Today we continue our survey through MLB history, courtesy of Rally's WAR database. Last time, we looked at catchers. Now, we continue our march around the diamond and turn our attention to the most offensive (heh) of positions, the first basemen. For most of MLB history, first base has belonged to the slugger: hulking men who specialize in hitting the ball hard, far, and often. The typical first basemen has traditionally also been a poor fielder compared to other positions, though as you'll see many of the players who make our Top-14 list were at least considered above average fielders at their position.
At the far right of the defensive spectrum, it is also a place that many players came to play in the second-half of their careers. Here, I'm defining first basemen as those players who played first base in more games than any other position--even if we remember them for other positions (e.g. Rod Carew, Pete Rose, Ernie Banks, etc). It does make this a very deep position, and as a result many outstanding players did not make our top-14 list (Banks, Greenburg, Killebrew, etc). But this seemed to me to be the fairest, most objective way to assign position.
The Top-14 First Basemen, by WAR
14. Willie McCovey of the Giants, Padres, and Athletics. Hall of Fame.
If Willie McCovey had been a catcher, and had produced the same WAR total over his career somehow or another, he would rank 5th All-time ahead of Yogi Berra. But first base is a brutally deep position, and as a result the original Big Mac just barely makes our cut. Willie was a classic power-hitting first baseman. Good average, took plenty of walks before it was fashionable to do so, and slugged the heck out of the ball. He led the league in homers three times, slugging percentage thrice, OBP once, and BtRuns three times--all consecutive years. His peak was phenomenal: from 1968-1970, he was the best hitter in baseball, posting a 188 OPS+ (1st overall each of those years) and racking up more than 22 WAR. That's a third of his overall career value. He was Rookie of the Year in 1959, NL MVP in 1969, and a 6-time All Star. The only knock on his game was his fielding, where he typically cost his teams a half-win per season compared to his opposing numbers. He more than made up for that with his bat, of course, but it cost him playing time early in his career while competing with Orlando Cepeda (Cepeda is #33 by WAR among 1B's)
I think Thome is one of the most underappreciated players of his era. He's been a five-time All-Star, and received votes for the MVP 8 times, and played on seven postseason teams. But he never won the MVP, and five all-star appearances seems on the low side given his career line of 0.278/0.405/0.558. The thing that's striking to me as I look at Thome's career numbers is how consistent he's been. He had 10 consecutive seasons to 500+ PA's (13 total), 9 consecutive seasons with 30 or more home runs (12 total), and 11 total 3+ WAR seasons. If there's a weak link in Thome's armor, it's probably his performance vs. lefties. Career-wise, he has a 1.046 OPS against right-handed pitchers, but just a 0.766 OPS against lefties. The size of his split even resulted in him getting benched in the postseason against tough left-handed starters during his early days in Cleveland. Nevertheless, the guy's put up amazing numbers, and to my knowledge has never been linked to steroids--an increasingly rare thing for sluggers during the steroid era. I like his chances to get into the Hall of Fame, at least eventually. If I was including his 2009 numbers, he'd be up to 68 WAR.
If we can put aside the finger-waving hypocracy for a minute, Palmeiro had a heck of a career. Palmeiro was a four-time All-Star, received MVP votes in ten years, received a pair of silver-slugger awards, and even won three consecutive gold gloves (though one is a classic example of the at-times meaninglessness of that award). He did spend much of the last seven years of his career as a designated hitter (hence the huge position adjustment), but he started the most games of his career at first base--and, based on total zone, grew into a fine defender. His rate stats aren't as impressive as others on this list, with the third-worst wOBA and the third-worst WAR/700 PA rate. But all of that playing time adds up. Over the middle 17 years of his career, his lowest seasonal PA total was 498, and he averaged 153 games and 664 PA over that stretch. He had nine consecutive seasons with at least 38 home runs, and 10 consecutive (12 total) 3+ WAR seasons. He was extremely durable and extremely consistent. Would he have been able to do that without the juice? Heck if I know.
