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The First Base Platoon: Chris Colabello

A look at the truth and narratives surrounding Chris Colabello, who is half of the Blue Jays First Base platoon.

Chris Colabello, half of the Blue Jays 2015 1B/DH Platoon
Chris Colabello, half of the Blue Jays 2015 1B/DH Platoon
Dave Reginek/Getty Images

(Opening, I will mention that since recently EE has played the 1B side and Cola has DH'd the title should maybe read First Base/Designated Hitter Platoon, but that's a bit wordy)

Chris Colabello has arguably been the most polarizing position player on the Toronto Blue Jays roster (possibly rivalling R.A Dickey as the most polarizing overall).

To those on Team Cola, he is a very capable MLB hitter whose bat as a 1B/DH option makes up for whatever his glove might do at the position. For those who are not, he is a Plate Appearance stealing hindrance to Justin Smoak, lifted heavily and primarily by an extremely inflated BABIP.

This is not to say those who aren't on Team Cola are in any way actively against him. No one dislikes the guy. I mean, how could you dislike a guy with this story. Who says "thank you" when someone tells you you'll never achieve your dreams? A dream you developed in memory of a beloved family member? Chris Colabello, that's who.

No... stop reading this article. Click that link. Read that article. Then immediately come back and finish this article (immediately). It's worth it.

In this article I will discuss some of the narratives that surround him as well as give a fair and comprehensive look at Chris Colabello's season to this point.

Chris Colabello (The Journey so far...)

Chris Colabello; a non-prospect who cracked the MLB at 29-years-old with the Minnesota Twins, and went on to hit .214/.284/.364 in two partial seasons (401 PA). But, while those numbers don't appear particularly encouraging, there is something further to consider. A thumb injury destroyed his plate production very early on in the season so the Twins never truly got to see the kind of player that Colabello would have been long-term over the course of a season.

Hitting .346 with a combined on-base/slugging percentage of .962 at the time of his injury, Colabello fell into an 8-for-73 tailspin (with 28 strikeouts) that resulted in his demotion on May 25.
His .346 and combined .962 OPS was from the first 83 PA's of the season. His BABIP was, get this, shockingly elevated (.453) and he had a 173 wRC+. Of course, neither would have been sustainable had he stayed healthy, but it suggests the last 137 PA's of his season where he went 157/.219/.260 (31 wRC+) are very unlikely to repeat themselves so long as Colabello stays healthy.

Acquired off of waivers, Colabello's 2015 season has been little short of astonishing. On both extremes.

Colabello's 2015 season is one of many narratives. An unexpected rise, an unexplainable usage in the outfield, an anticipated regression, and perhaps more recently; a stabilization to respectability.

Since July 1st Colabello has a .263/.313/.491 line with a 116 wRC+ with a .278/.300/.472 (104 wRC+) since the All-Star Break. Both of which representing the superior side of the platoon, despite the difference in playing time. Further, and perhaps interestingly, as fans like to point out that Gibbons sat Justin Smoak one day after his 2-HR game, Colabello has seen just four plate appearances in the last three games since his homer against Minnesota (so, can we cut that out now? Please?).

Playing time has become an issue recently as he has seen just 69 PA's since the beginning of June (to contrast the 76 of Justin Smoak) and has seemingly and inexplicably fallen out of favour with Manager John Gibbons in August seeing just eight total PA's. This despite being the more productive member of the platoon. Which should perhaps put an end to people saying Smoak isn't playing enough or Cola is Gibby's "favourite".

August's SSS of 8 PA's has Colabello hitting .500/.500/.875 with a 290 wRC+... It's 8 PA's, so meaningless, but just funny to look at.

Still, his early season surge, unsustainable as it was, ended up being to the Blue Jays advantage as Chris Colabello has been, at least at the plate, nothing short of fantastic for the team. Especially during the part of the season where Edwin Encarnacion and Jose Bautista weren't performing to their usual levels and, while Josh Donaldson was indeed a Blue Jay, Troy Tulowitzki and David Price were still a few months away.

It isn't a stretch to suggest that Cola's bat in those early months helped greatly in keeping the team treading water long enough for it all to come together.

The "Impending" Regression of Chris Colabello

When you spend the first month of a season with a .477 BABIP leading to a .368/.417/.568 and a wRC+ of 175 it can be pretty much guaranteed you'll eventually regress... And while some (me) may have questioned when this regression would take place (in contrast to those suggesting a then-struggling Smoak should play over Colabello during his hot streak because, eventually, the hot streak will end) it was a generally understood concept that Colabello was not the true BABIP God, and tough times of regression were ahead.

And regress he has. But, did the catastrophic dismantling of his offensive value come with it?

From June 2nd onward he has had a much less statistically anomalous .337 BABIP leading to a .281/.318/.445 (109 wRC+) slash, a much less gaudy line that his early season totals. Over the last month or so (since July 1st) he's been an even more regressed  to a .268 BABIP resulting in, as posted above, a .263/.313/.491 (116 wRC+).  

