Getting to first base…   Leave a comment

We move from catcher (see my previous blog) to first base.  This is a power position, and the lists of single-season and career statistical leaders are densely filled with first basemen, especially the power categories.  It should also be mentioned that over the last 25 years, the various sluggers manning this post put up some pinball numbers.  However, those numbers should be viewed in that amped-up context, and not simply held up as a basis of comparison to other allegedly “weaker” first basemen.  Furthermore, when it came time to deciding which contemporary players warranted consideration for the Hall of Fame, it meant not including several players that were indeed very good, but simply did not put up a Cooperstown type of career, and certainly not ahead of the players listed below in my table.  Sorry, Carlos Delgado… and that goes for Paul Konerko, Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, and others, too.

First Last Position Top 100 WAR, Total % WAR,
Season Season Rank Rank 2001-now WAR post-Abstract
Mark McGwire 1986 2001 3 31 0.3 62 0.48%
Jeff Bagwell 1991 2005 4 45 17.5 79.5 22.01%
Frank Thomas 1990 2008 10 75 14.9 73.6 20.24%
Don Mattingly 1982 1995 12 n/a 0 42.2 0.00%
Rafael Palmeiro 1986 2005 19 n/a 13.8 71.8 19.22%
Fred McGriff 1986 2004 21 n/a 5.5 52.6 10.46%
Albert Pujols 2001 current n/a n/a 93 93 100.00%
Jim Thome 1991 2012 n/a n/a 38.4 72.8 52.75%
Todd Helton 1997 2013 n/a n/a 46.6 61.3 76.02%
Mark Grace 1988 2003 32 n/a 2.1 46.1 4.56%
David Ortiz 1997 current n/a n/a 43.2 44.2 97.74%
Joey Votto 2007 current n/a n/a 33.9 33.9 100.00%
Andres Galarraga 1985 2004 42 n/a 0.4 31.4 1.27%
Prince Fielder 2005 current n/a n/a 23.5 23.5 100.00%
Average WAR, 1B = 65.7

I didn’t include Miguel Cabrera at this position, as he has played more MLB games at third base thus far.  However, that will soon change, and I suspect that when his career is in the history books, he will be known as a first baseman.  (If Brad Ausmus moves him back to shortstop, that would be the coolest thing ever.)

There are six first basemen on this year’s BBWAA ballot.  All six were ranked amongst the top 100 first basemen ever in Bill James’ historical abstract; in fact, the “lowest” in the table, Fred McGriff, ranked 21st, ahead of fellows like George Sisler, Bill Terry, and Gil Hodges.  In addition, I put Mark Grace and Andres Galarraga into the table as comparables – though they both fell off the ballot in their first year of eligibility, they also made James’ list, which is my first benchmark.  Finally, I added six other players that James didn’t consider a dozen years ago, but certainly deserve our notice now.

James ranked McGwire third all-time, and his resume is certainly impressive.  For starters, he is the all-time leader in at-bats per home run at 10.6.  He also has 583 home runs (good for tenth on the career chart), 1,414 runs batted in, and 12 All-Star appearances.  Sadly for him, he admitted to willingly using PEDs – which actually makes him a rare case, in that many others implicated during his era have not admitted anything.  Thus, he’s still on the outside of the Hall looking in for the eighth time.

I would also say that, based on what Bagwell, Thomas, and Pujols did since 2000, McGwire doesn’t deserve that third-overall spot.  I’d slot him further down, with Hall of Famers like Hank Greenberg and Willie McCovey, mainly because of WAR.  There is a site called fangraphs.com that enables you to enter a number of players into their system, and they will be “graphed” three ways:  by their best WAR seasons, by WAR-cumulative age, and by age, year by year.  I entered the four first basemen into the WAR Graphs machine, and put the cumulative chart below.

wargraph 1b

I should note that Fangraphs calculates WAR a little bit differently than baseball-reference.  Nonetheless, as a comparative tool, I trust both versions for the purpose of seeing how McGwire and his peers look together, and will for future player comparisons.  As per Fangraphs, then:  Pujols has 87.4 WAR (and counting), Bagwell 80.3, Thomas 72.4, and McGwire 66.3.

