Bat-first, or bat-only, position prospects are a funny lot when it comes to the early rounds of the draft. They often seem, on the surface, like a safer sort of bet than some wiry, waterbug middle infield prospect who requires a ton of projection to see any offensive value at all. The bat-first guy, despite being defensively limited, comes with the most difficult to evaluate tool already included in the box. A guy who can hit, the reasoning goes, will always be able to provide that value with the bat, regardless of how the rest of his game turns out.
And yet, over the years, we’ve seen very much a mixed bag come from these players, tending toward disappointment. What we see are players who, unless truly otherwordly good with the bat, are passed up ultimately by better athletes, who are, in fact, so limited in other ways that the offense is taxed to the breaking point. We see Matt Adams unable to hold down a starting first base spot because he’s a good hitter, but not a great one, limited in one way or another, and falling to other players with more versatility, or more defensive value, or who turned out to be better hitters in the end than the big kid from Slippery Rock simply because it’s really, really hard to be an outstanding major league hitter, and guys who can give you a 112 wRC+ at the lowest end of the defensive spectrum are, well, not a dime a dozen, but a one-year deal a dozen.
Ten years ago, one of the all-time great bat-first draft classes came through the first round. At the time, it seemed like the game would soon see an almost unprecedented inflow of offensive talent, and the first base position would continue on at the Albert Pujols/Joey Votto/Carlos Delgado level forever.
In that year, these are the players I would classify as bat-first or bat-only prospects to show up in the first round of the draft:
- Pedro Alvarez, 3B/1B, #2 overall
- Eric Hosmer, 1B, #3 overall
- Yonder Alonso, 1B, #7 overall
- Justin Smoak, 1B, #11 overall
- Brett Wallace, 3B/1B, #13 overall
- David Cooper, 1B, #17 overall
- Ike Davis, 1B, #18 overall
- Allan Dykstra, 1B, #23 overall
Now that...is one hell of a list. Eight players destined for first base (or in the case of Alvarez, a terrible third base), taken within the first 30 picks in the draft. And tell me: has that group of players changed the face of baseball? I mean, maybe one could argue that yes, they have, because we will never, ever see eight first basemen taken in the first round again, but the correct answer is no, this group of players did not meaningfully impact baseball history.
There is, however, an interesting fact regarding this group of players: every single one of them made it to the major leagues. Now, Dykstra ended up with just a ~40 PA cup of coffee, and David Cooper’s career amounted to less than 230 big-league at-bats, with both of them amassing a career WAR total of -0.3, but the other six players all ended up with substantial time in the majors. Ike Davis got 2400 plate appearances, with a career WAR of 4.9. He switched to pitching in 2017 and is in the Dodgers’ minor leagues now. The Cardinals did very well moving Brett Wallace when they did, but he still stuck around for over 1400 plate appearances. (He also has a career -1.4 WAR, so he might actually be the worst of this whole group.)
Justin Smoak broke out at age 30 last year, putting up a 3.4 win season for the Blue Jays, but he’s been in the big leagues since 2010, amassing 3500+ PAs. Eric Hosmer we know about, and might be the best of this group, even with his bizarrely inconsistent career arc. Yonder Alonso had a huge first half in 2017 and ended up signing with the Indians this offseason, but his career WAR is still just 5.7 in 2364 plate appearances. Pedro Alvarez, the can’t-miss hitter of all can’t-miss hitters at the time he was coming out of Vanderbilt, has played in the big leagues long enough to rack up almost 3200 plate appearances, with a career WAR of 7.2.
So what we have here is a group of players, eight strong, six of whom made it to the big leagues for a substantial period of time. That 75% success rate is absurdly high. When we consider that a literal 100% of these players actually did play at the MLB level, it’s even slightly more absurd. It makes some sense, of course; nearly all of these guys were college players, and close enough to finished products that you would probably expect an above-average number of them to make it to the big leagues. But eight for eight? That is not a very likely outcome, and really does lend credence to the idea that a guy who can hit is always going to find his way into your plans somehow, someway, if only so that you don’t have to sign, say, Mark Reynolds in February.
But what we also have here is a group of players who have all — I repeat, all — been below-average players in their major league careers. Even Hosmer, the player of the group with undeniably the most star power, due to his wild swings from above-average to replacement level, has been, overall, a below-average player in his major league career. Not below-average first basemen, necessarily; that’s not what I mean to say. But when we put these players into the greater framework of baseball position players and the value they provide, these guys rate out as below average in terms of that value.
If we prorate every one of these players’ playing time to 600 plate appearances, i.e. our modern benchmark for a more-or-less full season, we come up with these per-season WAR averages (I’m actually leaving out Dykstra and Cooper, just because their career total PAs are significantly less than even one season.):
- Pedro Alvarez: ~1.4 WAR/600
- Eric Hosmer: ~1.35 WAR/600
- Yonder Alonso: ~1.2 WAR/600
- Justin Smoak: ~0.63 WAR/600
- Brett Wallace: ~ -0.58 WAR/600 (Ouch)
- Ike Davis: ~1.2 WAR/600
Boy, I’ll bet you didn’t expect Pedro Alvarez to actually come out of this exercise as the most productive player on a rate basis, did you? I didn’t, either. But it probably says something about the group that he was the only one of them who regularly played a position other than first base, manning third for the Pittsburgh Pirates for several years, even if he did so at a very low level.
