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Assuming the Position 2005: Part 1 - First Base
by Derek Smart
Last season at my old stomping grounds, I wrote a series called Assuming the Position - a positional breakdown of the Cubs, covering the year that was and expectations for the season to come. I'm doing it again this year, and having posted the first two installments at The Big Red C, it seems appropriate for continuity's sake to run them again in this space. The first part follows below, with the second part coming later this week, and brand new episodes to follow throughout the winter. Enjoy!
Had you taken a poll of well informed Cub fans in the aftermath of the 2003 season and asked which Florida Marlin was most likely to become a member of the club in 2004, most would have instantly responded with Luis Castillo. The Cubs were in need of a second baseman and a leadoff man, and here was a player who, if the fates were smiling, could do both. Despite their World Series victory, the Marlins were looking to cut costs, or at least keep them similar, so as Castillo entered free agency he looked for all the world like a man who would be playing elsewhere in the year to come.
Around the same time this hypothetical poll would have been taken, I opened this series with a long, rambling, nonsensical journey into the reasons why I thought Hee Seop Choi could not only be a productive member of the 2004 iteration of the Chicago Cubs, but more ridiculously, pointed to what I referred to as "evidence" for why Dusty Baker would actually give him the playing time he so richly deserved. I went over game logs for the portion of the season that came before his collision with Kerry Wood, citing the more reasonable usage pattern Choi experienced before his DL stint, and his encouraging production during that time. It made perfect sense to me, and what's more, I wanted desperately for it to be true.
After recovering from the initial shock and dismay of seeing a player I rather liked shipped to foreign climes, the logic of the deal became clear to me. The Cubs were a team that could spend money on players in their prime, could afford to pay some extra cash in order to bypass the growing pains that all young players not named Albert Pujols endure. What's more, it was a move that made crystalline just how serious the team was about putting a winner on the field, not at the end of an insert-number-of-years-here plan, but right now. The Cubs were coming to play, and they were going to ride to the promised land on the wings of Rodan.
Obviously, things didn't go according to plan; but, before we begin dealing with the expectations surrounding Lee, let's look back at what he replaced in the Cub lineup. Besides the aforementioned Choi, there was a whole lot of Eric Karros - and once Choi had fallen into the Dust-y-bin - El Grande Chorizo, Randal Simon.
Besides being an excellent opportunity to combine three peoples' names so that they bear the always entertaining resemblance to the moniker of a gentleman you'd pay to guide you through the Himalayas (or to serve you coffee at your local Kwik-E-Mart - feel free to choose the potentially offensive stereotype of your choice), we can see that the production the Cubs got from first base last year was...um...lacking. Here's where those gents fell VORP-wise (explanation of VORP here) when compared to the rest of the National League.
Combined 1st Base VORP
I'll warn you that my calculations here are a bit flawed, as I simply added together the VORPs of all players listed for each team as first basemen by Baseball Prospectus. Therefore, some of the numbers - I'm looking at you, San Diego! - are a bit inflated because parts of those players' value was accumulated at other positions; but it's not enough of an issue to make me go through the process of separating each player's production by position (it would likely take a death threat, perhaps a forced screening of Krull, to set me to work on that), because my point still gets made: the Cubs got sub-par production from a key offensive position in 2003 (although, at least they weren't the Pirates. Yikes!).
So, there was a need for an upgrade, that much is clear. Noting that Florida was in a virtual tie for fourth in first base production, and that all of it was accumulated by a gentleman named Derrek Lee, that he essentially fell into the Cubs' lap was awfully fortuitous. While he would be more expensive, especially if signed to a contract extension (a must, if the trade were to have any shot at being a long-term positive), there's no doubt that his acquisition provided a significant upgrade at the position.
True, Choi was/is chock full of potential, but as I stated earlier, the Cubs required a step up at first, and while Choi could provide it, Lee almost certainly would provide it. The Cubs could afford to go with the surer thing, and that's exactly what they did. Not to say there weren't concerns about Lee. He came into the 2004 campaign with a well deserved reputation as a slow starter.
"What's that, you say? Well deserved? Prove it, or taste my steel!"
Proved it is. And keep your steel to yourself, buddy.
