it’s
simplistic, I suppose, but I agree. He’s established himself as a .270’s
type of hitter with some walks and power. Sort of a Jay Buhner-lite, if you
will — more contact and a higher average, but fewer walks (though it’s
worth noting he walked 98 times in 2003). Even taking a bite out of his
numbers for Safeco, I think he can hit in the .260/.350/.500 range. Not
stellar, of course, but not awful for the position.

As for his health, I’m with Dave in that it’s probably an all-or-nothing
affair. If you look at Sexson’s career, he’s been quite durable — 148 games
played in 2000, 159 in 2001, 157 in 2002 and all 162 in 2003. If the
shoulder’s fine, there should be no reason he won’t play 150 or so games
next season.

If the shoulder’s not? I’d rather not think about that.


80 Responses to “Position Roundtables: Starting First Baseman”

  1. Kirby on February 14th, 2005 6:59 pm

    Yeah but when you think about it no team is gonna try to sac fly to right against us and i just would like a stronger arm in left because the M’s organization knows how to build a winning team on defense. But I will agree with Steve about the range Winn has and Winn can really build momentum with his stealing ability. SO the only thing that can ever determine this is if one goes down in Spring Training

  2. Matt Staples on February 14th, 2005 7:06 pm

    I’m not sure how Ibanez is a “much better player” than Winn. Winn is better defensively by any measure other than arm strength and had a VORP of 34.6 compared to Ibanez’s 30.1 last year. Sure, VORP isn’t everything, but, particularly since Ibanez’s performance last year was a bit aberrent from a hit rate standpoint, he’s probably going to regress in 2005. You can point out that Ibanez is left-handed, but so is Winn in the only situation in which Ibanez isn’t pitiful — against RHP. Winn is a switch-hitting, solid offensive player with some measure of pop, speed, and the range of a center fielder. Ibanez is a solid offensive player without much defensive value and, for someone with his lack of speed, a lack of power. I like Ibanez and think he’s decent. He is not, however, “much better than” Winn.

  3. Dave on February 14th, 2005 7:32 pm

    You know, I now regret almost every bad thing I’ve ever said about Randy Winn on the blog. The fact that he’s so underrated by our readers just astounds me.

    The man is a good player. Trading him for a utility player, a middle reliever, or a prospect just to give more at-bats to Bucky Jacobsen is, well, stupid.

  4. Cool Papa Bell on February 14th, 2005 7:48 pm

    Randy Winn is incredibly underrated. He would improve almost every team in baseball as a starter, either in left or center, including the Yankees.He is also an excellent value. We should only trade him if we get a good starting pitcher or prospect in return, or in order to dump Spiezio’s salary. We absolutely should not be simply looking to get rid of his contract.

  5. Kirby on February 14th, 2005 7:56 pm

    Well since I guys just handed it to me I will admit that now my view on Winn is different but how is trading Winn for a reliever stupid???? The M’s have an amazingly crowded outfield and why not use an outfielder to help build up our biggest weakness?

  6. Cool Papa Bell on February 14th, 2005 8:25 pm

    We don’t need any relievers. We’ve got a lot of relievers to sort through this year and adding another just hinders our ability to figure who is worth keeping.

  7. Marty Lighthizer on February 14th, 2005 8:26 pm

    #52, 53, 54
    Thank you, thank you.

    I too have gotten tired of all the glib disparaging of Randy Winn. The M’s outfield may be crowded, but keep in mind that the Winn-Cameron-Ichiro configuration was one of the best in the league.

    To reiterate from 52-54, Winn is a good and valuable player, both offensively and defensively — trading him for a reliever may or may not be stupid, but it’s hardly something the M’s should automatically do simply because the outfield’s “amazingly crowded.”

  8. Saul on February 14th, 2005 8:27 pm

    RE #53:

    Perhaps it is stupid to trade Winn for more at-bats by Bucky, but is it stupid to trade Ibanez then for the same purpose? We have minor leaugers that are nearly ready to be fourth outfielders, and as we all know, the primary purpose of the DH is to hit. Neither Winn or Ibanez can slug like Bucky will be able to.

  9. Digger on February 14th, 2005 8:27 pm

    The Mariners are going to see a steady diet of RHP this year and have only SEVEN guys on the spring training roster who can be expected to have above replacement level OBP against righties. Three of these are Winn, Ibanez, and Reed. So those guys are going to play most every day (one at DH). Their value to the team can’t be overstated–and so none of them is going to be traded.

    Bucky has value only when a leftie is pitching, which won’t be very often. Minor league stats don’t translate so well when you’re talking about hitting a major league curve ball.

  10. Trent on February 14th, 2005 9:03 pm

    #53 – Amen to that. I don’t necessarily think it was you blog or any blogs fault for that matter, but there seems to be an army who believe that Winn’s usefulness falls somewhere in between Dustan Mohr and Ricky Ledee.

