Who’s On First? – Minnesota Twins Edition

From 2005 to 2018, the Minnesota Twins have had three different first basemen start on Opening Day. Yes, you read that right. Over a 14-year span, only three different players have started at first base for the first game of the season for the Twins, and that number should be lower (in 2012, Chris Parmelee played Opening Day in place of an injured Justin Morneau). Morneau came back that April and was the primary first baseman for the rest of 2012 season, meaning in that entire time period, the Twins have had just the M&M brothers as their main first baseman.

But something changed this offseason. The Twins were put in a position they haven’t been in for quite some time – they have no clear-cut player to man first base. With Joe Mauer retiring after the 2018 season, the Twins have an opening at the position that they need to fill. There used to be thoughts that Miguel Sano would transition over to first base due to his body type and his exposure to the position last season. But the Twins feel he is meant for the hot corner and with his offseason training regimen, it looks like he is in the best shape of his life.

This means the Twins need to look to a different solution, and they have found some potential pieces in the free agent market. On November 30th, the Twins signed former Tampa Bay Rays first baseman C.J. Cron for $4.8 million over one year. Coming off the best season of his career in 2018, Cron looks to be the primary first baseman in 2019, but he’s not the only guy who will see time there. The Twins still have Tyler Austin (whom they acquired from the Yankees last year in a trade for Lance Lynn), who showed huge power last season, and newly acquired Lucas Duda, who signed a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training earlier in February. Now with a maximum major league roster of 25 players and a full-time DH role already solidified, the Twins cannot keep all three of these guys. So let’s break down how the Twins can put themselves into the best position for success this season at first base.

Let’s first start by talking about what the Twins are losing from last season. In 2018, Joe Mauer played 127 games, with 90 of them coming at first. The other 37 games he played as a DH, but for the sake of simplicity, we will look at his season as a whole. Mauer had a triple slash line of .282/.351/.379 with a .730 OPS, which is slightly above the MLB average OPS in 2018 of .728 (according to baseball-reference). Looking in to his specific outcome rates, Mauer walked at a rate of 9.8%, which is down slightly from his career average and struck out at a rate of 15.8%, which is higher than most recent years. These trends make sense, though, with the game of baseball becoming increasingly strikeout heavy and Mauer growing older.

He’s leaving! Say it ain’t so Joe! (Pioneer Press/John Autey)

Some of my favorite advanced metrics used evaluate players are wOBA and wRC+. For those not familiar with these statistics, wOBA (weighted on-base average) and wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) were created by Tom Tango and are correlated very closely. wOBA is a statistic that functions under the fact that not all hits are created equal. OPS combines OBP and SLG in an attempt to include all aspects of hitting in one metric by simply adding these two statistics together, but OBP is roughly twice as valuable as SLG, so it is an imperfect stat. wOBA, however, captures all aspects of hitting, with the proper weights to each piece. wRC+ was derived from wOBA, by simply translating a player’s wOBA to a total number of runs they created for their team, scaling it against league average (which is 100) and adjusting it to factor in ballparks and the league.

Here’s how these stats applied to Joe Mauer in 2018. League average wOBA was .315 in 2018, and Mauer had a wOBA of .319, making him basically an average hitter in 2018. He did, however, excel when he was put in a position to drive in runs. With the bases empty, Mauer had a wOBA of .280, but when men were on base / in scoring position, Mauer’s wOBA skyrocketed to .390 / .458, respectively. Being able to hit well with runners on base is a crucial skill to have if you want to be a good major league hitter, and Mauer proved to be an excellent guy to have at the plate in those opportunities. Unfortunately, Mauer spent much of the season batting in the first or second spot, giving him less opportunities to bat with runners on base.

Mauer played the final game of his illustrious career in 2018.
Photo By: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Now let’s look at the Twins’ options at first base for 2019 and how they performed last year.

The Minnesota Twins’ first base options for 2019 (according to Fangraphs)

As you can see, CJ Cron’s batting line clearly shows that he the superior hitter. Both Austin and Duda were effectively league average hitters according to wRC+, at 103 and 97 respectively. Cron’s wRC+ and wOBA both are significantly higher than the other two players, and this came in more at bats as well, proving he can keep up those numbers over the course of a season. The Twins are buying into this production of Cron, and although his home runs nearly doubled his previous career high in 2018, I think he can maintain this offensive success.

CJ Cron’s career batting record (according to Fangraphs)

In his only season with the Rays, CJ Cron broke his three year streak of 16 home runs by crushing 30 instead. What this table doesn’t show is that Cron’s hard hit percentage has steadily been on the rise over the past three years, and is well above the MLB average hard hit rate. With this increased hard hit percentage (39.2% in 2018), Cron’s fly balls are more likely to turn into home runs.

