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Is First Base Baseball's Elite Position?

A Graphical Look at the WAR of the Top-5 players at  baseball's elite positions over the last decade.
A Graphical Look at the WAR of the Top-5 players at baseball's elite positions over the last decade.

First basemen are considered elite in today's game. They dominate the news and have been receiving some massive contracts in recent years (especially this off-season). Ryan Howard, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Prince Fielder, and just this week, Joey Votto, have signed contracts that were for at least 5 years and all had total values above $100 million. In the last decade six of the top 20 MVP awards have gone to first basemen. This week, ESPN completed their series of the top 500 players in baseball. Eleven of the top-20 on that list were position players:

1. Pujols (1B)

2. Cabrera (1B*)

3. Ryan Braun (LF)

4. Troy Tulowitzki (SS)

5. Robinson Cano (2B)

6. Matt Kemp (CF)

7. Jose Bautista (RF)

8. Gonzalez (1B)

9. Evan Longoria (3B)

10. Fielder (1B)

11. Votto (1B)

*Note: I honestly still consider Cabrera a 1B, because I think he'll start more combined games at first and DH this season than he will at third.

When Cabrera is included with the first basemen, there are five 1B on the list, while the other six all play different positions. Based upon some hard evidence (contract values and MVP awards) and some evidence that is more arbitrary (ESPN Top 500 list), I think it's safe to conclude that disproportionate percentage of the top players in the game (or at least those considered to be at the top) play first, in comparison to the other positions. The goal of this post is to attempt to figure out whether first basemen are in fact better, or more elite than the top players at other positions.

I began my analysis by looking at the top five players at each position based on Fangraphs' WAR for each season in the last decade. Then I averaged the WAR for the five players at each spot and compared them to the averages of the other positions in that individual year, I concluded that whichever position had the highest average WAR during a given season was the most "elite" that season. There were only four positions that were "elite" for at least one season during the last decade: first base, center field, left field and third base. As show in the graph above, 3B and LF had the highest average WAR three times each, while 1B and CF were the elite spots twice each. Ironically, CF and 1B had the highest average WAR in total over the decade (6.24), while the other two positions had lower average WAR's (6.16 at third and 6.12 in left).

For most positions there was a distinct ebb and flow like pattern to their performances season by season, which is to be expected. For example left field was very strong at the beginning of the decade (2002-4), because that was a time before Barry Bonds retired and Pujols switched positions. Then the position was weak for years, before 2010 when the likes of Josh Hamilton, Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday, and Carl Crawford all had big seasons in left. Yet this ebb and flow pattern that was very distinct for every position did not apply to first base. First base consistently had great players in each season of the last decade.

The lowest average WAR for the top-5 first basemen came in 2007 and was 5.68, while the low for every other position was 5.18 or below. First base had the lowest sample cross-year standard deviation of .35 WAR indicating consistency over time for elite players at that position. There just hasn't been that much turnover at the position. Pujols, Gonzalez and Teixeira have been great for almost the entire decade, and players who were great, such as Lance Berkman and Todd Helton have been seamlessly replaced by elite players like Fielder, Cabrera, and Votto.

Players switching positions has also contributed to elite status of first base. As I mentioned earlier, Pujols was originally a left fielder and third baseman before moving to first. Teixeira, Cabrera, and Berkman all played different positions before making the switch to first. Teams typically put some of their best bats at first base to protect them health-wise and, in some cases, because the players aren't as talented in fielding other positions, but their bats are too important to keep them out of the line-up so they end up at first.

I've heard many argue that Fangrphs and WAR in general undervalue first basemen. They make these statements based on the WAR adjustments Fangraphs uses. This positional adjustment is used so every player is at the same level when calculating WAR. Because first base is the weakest (outside of DH) defensive position, they have an adjustment of -12.5 runs taken off their value, while left field isn't adjusted as heavily (-7.5) and third and center field actually benefit from the adjustment (+2.5 runs each). Based on the data presented in this article, the argument that positional adjustments are a "mistake" by the analysts over at Fangraphs, doesn't seem to hold water. First basemen are still clearly shown as elite players within the statistic of WAR, as the top players at this position consistently average around 6+ win seasons.

First base may not have the highest percentage of great players each and every season. For example, last season, center fielders dominated; Jacoby Ellsbury and Kemp both had incredible seasons. However, first base is a position that consistently has a fair amount of great players, making it the position with some of the most, if not the most, elite players on the diamond today.

All Statistics Provided by Fangraphs