August 23, 2012; St. Petersburg, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Jeff Keppinger (7) hits a single in the fifth inning against the Oakland Athletics at Tropicana Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-US PRESSWIRE

Should Jeff Keppinger Be the Rays’ Everyday First Baseman?


Jeff Keppinger received a full off-day on Tuesday with Carlos Pena at first base. Pena went 0 for 4 with 4 strikeouts as the Rays lost 1-0. On Wednesday, Keppinger was back in the lineup and went 4 for 5 as the Rays won 8-4. Keppinger has had himself a great season while Pena has completely fallen apart.

Earlier today, we talked about how Carlos Pena no longer appears to be a good enough player to start at first base for the Rays. That begs an obvious follow-up question: should Jeff Keppinger be the Rays’ everyday first baseman in September?

First basemen typically are power hitters. Jeff Keppinger is not. But do the Rays have any better option to put at first base? Keppinger has had himself an outstanding season, posting a .325/.376/.446 line with 13 doubles, 6 homers, 30 RBI, and 20 walks versus 19 strikeouts in 84 games and 298 plate appearances. But what about Keppinger’s platoon splits? Well, Keppinger is a known masher of left-handed pitching and that has certainly been the case this season as he has posted a .416/.443/.573 line against them with 5 doubles, 3 homers, 11 RBI, and 5 walks versus 5 strikeouts in 41 games and 97 plate appearances. His sOPS+ versus lefties is an incredible 171, 71% above the league average for a right-handed batter against a lefty. Against right-handers, Keppinger isn’t nearly as good, but he has still been above average. He has posted a .280/.343/.385 line against righties with 8 doubles, 3 homers, 19 RBI, and 15 walks versus 14 strikeouts in 76 games and 201 plate appearances. His sOPS+ is 108, 8% above average. However, the Rays have sat down Keppinger versus tough right-handers, including Yu Darvish on Tuesday. So although his 201 plate appearance sample size is pretty significant, it’s skewed because the Rays have picked their spots for Keppinger to start versus right-handers. With that in mind, let’s look at his career numbers versus right-handers.

For his career, Keppinger has just a .265/.319/.354 line versus right-handers, just a .673 OPS. However, his sOPS+ versus right-handers over the years has varied quite a bit. Here’s a graph depicting that.

Looking at that graph, Keppinger has been above average against right-handed pitching two out of the last three years, but still we don’t know how Keppinger would perform if the Rays put him at first base versus right-handers almost every time. Nevertheless, after seeing Carlos Pena manage just an 84 sOPS+ versus right-handers this season, Keppinger would almost certainly be an upgrade.

Pena isn’t necessarily the only option for the Rays. Luke Scott has played the field just once all season, but could he be a candidate for playing time at first base against right-handed pitching? Well, on the season, Scott has been good against right-handed pitching, posting a .258/.360/.511 line with 13 doubles, 10 homers, 36 RBI, and a 41-11 strikeout to walk ratio in 193 plate appearances. That’s a 114 sOPS+, but his .817 OPS is actually below his .855 career OPS against righties. The problem is that Scott can’t do anything against lefties (63 sOPS+) and he doesn’t get on base very often so he’s pretty much all or nothing. And then there are several more issues. The first thing is that Scott is so injury prone and putting him in the field puts him at a higher risk of a being injured. Secondly, Scott has never been a good defender. And thirdly, if Scott is the Rays’ regular DH versus right-handed pitching right now, who would DH with him at first base? Here’s the lineup that the Rays used against Darvish on Tuesday.

1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. B.J. Upton, CF
3. Matthew Joyce, RF
4. Evan Longoria, 3B
5. Ben Zobrist, SS
6. Luke Scott, DH
7. Carlos Pena, 1B
8. Ryan Roberts, 2B
9. Jose Lobaton, C

Here’s a lineup they used with Keppinger starting against a right-hander back on August 22nd.

1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. B.J. Upton, CF
3. Matthew Joyce, RF
4. Evan Longoria, DH
5. Ben Zobrist, SS
6. Jeff Keppinger, 3B
7. Carlos Pena, 1B
8. Ryan Roberts, 2B
9. Jose Lobaton, C

Putting Luke Scott at first base could give the Rays some options. How about this lineup?

1. Desmond Jennings, LF
2. B.J. Upton, CF
3. Matthew Joyce, RF
4. Evan Longoria, DH
5. Ben Zobrist, 2B
6. Luke Scott, 1B
7. Jeff Keppinger, 3B
8. Jose Lobaton, C
9. Reid Brignac, SS

(Yep, a Reid Brignac sighting. He’ll be back in September and we’ll have to see if he can hit at all because the Rays would love his defense.)

Using Scott at first base would allow the Rays some wiggle room to put their hotest hitters into the lineup. But then again, you could put the same players in that lineup with Keppinger at first base, Scott at DH, and Evan Longoria at third base, so all this would do is allow the Rays to DH Longoria against right-handed pitching, which certainly isn’t a bad thing but isn’t particularly special. Starting Scott at DH gives the Rays their best lineup versus right-handers and also the best possible defensive alignment. Keppinger is clearly the best fit for the Rays at first base.

First basemen are usually players who hit for power. But the Rays could care less about that right now. They just want players in the lineup who can hit! Carlos Pena, unfortunately, doesn’t look like he can do that consistently anymore against righties or lefties. The best option for the Rays is to get Jeff Keppinger into the lineup as often as possible, even against right-handed pitching. The Rays need to get their possible lineup onto the field as often as possible, and against right-handed pitching, that lineup has to feature Keppinger and Luke Scott, with Pena on the bench. The Rays wish that Pena could still hit for great power and get on base at solid clip because he is a prototypical first baseman at his best who also plays great defense. But the Rays don’t have time to see if Pena will ever get back on track. Jeff Keppinger has to get in the lineup just about every day for the Rays. And even if he does not fit the first base profile, first base is a clear hole for the Rays without him, and that’s where he should play.

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Tags: Carlos Pena Jeff Keppinger Luke Scott Tampa Bay Rays