Brett Wallace came into pro ball as a third baseman, having played third at Arizona State in deference to his teammate Davis (oh, yeah, did I forget to mention two of these guys were on the same Arizona State team?), who had even less chance of moving anywhere else on the diamond beyond first than the Walrus did. He never really had a chance of sticking at the hot corner, though, and has ultimately played a little over 400 innings at third in the big leagues, with comically bad defensive numbers. (And yes, I know those numbers are not reliable in samples that small. It doesn’t mean they aren’t still funny.) The bulk of his time, ~2300 innings, was spent at first base for the Astros and Padres. Hosmer has about 50 innings of outfield experience in the majors. Alonso has seen 60ish innings at third base over the years, and a little over 100 in left field.
What I’m getting at here is that of all these guys who made it to the big leagues, have stuck around for multiple years now, and yet all rate out as below-average major leaguers on a rate basis (Hosmer could change that going forward, to be fair), they were all stuck down at the very bottom end of the defensive spectrum, giving back tons of value via positional adjustment, except for Alvarez. And in spite of being a massive disappointment ultimately, considering he was viewed as a no-doubt franchise player for the Pirates when they selected him, he has the highest WAR per season number of the bunch. It really, really helps a player’s perceived value not to be stuck at first base exclusively.
So, what conclusions, if any, can we ultimately derive from looking back at this historic class of hitters? Well, admittedly, considering we’re dealing with just one draft’s worth of data, probably not a whole lot. But I think we all understand that there’s a pattern here, right? One that we’ve seen repeated over the years with these types of players, even when they’re not grouped together. The Astros took A.J. Reed a few years ago as the best college hitter in the land, and he blazed through the minors, never posting a wRC+ lower than 140 at any stop along the way. He came up to the majors in 2016, struck out 34% of the time, and put up a 51 wRC+. He was back at Triple A this past year. Remember Matt LaPorta, the future lineup anchor Milwaukee sent to the Cleveland Indians as the main piece in the CC Sabathia trade? No, you don’t. Quit lying. How about we go back to Matt Adams, who I mentioned earlier, as one of the most pertinent recent examples for Cardinal fans of just how hard it is for a bat-only guy to be truly valuable in a way that keeps up with players at tougher positions?
On the other hand, every once in awhile you really do get a Joey Votto, or an Albert Pujols. Pujols famously was selected in the 13th round, but Votto was an early pick, 44th overall back in 2002. Hosmer was supposed to be as transcendent a talent as Votto actually turned out to be, though, and he’s sitting up there in that list below Pedro Alvarez in terms of per-season value.
It really does seem, looking across the more famous early-round bat-first picks I can recall, that they make it to the big leagues at a higher than average rate. I don’t have hard facts to back this up; this piece was literally supposed to be the lead in to a group of three scouting reports today, and then ballooned into an article I’ve actually had in mind for probably half a decade, thinking about that bizarre 2008 draft class (2008 was the first year I did draft previews for this site, so that class tends to stick in my mind a little extra, probably), and thus was not intended to be a massive research paper. But running through my mental rolodex of drafted players, I believe the guys taken for their bats early on do make it to the big leagues more often than the general population of draftees, and there are plenty of those guys seemingly kicking around the game at just about any time.
But then, if there are plenty of those guys kicking around the game at any time, why spend a premium draft pick on one? Yes, it might keep you from signing Mark Reynolds to a one-year deal, but then again, maybe signing Mark Reynolds or Brandon Moss or Lucas Duda to take 400 at-bats might just be more efficient that spending a premium draft pick that could go somewhere else to get that kind of production. I really don’t know.
Or, perhaps this speaks as much to the limitations of our strict framework for evaluating player contributions as anything related to the players themselves. After all, WAR is all well and good, but I think we all understand that positional adjustments are very much hypothetical, and moving a shortstop to first base would not actually make him 25 runs better at defense. It might, maybe, but it also very well might not. Teams, regardless of value calculations, have to play players at every position on the field, and I’m sure they understand that, meaning that when you need a first baseman, you look at the first basemen, not every player in baseball, believing that, in theory, any of them could move to first and then become just as valuable due to positional adjustment. On the other hand, the fact we see so many first base guys struggling to hold down consistent spots from year to year (hello, Chris Carter), may mean that, while clubs are certainly looking in the first base bin for their first basemen, they may not be willing to pay much for what they find in said bin most of the time. And how does that translate into draft valuations? I honestly have no idea right now.
Anyhow, as I said, this was originally supposed to be the preamble to a proper draft preview, but then grew into its own thing, thus the ‘draft supplemental’ tag I eventually settled on. I’ll be back Sunday with the actual bat-first prospects I was going to preview today. Hopefully this big bucket of cold water won’t negatively affect your enthusiasm for them too very much.