Houston Astros manager Brad Mills says Carlos Lee will be the Astros’ starting first baseman in 2012, and that could open up a deal involving Brett Wallace to the Tribe. The Indians have been discouraged by Carlos Pena‘s high asking price and are not convinced that Matt LaPorta is going to hit well. Wallace has been in four different organizations since being drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals in 2008. After being treated like a hot potato by the Cardinals, Athletics, Phillies, and Blue Jays, Wallace finally found a home in Houston last season. He reached the majors and took over the first base seat for the departed Lance Berkman at the 2010 trade deadline. Through the first month of 2011, Wallace had a .383/.448/.543 triple-slash line that would have made Bill James proud. Wallace clearly was not this good — his line is heavily supported by a .466 BABIP — but that doesn’t mean we needed to ignore it. It just means he was extra lucky. Wallace’s bad debut season in 2010, in which he posted a .272 wOBA and was exactly replacement level, left many, including myself, doubting Wallace’s ability to be a major league hitter, much less to have a bat play at first base. Wallace had shown that he could spray line drives across the field — particularly in the minor leagues, where he routinely posted BABIPs above .340. Concerns lingered about the rest of his game, however. Was there power? Plate discipline? Neither showed up, and he even had uncharacteristic struggles making contact, which is why he couldn’t even salvage an above-replacement year despite a .326 BABIP.
Last year, the .446 BABIP through the first month was the rocket fuel behind Wallace’s line, but a space shuttle needs more than just fuel to get off the ground. His peripherals came together in April — his ISO, BB%, and K% are all better than the league average as well, which portends well for when the rocket fuel runs out and his BABIP returned to normal level after May.
PECOTA had originally projected Wallace’s rest of 2011 would rise all the way to a .335 wOBA, which although not terribly special, is much better than the .321 projected back in that March. Part of it is the fact that the peripherals have returned to a legitimate MLB level, the rest is that Wallace actually does have some of the traits that a high-BABIP player tends to have — a ton of line drives, and, more importantly, a consistent history of high BABIPs going all the way back to 2006 with the Cardinals Single-A team.
Unfortunately, Wallace did not finish the season as PECOTA had originaly projected. He slumped to a .234/.305/.320 the rest of the way.
He is a first baseman, and even though his peripherals are above average, none of them are significantly better than most major leaguers. As such, Wallace’s bat doesn’t provide much value unless he turns out to be a J.T. Snow or Doug Mientkiewicz with the glove. He can still be a league average player with his skills — something that none of the projection systems and many of the scouts weren’t expecting after 2010. Wallace’s fast start last season does give some amount of hope — the hope for a productive player — but hopes of a future star and cleanup hitter (a new Lance Berkman, say) are misguided. But at least it’s better than nothing.