Lee begins each season with a pronounced dearth of production, and last year was no different. On the surface, his May line looks a little less troublesome than usual when compared to the three-year trend, but that's all batting average. His walk rate was much lower, as was his isolated power. In fact, the power drop is a trend in every month except July and August, and the differences in the walk rates are downright scary. His walk rate slipped so much that despite a five point rise in his batting average when comparing 2004 to his three-year numbers, he still lost 15 points of OBP; and on a team that needed OBP like a fish in the desert needs water, that's no small matter.
I think it's appropriate at this juncture to ask ourselves if we were expecting too much of Lee. No one looked on him as a savior, but certainly there was an assumption that he would get on base at a rate comparable to his past performance, and might even experience a power boost thanks to home surroundings that are a bit more favorable to the long ball. Instead his OBP fell, as did his isolated power numbers (remove his July 2004, an outlier even by Derrek's standards of streakiness, and his ISO for 2004 drops to .202). Were our presumptions reasonable, or were they bound to make an A-S-S out of U and M-E?
It's a tough question, but looking at Rodan's PECOTA projections for 2004 could help shed a little light on things. To clarify the table below, the column marked "PECOTA" is the weighted mean projection according to the Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA system (you can find some explanation here), "Actual" is what Lee did during the 2004 season, and "Percentile" is my approximation of where the numbers that Lee actually produced would put him in relation to his projection, 90 being much more than expected, 10 much less, and 50 about what the system thought.
Lee's BA and SLG are about where you'd think they'd be, but as we've been harping on so far, his OBP really misses the mark, which seems to be the main contributing factor in a pretty dramatic underperformance in his Equivalent Average (EQA). You'll notice his VORP is higher than expected, but that's a cumulative stat rather than a rate stat, and is explained in great part by the low playing time projection (there's also a difference between the two sources on BP, with the source which gave me the "Actual" column tending to run a little higher than what's on the PECOTA pages. I have an email out asking about it, and if I get a response I'll update.).
So, we have a lower walk rate and a corresponding decline in OBP. The question is whether this is just a fluke, or an alteration in approach that leads to a lasting change. I'm going to throw in one last table, so bear with me.
I don't know if this answers the question or raises more, but what I see is a breakout year in 2002 - occurring in large degree because of increased patience at the plate as evidenced by the significantly higher number of pitches seen - followed by two years where the number of pitches seen per plate appearance drops steadily. There appears to be a point to which Lee can reduce his strikeouts and pitches seen without much negative effect on his walk rate (as evidenced, if onion-paper thinly, by his 2003 season) or his EQA. Last year, he appears to have crossed that threshold. He still saw a high number of pitches, particularly for a Cub, but it's hard to ignore the drop in free passes and EQA that accompanied the decrease in balls seen.
It's a problem that needs fixing, and I'll be curious to see what effect, if any, the change in hitting coaches has on Lee and on the Cubs in general. I have no way of knowing if the combination of Gary Matthews and Dusty Baker preaching aggression at the plate is the root cause of what happened to Derrek, but I would certainly entertain speculation in that direction. It's fairly obvious from the statistical evidence that Lee began to swing more freely last year, and it's also obvious that the change hurt his production.
That said, did Lee provide the increased performance at first base the Cubs so desperately needed? Absolutely. With his bat alone he was worth about two wins over what the Cubs ran out on the field in 2003. There's no doubt that his was a valuable contribution. Was it as good as we should have expected? Nope. He didn't get on base nearly as well as he did in the past, and it hurt him. Where he was the fifth most productive first baseman in the National League according to VORP, nearly tied with Jeff Bagwell for fourth in 2003, this season saw him drop all the way to eighth, right behind J.T. Snow, who had the distinct disadvantage of coming to the plate 271 fewer times. Lee was good; he should have been better.
The Cubs have committed to Rodan for the next two years, and whether that deal looks like a net gain or not at the end of 2006 will have a lot to do with what adjustments Lee can make in the seasons to come. Certainly, he was productive in 2004, but not nearly as productive as he's capable of, or as productive as a near-elite first baseman should be. He has proven that he can be a patient hitter, and the Cubs need him to get back to that level, particularly since it's a trait that the team in general lacks. A patient Derrek Lee is an offensive force. Otherwise, he's just another decent to good first baseman, and the Cubs won't end their near-century of torment being decent.