Why playing Kelly Johnson at first base is not ideal

Mark Teixeira‘s hamstring injury left the Yankees without a true first baseman on their roster, forcing them to get a little creative to fill the void. In Teix’s absence, Joe Girardi has mostly penciled in Kelly Johnson at first, save a couple of starts by the now DL’d Francisco Cervelli. Starting Johnson at first is not ideal, and that’s not because Johnson’s an inferior player. In fact, Johnson’s a fine player, but he’s not a fine first baseman.

Johnson’s roughly a league average hitter and a league average fielder at second or third, which is worth about 2.5 wins over a full season. Much of that value comes from his defensive prowess, namely his ability to play an adequate second or third base, which are both relatively difficult positions. As a first baseman, though, defense is less important. From a defensive standpoint, even the very best fielding first basemen are worth less than a scratch defender at second or third.  Here’s the breakdown per Fangraphs’ WAR model.

  Average 2B/3B Average 1B Elite Fielding 1B
Offensive Value above Average 0.0 0.0 0.0
Defensive Value Above Average 0.0 0.0 +10
Positional Adjustment +2.5 -12.5 -12.5
Value of an Average Player above Replacement +20 +20 +20
Total Runs above Replacement +22.5 +7.5 +17.5
Total WAR 2.4 0.8 1.9

Simply put, by playing Johnson at first the Yankees aren’t maximizing his value on defense. Even if we assume Johnson’s an elite defender at first, which he doesn’t appear to be, he still tops out at just 1.9 WAR. As an average defender at first, he’s really not much different that Lyle Overbay — otherwise known as replacement level.

The Yankees aren’t functioning at full capacity with Johnson manning first. He has the defensive chops to handle second or third and, in a vacuum, would be able to do more to help his team win at those positions. Unfortunately, given the current roster construction, starting Johnson at first is probably the best the Yankees can do. With Teixeira due back in a week or two, its understandable why the Yankees wouldn’t want to go out of their way to acquire a first baseman. Rolling with Johnson at first for a few weeks isn’t the end of the world, but if Teixeira experiences any setbacks, the wise move would be to bring in some sort of upgrade. This would allow Johnson to slide over to a position where he’s more valuable, replacing inferior players like Dean Anna and Yangervis Solarte in the lineup.

About Chris

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights either watching or thinking about baseball. He's also an occasional user of the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell
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