Since coming back from the COVID IL, Luis Arráez has returned to a tricky role for his short stature: first base. After some questionable defensive plays at third base had a few too many Twins fans in agony, Rocco Baldelli began shifting Arráez across the diamond.
Although Arráez is only a few inches shorter than most of his teammates, the position does raise questions: does size matter at first? The common assumption among most baseball experts, and one that Miguel Sanó easily fit, is that the player should be a big target. Lumbering at 6’3” and 270ish pounds, the big man could often be seen stretching for balls from various players over the years.
With Sanó out for some time, prospect call up Jose Miranda seems like a more conventional choice for the position at 6’2” and 210 pounds. But as much as everything in baseball can be questioned to find an advantage, perhaps Arráez is not as much of a problem as one might expect.
Although you can find the height of every baseball player on their BRef page, actual height data is rarely provided in data sets among hitting or fielding. That makes comparison across the league a bit harder, so I mostly focused on the 2021 performances at first base. These players range from big boys like Matt Olson and Freddie Freeman (6’5”), to players closer to Arráez like Carlos Santana and Ty France (5’11”).
Over its history, the league has made way for small hitters like Jose Ramirez and Mookie Betts, but these players are rarely found at first base. Even when first basemen might show some vertical challenge, they might have some size to make up for it. Max Muncy played most of first for the Dodgers in their 2021 season, sitting only two inches above Arráez, but with 50 more pounds of muscle. He can stretch those legs much further than what we’ve seen from Arráez so far.
As baseball has transformed, the decrease in the height of a first baseman has changed as well. First base has often been the place, for lack of a better word, smashers with bad defense. As Matt Eddy reported for Baseball America just last year, “A 6-foot player was once deemed too short to play first base, with exceptions made for the most prodigious sluggers, such as Prince Fielder.” But particularly in a game where grounders are going the way of the dodo, that means having excellent defenders at first base has become even more critical than it was even a decade ago. If Arráez’s defense is questionable, it will feel even less important in 2022 Baseball.
But the question is not whether Arráez’s defense matters, but whether a tall boy makes for better defense at first base. Although bigger men in 2021 did usually better in Outs Above Average and Defensive Runs Saved, so did Mariners hitter Ty France, who lives only an inch about Arráez. France was close to top in the league in the advance metric UZR, considered by many to be the gold standard of infield defensive stats. At the bottom of this list? Miguel Sanó. UZR can be tricky—Josh Donaldson was close to Sanó in the metric, and the eye test would tell you that the former third basemen was hardly a schlub in the role. But the closer we look, the correlation between height and defense falls apart.
There is one key difference that might assist Arráez’s defense over either Miranda or Sanó, which might sound surprising, his speed. Over in Los Angeles, the Dodgers were constantly shifting Max Muncy around, which worked due to his quick reactions and acceleration speed. Muncy is hardly a speed demon, but he is extremely quick in his reflexes. It’s something the Dodgers liked about Freeman as well to bring him over from Atlanta. Arráez’s speed puts him at the same level as Vlad Guerrero Jr., Yuli Gurriel, and Ty France. None of these men are in Muncy’s elite level, but it allows for more flexibility there rather than a single target and might assist in building unique positioning.
Most giants at first base do not show a lot of speed, and while Arráez is hardly a demon, his average speed could make for a bit more positioning work through the season.
Arráez’s bat, as we’ve seen even in this first month, is too important to not put somewhere in this lineup to drive in runs. As long as the player can manage the role, the singles smasher will play an unsung advantage in a position where the combined first baseman of the league hit for only 108 wRC+ in 2019.
So far, he hasn’t missed any balls at first in his few game sample. But in a game that depends on finding advantages in every nook and cranny, perhaps the front office might find a hidden advantage in putting a short king slugger at first.