11. Eddie Murray of the Orioles, Dodgers, Mets, Indians, and Angels. Hall of Fame.
In a lot of ways, Murray's career is very similar to Palmeiro's. A power-hitting first basemen, albeit a switch-hitter, with remarkable durability and consistency. They posted very similar wOBAs (after era adjustments) and fielding numbers, and were both able to extend his career to at least some degree by playing the role of designated hitter (though not to the degree that Palmeiro did). Murray's rate stats might just be borderline hall of fame caliber for a first baseman, but he played a lot for a long, long time, posting the 7th-most PA's in MLB history. And he was consistent as heck, posting 10 consecutive 3+ WAR seasons from 1978 to 1987 (all but two were 4+ WAR seasons)--hence the nickname Steady Eddie. In the end, he won the rookie of the year, was an 8-time All Star, won three consecutive gold gloves, and received votes for the MVP award 9 times, finishing in the top-5 for five consecutive years.
10. of the Cardinals. Active player.
Pujols is the second-best hitter I've ever seen, behind only Bonds. His 0.441 wOBA ranks third among the top-100 first basemen by WAR. He has never, ever, posted a season batted runs total below 46 runs above average (~4.6 WAA). He has never, ever, appeared in less than 143 games, or come to the plate fewer than 634 in a season, despite coping with what must be painful injuries. At 29 years old, he's already a two-time MVP, an 8-time All Star (out of 9 seasons), the recipient of a gold glove award, and four silver slugger awards. But I think the key to understanding the greatness of Pujols is to appreciate his fielding. By every metric I've ever looked at, he is a fantastic first baseman. By Total Zone, he has the second-highest fielding per season rate of any of the top-100 "first basemen" by WAR--behind only the rather unique Darin Erstad. His fielding above-average total of 97 runs is already the best of anyone in the top-14. And his 8.8 WAR/700 PA rate is the highest of any first basemen in the top-100. He's shown no signs of slowing, either. His wOBA this season is the third-best of his career. Pujols will eventually plateau, but in my judgement, he's already secured his bid for Cooperstown. The question is how far will he climb. Fangraphs says we should already add 6.5 WAR to his total for the 2009 campaign, and with two more 8 WAR seasons after this he'll cross the 90-WAR mark. Enjoy him while he's here, because he's clearly one of the best I expect to ever see.
9. Johnny Mize of the Cardinals, Giants, and Yankees. Hall of Fame.
Of our top-14 first basemen, Mize's 15 seasons is tied with Jeff Bagwell for the lowest total among all retired players. The reason is that he spent 3 years in military service during World War II--the first such player to show up in our lists. He also didn't arrive in the major leagues until his age-23 season, which is late for players of his caliber. Nevertheless, Mize put together a monstrous career, leading the league in BtRuns twice, home runs four times, and ending with a career line of 0.312/0.397/0.562. He walked 300 more times than he struck out, which helped him to post superb AVG and OBP throughout his career, which did include one batting title. Fielding-wise, JAARF rates him as above-average, which is consistent with his reputation (he received the nickname The Big Cat for his fielding prowess long before Andres Gallaraga was born). He was a 10-time all-star, received votes for the MVP award 11 times (finishing second twice in 1939 and 1940). The war took his age-30-32 seasons. He very well could have reached 90 WAR with that additional playing time during his prime years.
8. Peter Edward Rose of the Reds, Phillies, & Expos.
Rose played all over the diamond during his long career, starting at second (where he won rookie of the year), then moving to the outfield (where he won two gold gloves), then to third, and finally to first base from the time that he left Cincinnati in '79 through the end of his career as player-manager in 1984-86. While I certainly don't remember him as such, he ended up playing more games and innings at 1B than any other position, and so I'm classifying him as a first baseman. Rose's rate stats don't look particularly good compared to others on this list. But even so, he was at or above Hall of Fame average performance for almost his entire career. He just played so much, and for so long, that his counting stats are what impresses the most. You know the 4256 number. He is also the all-time leader in PA's, and he led the league in PA's seven times, games played 5 times, hits 7 times, doubles five times, runs scored 4 times, won three batting titles, was a 17-time All Star, and the 1973 MVP. He was a leadoff man in an era where the stolen base was prized above all for that slot in the batting order, and yet he never stole more than 20 bases (and only twice topped 15). But he hit for high average, took his share of sprinting walks, and showed decent power. Pete's is the most impressive career of anyone who voluntarily agreed to a lifetime ban from baseball.