This may likely be closer to the player Colabello is as a hitter. More indicative than the .315/.358/.494 (135 wRC+) his season numbers suggest he is, but not nearly as bad as his Minnesota Twins time. Which means the regression is no longer impending. It has happened. 

And it hasn't been all that bad.

The Breakdown of Cola's Value

Unfortunately, thanks to a manager John Gibbons decision to play him in Left Field, where he ended with a -8.4 UZR (-40.2 UZR/150) in 257 innings, Chris Colabello's very respectable 1.9 oWAR has been all but stripped away. His WAR sits at 0.0 as his -2.2 dWAR has destroyed what value his bat had given him.

This is not narrative. This is truth. 

And while I understand why Gibbon's did it, it has contributed to souring the perception of Colabello within the fan community, and that just isn't okay. Now, in large part due to his Left Field "defense", Colabello seeing any time on the field is met with groans and exasperated sighs.

But, is it warranted? At First Base?

Well, his incredibly small sample at 1B this season says yes. A -1.3 UZR and -4 DRS suggests Colabello has been pretty awful this season at 1B. But, is he really? 

Forgetting the obvious narrative of "he's spent so much time learning LF that his 1B defense may have gotten rusty", mostly so that I don't have to write another article debunking my own narrative, looking at Colabello's early career in Minny it looks a little different.

His defense, at least on the 1B side of things, was unspectacular but serviceable. In what had been a very short sample size (about 404.1 innings) he'd accumulated a -1 DRS and a UZR at or around 0.6 in his two seasons in Minnesota. The worst of which (-2 DRS, -0.3 UZR) was in his 2014 season which, as explained above, he had a right thumb injury during. Sort of need those in baseball.

Now, I will not say he's a good fielder. Even at 1B that argument cannot be made. His average dWAR was about -0.8 over his two Minny seasons (though, that does include about 200 OF innings spent in Minny's RF over those two seasons...So, that number isn't reliable).

It cannot be argued Smoak isn't the superior defender. Even being league average to slightly above, his defense is still better than Cola's (especially picking balls out of the dirt), though, I wish I could see his advanced fielding in the minors. 

But, like perhaps R.A Dickey, the sense of doom and overwhelming concern whenever he gets the nod may be a bit of an over-exaggeration. His defense isn't league average, but if given consistent reps he's proven not to be a liability in his time as a Twin.

Considering his bat, that isn't actually all that bad.

The Final Word

The truth is, regardless of the side you have taken in this argument, you are probably right.

And just as equally wrong.

Despite that Cola's value has been absolutely destroyed at the hands of his Left Field "defense" and misuse, Justin Smoak has not exactly run away with the competition. Smoak's oWAR has, to this point, been just a 0.5 while his supposed exceptional defense has effectively adding nearly nothing to his overall value (he boasts a -0.2 dWAR on Baseball Reference) in spite of the fact he has played 269 more innings at 1B than Colabello.

Overall, according to Fangraphs, Smoak is a 0.5 WAR player (0.5 on BR) to Colabello's 0.0 (which is -0.1 on BR). 

Colabello, it appears, offers more at the plate (supported by higher wRC+ vs. LHP and RHP for their career as well as this season, the last few months, month, three weeks, nine days, etc.). There doesn't appear to be much difference in power (SLG favours Cola, HR's favour Smoak). Smoak is the better defensive player. It isn't exactly lopsided, not near as much as people might want to believe, but there is a difference that cannot be disputed. Especially in terms of picking balls out of the dirt. Smoak is a savant at it.

Ultimately, the debate is likely a matter of preference and not of which is the better player. And as a matter of preference, there is no debate.

And these articles are not designed to help people decide a winner (though perhaps you will, anyway). These articles are meant to dispel some myth's, give an in-depth analysis of both players, maybe point out some things you didn't know, and perhaps point out what I have come to believe is the truth.

They should both be playing, but for different reasons.

Cola, if you want the offense. Smoak, if you value the defense, even at just 1B. 

A platoon, as I've called it, doesn't necessarily mean RH vs LH. What it could end up meaning is at random times for random games, with no rhyme or reason except hot, cold and Gibby Gut, one will see playing time over the other. And then, as quickly as it came, the tide goes the other way and we see the other half.

Or, perhaps, a platoon in that Cola should start games and Smoak, for whatever his defensive upgrade is worth, should come in after the 7th inning. That could also be a viable platoon for the two of them.

Smoak has played a lot recently, and has struggled. That's true. So, if Cola were to get a few starts in a row next week it doesn't mean Smoak is in the "dog house" or that Cola is "favoured". It  means Smoak has struggled and it's time to try something else. Temporarily. We probably never see one take the job full-time. At least not this season.

Gibby seems to like getting both guys reps when possible.

And so long as one of them performs... So long as everyone stays healthy... It's all gravy. As River Tam would say; No power in the verse can stop us.

(Please Note: The Majority of the stats were taken at 11:13AM on August 8th. So, the numbers may have changed by the time I post this. Especially since the Sunday afternoon game will have been played.)

The companion article to this discusses Justin Smoak's season and can be found here.