January 15, 2009
Position Retrospective: First Base, Part II
by: Alex Nelson on Jan 15, 2009 4:00 AM | Filed under: Articles

Last week, I presented how the first part of my look back through the years at the Mets’ first base situation, first figuring out how they’ve filled the position compared to the rest of the National League since 1962. Just as I did with catchers, I’ve saved my thoughts on individual seasons and players for the second part.

As before, I’ve used a combination of Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) and Fielding Runs, both of them Baseball Prospectus stats to influence my decisions. Please refer back to my last article for my reasoning behind my choices. In short: I used both stats because they’re available throughout history and more effective than most of the alternatives.

Anyway, on to the good stuff:

The Top Five Seasons from Mets First Basemen

The Year:
The Cast: Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Tom Paciorek, Danny Heep, Ray Knight

As I mentioned the last time, the Mets haven’t had very many great seasons from first basemen, and this list reflects that. Three of the top five seasons belong to Keith Hernandez, the other two to John Olerud. Hernandez didn’t have a lot of power—he slugged only .430 in 1985—but he hit .309 with a .384 on-base average while winning the Gold Glove. I should also mention that Fielding Runs see 1985 as Hernandez’s best season with the glove as a Met.

The Year:
The Cast: John Olerud, Matt Franco, Bobby Bonilla, Mike Kinkade, Todd Pratt, Jorge Toca, Robin Ventura

Olerud started 159 games, so nobody else had much of a chance to make a large impact. Olerud’s 1999 season was very similar to his 1997 (which ranks eighth on my list), when he actually posted a higher OPS+ relative to his position, but there are a couple of subtle differences. First of all, Baseball Prospectus has Olerud being a couple runs more valuable with the glove. Second, despite the OPS+ being better, Olerud’s 1999 was more OBA-heavy, and since on-base ability creates more runs than slugging, I have Olerud as the more valuable player in ’99.

The Year:
The Cast: Keith Hernandez, Danny Heep, Jerry Martin, Rusty Staub, John Stearns, Ray Knight

I could definitely see the arguments that Hernandez’s 1984 season was the team’s most valuable ever. On top of his usual Gold Glove, Hernandez added a Silver Slugger and finished second in the MVP vote, as he hit .311/.409/.449.

The Year:
The Cast: Keith Hernandez, Gary Carter, Dave Magadan, Lee Mazzilli, Tim Corcoran, Tim Teufel, Kevin Mitchell, Ray Knight

Hernandez’s 1984 and 1986 were very close seasons. I have them more or less dead-even in VORP, and it appears that Hernandez was slightly better with the glove in 1984. So why does 1986 win out? They’re actually so close that the backups made the difference. In 1985, Heep, Martin, and Staub didn’t provide much at all, while Carter, Magadan, Mazzilli did enough to push the season over the top. In truth, there are less than two runs separating the two seasons, so they’re still pretty interchangeable.

The Year:
The Cast: John Olerud, Matt Franco, Jim Tatum, Todd Pratt, Craig Paquette, Lenny Harris, Tim Spehr

The Mets’ best season by a first baseman ever, and it’s not particularly close. Olerud hit .354/.447/.551, and the team’s sOPS+ at the position was 130, the highest mark they’ve ever posted. The saddest thing of all: Olerud finished just 12th in the MVP voting, thanks to low RBI and runs scored numbers. Outside of Mike Piazza (who didn’t join the team until the end of May), the 1998 team really couldn’t hit. Alfonzo had an off year, and their next best hitter was certainly Brian McRae. A true under-the-radar season.

For those of you interested in a list that doesn’t just contain seasons by Olerud and Hernandez, here are my next five:

6. 2008 (Carlos Delgado)
7. 1970 (Donn Clendenon/Art Shamsky)
8. 1997 (John Olerud)
9. 1976 (Ed Kranepool/Joe Torre)
10. 1990 (Dave Magadan)

The Five Worst Seasons

(In order of suckitude)
1. 1996
2. 1979
3. 1968
4. 1963
5. 1982

Rico Brogna took the Mets by storm in the strike-shortened summer of 1994, and he followed it up with a solid 1995 campaign. The Mets were hoping that he’d continue to build on his success in 1996, but chronic back problems limited his production, and a torn labrum ended his season early. Instead the Mets turned to Butch Huskey, Roberto Petagine, and, after the trade deadline, a little bit of Carlos Baerga to help them through. It didn’t work—they couldn’t hit, they couldn’t field, and they turned in an entire season of replacement-level baseball at first base.

1979 wasn’t any better, even if it was more stable. Manager Joe Torre let Willie Montanez accumulate 410 at-bats of .234/.277/.317 “production” and the 34-year-old Ed Kranepool couldn’t pick up the slack. 1968 was almost a carbon-copy, except that Kranepool played Montanez’s part with Greg Goosen, J.C. Martin, and Art Shamsky in the supporting roles. The Mets had to rely on Tim Harkness in 1963, and Dave Kingman had his worst season as a Met in 1982.

Top Seven First Basemen (Career)

1. Keith Hernandez: Almost as anti-climactic as Mike Piazza was for the catchers.

2. John Olerud: On a per-game basis he rates higher than Hernandez, but Hernandez has almost 400 games on John, which can’t be ignored.

3. Carlos Delgado: Delgado already ranks third on the franchise VORP list, and FRAA thinks more highly of Delgado’s defense than you might think. Whether that’s a result of FRAA doing funky things with his range or of the other things which Delgado admittedly does well, I don’t know.

