June 9, 2016
First Base Is Dead
It started, like most things in my life do, with an argument about Joe Mauer.
In trying to figure out the Twins’ best (or perhaps more accurately least-worst) option to be the mandatory All-Star rep for a last-place team I noticed that Mauer ranks third among American League first basemen in OPS+ and fourth in WARP despite a modest-looking .281/.388/.409 line in 56 games. Basically, only Miguel Cabrera and Eric Hosmer have clearly been better than Mauer this season.
I never pass up a chance to paint Mauer in a positive light, but that surprised me. He’s having a good, solid season—and taking a big step in the right direction after back-to-back rough years following a career-altering concussion—but the notion of a first baseman with a .409 slugging percentage and sub-.800 OPS ranking among the league’s best is hard for my brain to comprehend.
But here’s the thing: Mauer’s underwhelming .409 slugging percentage is almost exactly average among AL first basemen this season. As a group, the position has produced a .246/.321/.411 line that nearly any fan in nearly any era of baseball history would quickly identify as “bad” for a first baseman. This season “bad” is actually “average” and that’s why Mauer—with an on-base percentage-heavy OPS that’s 65 points above par—is one of the AL’s top-hitting first basemen.
National League first basemen have been significantly more productive than their AL counterparts, but even blending both leagues together leads to an overall line of .249/.329/.432 that’s no one’s idea of solid offense for the position. So far in 2016 first basemen have been out-hit by right fielders, designated hitters, and third basemen, and they’ve barely been better than second basemen.
Their collective .761 OPS is the position’s worst production in a very long time, once run-scoring environments are taken into account, equating to an OPS+ of 109 on a scale where 100 is always average. Last season first basemen had an OPS+ of 118, and it was 114 or higher in each of the previous 60 (sixty!) seasons. In more than half of those previous 60 seasons—31 times, to be exact—first basemen posted an OPS+ of 120 or higher. They had an OPS+ of 125 or higher in 10 of those years.
Put simply: 109 is crazy low. How low? The lowest since 1949, when first basemen combined for an OPS+ of 105. That season the New York Yankees beat the Brooklyn Dodgers in the World Series, the MVPs were Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, and there were no Cy Young winners because the award hadn’t been invented yet. It’s been a long time since first base was this punchless, is what I’m getting at.
In chatting with Sam Miller earlier this week, I mentioned the lack of first base production as a possible topic for an article, at which point he sent me a link to an article he wrote about that very topic following the 2012 season. Back then first basemen had combined for an OPS+ of 114, which was tied for the position’s lowest mark in nearly six decades. And yet those light-hitting first basemen of 2012 were a powerhouse compared to this year’s crop.
So what happened? The position got old. A handful of the best-hitting first basemen of the past decade—Justin Morneau, Paul Konerko, Todd Helton, Adam Dunn, Adam LaRoche—are no longer playing. A half-dozen others—Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Mark Teixeira—are still playing, but at nowhere near the same level. That group of 10 combined to make an All-Star team 48 times and win six MVP awards, but none will be All-Stars in 2016.
Jose Abreu, who in 2014 and 2015 looked ready to fill some of those big shoes as an up-and-coming star at first base, currently has a .713 OPS. Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana moved to designated hitter most of the time and Mark Trumbo, who leads baseball in homers, plays right field when not DHing. Young sluggers Miguel Sano and Maikel Franco, whose paths once seemed pointed toward first base, are playing right field and third base respectively.
Many of the great-hitting first basemen of the 2000s got old, some other good bats are playing other positions this year, and those missing thumpers were not replaced by young sluggers. In fact, there are zero starting first basemen under 25 years old. The youngest are 25-year-olds Wil Myers and Tyler White, along with 26-year-olds Eric Hosmer, Freddie Freeman, C.J. Cron, and Anthony Rizzo. Each of the other 24 players to start at least 30 games at first base this season are 27 or older.
Most of the “new” first basemen are actually veterans arriving from other positions. Concussions forced Mauer and John Jaso to stop catching. Hanley Ramirez came to play first base because no one could stomach more of him in the outfield. Injuries sent Ryan Zimmerman across the diamond from third base. Myers made the change from the outfield to lessen a roster logjam. What happened to all the top-rated first base prospects? Nothing, because they never really existed.
Baseball Prospectus’ top 101 prospects list in 2011 had first basemen Eric Hosmer, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Belt in the top 25, plus Chris Carter, Anthony Rizzo, and Jonathan Singleton in the 26-101 range. Four of those six guys are now among the 10 best first basemen in baseball, which is how it’s supposed to work. However, from 2012-2015 the Baseball Prospectus top 101 lists included a grant total of just four different first basemen (Singleton was listed three times).
So the answer for where all the good-hitting first basemen went is pretty simple: They got hurt or they got old or they retired. And the fresh crop of sluggers that was supposed to replace them never materialized.
Baseball certainly isn’t short on high-end young talent in general, and if anything the current group of young stars looks like one of the best of all time. They just aren’t big, plodding sluggers teams have traditionally stuck at first base. Which is perhaps why there are only six starting first basemen with an OPS+ of 120 or higher in 2016, compared to nine third basemen, eight second basemen, eight center fielders, and six shortstops. The big bats in 2016 can also play some defense.
Here are the 30 starting first basemen, separated into three lists based on OPS+ …
OPS+ of 120 or higher:
Five of the established, clear-cut best first basemen in baseball, plus Matt Adams hitting better than ever after an injury wrecked 2015.
OPS+ of 100-119:
This is the group that’s really dragging the position down, thanks to Joey Votto, Chris Davis, Freddie Freeman, and Adrian Gonzalez all performing much worse than their track records and expectations.
OPS+ of 99 or lower:
Here’s where it gets ugly. Ryan Howard and Mark Teixeira are former standout first basemen who now looked washed up. Jose Abreu has taken a step backward. Hanley Ramirez and Ryan Zimmerman aren’t pulling their weight at the new position.
I’d feel pretty comfortable betting on first basemen finishing this year with an OPS+ above their current 109 mark, in large part because several of Votto, Davis, Abreu, Gonzalez, and Freeman seem likely to have far better second halves. However, to wind up reaching the position’s typical low end in the 115-120 OPS+ range would take an awful lot of post-break crushing and this group just doesn’t seem capable. First base is down and it might be a while before it gets back up.