  11. Steve on February 14th, 2005 9:03 pm

    Minor league stats don’t translate so well when you’re talking about hitting a major league curve ball.

    And you’re proof of that statement is ……?

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but won’t all minor leaguers face big league cureveballs when they make it to the majors? If that premise is correct (and I’m pretty sure it’s correct), then by your logic aren’t all minor league hitting stats suspect?

  12. Jon Helfgott on February 14th, 2005 9:14 pm

    Steve – where can you find splits like that for minor leaguers? Thebaseballcube’s pretty limited in the stats they offer. I’d like to know where you get that kind of information.

  13. Kirby on February 14th, 2005 9:15 pm

    Ok but would any of you be surprised if the Mariners did trade either Ibanez or Winn before opening day?

  14. Cool Papa Bell on February 14th, 2005 9:20 pm

    I would be very surprised if they traded Ibanez but not at all if they traded Winn.

  15. Steve on February 14th, 2005 9:52 pm

    #63 – go to sportsillustrated.cnn.com, then go to the team pages. There you will find links the minor league clubs. When you click on the link to the minor league, there are some additional links for some situational data for that team.

    Data are there for 2003. I understand the 2004 data got screwed up and will never be posted. I’m not sure if earlier data are archived anyplace.

    Here’s a link that has Bucky’s 2002 and 2003 data: Bucky 2002 and 2003 splits

  16. eponymous coward on February 14th, 2005 10:36 pm

    If that premise is correct (and I’m pretty sure it’s correct), then by your logic aren’t all minor league hitting stats suspect?

    I believe that’s called the traditional argument against sabremetric interpretation of minor league/college stats in favor of scouting, the “MLB is SUCH a different game” argument you hear from, say, our GM (who’s asserted something like this in the past with respect to minor league stats).

    It’s not a statement particularly well-grounded in fact (minor league hitting performance of individuals DOES highly correlate with major league performance of the same indidivuals)… but hey, why let that stop you?

  17. JC on February 14th, 2005 11:23 pm

    he has a half year at triple a ….suggesting solid #s at double a are anywhere near majorleagues is a joke 75% of these guys never sniff the bigs and 5% have 3 year mlb careers.Lets just watch the buckster go i say he is in tacoma by the ned of april at the latest…

  18. Steve on February 14th, 2005 11:56 pm

    #67 – Wel, JC. That’s just not true. There’s quite a bit of data that shows there is a direct correlation between a players performance in AA ball (as well as AAA and A ball) and how the player will do in the majors.

  19. JC on February 15th, 2005 9:55 am

    #68 you can pull out all the stats you want the competition and level of it is the point…..Bucky has a half season at triple a and a quarter season in the bigs he hasnt faced the best pitchers in the world long enough to get a real #s data for most people who are realistic about competition faced…that is my point #s at the lower levels are just that most of those pitchers you never see again…are in laymans terms that guy in low a ball with the good change and breaking ball who wins 17 games and cant get anyone out in double a because he has only enough to trick the young kids and not the older guys…just a example…….

  20. Steve on February 15th, 2005 10:23 am

    JC- No point in going further. It’s clear that you have made up your mind that minor league stats can’t be used to predict major league success, and you have no interest that there is a wealth of information that proves that assumption is incorrect

  21. JC on February 15th, 2005 10:42 am

    your right because stats are stats and players play the game…all the stats in the world cant tell you what kind of instincts a player has are what kind of guts he has…im sorry thats why scouts and the human eyes are more important then any stats..remember the dodgers had all those so called power hitters coming thru albuqurque in the 80s well stats said they would do it in the bigs but they forgot they were playing in a launching pad just a example how do stats work then?

  22. Dave on February 15th, 2005 11:32 am

    Ever heard of park effects? Translated statistics?

    Seriously, this is basic, basic stuff. It has been proven, several times, that properly translated minor league statistics are every bit as accurate at predicting major league performance as major league statistics. That doesn’t mean they’re perfect, obviously, but if you’re going to be convinced that someone is for real based on their major league performance, you should be willing to be convinced by their minor league performance as well. The raw numbers themselves aren’t very helpful, but when you understand which statistics project future potential well, and translate them for age, level, league, and park effects, you get a very useful tool to predict major league performance.

  23. Shoeless Jose on February 15th, 2005 11:57 am

    One way Sexson can avoid being injured again is to give up on checking his swing. This is easier said than done, of course, because that’s a reflex he started learning in little league and is going to be very hard to conciously override. But let’s assume he manages it — professional athletes have great focus, right? — and just doesn’t check his swing for fear of injury. If he was going to check his swing but didn’t, he’s unlikely to make contact. Now some of those pitches would have been called strikes anyway, but not all of them. So that means his strikeout rate goes up and his BA and OPS goes down. I have no idea how much, but even if he otherwise returns to form that’s going to mean a decline in his numbers from his peak years back around the turn of the century.

