A Recent History of Pittsburgh Pirates First Base Difficulties

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Pittsburgh Pirates
Mandatory Credit: Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports /

I Like Ike?

Going into the 2014 season, the Pittsburgh Pirates didn’t have very good options at first base. Gaby Sanchez was still available when the Pirates faced a southpaw. However, they had cut ties with Garrett Jones due to a decline in performance in 2013 and his continued inability to hit left-handed pitching.

Travis Ishikawa began the season as the Left Handed First Baseman. However, he was never a permanent solution as he struck out too often, didn’t draw many walks, and couldn’t hit for power (career 24.5 percent strikeout rate, 8.1 percent walk rate, and .391 slugging percentage). After a lackluster half month, the Pirates made a rare April trade to bring in Ike Davis.

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Ike Davis did represent a slight upgrade over Ishikawa in that he drew more walks and struck out less than Ishikawa’s career rates (14.4 percent and 18.6 percet respectively). However, he had a lackluster slash line of .235/.343/.378 during his time with the Bucs. Additionally, compared with Ishikawa’s career fielding metrics at first base, he was likely a downgrade defensively.

During the 2014 season with the Pirates, Davis had a UZR/150 of -8.1. Meanwhile, Ishikawa’s career UZR/150 at First Base is 13.2. Overall, it wouldn’t be fair to call Davis a bust, as they likely would have received similar production from Ishikawa. However, there can be no doubt that he was a disappointment. Following the 2014 season, he was designated for assignment and traded. There was the expectation that Pedro Alvarez would fill his role in the first base platoon.

The Pedro Alvarez First Base Experiment

Former first round draft pick Pedro Alvarez’s misadventures in fielding are likely well-known to most Pirate fans. In brief, Alvarez was so dreadful as a third baseman that not only was he costing runs defensively, but it was likely affecting him at the plate.

It was widely believed that Alvarez’s struggles in the field bled over to his batting appearances due to psychological reasons. Whether this was the case or not, the Pirates, unfortunately, play in the National League. Because of this, the Pittsburgh Pirates could only utilize him as a DH when in an American League ballpark.

Without the DH as an option, the next best option then was to convert him into a first baseman. As mentioned above fielding is less important at first base. This is because most players bat right-handed and first base is towards their opposite field. Additionally, there are significantly fewer cross-field throws from first base to third base versus the opposite. Because the majority of Alvarez’s errors were throwing, there was optimism that he would remain a prominent contributor for the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Though Alvarez’s 2015 plate performance rebounded his fielding was so bad that he was barely a replacement level player. His 23 errors led the league and were more than twice the number by any other first baseman. Errors are not usually a very worthwhile stat, but this number gives a good idea of how the “experiment” went. For those that want to see more useful numbers, though, Alvarez finished the season with a -26.4 UZR/150 and -13 defensive runs saved.

Following the season, he was non-tendered. He eventually signed a deal to play for the Baltimore Orioles in the American League.