Like Rose, Carew is another guy who ends up being classified as a first baseman even though he spent much of his career at another position. In Carew's case, he played 54 fewer games and 700+ fewer innings at second base than first. Carew resembled Rose in other ways too--he was a high-average hitter (though Carew hit for higher average) and took his share of walks, resulting in an outstanding career OBP of 0.393. Carew hit a combination of line drives, choppers, and bunts, utilizing good speed and superb bat control to get on base. He won 7 batting titles, led the league in OBP four times, and was Rookie of the Year in 1967, an 18-time All Star, and an MVP in 1977 when he hit a ridiculous 0.388/0.449/0.570 for the Twins.
6. Jeff Bagwell of the Astros.
Bagwell burst onto the scene in 1991 to win the Rookie of the Year, just a season after being traded by the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Larry Anderson. Whoops. Bagwell had a very aggressive swing, and always looked to me like the guy was going to fall down. But you can't argue with the results. He had excellent power (perhaps not completely appreciated due to his home park) and an exceptionally good batting eye (149 walks in 1999), which helped him post a career OBP of 0.408. He also had excellent speed for a second baseman, topping 30 steals twice, and was a fine defender throughout most of his career. He led the league in runs scored three times, and won the MVP in the strike-shorted 1994 season with a crazy 0.368/0.451/0.750 season (that's 39 home runs and 9 WAR in 110 games, folks). Unfortunately, a bad shoulder forced Bagwell to retire at age 37. He becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame in 2010. I have a hard time reading the rest of the mainstream media, but I suspect that his teammate Craig Biggio will have an easier time than Bagwell despite having the weaker, albeit longer career. Lack of association with steriods may help both of them given the current backlash against suspected users.
5. Dan Brouthers of the Trojans, Bisons, Wolverines, Beaneaters, Reds, Grooms, Orioles, Colonels, Phillies, and Giants. Hall of Fame.
The two biggest names from 19th century baseball are probably Cap Anson and Buck Ewing. But Brouthers, as well as the #4-ranked 1B Roger Conner, really should be in that same picture. In fact, at least in terms of WAR, both Brouthers and Conner vastly surpassed the defensive-oriented Ewing (our #9-ranked catcher), at least by Rally's best estimates. For his part, Brouthers was perhaps the first great slugging first basemen. Over his 19-season career, he led his league in batting average five times, OBP five times, and slugging percentage seven times--including six consecutive seasons from 1881-1886. He was also a member of four first-place teams. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1945 by the veterans committee.
4. Roger Connor of the Trojans, Gothams, Giants, Phillies, and Browns. Hall of Fame.
Brouthers may have been a more dominant hitter, but his teammate on the early Trojans teams, Roger Conner, would have the longer and, according to WAR, slightly more valuable career. Conner's best years came in New York where he won back-to-back pennants from 1888-1889 (Buck Ewing caught for those same teams). Though he only led the league in home runs once, he ultimately smacked 138 during his career--the best until Babe Ruth's time. More than just power, Conner also had a fine eye at the plate, and hit for high average, as his career line of 0.317/0.397/0.486 would indicate. Also, if you believe Rally's JAARF fielding statistic for this era, he was a fine defensive first baseman, which ultimately is what brings his career value ahead of Brouthers'. He was finally elected to the Hall of Fame by the Veterans' Committee in 1976.
3. Jimmie Foxx of the Athletics, Red Sox, Cubs, and Phillies. Hall of Fame.
As good as everyone to this point on our list was, it feels like we're going to another level with Double X. He was a three-time MVP, 9-time All Star (starting in 1933 with the first All-Star game), four-time home run leader, and led the league in offense five times by most composite measures (OPS, OPS+, Batted runs). He appeared in three consecutive World Series early in his career, playing alongside Mickey Cochrane and Lefty Grove, and his Athletics won two of those contests. With a 20-year career and almost 10,000 PA's, Foxx played long and hard. In addition to his tremendous power, he also had a superb batting eye--despite leading the league in strikeouts seven times, he ended his career with more walks than K's. Initially a catcher, Foxx's fielding numbers were above-average (for a first-baseman) through much of his career, adding to his tremendous career value.
