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2011 Marlins Season Review: First Base

On Friday, we looked at John Buck and his performance in the 2011 season, and there was a live discussion regarding how effective he was last season. Today, we continue the Marlins Season Review with a position that had surprising stability in 2011. First baseman Gaby Sanchez was the starter at the position for 150 of the team's 162 games and was able to provide a strong foundation at the position with his batting and defense in the field. But as good as Sanchez has been since his starting debut in 2010, the Marlins should not make a mistake in overestimating his value. While Sanchez is a good starter and a valuable player, there is no reason to suspect that he will be anything more than that in the future.

First Base

2011 - Gaby Sanchez 159 572 .266 .352 .427 .344 113 3.0 2.9

*Denotes FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement
** Denotes Baseball-Reference Wins Above Replacement. Note that in both WAR metrics, a WAR of 2.0 is approximately an average major-league baseball player in a 600-650 PA season.

The Good

There were a few good things to come out of Sanchez's 2011 season. One major point of improvement from his rookie year was an improvement in plate discipline. As one might expect from a player with almost equivalent career minor leagues strikeout and walk rates of around 12 percent, Sanchez's first season in the big leagues saw him strike out and walk at above league average rates. However, those rates improved even further in 2011; his strikeout rate dropped by one percent from 15.7 to 14.7 percent, while his walk rate jumped by 2.5 percent to 11.2 percent.

This improvement is almost certainly a product of an improved approach at the plate.

Year Swing% Contact% OSwing% ZSwing% OContact% ZContact%
2011 45 84 28 64 71 89
2010 49 83 31 65 67 91

Note: Rates with the prefix O- imply numbers on pitches out of the strike zone. Rates with the Z- prefix imply numbers on pitches in the strike zone.

Sanchez's improved selectivity must have played a large role in his improved strikeout and walk rates. Despite similar overall contact numbers in 2010 and 2011, Sanchez improved on his rates because he swung at fewer pitches. Based on strike zone data determined by MLB Gameday's PITCHf/x system, it would appear that most of that selectivity came from pitches outside of the zone, as Sanchez swung at just two percent fewer pitches (when rounding to the next decimal) inside the strike zone. All of that helped to keep Sanchez away from poor pitches and allowed him to continue to rip into good ones. Given his previous history of strong plate discipline in the minors, none of this should be much of a surprise, and these changes should be sustainable going into 2012 and beyond.

Sanchez did all of this while losing only a bit of his 2010 power.

Year (2B+3B)/BIP (%) HR/FB% XB/H ISO
2011 7.6 8.9 0.605 .161
2010 8.7 8.7 0.641 .175

He obviously hit a few more doubles and triples in 2010, but his power remained well within the range he established in the previous season. He duplicated his 19-homer performance from 2010 and came close to mirroring the doubles total as well. If there was one thing you could commend Sanchez on for his 2011 season as a whole, it is that it was metronome-like in year-to-year consistency.

The Bad

The disappointing thing about the 2011 season for Sanchez is not that he did poorly, but that he did not do as well as he could have. Though it was very similar to his rookie season, it started off so much better. Up until the All-Star Break, Sanchez was hitting a significantly more robust .293/.374/.472 with similar peripherals to his overall season.

Before All-Star Break 15.2 11.1 0.610 .179 .319
2011 Total 14.7 11.2 0.605 .161 .287

His performance significantly fell during the second half of the year; after June 14, Sanchez hit just .225/.320/.359. The Marlins felt a good deal of that was due to tiring, as Sanchez started so many of the team's games and did not take a day off until July 24. Sanchez shouldered a similar load in 2010 (148 games started, though he had had five rest days before July 24) and actually suffered a similar, if not nearly as precipitous, fall in statistics between the first and second half as well.

2010 Time AVG OBP SLG
Before All-Star Break .302 .365 .467
After All-Star Break .237 .312 .424

It is entirely possible that fatigue plus a good old fashioned run of bad luck played a role in both second-half declines, but the Marlins should at least attempt to mitigate some of those problems by distributing his rest days a little more frequently in the first half of the year. This is no guarantee to help, but it seems like a good idea given the possibility that fatigue played a big role in Sanchez's second-half struggles.

The Future

Even if Sanchez is simply a better first-half player, the overall package that he has provided the last two seasons has been worthwhile to the Marlins. Sanchez has accumulated between two and three FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement (fWAR) each of the last two seasons, and though the beginnings of each of those years pointed to better performance, the team should be happy with receiving an above average starter in both years. Combine that with competent and possibly even good defense at the position and Sanchez is still a valuable commodity to the Fish going forward.

The only concern is that the Marlins will overvalue Sanchez because of this. Yes, he has been above average, but he is still just a modest-hitting first baseman; among the 16 players who have at least 1000 PA and have played at least 50 percent of their games at first base, Sanchez ranks tenth in wRC+ (a measure of park- and league-adjusted wOBA similar to OPS+). In addition, he will be 28 years in 2012. He is an above average player at the position, but the Marlins should look upon him like they did with Dan Uggla.

The Rest

The Marlins had few players contribute to first base outside of Sanchez in 2011. Greg Dobbs, Wes Helms, Jose Lopez, and Logan Morrison made the remaining 12 starts at the position, and two of those players are certainly not expected to return. Morrison remains the team's left fielder until either he or Sanchez is traded and the other's spot at first base is secured. Dobbs could return in a bench capacity given his fluky performance in 2011, but he should only be working at a pinch-hitting capacity.

What say you, Marlins fans? How would you rate Gaby Sanchez's 2011 performance?