January 8, 2009
Position Retrospective: First Base
by: Alex Nelson on Jan 8, 2009 2:09 AM | Filed under: Articles

A few weeks ago, I took a look back at how the Mets have done finding catchers over the years. I figured it’d be a fun little exercise that had the potential to teach us a thing or two about position scarcity.

As perhaps the perfect counterpoint to catcher, I’ll next glance over the Mets’ first base situation since 1962. While catcher is nearly an impossible position to fill in general, you’d think first base would be one of the easiest. Well, that’s true of most teams; anyone familiar with Mets history will know that hasn’t quite been the case for the Mets. While the Mets have featured periods of both production and stability behind the plate—the names Jerry Grote, John Stearns, Gary Carter, Todd Hundley, and Mike Piazza speak loudly. First base has been another story, one perfectly defined by the presence of the Mets’ all-time leader in games played, Ed Kranepool.

Kranepool wasn’t a terrible player, but he didn’t hit much for a first baseman, and he didn’t make up for it with Gold Glove defense. The nicest thing you could say about him was that he made a really nice bench player, who was stretched as an everyday player. Instead the Mets found themselves forced to turn to him year after year for a dozen years or so.

For the most part, first basemen have been easier for National League teams to unearth over the past 47 seasons, though the effect isn’t quite as large as you might think. On average, a team sticks with a starting first baseman almost half a season longer than a catcher. Teams are also less likely to switch first basemen in the midst of a season, though a lot of that is due to the rigors associated with the tools of ignorance.

But I’m getting a little ahead of myself. Here’s the same chart I provided in the retrospective on catchers, only this time for first basemen:

Team Yrs #Strs SLE LGS 10%/yr sOPS+ Rate
Diamondbacks 11 7 1.57 99.5 2.27 98.2 100.3
Braves 47 26 1.81 103.0 2.21 96.7 98.3
Marlins 16 8 2.00 120.8 2.00 91.1 99.4
Nats/Expos 40 19 2.11 107.8 2.23 91.9 100.2
Brewers 11 5 2.20 126.4 1.82 104.0 99.1
Mets 47 21 2.24 115.2 2.00 93.1 100.7
Cardinals 47 20 2.35 122.0 1.89 110.7 100.9
Astros 47 19 2.47 126.0 1.77 106.8 101.1
Padres 40 16 2.50 116.3 2.00 96.1 99.4
Pirates 47 18 2.61 109.6 2.21 97.6 97.9
Giants 47 17 2.76 113.1 2.00 103.8 99.8
Phillies 47 14 3.36 116.2 2.04 98.9 98.9
Dodgers 47 13 3.62 129.6 1.68 93.4 101.0
Cubs 47 12 3.92 125.9 1.79 101.9 100.9
Reds 47 12 3.92 118.0 1.91 98.5 100.7
Rockies 16 2 8.00 144.1 1.31 128.4 100.0

For those who don’t remember, here’s a quick key for what those headings mean:

Years – years of NL play
#Strs – number of different starters
SLE – starter’s life expectancy
LGS – leader’s number of starts per season
10%/yr – number of players to receive 10% of the team’s starts per season
sOPS+ – average sOPS+ per season
Rate – average Rate per season

I won’t go into as much detail as last time, so please refer here for a more exhaustive explanation of my methodology and what these terms mean.

Some observations, in no particular order:

As I said, I would’ve expected teams to have a much easier time finding first basemen. Of course, the ease with which you can fill the position might actually result in teams using more first basemen rather than less. Because you can plug almost anyone into the position, you’re probably going to be less likely to commit to a first baseman long-term—you’ll bolt at the first sign of trouble. Furthermore, many first basemen start out at other positions, meaning many are of an advanced age when they finally get to first, which shortens their life expectancy considerably.

Second, there’s a fairly wide range in sOPS+ numbers, though not as wide as we saw with the catchers. What I find very surprising is this: only five teams were above average in sOPS+ over the period, and one of them has been the Rockies, who have been very lucky there since their inception. Maybe the NL has been particularly unlucky finding first base help—the designated hitter might attract a lot of older players to the American League—and the sample size is small enough where it’s certainly possible to imagine the AL teams picking up the slack. It’s probably nothing, but I found it interesting.

On the other side of things, there’s comparatively no deviation in Rate. All teams are within five percent of each other. You’d think some team would have dipped far below, but it might just be the nature of Rates for first basemen, where there’s less difference between the best and worst defenders than at other positions.

The Rockies are a clear outlier in this, obviously. They’ve had only two different starters (Andres Galarraga and Todd Helton), and they’ve been very fortunate that one has been among the best in the game. They’ve just been fortunate not to witness a dry spell yet, as the Marlins have been very unfortunate not to find a guy to provide above-average production for half a decade yet.

Since 1985, the Astros have used only three starting first basemen: Glenn Davis, Jeff Bagwell, and Lance Berkman. Their production at the position has slipped below the league average only twice in that span, both by Davis (1985 and 1987). In the 23 seasons prior, the team used 16 guys, including Norm Larker, Walt Bond, Curt Blefary, Art Howe, Enos Cabell, Chuck Harrison, Ray Knight, and Denis Menke. If not for Bob Watson and Lee May, the position would have been a total disaster pre-1985.

The Cubs also used only three first basemen over a 24-year period: Bill Buckner, Leon Durham, and Mark Grace, from 1977 to 2000.

The Pirates really made Kevin Young their first baseman for 1022 games. Talk about setting low standards.

My top five teams:
1. St. Louis Cardinals
2. Houston Astros
3. San Francisco Giants
4. Colorado Rockies
5. Chicago Cubs

My bottom five:
1. Washington Nats / Montreal Expos
2. New York Mets
3. Los Angeles Dodgers
4. Atlanta Braves
5. Florida Marlins

With regard to the Mets, I was shocked to discover that their numbers were nearly identical to the Dodgers. The Dodgers have had phenomenal stability there; between 1962 and 2002, they used eight starting first basemen. The Mets used 17. A perfect illustration how stability can be a little overrated—for all that they’ve had, they weren’t much better off than the Mets, who’ve seen virtually none, from Marvelous Marv to Mo Vaughn.

The Mets didn’t put up a sOPS+ above the league average until 1976; they did it only one other time before Keith Hernandez arrived in 1983.

I’ll be back next week with a closer look at the individuals who’ve played first for the Mets over the years.

2 Responses to “Position Retrospective: First Base”

  1. Comment posted by sweetlew is now a Ravens Fan on January 8, 2009 at 9:50 am (#916410)

    I love these articles Alex, very well done.

    I am assuming that the Rockies are penalized soley b/c they have a shorter period of time? Obviously, in a 16 year period one great player will skew the data.

    It is hard to believe 1B has been a black hole for the Mets — Hernandez, Olerud, and Delgado are the only above average firstbasemen they have had. And, between the three, I would bet we are only looking at about 9 above average years.

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  3. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on January 8, 2009 at 1:25 pm (#916598)

    I am assuming that the Rockies are penalized soley b/c they have a shorter period of time? Obviously, in a 16 year period one great player will skew the data.

    Exactly. I didn’t feel it was fair to treat the Rockies the same as I would have treated a team with nearly 50 years of history.