Where have all the first basemen gone?

Otto Greule Jr

First basemen across baseball have not been producing nearly as much as they used to. One has to wonder, what happened? First base is a position known for towering home runs and nearly instant gratification in the run producing department. Suddenly we're slapped with the realization that the position isn't quite as deep as we had first thought.

Is there a problem at first base across all of baseball? The position produced the lowest total fWAR in 2012 among position players (not counting DH of course) at just 65.7. The next lowest was second base at 77.7 but second base isn’t a position expected to produce offensively the way first base is so that’s a bit of a gap, isn’t it? That 65.7 fWAR for 2012 is actually the lowest fWAR value since the position put up a 58.3 mark in 1963, not counting the strike shortened season of 1981.

So what is going on exactly?

In an article written by Steven Goldman, the MLB Editor for SBNation.com, he wonders what is going on with the lack of discernible depth at first base across the majors given the recent rash of injuries at the position this spring.

… the news that shortstop Alex Gonzalez, career .247/.292/.399 hitter, will likely open the season as the Brewers' first baseman in the absence of Corey Hart and Mat Gamel. Add to that the possibility that Juan Rivera might play a good deal of first base for the Yankees with Mark Teixeira out, and that teams without injury problems, from the Rays with James Loney to the Mariners with Justin Smoak, the Royals with the spectacularly disappointing Eric Hosmer, to the Rockies with the desiccated remains of Todd Helton, there is a discernible lack of quality first basemen, an absence of Gehrigian stature.

Obviously it’s a concern when your everyday first baseman goes down with an injury, or your current first baseman is aging or ineffective and coming up with a back-up option to fill the need is akin to picking names out of a hat with a hole in it.

Of the qualified first basemen on the FanGraphs leaderboard for the 2012 season, just 22 of the 25 eligible players, put together a positive WAR season. If we want to talk about those in that group that could be considered solid starters (two or more WAR) then just 14 players meet that criteria. Even if we lower the criteria to 300 plate appearances, to account for those players that may not have been the starting first baseman to begin the season, that still only provides us with 34 players who produced positive WAR value and only 17 that were worth starting regularly (two or more WAR).

Baseball Prospectus writer Sam Miller wrote a piece taking a look at WARP values among the different positions and discovered that first base also doesn't look so hot by that metric.

First base has never been below 10 percent of league production. And just three years ago it was more than twice as productive, relative to the rest of the league, as it is now. What happened to first base? And does it matter?

Even though the overall production values of first basemen has never dipped below 10 percent of league production Sam goes on to make a very valid point.

Major-league first basemen, of course, are a little bit like major-league closers: Many of them aren't in that role when they’re 20, when there is still optimism that they can stick in a more valuable defensive role. Albert Pujols never appeared on a top 100 as a first baseman; Miguel Cabrera was a shortstop when he was showing up on these lists, Paul Konerko a catcher, Mark Teixeira a 3B. (For that matter, the 1B-turned-DHs Butler, Morales, and Dunn were all ranked as outfielders.) Miguel Sano, as a current example, is a third base prospect, but a big body who made 42 errors in 2012 and might not last at the spot.

Looking at the previous three seasons (2010-2012) there are some players that are currently in the majors who are butchers in the field, according to FanGraphs and their UZR metric. Matt Kemp, Aramis Ramirez, and even Nelson Cruz that could find themselves at first base one day depending on the needs of their team. Then there are players who may be blocked at their normal position -- third base for example -- that could move across the diamond so their team can get their bat in the major league lineup, such as Mike Olt and Anthony Rendon.

Then again, perhaps it’s time that we re-evaluate the manner in which we deem someone worthy of playing first base. Solid defense and a decent average plays well at any position -- if you have a well-rounded team and can find power from another position.

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