(Let’s just get Rafael Palmeiro out of the way right now, too.  One of four players in the history of the game to accumulate over 3,000 hits and 500 home runs – you might have heard of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and/or Eddie Murray – he also has 71.8 WAR at b-r, and 70 WAR at Fangraphs, putting him above the “average” Hall of Fame first baseman.  Alas, his PED indignation will keep him out, too.)

Bagwell is on the BBWAA ballot for a fourth year – about three too many, by my estimation.  A lifetime .297/.408/.540 masher with 449 home runs to his credit, he was as close to a five-tool first baseman as you’re going to get.  He also stole 202 bases, scored 1,517 runs, and even won a Gold Glove (yes, I know – but he still won one).  Stop me if you’ve read this before, but the only reason Bagwell isn’t in the Hall already is because a lot of voters have tied his name to the PED tree, even though there hasn’t been any concrete reason to do so.  His name hasn’t surfaced in any report, nor has anyone come forward with damning evidence.  He might just be the best first baseman that played between the time Jimmie Foxx retired and Pujols settled at first, and in my mind, possibly one of the five best who ever played the bag.

This is Frank Thomas’s first year on the ballot.  His batting record speaks for itself: 521 home runs, 1,028 extra-base hits, a .301/.419/.555 slash line, an OPS+ of 156, back-to-back MVP awards, and six top-five MVP finishes.  He was a hitting machine.  If the voters simply looked at those numbers, he would be a lock… but only under two assumptions.  The 6’5″ behemoth known as the “Big Hurt”might be penalized for his size and his era, but I hope he is not.  I might even give the voters the benefit of the doubt on this one, as Thomas was one of the first active players pushing for stricter testing and penalties; hopefully, the BBWAA heard and remember him.

However, I will not assume that Thomas sails into Cooperstown so smoothly.  If the case of Edgar Martinez is any indication, Thomas is going to get dinged because he was primarily a DH throughout his career, logging less than 1,000 games (971 of 2,322) in the field.  The designated hitter has been around for 40 years now, but some BBWAA voters will seemingly never accept it.  They penalize (I’m sure using that word a lot) a player who didn’t choose to not play defense; it was and is management’s decision how best to utilize him and the rest of a 25-man roster.  I will probably rail on this more when I get to Martinez, in part because I do believe Thomas’s time at first base (over six full seasons) will be remembered.  But if he doesn’t make it to Cooperstown on the magical first ballot, I wouldn’t be surprised in the least – and that’s a shame.

Next on Bill James’ list – and the ballot – comes Donnie Baseball, holding down the 12th spot.  Mattingly is on the ballot for the 14th time, a number that matches the number of years his MLB career lasted.  He got 28.2% of the vote in his first year of eligibility, and it has steadily dropped since that.  Simply put, his career was too short.  He only played 1,785 games due to his ailing back, and retired just before the late-90s Yankee dynasty began.  His lifetime totals – especially at a “power” position – of 222 home runs and 1,099 RBI look rather weak.  A shame, really, because at his peak, Mattingly was unarguably the best at his position.  From 1984 to 1989, he boasted a slash line of .327/.372/.530, averaging 203 hits, 27 home runs, and 114 runs batted in.  He earned All-Star nods each and every year during this span, five Gold Gloves, an MVP award, and two other top-five MVP finishes.  Great peak, short career, and someone who should rank in the 17-20 range on a new James list.

Fred McGriff is the sixth and final first baseman on both the BBWAA ballot and Bill James’ positional list.  This is his fifth year on the ballot, and he seems stuck in the 20% range that might even decrease as more dynamic players join him on an already crowded card.  McGriff’s calling card was consistency.  That, combined with power; the “Crime Dog” hit 493 home runs (just seven shy of the once-magical 500 mark), hitting 30 or more ten times but never reaching 40.  Damn good numbers, but they look simply ordinary when the McGwires and the Bondses and his ilk are mashing 50+ with ease.  Furthermore, McGriff played for six different teams; voters seem to discount the accomplishments of players who bounce from club to club.  As with Mattingly, I don’t think he’s Hall-worthy either, but his steady excellence should be appreciated.

