August 21, 2015
By Tyler King
While most Blue Jays fans are busy berating Gregg Zaun on social media - letting him know what’s what in the Josh Donaldson vs Mike Trout MVP debate - there may be another problem more worthy of their attention.
It’s game seven of the World Series... WHO PLAYS FIRST BASE?
(OK... so there’s one even greater problem - make the playoffs!)
Forget the ‘Series, as the regular season dwindles down each Jays game - for the first time in a LONG time - will have that unmistakeable playoff vibe (if you still don’t know what that looks like just watch highlights from the weekend series against the New York Yankees).
Of course this also means that every decision John Gibbons makes in regards to the lineup will be scrutinized (likely “criticized”) by the fan base.
In 2015, playing time at 1B has been split between Chris Colabello (17 games started), Justin Smoak (50), and Edwin Encarnacion (53).
Now let’s get this straight right off the bat (see what I did there?)... No matter what the numbers say, a healthy Encarnacion will be playing every game in the playoffs - it doesn’t matter if those other two guys are batting a 1.000.
And I suppose Eddie has earned that right. He’s a veteran guy and, oh yea, he’s also had three consecutive seasons of 30-plus home runs (and 90-plus RBI).
In a perfect world Encarnacion would DH for the rest of his life. He has a career average of .278 as the DH, compared to .267 when at first.
But the World Series - thanks to that no good, stinkin’ National League - is not a perfect world.
If you believe, rather literally, that defence wins championships then you can just stop reading right now. You probably already know Smoak is the Jays best option.
However, it’s not like Colabello and Encarnacion are hopeless with the glove (like some people seem to think).
In 138 chances, Colabello has only committed one error - a fielding percentage of .993. (He has three errors in the outfield.)
Smoak also only has one error, albeit over 494 chances - giving him a much higher fielding percentage of .998.
He also has a range factor of 9.19 versus 8.87 for Colabello.
Although range factor, as a statistic, is not as important or relevant for first baseman as it is for other positions, Encarnacion actually leads those two at 9.36.
The whole fan (mis)perception that Encarnacion can’t defend stems from the 2011 season, when he played 36 games at third base, made a boatload of errors (eight), and had a real mess of a fielding percentage (.892 - the league average was .954).
But over his career at first, Encarnacion has a fielding percentage of .992, only slightly below the league average of .994.
That likely doesn’t change the fact that Smoak is generally accepted as the more premium defensive option. It helps that he throws left - traditionally people who catch right handed are more sought after at first (they never have to turn their back to home plate).
He has even come off the bench as a defensive replacement in late-inning situations this year.
With the way all three can hit, it would be nice to find a way to get them all into the lineup.
“But I have the solution: put Colabello back in the outfield!”... said nobody ever. If you think that may actually be a good idea then you’re more lost than Angel Hernandez’ strike zone.
I can almost guarantee the “Chris Colabello in left field” experiment is all but dead.
(For the love of God I hope so.)
But, at the end of the day, if Jose Reyes taught us anything it’s that - rightly or wrongly - managers tend to value offence more than defence.
The problem is that uncovering who currently possesses the most lethal/effective bat is not as easy as Jays fans might think.
In 283 plate appearances this season, Colabello - who wasn’t even called up until May - is hitting .324 with 11 homers, 46 RBIs, and a .367 OBP. Impressive numbers for a guy who is also batting .390 with runners in scoring position (and who I honestly had never heard of prior to Spring Training).
Smoak is hitting .220 with 11 homers, 39 RBI, and a .289 OBP in 225 plate appearances.
Encarnacion has hit .255 with 23 dingers, 67 RBI, and a .350 OBP in 460 plate appearances.
Traditionally, first base has not been a position where managers are worried about a guy’s average, Like catcher, success at that position is judged more on overall production. Home runs and extra base hits are a premium, often at the expense of speed and average.
This probably doesn’t come as a shock, but - even when accounting for games played - Encarnacion is the Jays’ greatest home run threat at first.
In 2015 Eddie is hitting home runs at a rate of one every 17.04 at-bats (the AL leader, Chris Davis, averages one every 12.5 AB). Just behind Encarnacion is Smoak, who averages a long ball every 18.6 AB, followed by Colabello (23.8).
Like I said, Encarnacion could be hitting .022 and he’d still be run out there every day.
But when that first baseman’s spot is freed up in AL parks (by the beautiful thing that is the DH) - that’s when Gibby has to make the tough decisions -
Like Smoak or Colabello?
With his .324 AVG and .875 OPS, Colabello likely gives you more options at the plate. (Find me someone who predicted those numbers at start of the season and I’ll eat my shoe.)
He also has solid splits, posting a .300-plus average against both lefty and righty pitchers.
Smoak may be a switch hitter, with slightly greater home run power, but he has hit a mere .220 with a .289 OBP.
Despite jacking eight home runs - and John Gibbons using him predominantly against right handers - he’s had his struggles hitting from the left side. He’s batted .207 against righties, as opposed to .333 against lefties.
He also has three home runs... in only 22 plate appearances versus left handed pitching. That’s a home run every seven times he steps in the batter’s box.
Uhh... Gibby? Maybe try giving this guy some reps against lefties?
Admittedly, it’s a very small sample size - and more playing time for Smoak obviously means less playing time for Colabello...
Which essentially brings us back to square one:
WHO PLAYS FIRST?
With the production the Jays are getting from all three of those guys, maybe the question should be:
Does it really matter?
Follow Tyler and #Section108 on twitter: @tylerjoseph108