Earlier this week it was reported through multiple outlets that Yankees’ first baseman Anthony Rizzo would not exercise the player option on his contract ($16 million for 2023) and will become a free agent at season’s end.
Before we go any further, we have to be clear about two very large caveats:
First, this entire conversation occurs under the ridiculous notion that $16 million is significant to the New York Yankees. What I pulled out from between my car seats before vacuuming my car yesterday is more impactful to me than $16 million is to Hal Steinbrenner.
Yet those are the conversational cards we’ve been dealt…
Secondly, first basemen in general do not move the needle on championship odds as much as you think they do. They’re not quite as replaceable as relief pitchers, but they’re second in line on the list of baseball fungibles. Because even the best defensive first baseman is only worth about one more win over 162 games than the worst unless your first baseman brings a massive bat with him he’s unlikely to be a difference-maker on the championship odds. For some perspective, only eight first basemen in MLB accrued three WAR with both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs in 2022 – i.e., what we’d consider a “good” player – all others were average or below average.
Therefore, from a baseball perspective, this conversation isn’t that important, as who is playing first base for the Yankees next season isn’t their biggest concern by a long shot. That said, if you’re the Yankees, $16 million could be spent much better than using it on Anthony Rizzo to play first base for you.
Rizzo, as you would imagine, was not one of the eight good first basemen referenced above, as his 2.4 fWAR and 2.3 bWAR put him in the middle of the pack overall. Although he had a good year in the batter’s box, which we’ll return to in a second, he’s a below-average baserunner and despite what the talking heads tell you, he was poor defensively in 2022 (25th in Outs Above Average, -10.9 Defensive Runs Above Average, -1.1 dWAR). When you’re below average everywhere on a baseball field beside the batter’s box, you’d better be a savage when you’re in there.
Rizzo was a good hitter in 2022, but far from a savage. All three systems (DRC+, OPS+, wRC+) had him between 130 and 132 which shouldn’t be dismissed, but if it’s lost, $16 million could certainly be used to address other needs on the roster. Also, at the risk of being accused of cherry-picking, his wRC+ was 120 if you eliminate the season’s first three weeks when he hit like Lou Gehrig.
Which is a nice segue into…
DJ LeMahieu is at worst, the same hitter as Rizzo, likely better, and clearly a better defensive first baseman. Even after Rizzo’s Gehrig-like start to the 2022 season (he had a higher wRC+ on May 1st than Judge did, believe it or not) on August 8th DJ and Rizzo had the same 143 wRC+.
Defensively, it’s not even close.
2022, as first basemen:
Outs Above Average: DJ 2, Rizzo -3
Runs Prevented: DJ 2, Rizzo -3
Defensive Runs Above Average*: DJ -0.3, Rizzo -9.9
(*There’s a positional adjustment for DRAA, so even a good defensive first baseman like DJ will be around average when compared to shortstops, center fielders, etc.)
If you don’t like the idea of DJ playing first base every day next season, finding a left-handed bat who can play first base occasionally to spell DJ can’t be hard (for a good GM). Also, (and quite hopefully) the Yankees will have a legit shortstop in 2023 which would free Isiah Kiner-Falefa up to back up second and third base instead of DJ. Regardless, the combination of DJ and whoever the Yankees can fill a roster spot with is at worst the equivalent value as Rizzo, likely more – certainly not a big enough difference to justify $16 million to retain an average overall player.
Lastly, if you’re thinking that the rule limiting shifts next year will be a boon to Rizzo’s production think again: Against shifts in 2022, Rizzo’s wOBA was .357, when facing no shift it was .332. Also, he hit 34 long balls in 2022 and it would have been 36 if all his PA were in YS III, so the short porch for the lefty power bat wasn’t as much of a factor as you might think.
I referenced “baseball reasons” earlier. There certainly are other factors at play here – Rizzo is clearly popular with his teammates, particularly one that’s a key free agent (he wrote, in an understated manner), and is also wildly popular with fans. Matters like those shouldn’t be disregarded, but neither you nor I am qualified to weigh their importance.
I say this as someone who likes Anthony Rizzo: If we’re talking about building a roster to improve the chances of winning a World Series and I had the choice between $16 million and Rizzo, I’d choose the $16 million.
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