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2022 Braves position evaluations: First base

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

-Clint Manry

On Monday FanGraphs started its annual positional rankings series, beginning with catcher. Just hours later, here at Braves Farm, I did my own evaluation of the Braves catching situation. Today I’ll move on to first base.

First base

Last season’s results

Thanks to 159 games from former franchise icon Freddie Freeman, the Braves finished the 2021 regular season with the sixth-most WAR (4.2) from its first baseman, although Johan Camargo’s below-replacement level contributions served as more of a penalty (Camargo was worth minus-0.3 WAR in 15 games at the position). Regardless, it was another banner season for Freeman and the essentially-one-man group at first base in Atlanta, as the team was once again one of the best at the plate. However, defensively (-12.7 Def), it was more middle-of-the-road, per FanGraphs.

Braves first baseman in 2021: .292 AVG / 31 HR / 83 RBI / 130 wRC+ / 4.2 WAR

It’s pretty simple: only two players manned the first base bag for the Braves last year – Freeman and Camargo, as the former once again posted MVP-like numbers (.300 AVG / 31 HR / 135 wRC+) and the latter… well… he most definitely did not (0 for 16 / -61 wRC+).

We’ll get to it in the next excerpt, but even though there’s been some major changes at the position, the Braves outlook at first base is still very much bright.

Changes & outlook for 2022

Perhaps the storyline of the offseason across MLB, a decision was finally made regarding Freeman’s future going forward, and that choice did not include him staying a Brave. As we now know, it appears the 32-year-old in fact wasn’t too interested in returning to Atlanta, and in turn, Freeman signed a six-year, $162 million contract with the rival Dodgers. But before he could do that, the Braves ensured it wouldn’t be hurt by such an unfortunate decision, so GM Alex Anthopoulos pulled off the most blockbuster trade of the offseason by sending a quartet of young talent in Cristian Pache, Shea Langeliers, Joey Estes and Ryan Cusick (all top-15 prospects in the system according to most evaluators) to Oakland in exchange for All-Star first baseman, Matt Olson (and then immediately handed him an eight-year contract worth $168M). And as his performance has dropped off drastically in recent seasons, Atlanta also non tendered Camargo – a former utility-type that has posted a pitiful 58 wRC+ in 393 major league PA since 2019. It’s not all bad for JC, though, as just before the lockout began in December, the Phillies signed the 28-year-old to a one-year deal worth $1.4 million.

Braves 2022 First Baseman Projections

Table comes from FanGraphs first base MLB positional rankings

I’m sure you’ve already heard the logic surrounding Olson, and why acquiring him was such a smart move for the Braves. He’s four years younger than Freeman, and given he has been nearly just as good over the last four seasons, the thought is that Olson will provide more value for a longer period of time. Sure, there’s some risk: historically Olson is more strikeout-prone than Freeman and he’s probably not going to consistently hover around a .300 AVG. However, in terms of his power at the plate and his plus glove on the field, there’s an argument that the younger first baseman is superior, which is why this swap makes so much sense for the Braves.

Orlando Arcia (zero MLB games at 1B), Phil Gosselin (39 games) and Travis d’Arnaud (21 games) being included in the FG’s projection is pretty much just a default group of back-ups. Somebody has to fill in for Olson if he were to miss some time, although I think I’d rather give Drew Lugbauer or someone else down in the minors a chance if the All-Star slugger were to miss any substantial amount of games. Of course, with Manny Pina (1 career game at 1B) on the roster, if Olson were to miss a week or so, Atlanta could keep d’Arnaud’s bat in the lineup by putting him at first and inserting Pina behind the plate. It’s an incredibly small sample of data, but d’Arnaud currently has -1 DRS at first base for his career (from back in his Rays days), which is pretty good. But let’s just hope Olson remains healthy, shall we?

Here’s the FanGraphs excerpt on the Braves first base situation, a position group the site has ranked third among all MLB teams…

“Olson made a remarkable turnaround from 2020, nearly cutting his strikeout rate in half (from 31.4% to 16.8%) while setting a career high in home runs (39) and posting his highest wRC+ since his abbreviated rookie campaign (146). In fact, his 14.6% drop in strikeout rate was the largest year-over-year decline of the Wild Card era, and only five players out-homered him. While he made more frequent contact than ever, it wasn’t necessarily better contact, as his barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and xwOBAcon were all below not only his 2020 rates but his ’19 and even (save for 0.1% worth of barrel rate) ’18 rates as well. That’s still an exceptional hitter; only Guerrero and Kyle Tucker had higher slugging percentages than Olson’s .540 among players who struck out 17% of the time or less. Throw in Olson’s above-average work at first base and you’ve got this top-tier ranking — and, with the trade to Atlanta and subsequent extension, massive shoes to fill given the departure of Freeman. Inevitably, Olson will need a day off, though Atlanta’s reserve options are thin. Arcia’s bat was too light to carry a solid glove at shortstop, and Gosselin doesn’t offer much confidence given that he hit for just an 87 wRC+ last year amid career highs of 373 PA and 23 games at first for the Angels. D’Arnaud, the regular catcher, made 21 appearances there for the Rays in 2019 but has yet to do so with the Braves.”

My Braves first base grade: A+

Matt Olson killed it last year for the A’s, slashing .271/.371/.540 to go with 39 home runs and 111 RBI in 156 games, good for a 146 wRC+ and 5.0 WAR, which is more offensive production than Freeman managed in 2021 (by nine points in wRC+ and 0.5 WAR). So think of this as another Braves season with Freddie at first, except now it’s a younger, perhaps more nibbler version, with even more power and a better glove. So yeah… first base is about as good as it gets for the Braves, and it should remain that way for the foreseeable future.

7 responses to “2022 Braves position evaluations: First base”

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