I won’t spend that much time on the two other first basemen Bill James considered amongst the 100 best in the game, Mark Grace and Andres Galarraga.  They both had distinguished careers, but neither had a slam-dunk Hall of Fame case, and they fell off the ballot after just one year.  I’d move them both down a few pegs on the abstract list, though they still deserve to be considered top-50ish guys.

Nor will I spend that much time on Albert Pujols  You saw the WAR Graph earlier on.  If an injury ended his career tomorrow, he would have an excellent shot at being enshrined in Cooperstown in about six years, and I’d feel fairly confident in declaring him as the third greatest third baseman of all-time right now.  His career is starting to level off, so he might have five not-quite-Pujolsian years left in him.  In terms of WAR, he probably won’t reach Gehrig, but he might catch Jimmie Foxx.  So, yeah… that’s a pretty good player.

Fun with WAR graphs, part two.  Let’s look at five more first basemen that did not make James’ list back in 2001, and spend just a few more moments inspecting each man’s ledger.

thome et al

Career WARs, sorted by year of debut (in hypotheses):  Thome 67.8 (1991), Helton 55.7, Ortiz 40.9 (both 1997), Fielder 27.7 (2005), and Votto 33.0 (2007).  I wanted to highlight the age-29 seasons of each to show how similar Thome, Helton, and Votto were/are at that stage of their careers.  Let’s briefly look at every man’s HoF case, as well as where I’d put them in an updated version of the historical abstract.

Thome – 612 home runs ranking seventh all-time; also seventh all-time in walks, and second in strikeouts; reached base over 4,100 times; four top-seven MVP finishes, no top-threes; no World Series rings; no PED allegations and considered by many to have great character.  My verdict – a Hall of Famer, and in the McCovey/Thomas/Greenberg pantheon of first basemen.

Helton – a lifetime .316/.414/.539 hitter with 369 home runs; however, lost his power early, failing to hit more than 20 home runs in any season after his age-30 season; five consecutive All-Star appearances during his peak; an excellent fielder, boasting a career .996 fielding percentage; no MVP awards or World Series rings.  My verdict – he’ll be on the BBWAA ballot for a while, and it could go either way.  Great numbers boosted by the Coors Field effect don’t really help his case.  Probably slots into “my” James list at about 20.

Ortiz – almost exclusively a DH, and that will not help his case; as of this writing, has 431 home runs, 1,429 RBI, and an OPS+ of 139; five consecutive top-five MVP finishes from 2003 to 2007, but never won; helped the Red Sox win three World Series titles with a staggering .455/.576/.795 slash line (59 plate appearances); reportedly failed a drug test in 2003.  My verdict – his case for the Hall is basically established, given his age.  I’m not convinced he belongs in Cooperstown, due to a relatively low WAR, but he’ll have plenty of support.  Belongs in the top 40 first sackers, if you want to call him that.

Fielder – has hit 30 or more home runs in six of his eight full seasons; five All-Star appearances and three top-five MVP finishes thus far; extremely durable, missing just a single game over the last five seasons; a poor post-season hitter, logging a .194/.287/.333 line in 164 plate appearances; limited range in the field.  My verdict – not close to the Hall yet, but he has the ability to put up big numbers to help his cause if and when he plays everyday.  In the Andres Galarraga tier.

Votto – take a look at the WAR graph above again; four consecutive All-Star appearances to date, as well as four consecutive “OBP titles”; one MVP award on the mantle; by WAR, only halfway to the “average” Hall of Fame first baseman (33.9, compared to 65.7); less than 900 MLB games under his belt.  My verdict – ahead of Fielder in WAR despite a two-year lag, he will have to stay healthy and put up some more prototypical first base power numbers over the next ten years.  Would probably make the top 100 even now.

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Posted December 15, 2013 by JasonMacAskill in Uncategorized

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