Pedro Alvarez is a home run hitter. That’s evidenced by the 84 round-trippers he’s hit in his three full seasons in a Pittsburgh Pirates uniform. Unfortunately for Pedro’s reputation and bank account, he’s not much else other than that. His career batting average sits at .235, he has average speed at best, and he proved to be one of the worst defensive third baseman in the National League in 2014. That resulted in him losing out on major playing time late in the year and subsequently being forced to move across the diamond to first base in order to be a regular in the 2015 lineup.
The migration to first base started late in the 2014 season, but unfortunately for Alvarez the games were too meaningful at that point to warrant giving him a test run at a new position, so the Big Bull was forced to stay in his pen. The 2015 campaign is now upon us and management has found Pedro’s power potential too valuable to not keep in the lineup; officially making him the starting first baseman, which has shifted many an eye to how he’ll look with that new mitt on his hand.
My question is, how much damage can a guy do by playing bad defense at first base? I mean compared to positions like shortstop and third base, first base is easy, right?
In my eyes, there are two main challenges to the first base position. Fielding batted balls and fielding poor throws from your other infielders. In terms of fielding batted balls, Pedro has never been a liability. In 2013, Alvarez posted a defensive range factor of +5.5, meaning his range was good enough to save 5.5 more runs than the league replacement level third baseman. That dropped down to -3.0 in 2014, which still isn’t going to kill a team. Nobody ever called Alvarez an above average big league third baseman, but before last year nobody was saying that he was really costing the Pirates with his glove.
The biggest problem for Alvarez last year, and the reason that he lost his job, was making the throw from third to first. He made 25 errors last year, 24 of them being throwing errors. That number will disappear with his switch to first base, because first basemen don’t have to throw the ball very often. He’ll have to make the throw to second base every once in awhile to start double plays, but I don’t see his arm costing the Pirates runs this year. If he can field the batted balls like he has his whole career at third base, he’s going to be fine at first.
Now my main point. Even if he’s not fine at first base defensively, how much damage could he do? First base is by far the least demanding defensive position on the diamond, and the amount of runs you can cost your team is limited in a 162-game season. Let me try to prove that to you.
In 2014, Adam LaRoche was rated as the worst defensive first baseman by advanced metrics. That translated to him costing his team 5 runs defensively, or one half of a win. Albert Pujols was the best first baseman and he saved his team 6.3 runs, just over half a win. By comparison, Nick Castellanos was the worst third baseman in the league, and he cost his team 18.4 runs, or nearly two wins.
He’ll have to make the throw to second base every once in awhile to start double plays, but I don’t see his arm costing the Pirates runs this year. If he can field the batted balls like he has his whole career at third base, he’s going to be fine at first.
If you compiled all the data between best and worst defensive players at each position each year, you would find that the difference between wins gained/lost between the top and the bottom is by far the smallest margin at the first base position. Eric Hosmer had one of the worst defensive seasons of the decade in 2012, and still cost his team just over one win with the glove. You hate to have a liability at first base, but if you have to have one it’s best to have him at first.
Pedro Alvarez isn’t going to help the Pirates win defensively, but I don’t think he can be terrible enough to make a real difference. If he hits home runs at the clip we’ve seen the last three years, he’s going to be a major positive for the Pirates this year.