The Move to First Base

Toronto Blue Jays first baseman Edwin Encarnacion fields a groundball in a Major League Baseball game.

The Pittsburgh Pirates hope to give Pedro Alvarez’s career a jolt by moving him first base, and they can look to Toronto’s success with rejuvenating Edwin Encarnacion for why the risk is worth the reward.

The Arizona Diamondbacks loaded the bases with two outs in the fourth inning. As starting pitcher Josh Collmenter stepped to the plate, though, it seemed the Pittsburgh Pirates escaped the jam with Collmenter smacking a routine ground ball to third baseman Pedro Alvarez.

He charged, transferred the ball easily from his glove to his right hand, and checked the other baserunners while preparing to launch his throw toward first base. But the easy out literally slipped away as “El Toro’s” throw came up short and bounced in the dirt past first baseman Ike Davis, allowing Arizona to score two runs and tie the game.

It wasn’t the first costly mistake this year for the 27-year-old Pirate. He’s never been considered a Gold Glove candidate at third, but his slugging hasn’t compensated for his fielding blunders this season. Chatter for a move to first base continues to grow, especially now with Alvarez temporarily losing the starting job to All-Star Josh Harrison. Granted, it won’t be an overnight change—Manager Clint Hurdle can’t expect him to learn a new position in the middle of a playoff chase—but a look to Toronto shows it might re-energize Alvarez’s career.

Twenty-five-year-old Edwin Encarnacion reached the end of his rope at third base in Cincinnati. His 26 homeruns were second-best on the team in 2008, but his 23 errors, second-worst in the league, on the hot corner made him a serious risk in the field. The next year, the Cincinnati Reds traded him to the Toronto Blue Jays for stud defender Scott Rolen. His fielding woes continued, though, forcing Toronto to designate him for assignment in 2010.

But the Jays wouldn’t give up on Encarnacion thanks to his great slugging potential, so the next season, the organization moved him across the diamond. His fielding percentage (the rate a player successfully fields a ball) jumped form 0.892 to 0.980 after the position change and grew to 0.995—which would have tied him for the fourth-highest percentage in MLB had he played enough games at first base to qualify—in 2012. The defensive success even helped Encarnacion gain more confidence at the plate, crushing a career-high 42 home runs that year.

The notion that a move to first base will wake up a player’s bat is tenuous at best, but limiting miscues created by a poor fielding will at least limit the number of runs allowed. On Bill James’ defensive spectrum, first base only ranks higher in difficulty than the designated hitter, a position that requires less fielding than the ball boy.

Mo Vaughn and 2014 Hall of Famer Frank Thomas were never the most acrobatic players in baseball history, but a manager would be foolish to leave a constant home run threat like them out of the lineup. So when those stars visited National League parks, they helmed first base because it allowed them plate appearances while accounting for their weaknesses in the field.

Likewise, as players like Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial aged, they moved to first to make their drop in defensive prowess less of a hindrance to their clubs. Both adjusted superbly, with Mantle  finished the 1967 season second in the American League in fielding percentage, and Musial accomplished that same feat in the National League three times in his six seasons at first.

Alvarez welcomes the potential change and has started to practice fielding at first, so he can get back in the lineup as soon as possible.

“Moving over, taking ground balls at first gives Hurdle and this team some options to be able to use me any way possible,” Alvarez said Aug. 9. “I’m thankful for the opportunity.”

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