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Baseball's best first basemen visualized

Which first basemen are having the best seasons and delivering the most value? Which aren't? Read on to find out.

Am I biased? Of course! Am I right he's one of the best first basemen? Si!
Am I biased? Of course! Am I right he's one of the best first basemen? Si!
Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

Last week, I began my series of reviewing the best players in baseball position-by-position, starting with catchers. This week covers first base, a crop that includes some of the best young talent in the game, as well as veterans who continue to produce and justify their high salaries.

This Tableau data visualization is the crux upon which the rest of the post relies, and since this is only the second time using it, I'll explain it again, adding a few details from last week's post to amplify and augment what's shown:

The horizontal axis shows the FanGraphs Dollar Value (FG$V), which this year is right around $8 million per fWAR point. As a result, fWAR is turned into a dollar amount, so the best first basemen can be seen by which are furthest to the right. Scrolling over the data points shows more information, and the date slider can be used to show changes that have occurred since around mid-May. The data is updated daily, so be sure to refer back to it often.

The vertical axis is the player's prorated 2015 salary, and there was a comment in last week's post I'll address on this subject. The salaries are from Cot's Contracts and augmented by Baseball-Reference information as necessary. 2015 salaries are used and not average annual value (AAV), because I'm comparing this year's compensation to this year's production. Russell Martin is the example cited in the post, and he'll have a big jump in salary after this year. He still would have been just as productive this year, but his value would be lower, with value being defined in a strict production/salary means. This doesn't mean he isn't a valuable player, I'm just using the economic definition of value more than the subjective one. Imagine a line going through the 0-0, 2-2, 4-4 line and so on--in general, players to the left of that imaginary line are underperforming their contracts, and those to the right are outperforming them.

As of this writing, Paul Goldschmidt of the Diamondbacks has the best fWAR. Anyone who follows baseball is aware of how good he is, but playing in both the NL West and Arizona reduces the national exposure he receives. If he were in a major market or on a winning team, we'd be hearing about him as much as we do Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, which illustrates how important it is to win in order to get noticed.

On a totally subjective note, the Cubs were playing the Diamondbacks last Friday, and the game went into extra innings. The Cubs scored two runs in the top of the tenth, and Hector Rondon had the Diamondbacks with two outs and two strikes when A.J. Pollock doubled to left. Paul Goldschmidt homered to tie the game, and the Diamondbacks eventually won 5-4. That's a humiliating kick in the crotch--and an excellent example of coming through in a clutch situation.

Since my other writing gig is for BP Wrigleyville, it stands to reason that I'm biased toward Anthony Rizzo, and I heard a wonderful stat last week (I wish I could remember the source) that Rizzo is on pace for a 30-30-30 season--30 home runs, 30 stolen bases and 30 HBP. He's on a small list of players to have two HBP in a game this year, and he's done this twice. Being hit by a pitch is different today with batters going to the plate armored to defuse a bomb, but it's still a risky thing. I doubt Rizzo's intention is to sacrifice his body to baseball, and Cubs fans everywhere hope the HBPs begin to decrease.

Two veterans are being paid righteous dollars and delivering value as well: Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera. I don't think anyone is surprised by Cabrera, even though nagging injuries seemed to bring him back to the level of mortal the last couple of years, but he's back to being the best hitter in his generation not named Albert Pujols. Adrian Gonzalez, however, has been an interesting case, a near-MVP in 2011 with the Red Sox who morphed into someone who appeared to have his best days behind him. He's not really that old, and he was red-hot  to begin this season. Which one is the real version?

Date G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
Apr 6 to Apr 28 20 84 77 18 29 9 0 7 18 7 10 .377 .429 .766 1.195
Apr 29 to May 29 26 107 91 14 28 8 0 3 17 13 20 .308 .402 .495 .896

In this and all following cases, data through Friday's games

If the definition of "downturn" is now an OPS near .900, then we have a bigger problem.

