When I was a kid in the 90s, every team had a hulking beast at first base: Frank Thomas, Mark McGwire, Jim Thome, Mo Vaughn, Andres Galarraga, etc. When I turned to the stats page in my Baseball Weekly newspaper (this is how we did things before the Internet, kids), each team’s first baseman practically jumped off the page. Really, this makes sense; lumbering sluggers who lack the quickness for other defensive positions naturally wind up at the cold corner. As a result, the bar for offensive production at the position is much higher than others.
This year, Jose Abreu started at first base for the American League All-Star Team. Listed at 6’3”, 255 lb., he definitely fits the physical description of “hulking beast.” But heading into the break, he was hitting just .250/.304/.457. What?!? That’s the best the AL could do at the premier offensive position?!? In 1998, 24 teams had a first baseman with an OPS higher than Abreu’s- including both expansion teams!
As it turns out, this actually is a historically bad year for first basemen. Across MLB, they’ve accounted for just a 107 wRC+. This is the lowest mark for the position since 1982. By fWAR, this is the fourth worst season since 1920 for MLB first basemen:
MLB First Basemen fWAR/650 PA
Not only is 2018 historically bad for the position, but it appears to be a trend instead of an anomaly. Five of the seven lowest years by fWAR per 650 plate appearances have come in this decade. There could be any number of potential reasons for this. Here’s a few possibilities:
- WAR is a relative statistic. In theory, a given player could be just as good in 2008 as he was in 2018, but if the league as a whole improves, his WAR will be lower. Many of the best players in baseball are five-tool threats, such as Mike Trout, Francisco Lindor, Nolan Arenado, Mookie Betts, and many others who do not man first base. This was not the always true in the past. For example, the 1970 Orioles won the World Series with first baseman Boog Powell, who won the AL MVP slashing .297/.412/.549, and shortstop Mark Belanger, who hit just .218/.303/.259. Powell was practically immobile in the field whereas Belanger was one of the slickest shortstops ever. The modern day defensive equivalent of Belanger is Andrelton Simmons, who has a 115 wRC+ this year. Back then, the best hitters and best fielders were usually different people, and nowadays more players are good at both. This reduces the likelihood that they’ll wind up at first base. (Yes, the Orioles also had Brooks Robinson, but he was more of the exception than the rule.)
- Pitchers are a lot better than they used to be as well. Velocity, movement, and control have all improved dramatically over the last few years. As a result, hitting is a lot harder than ever. Perhaps the best evidence of this is pitcher batting lines. They’re batting just .114/.144/.146 this year, but it was .146/.187/.183 in 1998 and .181/.230/.226 in 1948 (the worst year for first basemen). Since hitting is so much more difficult, it’s harder to simply slug your way to a high WAR.
- Baseball’s statistical revolution also conspires against first basemen. Front offices, managers, and players know a lot more about defensive positioning, platoon splits, and each hitter’s strengths and weaknesses. We also have much better metrics for evaluating offense, defense, and baserunning. Let’s use recent Phillies acquisition Justin Bour as an example. He has a career 119 wRC+ so far. Good job, Justin! In spite of this, he’s only accumulated 4.6 fWAR in 481 games and 1733 plate appearances. These days, we know how much his poor defense, baserunning, and inability to hit lefties drag down his overall value. He’s a useful player of course, but he’s not a good everyday starter. Still, with offense like that, if he had played years ago he could’ve probably received a lot more playing time.
All of these are just hypotheses. There may be some truth to all of them or none at all. Most likely, there are even more factors that contribute to declining performance of MLB first basemen that I haven’t even considered.
At this point, it’s important to clarify that great first basemen still do exist. The epidemic of substandard first base production has not reached every corner of baseball. Here are a few players that still represent the position well:
Best MLB First Basemen by fWAR
Wait a second... these players all have something in common. Braves, Cardinals, Diamondbacks.... THEY’RE ALL NATIONAL LEAGUERS! What happened to the American League?
Only six of the sixteen AL clubs have a first baseman with a wRC+ over 100. That’s almost almost unprecedented futility for an entire league. This is only the third time in the last 100 years that a league’s first basemen have collectively failed to reach 100 wRC+.
Worst First Base wRC+
It turns out Abreu starting the All-Star Game wasn’t much of an accident. He really might have been the best the AL had to offer (it was probably Matt Olson, but you get the point). If we look at wOBA, the evidence is even more damning.
Worst First Base wOBA
Orioles first basemen (ahem, Chris Davis) are the biggest culprit. They’ve combined for a pathetic 48 wRC+. However, there’s plenty of blame to go around: the Yankees, Twins, Royals, and Angels are also under 85 wRC+ at the position. (So are the Rockies in the NL.)
In case you were wondering, the best group of first basemen ever was the crew manning first base for the American League teams in 1934. There were only eight teams in the league, with the top three first basemen being Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx, and Hank Greenberg. Led by these three Hall of Famers, AL first basemen as whole posted a 130 wRC+ that season.
Looking to the future, is there help on the horizon? Maybe not. MLB Pipeline lists just two first basemen in their Top 100 Prospects: #29 Brendan McKay and #63 Peter Alonso. McKay might not even count because he’s also a pitcher. There might be other top prospects who move over to first base, such as #1 Vladimir Guerrero Jr., and even some young major league sluggers currently playing other positions (badly), like Miguel Andujar. In the meantime, MLB teams will have to figure out how to get more production from their first basemen, especially in the AL.
Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at Off the Bench Baseball. Tweets @depstein1983