Struggling Sluggers at 1st

With a quarter of the 2012 season in the books, many teams around the league are having an issue with the play of their 1st basemen. Over the past decade 1st base has been the strongest position in the Majors, boasting MVP candidates annually in both leagues. But this season many of these players have been black holes in their respective lineups, sucking up and wasting at-bats, contributing to losses. Lets take a look at some of the biggest culprits of bad play so far.

Eric Hosmer

Hosmer has been terrible at the plate this season, ranking as the worst everyday 1st baseman in the American League thus far. He is still hitting under the Mendoza line, and none of his triple slash stats (.191/.260/.333) are even league average. A big part of Hosmer’s problem has been a drop in his line drive rate from 17% way down to 11%. Line drives drop for base hits more frequently than any other kind of hit, and having a rate 7% below league average makes keeping a decent batting average tough.

There is some good news for Hosmer however. His walk rate, which was elite for a rookie, has jumped again, to 8.5% of total at-bats, which is above the league average, and is a very difficult skill for a hitter to master. His BABIP is .191, which is almost criminally unfair and should come up with normal regression. Hosmer has been making solid contact but hitting the ball straight at fielders. Once some of these hard hit balls start dropping for hits, his average will come up. Hosmer is excellent at pitch recognition and has a good knowledge of the strike zone. His play will eventually improve and the Royals are wise to let him work out his issues.

Ike Davis

According to the statistic Wins Above Replacement, Ike Davis has been the worst player in baseball this season, worth -1.2 wins. His problems are abundant so far this season, but his biggest issue is his 44-10 strikeout to walk rate. This issue has led to a triple slash of .164/.218/.295,, all of which are absurdly low for a 1st baseman. In addition to being abysmal with the bat, Davis has made 4 errors, which is 2nd most out of NL 1st baseman, and has otherwise looked mediocre with the leather as well.

Until Davis stops striking out in 28.2% of his at-bats and begins to draw more walks he will not improve much at the plate. Like Hosmer he has also been hurt by a BABIP under .200, but when you’re giving away more than a quarter of your at-bats, it’s tough to hit for average or power. So much has gone right for the Mets this season, leading to a 24-21 record in a tough division, but Davis has been a disappointment. The Mets considered demoting Davis a couple days ago, but have decided against the proposition, and will continue to give him chances at the plate.

Adam Lind

For the most part the Toronto Blue Jays have enjoyed a successful start to the 2012 season, with the noted exception of Adam Lind. Lind was off to a putrid start, hitting .186/.273/.314, accumulating only 37 bases in 118 at-bats. Lind has never been the same player who won a Silver Slugger award at age 25, and he has declined each season since. Lind was demoted nearly 2 weeks ago, down to the Triple-A Las Vegas 51’s, and got off to a nice start, hitting .500 in his first 3 games.

Lind’s biggest issue has been his complete inability to hit left-handers. At the time of his demotion he was only hitting .129 in over 30 plate appearances with just 1 extra-base hit. The Toronto 1st baseman has never exhibited more than the normal, league-average platoon split, but this year it’s been severely noticeable. Hopefully he can get his issues corrected in Las Vegas and become a contributing member of the Blue Jays, rather than a black hole in the lineup.

Mark Teixeira

The $180 million dollar man has only been worth his defense so far this season in New York. Teixeira is a notorious slow starter; with a career batting average 42 points lower than his norm in April. Unfortunately for the Yankees, those struggles have continued into May this season. Tex is hitting an anemic .226/.291/.381 with an OPS+ nearly 20 points under the league average. Part of this issue may be due to a bronchial infection, but it’s more than likely that some of Teixeira’s problems have to due with a drop in bat speed as well as walks.

The Yankees 1st baseman is picking up fewer free passes than at any point in his career, walking only 8.1% of the time, the 1st time he’s been under 10% since 2005. His line drive rate has also been steadily dropping since 2010, and now it’s at a career low 14% this season. While Teixeira is still playing his trademark Gold Glove defense, the reason he is so highly compensated is that he is expected to drive in runs and slug the ball. If he can get his bat going again, the Yankees could evolve into a legitimate threat to the Texas Rangers for AL supremacy, if not, they may struggle to get to the playoffs in a deep AL East.

Justin Smoak

Justin Smoak has now accumulated over 1000 career major league plate appearances and is a .224/.306/.373 hitter, good for an 89 OPS+. His best batting average in any of his major league seasons has been an anemic .239. He has only hit above the league average in OPS+ once in his career and is having his worst season in 2012 by far, hitting only .209/.251/.316 with 5 homers and 15 RBI. Smoak doesn’t draw walks, receiving only 9 this year in 167 plate appearances, and whiffs a ton, going down swinging in 24% of his at-bats.

Its worth asking if the Mariners should move past Smoak and begin looking for another 1st baseman, because he doesn’t look like he will ever develop into a league average player. The Mariners don’t have many options in at the big league level or in the minors. Dennis Raben has hit well in the low minors, but its tough to project a hitter that hasn’t been above high-A ball yet, and is so far away from the Major Leagues. Smoak will probably be given many more at-bats, because he is only 25, but he needs to start producing soon, especially if the Mariners want to turn around their losing ways.

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