First basemen used to be the best in the league. What happened, and where does the position go from here?
First base. It’s the position you play if you’re not the fleetest of foot (formerly Prince Fielder). It’s the position you play later on in your career as age robs you of your previous defensive ability (Ryan Zimmerman). It’s the position you play if you belong at DH but play in the National League (see David Ortiz during interleague play). Of course these are all just stereotypes that don’t apply to every first baseman, and it’s not as easy a position to play, even if Brad Pitt playing Billy Beane disagrees.
First base was the home of Hall of Famers Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, Frank Thomas, Joe Torre, and 15 others. And while there are future Hall of Famers manning the position today, the collective production has been below standards. As a positional unit they have produced the lowest collective wRC+ (103) since 1949 (100). You can’t definitively compare the productions of both groups, but wRC+ provides context to how much better (or worse) a player (or group) is offensively compared to the league average (set at 100) of that given year. So from a relative standpoint, this year’s crop of first basemen has been one of the least productive groups of all time.
So who’s leading the charge of this unproductive positional group? Brandon Belt is having a career year offensively with a 154 wRC+ and a BB% (16.6%) greater than his K% (16.2%). Miguel Cabrera continues to be one of the best hitters of our generation (147 wRC+ and 12 HRs in just 235 plate appearances). Even first base convert Joe Mauer is seeing somewhat of a resurgence.
But with those strong performers, many more have underperformed. Paul Goldschmidt has certainly been a solid producer with 10 HRs and a .260/.417/.464 slash, but that’s a step back from his otherworldly .321/.435/.570 slash in 2015. Adrian Gonzalez has also been solid in 2016 (107 wRC+), but he’s hitting with absolutely no power. Gonzalez has his lowest hard contact% since his rookie season in 2004 and a career-low isolated power (ISO) of .113. Those two join perennially excellent first basemen (like Freddie Freeman and Albert Pujols) who have played below their career numbers.
Then there are some first basemen who have been absolutely atrocious. Joey Votto’s bat has been heating up in the past week, with Votto batting .313 with three home runs and eight runs batted in in his last eight games. But before this recent resurgence, Joey Votto was looking more like Chris Davis. There’s nothing wrong with looking like Chris Davis, but Joey Votto has always been a player that has complete mastery of the strike zone, and with a career K-BB% (K% minus BB%) of 3.1%, it’s a bit concerning that Votto’s K% is a career high 26.5% and his K-BB% this year at 12.6. Throw in a 102 wRC+ (his previous career low is 124) and you can see why certain Reds fans are pessimistic.
Credit: Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports
Meanwhile in Chicago, Jose Abreu is on pace to have his worst season as a major leaguer. A third of the way through the season, Abreu is on pace to set career lows in virtually every statistical category. His power numbers are down with just six HRs and a .137 ISO. A few weeks ago, Abreu speculated upon the source of his struggles:
“Right now it’s a matter of my approach,” Abreu said. “I’ve been swinging at a lot of pitches out of the zone, and that’s not my approach. I have to regroup and I have to work to be on my successful path.”
The numbers don’t necessarily support that assessment. His 2016 O-Swing%, a measurement that shows how often a player swings at pitches outside the zone, is in-line with his career mark (38.7% in 2016 vs. 39.4% career mark), as are his other plate discipline metrics. That’s not to say there isn’t a mental issue impacting his approach at the plate, but the exact source of that issue is a mystery to everyone.
Don’t worry, I didn’t forget the absolutely heinous performance of Mark Teixeira. Sure, he hasn’t been as bad as Ryan Howard, but we all knew coming in that the only reason Howard would be seeing any sort of playing time in the majors is because he’s signed to one of the worst contracts of all time (note: the linked article was written nearly two years ago; that’s how bad Ryan Howard’s decline has been). After producing a bounce back season in 2015 (143 wRC+, 31 homers), the 2016 Mark Teixeira has been every Yankees fans’ worst nightmare. He has a paltry slash line, .180/.271/.263, and has been worth -1.0 wins according to FanGraphs.
The Former Premier Offensive Position
These struggles at first base are stunning when you consider the run of success the position has had in the decade. Not only had the first base position ranked first in wRC+ every year since 2010, but usually by a large margin.
This season’s first basemen are bested by their corner infield counterparts, but is that much of a surprise? In recent years third base has been replenished with stars like Manny Machado (also splits time at shortstop), Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and Josh Donaldson and above-average role players like Kyle Seager, Matt Carpenter, and Todd Frazier.
Looking at the wins above replacement (fWAR) leaderboard for batters, the highest ranked first baseman on the leaderboard is Miguel Cabrera at 36th. Ahead of him are six second basemen, nine third basemen, five shortstops, 14 outfielders, and a DH. Sure, WAR penalizes first basemen because of the relative ease of their position compared to the other defensive spots, but that didn’t stop Goldschmidt and Votto from ranking fourth and fifth respectively in fWAR last season.
This dip in production is less than ideal considering how much first basemen are being paid. The chart on the left shows the breakdown of player salaries by position. Outfielders have the highest percentage of player salary, but that total also accounts for three positions (LF, CF, RF). After factoring that in, first base clearly makes up the highest percentage of salary — more than double the total pay for shortstops. The league’s two highest-paid position players are first basemen — Miguel Cabrera makes $28.7 M and Ryan Howard makes $26.9 M — as well as five of the top 10 overall (Mark Teixeira, $23.4 M; Joe Mauer, $23.0 M; Hanley Ramirez, $22.8 M).
Position’s Future Outlook
As stated previously, part of the reason third base has taken over as the premier offensive position is because of the influx of star talent at the position; first base doesn’t have that same bright outlook going forward. Among position players, first basemen have the oldest average age (30.0 years old), which doesn’t necessarily scream “youth movement”.
Credit: Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports
There’s not much respite coming from the minors either. Only once between 2011 and 2014 was a first baseman selected with a top 15 pick in the MLB Amateur Draft (Dominic Smith 11th overall in 2013 by the Mets), and there wasn’t a single first baseman ranked in the Baseball America’s 2015 top 100 prospect list. There are four first basemen on this year’s BA preseason list, but only one, A.J. Reed of the Houston Astros, looks to bring immediate production at the Major League level.
So while some of the aforementioned struggling first basemen will have completed their contracts — and possibly their careers — by the end of the season (Ryan Howard, Mark Teixeira), there doesn’t appear to be much coming down the pipes to fill the talent gap between first and third base.
A Silver Lining: They Can Be Better
But this lack of talent down the pipes didn’t effect the production of last year’s first basemen. In fact, last season’s wRC+ was the highest total for the position since 2009. The average age of the position certainly explains some of the decrease in production, but wouldn’t lead us to predict the fathomless drop in production we’ve seen from the position.
In the end, a perfect firestorm of aging, lack of talent, and multiple talented players underperforming at the same time has led to this massive decrease in production. It’s very possible we see a turnaround next season (or even as this season goes on!), as established stars like Paul Goldschmidt and Joey Votto begin producing at their expected levels.
First basemen used to be the cornerstones of the very best MLB franchises. While those days may be over for now, as younger and more athletic infielders and outfielders establish themselves as stars in this league, there is every reason to believe that first basemen could be making a comeback very soon.
*All stats are updated as of 6/5/16
Edited by John Ray.
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