So much of the talk around this Red Sox team as we approach the quarter point of the season has been around their offense’s performance coming in below expectations, and specifically around the bottom of the lineup and first base. It’s certainly not without merit, as their production from the cold corner has been the worst in all of baseball. As a group, they have a 40 wRC+, which means they’ve been 60 percent worse than league-average at this position — a position that revolves mostly around offense — adjusting for park effects. Most of that obviously comes down to Bobby Dalbec, with a dash of early-season Travis Shaw thrown in as well. A lot of people are clamoring for top prospect Triston Casas, and while it still seems likely he’ll get his chance at some point this summer the team is letting his development continue in Triple-A, most specifically around his ability to produce against left-handed pitching.
That’s all well and good, and it’s not at all unreasonable to not want to rush one of your two top prospects, but in the meantime they need to stay afloat at a position where they so far have done anything but. Lately, they have turned to Franchy Cordero to get it done. On the surface, it doesn’t look like he’s adding all that much to the equation. The former Royal, who came over in the Andrew Benintendi deal, is hitting just .214/.306/.310 in his 49 plate apperances, putting up an 81 wRC+. That’s significantly better than what they had been getting at the position, but still well below-average both overall and especially for the position. (The league-average wRC+ for first basemen is 110.) Even so, digging a little bit deeper into his profile he is earning a chance for more playing time to solidify himself as the first base bridge to Casas.
In large part this comes down to plate discipline, which was Cordero’s undoing at the major-league level last season. Starting 2021 on the Opening Day roster, the now-27-year-old never got going for Boston, mashing consistently at Triple-A but failing to make the jump to the majors in multiple attempts. In his 136 plate appearances a year ago he struck out a whopping 37.5 percent of the time compared to a walk rate just under six percent. That swing and miss was just too much, even in this era of extreme strikeout rates. This season, albeit in a small sample size, that rate is down to a much more manageable 20 percent to go with a 12 percent walk rate.
Even tossing aside the rates, his plate discipline in general just looks so much better. Last season he showed that he has real trouble laying off pitches in the zone, and pitchers seem to be challenging him on making that adjustment, throwing him pitches in the zone just 46 percent of the time, a six percentage point decrease from last season. Cordero has been up to that challenge, cutting his chase rate down to just 23 percent compared to 28 percent a year ago. Throw in a high contact rate on pitches both in and out of the zone, his overall whiff rate is down from 41 percent in 2021 to 30 percent this season. Breaking balls seem to be the biggest difference here, with a whiff rate drop on those specific offerings from 43.5 percent to 38 percent. Again, we’re dealing in a small sample, but this is a marked improvement and something that at least deserves more time to be fleshed out.
It’s certainly not to say that everything has been great, though. One of the more intriguing parts of Cordero’s profile is the massive raw power, but we’ve yet to really see that in the majors, even this season. That said, he’s still hitting the ball hard with his 39 percent hard-hit rate coming in about four percentage points higher than league-average. He’s also brought his barrel rate up above league-average as well. Despite all of that he’s still waiting on his first homer of the season and has an Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) of just .095.
There’s also the defense. We don’t typically think of first base as a premier defensive position, and it’s not, but for a team like the Red Sox with a shaky infield defense as it is, having a sure-handed first baseman can make all of the defense. Cordero just started playing this position last season, and he certainly looks at times like an outfielder playing out of his comfort zone. On the other hand, he has the physical tools you’d like to see from a first baseman, and it’s not as though they were getting Gold Glove caliber defense from Dalbec anyway. It’s less than ideal, but I think they can live with it given the other options.
At the end of the day I’m certainly not expecting Cordero to parlay this improved plate discipline into superstar status, and probably not even everyday player status. But for both the short-term and the long-term it absolutely makes sense for them to keep giving him run, which is exactly what’s been going on. In the short-term, he’s a better option than Dalbec, who has still yet to get going and who they can’t really afford to wait on given their position in the standings. And in the longer-term, while Cordero may not be a future starter, if he keeps showing this refined approach, especially against righties, it’s not hard to envision a pretty valuable left-handed bench bat who can play the corner outfield spots along with first base. Casas is the ultimate option at first base, but while they wait they have a stopgap who is making strides.