  24. Steve on February 15th, 2005 12:06 pm

    Albuquerque is a wonderful example of to use, because the correlations show how Albuquerque translates to the big leagues – they show how much you have to downgrade Albuquerque to get the major league equivalent.

    The Dodgers didn’t recognize the correlations; they paid the price for not using the information.

    Reading your post, it seems that you may be misunderstanding part of the issue. The minor league correlations don’t say that hitting .340 in AA ball is the same as hitting .340 in MLB. Rather, that .340 number gets knocked down to an equivalent MLB number, incorporating the level of play, the overall offensive characteristics of the league, and the park factors in which a player plays.

    The correlations also include influences that you are concerned with. For example, a guy who doesn’t make good contact gets a worse translation. If you strike out frequently as a minor leaguer, that problem will almost assuredly get worse in MLB. So a guy who merely feasts on mistakes at lower levels, but doesn’t manifest key skills such, gets penalized.

    In the end, what you are left with is the rather straightforward result that the guys who hit most successfully in MLB were also the guys who hit most successfully in minor league ball. The guys who are less successful at the MLB level were also less successful in minor league ball :cough:WillieBloomquist:cough:

    Furthermore, the correlation is quantitative, not just qualitative. You can, with reasonable accuracy, translate those minor league stats to major league performance. Which is to say, that if you are looking at two 25-year olds who have similar BA/OBP/SLG (after correcting for league and park factors), those guys will probably perform pretty similarly at the major league level, and they will perform about on a par with players who posted similar numbers in the minor leagues. The correlation isn’t perfect, but it’s far from random.

    And as you’re Albuquerque example illustrates, teams that ignore that information do so at their own peril. The reason why the Dodgers have been so incapable of producing hitting talent over the last ten or twenty years is likely because they’ve been consistently fooled about their minor hitters because they haven’t recognized park factors. Many of the Dodgers minor league parks significantly favor offense, and the Dodgers appear to have consistently judged their minor leaguers as better hitters than they’ve proven to be. Similarly, the Mariners appear to have consistently overrated their pitchers because most of the Mariners minor league parks favor pitchers.

    One important piece that is not included is player age. Justin Leone’s 2003 season at San Antonio makes the same translation regardless of his age. But the fact that he was 26 in 2003 makes it a lot less significant than if he had been 23. Being 26 means that his projection to the big leagues is about the peak that could be expected for him. (BTW – as I recall, Leone’s major league equivalent for his 2003 season at San Antonio was about .230, pretty close to what Leone actually appears to be.)

    Bucky’s minor league don’t say that he will be a star. They suggest that he will be a serviceable major league bat – performing at close to league average overall output. But he has huge power and makes minimum salary. Also, when you look at numeric data you also need to consider which direction the numbers could be off. He has a couple of seasons in his minor league career which suggest they might understate his effectiveness. Coupled with his creditable performance during his callup last year (on a bum knee) makes him a very good investment for a $300k contract.

    And there is no reason to consider that his minor league lefty-righty splits won’t carry to MLB.

    BTW – here’a another writeup on tranlating Bucky’s minor league stats.

  25. Saul on February 15th, 2005 12:42 pm

    Re #69:

    I remember a game last year thinking the same thing when I was visiting Oakland to see my dad and we went to a game when the Ms were in town. Bucky hit a home run to dead center in his first at bat against Mulder, who is hardly one of the lower-level pitchers in baseball.

    Granted, Mulder had an off second half and any pitcher can make a mistake, but still…

  26. Kirby on February 15th, 2005 3:18 pm

    Bucky will be near the league average in BA but he will be above it in homeruns I think we all can agree on that

  27. JC on February 15th, 2005 4:54 pm

    I say bucky will be in tacoma by the end of april..No one thinks im right but i will be back at the end of april to talk …i hope im wrong but bavasai and his band of fools evans and crew dont give me the imprssion they think the buckaroo is for real….just my thought i hope im wrong….

  28. Steve on February 15th, 2005 6:09 pm

    JC – I don’t disagree that Bucky will be in Tacoma in April – the Front Office has almost said as much. That’s because they roster logjam and because they he will probably still be rehabilitating his knee.

    The point is that he shouldn’t be there because of the roster logjam.

  29. roger tang on February 15th, 2005 7:28 pm

    Saying Bucky WILL be in Tacoma and Bucky DESERVES to be in Tacoma are two different things.

    And as Steve says, Bucky SHOULDN’T be in Tacoma. The reasons that are given may not really hold up when you think about ’em (as in, strikeouts are a worse out than any other out…..).

  30. Ralph Malph on February 15th, 2005 7:38 pm

    And needless to say if Bucky rides the pine early in the year, gets 5 at bats a week, and after 3 weeks is hitting (say) 3 for 15 with 7 strikeouts and 0 HR, that would not be an indication that he DESERVES to be in Tacoma. Though it would be given as a reason for his demotion.