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A First Base Dilemma: Carlos Lee and Brett Wallace

First of all, the TCB Movie Club hasn't been forgotten. It was just dormant for a couple weeks during the holidays. We've had a request from allphilla for the next movie to be Rookie of the Year, as he's got an article in mind about it. So, sometime between now and next Monday, watch Chet Stedman and the rest of the gang.

Now, about that title. Tim brought up a great point in his article on Monday. Let's just go for the direct quote:

With Wallace in the infield the offense improves, with Lee in the infield the defense improves. If anything Wallace isn't battling Carlos, he's competing against any left handed hitting outfielder with an invite to Kissimmee.

What I'm interested in looking at is the impact of those defensive and offensive moves on the Astros expected win total next season. I'm not the math/projection wizard like Stephen or clack, so these will be rough estimates. But, I do think we can get an approximate number for defensive runs saved and wins above replacement that these moves could mean.

First, let's break down what the players in question did last season, with all the stats from FanGraphs:

Carlos Lee: -5.4 batting runs, -15.9 fielding runs, -0.8 WAR, -15 defensive runs saved in LF, 1 defensive run saved at 1B

Brett Wallace: -5.8 batting runs, 3.3 fielding runs, 0.0 WAR, 4 defensive runs saved at 1B

Jason Michaels: 3.0 batting runs, 1.9 fielding runs, 3 defensive runs saved in OF

We have no idea what Brian Bogusevic or any of the other possible left-handed batters who would platoon with Michaels could do in left, so let's assume a slightly negative output for them. That means when added together with a full season of Michaels, the Astros would have a slightly positive batting runs and fielding runs in left, which would result in a WAR around 1.0.

Here's where it gets interesting. Looking at his (very short) time at first last season, Lee was at least average defensively. Projected over an entire season, we could reasonably surmise he posts at least a 1-3 DRS number at first.

Bringing his DRS number up to that point may or may not even out his UZR at the position. If it does land around zero (which is a big if, considering the fluctuation in UZR), that could zero out his negative fielding run numbers. Taking into account the slight downshift in positional adjustments that the WAR calculations make, just moving Lee to first with Michaels and whoever in left could mean about a 3.0 shift upwards in WAR for the team.

That's also assuming both Wallace and Lee hit the same as they did last season, which probably won't happen. In fact, it's a distinct possibility that one or both of them get better at the plate. If we believe Bill James projections, Lee should return somewhat to his 2009 form, when he had a wOBA of .355 and 2.0 WAR. Wallace is also projected to bounce back by the fans at FanGraphs, with 16 home runs and a wOBA of .330.

In a scenario where Lee stays in left and Wallace stays at first, let's assume that Lee drops a little at the plate, but has his batting runs swing up about 20 from 2010. That would put him right around 15 batting runs, which is lower than 2009 and his lowest total since 2005 (not counting last season). But, it's still a fairly reasonable assumption. What becomes more problematic is the defensive equation. While Wallace should provide at least as good a defense next season at first, Lee got substantially worse in the outfield last season. Even a slight bounce-back wouldn't be enough to get him back to 2009 levels, meaning his offensive improvement may not get him back to that 2.0 WAR days.

So, optimistically, the Astros have a chance to improve by about 2.2-2.5 WAR by keeping Wallace and Lee on the infield. But, when we add in Lee's expected offensive bounce to the first projection, it shift that WAR total up to around 4.0 WAR.

What does that mean? Well, not a lot. As I said, these are incredibly simplistic methods for predicting next season. Yes, it does look like the Astros would benefit more from putting Lee at first permanently and platooning Michaels in left. For that to work, we're also assuming Michaels does not regress at the plate. Since he'll be 35 in May, that's a pretty big assumption. That's also discounting the value in having Wallace play every day in the big leagues. If he doesn't get his swing fixed, there will be no improvement at the plate.

What Tim said was that keeping Lee at first will improve the defense and Wallace at first improves the offense. Basically, he was dead-on, without having to expend all these words and numbers to get there.