2. Cap Anson of the Forest Citys, Athletics, and Cubs. Hall of Fame.
As far as I'm concerned, Cap Anson may have invented baseball. He played 27 seasons--Pete Rose may have had 4000 more at bats, but Anson played longer. He broke in as a 19-year old third basemen and played until he was 45, moving to first (mostly) by his third season. Over that time, he was an excellent player, as his 0.405 career wOBA attests (that number is corrected for era and, assuming Rally did it, park as well. But even so, he was rarely the best in baseball--he led the league in batting average twice, OBP four times, and batted runs just once. But when you are as good as he was for as long as he was, you'll put up some phenomenal numbers--Anson was the first player to pass 3000 hits, for example. And because baseball changed so much during his career, there are some wonderful oddities to his stat-lines. For example, from 1871 to 1883, he hit a total of five home runs. In 1884, he hit 21, a year in which home run rates more than doubled. In many ways, he set the course of baseball for much of the coming century, both in terms of his hitting prowess, and, unfortunately, his racist views toward black players.
1. Lou Gehrig of the Yankees. Hall of Fame.
Usually, I'm not going to be as blunt as this. But Lou Gehrig is the greatest first basemen in baseball history, at least relative to his era. Frankly, it's not even close. He was a 20-win lead in WAR despite playing in only 17 seasons (and only 14 full seasons). He has the best wOBA (after park and era adjustments) of any of the top-100 1B's of all time (ranked by WAR). He has the best WAR/700 PA rate of anyone not named Albert Pujols--and Pujols hasn't started the decline phase of his career yet. The only reason that he is "only" ranked 13th all time in WAR among all position players is his position adjustment, which comes as the result of playing a position where players were, on average, relatively poor fielders. With the bat, he could do everything--he hit for power, hit for average, and he walked prodigiously. He played in 7 world series (the Yankees won 6 of them), won two MVP awards, led the league in OBP five times, slugging twice, batted runs four times, home runs three times, and, of course, games played seven times (while piling up a record of 2,130 consecutive games played). And by all accounts I've ever seen, he was a grounded, level-headed, and altogether decent person.
Here's a look at five of our top-14 1B's in a classic WAR graph:
Gehrig's dominance here is just enormous. Pujols looks to be mirroring Jimmie Foxx's career, though it's hard to know how his line will look when he ultimately calls it quits. Anson's unbelievable longevity shows up here--granted, the talent in his league wasn't what it is today, but in his 27 seasons he never posted less than 0.9 WAR.
1B Production over time
This graph is inspired by one that Jeff Zimmerman put together in the catcher article. Here I'm reporting the total season-by-season WAR produced by players on the top-100 WAR list for 1B's. Careers of players in the top-14 are specifically denoted. (I'm only using the top-100 players because using all MLB 1B's seems to track the number of teams as much as 1B performance over time)
With catchers, the prime time was around the mid-70's. For 1B's, there was a similar peak around 1970 ((McCovey, Rose, Carew, etc), but the peak around 2000 was unprecedented.
Top-25 1B's by WAR
Explanation of Statistics
wOBA: The Book's statistic, park adjusted by Rally, and standardized to roughly modern baseball (0.335 league average OBP). As shown, it should be roughly comparable across all eras, except for not taking into account the higher level of competition in today's game vs. earlier decades.
Offense: "Total" from Rally's data, this is career runs above average on offense (including hitting and baserunning)
Fld/700PA: Fielding per full modern season (estimated as 700 PA instead of by innings simply for convenience)
Fld: Rally's fielding estimates, either TotalZone (TZ; Retrosheet era only) or JustAnotherAdjustedRangeFactor (JAARF), including double plays, catcher fielding, etc. Catcher fielding before 1955 does not include performance vs. the running game.
PosAdj: Rally's position adjustments, which are era specific and based on fielding disparities.
WAR: Career WAR totals. Note, in a few cases, I'm finding very slight differences (+-0.1 WAR or so, usually) between these data and Rally's top 500 list. I can only assume it's a rounding issue.
WAR/700PA: WAR per full modern season (estimated as 700 PA).
Links to rest of series
C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS | LF | CF | RF
Up next: Second Basemen!