In a race for a playoff spot, every edge matters. And yet all too often, for reasons that extend beyond a player’s statistics, managers and general managers fail to make the moves that could improve their teams, allowing subpar production to fester at the risk of smothering a club’s postseason hopes. In Baseball Prospectus’ 2007 book It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over, I compiled a historical All-Star squad of ignominy, identifying players at each position whose performances had dragged their teams down in tight races: the Replacement-Level Killers. I’ve revisited the concept numerous times at multiple outlets, and have presented it at FanGraphs in an expanded format since 2018.
Things are different this year, as you may have noticed. With six days to go before the August 31 deadline, just a month’s worth of performance to analyze — if, that is, a team has avoided a COVID-19 outbreak that has blown a hole in its schedule — and 23 teams within two games of spot in the expanded playoff field through Monday, putting together this year’s set of Replacement-Level Killers is a challenge like no other. The sample sizes are tiny, especially when players are sharing a position; month-long slumps are hardly unique. Even without being a complete devotee to exactitude, normally I’m able to curate a tidy list at each position by focusing on the subset of contenders (teams with .500 records or at least a 10% chance of reaching the playoffs) who have gotten less than 1.0 WAR at that spot through roughly two-thirds of the season. Scale that down to 30 games, and the threshold becomes 0.3 WAR or less, in which case a single good day by a player at the position in question might boost him from Killer to mid-pack producer.
I’ll begin this year’s series with first base.
|Team||AVG||OBP||SLG||wRC+||Bat||BsR||Fld||WAR||ROS WAR||Tot WAR|
Shockingly, the O’s own the American League’s ninth-highest winning percentage (.500, via a 14-14 record) and have a 17.2% chance at the playoffs. After accumulating -4.5 WAR over the past two seasons, Chris Davis has hardly rebounded; he’s hitting .122/.173/.184 through 52 PA, with a -7 wRC+ — a performance that can only be understood in the Upside Down — and -0.8 WAR. Still owed $46 million over the next two seasons, he’s at least out of the picture for the moment, as he went on the Injured List on Friday with patellar tendinitis in his left knee. Renato Nunez, who clubbed 31 homers last year yet still finished with a 99 wRC+ and 0.6 WAR, had already begun to take playing time away from him and will likely to continue to do so, though defensively challenged 23-year-old prospect Ryan Mountcastle, a 2015 first-round pick who replaced Davis on the active roster, could get a look as well.
Christian Walker did a more-than-serviceable job of replacing Paul Goldschmidt last year, and while his overall numbers this year are hardly replacement level (.287/.347/.454, 116 wRC+), for some reason, he’s saved his best production for his time at DH while failing to produce when slotted at at first base. Jake Lamb, who’s started at first sometimes against righties while Walker DHs, is just 1-for-23 with a walk in that capacity, further dragging the numbers down. Given that the Diamondbacks (13-17) are running 11th in the playoff race and always shaking the couch cushions in search of spare change, all signs point to them riding out the likelihood that Walker’s production split between the two positions evens out.
Daniel Murphy is hitting just .258/.295/.382 (63 wRC+) overall and is carrying a subzero WAR (-0.3) for the second season in a row. Ryan McMahon has fared better in limited duty at first base while also seeing time at second. While he should be free for more first base duty given the recent arrival of top prospect Brendan Rodgers, a 24-year-old second baseman who was the third pick of the 2015 draft, the fact that Rodgers has started just two of the five games for which he’s been up, with McMahon at second and Murphy at first, suggests the Rockies are determined not to make things so simple. If they don’t trade for some real help here — admitting that Murphy is a mistake, anathema when it comes to free agents in Colorado, as riding Ian Desmond‘s 80 wRC+ for nearly 1,500 PA has shown — they might as well bring Todd Helton out of retirement.
They traded Jesus Aguilar, let Eric Thames depart as a free agent, and all they got was this lousy production from Justin Smoak, who was mediocre for Toronto last year and has managed just an 89 wRC+ overall this year, thanks in big part to a walk rate that’s plummeted from 15.8% to 5.0% while he again flirts with the Mendoza Line. While Jedd Gyorko and Ryan Braun have a smattering of experience playing first base, the Brewers are another team that should seek out an upgrade from outside, particularly given that the loss of Lorenzo Cain has thinned the ranks in the outfield and that the 12-15 team is second-to-last in the NL with an 81 wRC+.
They’re 12-11, with the NL’s sixth-highest winning percentage (.522) and Playoff Odds of 23.9%, so yes, they’re plausible contenders even after a recent 2-8 skid. Aguilar has hit .333/.361/.561 (146 wRC+) in his time at first base, while the other players who have spotted here, most notably Logan Forsythe, are just 3-for-24 with two walks. Lewin Diaz, a 23-year-old lefty who placed seventh on the team’s prospect list and grazed the Top 100 (at 119th), arrived last week and could continue to get a taste of the action, while Garrett Cooper, who’s been out since the first weekend of the season as part of the leading edge of the team’s COVID-19 outbreak, has been cleared to resume baseball activities and should provide additional depth at the position — or at DH, or even as trade bait — as soon as this weekend.
Despite that surprising home run from the right side of the plate, Ji-Man Choi has hit just .203/.293/.380 (83 wC+) with two homers in 92 PA overall, and he’s been slightly worse than that at first base. Superutilityman Mike Brosseau has raked in his brief time there, though Jose Martinez and Yandy Diaz have not. Obviously, the Rays — who at 19-11 have taken over the lead in the AL East — are awash in options, and they’re tied for the second-best rest-of-season projection among the teams here, so don’t bet on a big change so much as a reshuffling in the pecking order if Choi doesn’t come around quickly.
The mid-camp shift of Vladimir Guerrero Jr. to first base has not resulted in a breakout for the 21-year-old phenom, who’s hitting just .248/.333/.436 (112 wRC+) overall, and has managed just a 96 wRC+ in 16 games at first, and neither Rowdy Tellez nor Travis Shaw has been particularly successful in limited duty there while the kid DHs. Even given that modest production and the Jays’ surprising return to relevance at 14-13 — with Playoff Odds of 61.9% — they have no reason to give up on the position change after a month, and it’s worth noting that Guerrero’s rest-of-season production is tops at the position among this group.
Joey Votto‘s going to Cooperstown someday, but his decline is beginning to look decidedly Heltonesque as he plays through a contract that lasts another three decades — I mean, seasons. After posting a 101 wRC+ last year, he’s down to 85 thus far (.200/.333/.341), and his 85.6 mph average exit velocity is in the 16th percentile, his 25.0% hard-hit rate in the 12th percentile. The Reds aren’t likely to punt a player whom they owe at least $82 million beyond this season, but they ought to find Votto a platoon partner given his 75 wRC+ and .303 SLG in 204 PA against southpaws dating back to the start of last season. In-house, righty Matt Davidson might fit the bill, as he owns a career 126 wRC+ against lefties, but it wouldn’t hurt to shop around before this season gets away from the Reds, who at 11-16 might be the NL’s most disappointing team (said the wag who predicted they’d win the NL Central).
Ryan Zimmerman opted out, but between Thames, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Howie Kendrick, the Nationals’ bats have been fine, collectively. Somehow, though, they’ve lost 0.7 runs on the basepaths; Cabrera’s at -1.3, which is tough to do in this few games unless you’re hauling a minifridge around with you. Between the losses of Stephen Strasburg to carpal tunnel surgery and Starlin Castro to a fractured right wrist, the Nationals have much bigger problems elsewhere.
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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.