4. Ed Kranepool: By my count, Olerud accumulated more career value in three seasons with the Mets than Kranepool accumulated in 18. Still, 18 seasons is an awful long time, and there were some nice moments in there.

5. Dave Magadan: Quiet Dave Magadan could reach base at a 36% clip in his sleep. I mean that almost literally. Until his final season, at the age of 38, Mags never had a year where he failed to reach an OBA of .360, regardless of how many plate appearances he got. His career mark was a phenomenal .390. He’d rate higher, if we took the entirety of his seven-year Met career, but he only actually played 417 games at first.

6. John Milner: The Hammer takes the sixth spot. Like Magadan, Milner would rate higher if I were to consider his entire career as a Met, but seeing as how I’m sticking to just first base he suffers a tad. He only played 366 games at the position, and unfortunately, his best year—a fantastic 1976 when he posted an OPS 36% better than the league average—came as an outfielder.

7. Donn Clendenon: Clendenon and Rico Brogna rate almost completely even here. They’re in a dead heat in VORP, and Brogna was the slightly better fielder, though Clendenon played a few more games. FRAA has them even in total defensive value. I picked Clendenon mostly due to his heroics in 1969 and because his 1970 season was better than any full season Brogna had. I’ll always have fond memories chanting “Rico!” in 1994, though.

Worst First Baseman

There isn’t a clear-cut “worst first baseman” for the Mets. There are so many embarrassments that it’s difficult to find someone who was good enough to stick around for more than a handful of games but still really, really bad. David Segui was truly awful as a Met—I have him a few runs below replacement at first base offensively—but he only appeared in 85 games there. I can say similar things about Marv Throneberry and Doug Mientkiewicz.

I guess I’ll go with Mike Jorgensen who appeared in 241 games. Jorgensen wasn’t a worthless player, because he’d take a walk and he had a solid glove at first, but his bat was still below replacement level. Among players who appeared in more than 100 games at first, Jorgensen, who appeared in 241, contributed the least value per game, by my count.

Honorable mentions go to Mo Vaughn, Tim Harkness, Butch Huskey, Dave Kingman, and Willie Montanez. If you want to argue in favor of any of them I’d certainly listen; they were uniformly terrible. If Montanez had a worse glove, he’d be the easy choice.

Best Defensive First Baseman

You can’t go with anyone other than Keith Hernandez when you consider career length, although Fielding Runs suggest John Olerud was nearly as good per defensive inning. Other excellent fielding first basemen: Montanez, Brogna, and Todd Ziele.

Worst Defensive First Baseman

The first name that should immediately spring to mind is Marvelous Marv Throneberry, who was famous for his fielding miscues. I was extremely pleased when he showed up at the bottom of my list among first basemen with 100 or more games at the position. Only Mike Piazza was worse among guys with 30 or more games.

People have told a lot of funny lines about how bad Marvelous Marv over the years. Richie Ashburn once allegedly joked that they would have gotten him a cake for his birthday but they feared he’d drop it. Longtime columnist Jimmy Breslin once said, “Having Marv Throneberry play for your team is like having Willie Sutton work for your bank.”

I should point out that Vaughn was very nearly as bad, and Eddie Murray and Dave Kingman don’t rate much better.

Best Name

Marvelous Marv takes the prize, but Brock Pemberton ain’t bad either, and he gets double points for having the same name as the guy who helped found the Tony Awards.

6 Responses to “Position Retrospective: First Base, Part II”

  1. Comment posted by Rivers McCown on January 15, 2009 at 6:04 am (#920211)

    2006 Delgado doesn’t make the cut?

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  3. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on January 15, 2009 at 8:48 am (#920216)

    2006 Delgado doesn’t make the cut?

    Nope. Chiefly because while FRAA likes his defense in 2007 and 2008, it doesn’t think much of it in 2006. Like I’ve said before, I’m not in love with FRAA, though I do think it does a better job with first base than other positions. I’d rather be using something else, but for the sake of simplicity and maintaining a single scale, I’ve refrained from doing so.

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  5. Comment posted by sweetlew is now a Ravens Fan on January 15, 2009 at 9:13 am (#920222)

    I had the same question re: 2006.

    I wonder if FRAA likes Delgado due to his hands at first. While his range is not very good, he is pretty good (or at least appears to be) at catching errant throws — part of that is his size and reach, but he does okay on low throws as well

  6. Comment posted by jas on January 15, 2009 at 6:12 pm (#920724)

    Are you sure about Milner in the OF in 1976? I don’t ever remember him playing the OF for the Mets. (I do remember him playing the OF after he went to the Pirates.) I thought Kingman was the LF in 1976.

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  8. Comment posted by MetsTailgate on January 15, 2009 at 7:43 pm (#920788)

    Good stuff Alex. I wish UZR and +/- could somehow be figured out for past years but FRAA is serviceable.

    Also, “Brock Pemberton” – with that name, he should be starring in a porn/action flick with Dirk Diggler.

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  10. Comment posted by Alex Nelson on January 15, 2009 at 10:15 pm (#920890)

    Are you sure about Milner in the OF in 1976? I don’t ever remember him playing the OF for the Mets.

    Milner spent 288 games in the outfield with the Mets over his career, 112 of them in 1976. Not quite a perfect 50/50 split, but not far off, either.