CJ Cron’s hard hit rate has steadily increased since 2015 (according to Fangraphs)

Based on these measures, it looks like Cron will be the best choice to be the primary first baseman for the Twins in 2019. With Nelson Cruz fully solidified in the DH role, Cron will be playing the field every day and he looks to have a decent glove at first base. In 513 innings at first base last year (which is about a third of a season), Cron had a UZR/150 of 5.1, which is sixth out of 33 first baseman (just behind Joe Mauer, who had a UZR/150 of 5.5). Now this is a complex defensive statistic, but is one of the top metrics to evaluate fielding. I think most Twins fans would say they were quite satisfied with Mauer’s defense last year (and throughout his career), so if Cron can play defense in the realm of Mauer’s past production, he will certainly benefit the team.

C.J. Cron looks to continue to build on his breakout 2019 season. Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

Since it appears Cron is established as the primary first baseman in 2019, let’s look at who the Twins will keep on their roster as a backup, if anyone. One thing teams often look to do if they are to keep multiple first basemen on their roster is some form of platoon system. Since Cron is a right-handed batter, he should excel against left handed pitchers, which his production backs up (.390 wOBA and 152 wRC+ against LHP in 2018). For a platoon, you would then want a different batter who hit RHP better than Cron, whom is typically a left-handed hitter. Enter Lucas Duda.

At this point in his career, Lucas Duda hits home runs and against right-handed pitchers well, and that is about it. He doesn’t play good defense (-0.3 UZR/150 in 2018) nor can he hold his own against left-handed pitchers (.234 wOBA and 41 wRC+ in 2018). He did hit fairly well against right-handed pitchers in 2018 though, with a .347 wOBA and 118 wRC+. This is better than Cron’s season against right-handers (.328 wOBA and 110 wRC+), but not significantly. Duda’s career is also trending down, so unfortunately, I would not expect him to produce any more significantly more production in 2019 if he was given the opportunity.

It seems unlikely that Lucas Duda will make an impact in 2019. (David Zalubowski/AP Photo)

This is why I advocate for no platoon at first base, and CJ Cron as the primary first baseman. I think Lucas Duda is best fit as a roster-depth minor league first baseman, with Tyler Austin as a bench bat. Despite the limited opportunity in Minnesota last year, Austin made the most of it. In just 136 at bats, he hit nine home runs and simultaneously increased his walk percentage and decreased his strikeout percentage from his time in New York.

Tyler Austin’s batting career (according to Fangraphs)

I think a lot of Austin’s success can be attributed to his change of scenery. The adjustment from playing at Yankee Stadium (where he had a .304 wOBA and 88 wRC+ as a Yankee) to Target Field (.455 wOBA and 189 wRC+) as a Twin) was significant to him mentally. Being a Yankee comes with a lot of pressure to succeed, especially from the fans in the crowd. Now I’m not saying Twins fans do not want their players to succeed, I just believe that Target Field is a better environment for some players to play in, especially with less added pressure from the fans. The “New York Effect” can be seen also when you look at how Austin performed as a Yankee away from home, with a .341 wOBA and 116 wRC+.

I think these metrics show that Austin has potential to be a very powerful bat off of the bench for the 2019 season. Cron has shown that he has been a consistent hitter for a couple years, but without the track record from Austin, he isn’t in a position to play every day. But he should be set up to excel in the opportunities he gets this year.

In 2018, Austin was on pace for 34 home runs and nearly 100 RBIs.
Photo By: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports 

As the Twins currently sit, they have no player committed to be the long term first baseman. The perceived starter, Cron, is only signed through one year and the perceived backup in Austin still has three years of arbitration left. Duda is on a minor league contract and should really only be used in the majors out of necessity. However, the Twins are not in a terrible position right now in terms of first basemen, having both potential and depth on the roster and in the minors leagues. How the roster is currently structured, they are leaving themselves the flexibility to move Sano to first base if they find it necessary in the future. The Twins also have two prospects who should arrive to the majors in the coming years in 1B/OF Brent Rooker and OF Alex Kiriloff (#9 on MLB.com Prospect Ranking) who may look to transition to 1B if the outfield is still crowded with Rosario, Buxton, and Kepler when they arrive.

At the conclusion of the writing of this article, news broke that Marwin Gonzalez has just signed with the Twins for $21 million over 2 years. Gonzalez offers much flexibility for the Twins defensively, including 191 career games at first base. If the Twins wanted to use Gonzalez as their backup first baseman, Tyler Austin still does have options, and could be optioned to the minor leagues. I believe with Marwin’s versatility, he is too valuable to be used as just a backup first baseman, which is why I believe Austin should be kept on the roster as the backup. Of course, if the Twins think they have a real chance at competing this year, they could look to trade away Austin for some immediate help in pitching. That seems unlikely based on past moves, so I doubt that would happen.

Although nothing is set for sure, one thing Twins fans need to be prepared for in 2019 is a new player manning first base. Although it is disappointing to see the most beloved Twin of this generation no longer on the diamond, I think the Twins have plenty of great options at first base. If they are utilized properly, they could be a great asset as they make a playoff push in a weak AL Central division.

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