Logan Forsythe has more games at second and will be discussed there, if at all. The unlabeled point between Rizzo and Goldschmidt is Lucas Duda of the Mets. He hit for power in 2014 and has added the ability to hit for average as well and will be important if the Mets are to remain in contention, particularly if David Wright is done for the season. He still has two years of arbitration eligibility, so it will be an interesting question if he gets a big free agent deal beginning in 2018 when he turns 32. If he can maintain this level of production, he just might.

The cautionary tales of Ryan Howard and Albert Pujols will loom large in that decision. Howard is a mere shell of his former self and an $25 million albatross on a Phillies team going nowhere. I heard a rumor that the potential season-ending injury to Matt Adams spurred interest by the Cardinals for Howard, which would require an edit to the definition of "crazy" in the Oxford English Dictionary. This is probably being hard on Howard, but teams are looking for more than a projected 20-25 home runs and a .250 average for $25 million.

It could be worse--it could be $189 million through 2021 like the Angels owe Albert Pujols. Want to see something eerie?

Player
Age Tm G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BA OBP SLG OPS
Pujols 35 Angels
46 191 176 24 44 7 0 10 20 .250 .304 .460 .764
Howard 35 Phillies
45 176 164 16 41 10 1 10 24 .250 .291 .506 .798

Man oh man, I knew their dots were right next to each other, but that's something. It probably also explains why there won't be too many "Pujols back to St. Louis" rumors--too expensive for too long. At least Howard is only signed through 2017.

♫ ♫ Cards lost Matt Adams

And this is crazy

But what if  the Twins

Trade Joe Mauer maybe ♫ ♫

How about the Cardinals looking into Joe Mauer? At least he wouldn't have to suffer playing half his games in a park designed almost entirely to eliminate his power. He's in the same pay range as the other two, with the true benefit of being only 32. However, if the Cardinals think Adams can return this year (iffy) and will be back next year (much more likely), they have an asset under team control through 2018. He wasn't having a great year (he's an unlabeled point right near 0-0), and the Cardinals are near the middle of the pack in runs scored and could use the pop Mauer's bat could provide. Ryan Howard might be crazy, but Joe Mauer would be intriguing. The real question is whether the surprising Twins would be willing to trade the face of their franchise in what to date has been a very successful season.

Mark Teixeira has been in the wilderness for the past four seasons, and I suspect Yankees fans were as happy to see him return as Brian Cashman was to pay Alex Rodriguez his bonus for passing Willie Mays on the all-time home run list. He's not having a super year, but he's at least playing near the level of his contract and has managed to stay in one piece. One more year, Yankees fans, and it'll be over...

There's a group in the middle of players having solid years, but for whom it somehow seems to be a letdown. Joey Votto, Chris Davis, Edwin Encarnacion, Jose Abreu and Freddie Freeman have all built up expectations to the extent that merely being above-average seems like a letdown. Davis' 2013 very well could have been a one-year fluke, and the average will be an issue if it doesn't get higher.

Jose Abreu is just as good as he was last year, possibly even better, save for one thing:

Year G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
2014 46 197 181 31 48 11 1 17 47 10 52 .265 .315 .619 .934
2015 46 197 181 25 51 8 2 8 29 10 38 .282 .340 .481 .821

Those 17 home runs tied for the most in a player's first 46 career games with the immortal Wally Berger*, but his average and OBP are higher. The strikeouts are down, and the plate discipline is improved across the board. Any time a player starts a career in a historic fashion, expectations are set that are probably unreasonable. I wrote something along these lines last year, but if Abreu continues to produce like this, the Sox will have a big bargain for years to come.

* There is a very real possibility that Wally Berger is the best player in Braves history. Boston Braves, that is.

First base is a position where defense is at best an afterthought. For example, Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average (FRAA) lists Joey Votto as the best so far this year, no real surprise. They credit his defense with saving around 1.8 runs so far this year, which if maintained would be around five or six runs. This is dwarfed by the nearly ten runs he's produced in VORP, which would translate into around thirty runs, about a 5-to-1 ratio of offense to defense. This doesn't mean that just any stiff can be rolled out there, but if a player can hit, there's always room at first. There will always be a healthy crop of young, good-hitting first basemen, and this year is no different.

Scott Lindholm writes for BP Wrigleyville and lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.