Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Best First Basemen By Season, 1954-2008

I thought my idea was so original. I did. No one else seemed to have the idea of making seasonal best-by-position lists. Wouldn't you know it? Just when I start publishing my findings someone else comes along and steals my thunder. How dare he! In all seriousness though, Baseball By Positions looks like the start of something good, and it should prove useful to researchers. It's too reliant on Win Shares for my liking though, a stat of which I'm no fan. If you're still interested in my results after knowing there's already something out there which attempts to do the same thing with different methodology, continue reading.

Last time we did catchers, this time it's first basemen. Let's see what we got.

Remember how I said I saw a certain player's Hall of Fame credentials in a new light after this project? That player would be none other than Keith Hernandez. I'd always regarded him as little more than a Hall of Very Gooder, but between 1977 and 1986 he was the NL's best first baseman eight times. In 1982 he was a close second to Jason Thompson. All-time elite player? Perhaps not, but when defense and era are accounted for, perhaps a Hall of Famer.

Stan Musial truly was "The Man," as he managed to be the best first baseman in the NL even late in his career. After Musial's run ended, Frank Robinson took over briefly (nope, he wasn't always an outfielder). The Giants had a dilemma in the early '60s: Both Willie McCovey and Orlando Cepeda were capable of being the NL's best first baseman. Cepeda had to be traded so that McCovey could shine at the position. Each of those four have plaques in Cooperstown today. All-in-all, the NL was a good league for first-sackers in that era. Even the second-tier guys who show up at the top carved out strong careers (Ted Kluszewski, Joe Adcock, Bill White).

Over in the AL it was a much different story. Only one player who shows up at the top made it to the Hall of Fame, and Harmon Killebrew moved around the field too much to identified with any one position. Norm Cash shows up four times, Bill Skowron and Boog Powell each show up three times, Vic Power and Norm Siebern each show up twice, and the rest are filled in by Mickey Vernon, Vic Wertz, Gail Harris, Roy Sievers, Mike Epstein and Don Mincher. Have you ever even heard of Gail Harris? 1958 was the only year he qualified for one of these lists. It's possible that Vernon would've shown up a few more times if the data went farther back, but I wouldn't consider him an all-time great even if he did. Is this just a positional fluke or the sign of a weak league? My guess is the latter.

The '70s were a little better for the AL, as Dick Allen put up an MVP season in 1972. I personally think he should be in the Hall, even if his poor fielding reduces his value somewhat. Rod Carew also moved over from second to top the league at first in both 1976 and 1977. George Scott, John Mayberry and Andre Thornton all turned in topper years, and Eddie Murray showed the beginnings of what he'd be capable of in the next decade.

Steve Garvey may be the most hatable player of all time, but four out of five years from 1974 to 1978 he was the NL's best first baseman. His overall career wasn't strong enough to make him a Hall of Famer in my opinion, but his elite reputation during his playing days may not have been as undeserved as many of us think. The Reds traded away Lee May after the 1971 season and never missed a positional leadership beat, as Tony Perez flourished there the next two years. Bob Watson's two-time tying deserves a mention too, and it's interesting to note that Willie Stargell's 1979 co-MVP came the year after he was the best at his position.

First base leaders got a little more consistent in the '80s. Don Mattingly and Cecil Cooper each had nice little three-year runs, and Fred McGriff and Will Clark also had their moments at the top. Of course, I've already discussed Keith Hernandez.

Frank Thomas was considered by many to be the best hitter in baseball during the '90s, but with fielding factored in, he only came out on top for his position once. Mark McGwire actually provided more value three times during the decade. John Olerud has an interesting place in the '90s. In 1993 he was better than the MVP winner (Thomas), and in 1998 he was better than the guy who hit 70 home runs (as if I need to tell you who). Is it safe to call him underrated?

Since Jeff Bagwell's rise to the top, the title of best NL first baseman has almost become a torch to be passed. Except for Olerud's outstanding 1998, Bagwell was the best from 1994 to 1999. In 1993 he only barely got beaten out by a career-year Gregg Jefferies too. Bagwell handed off that torch to Todd Helton for the next four years, and Helton's handoff to Albert Pujols in 2004 brings us into the current era.

Once again, the AL has become the less stable league for best first basemen. Jason Giambi had an incredible three-year run from 1999 to 2001, and Rafael Palmeiro and Jim Thome pop up here and there. On those great Yankee teams of the late '90s I usually considered Tino Martinez a good-enough guy who no one would care about if he weren't a Yankee. My opinion hasn't really changed on that, but I was surprised to find out he was co-best in 1997. Mark Teixeira looked poised to be the next great one after 2004 and 2005, but outstanding years from Justin Morneau and Carlos Pena overshadowed him. Had Teixeira spent all of 2008 in the AL, he might've done it again though.

The NL team with the most best first basemen is the Cardinals, with seven. A distant second is the Reds, with four. The Athletics lead the way in the AL with five, with second place a four-way tie at four between the Orioles, Indians, Senators/Twins and Senators/Rangers.

Next time we'll be looking at second base, a much more glorified position for the grace and athleticism usually expected. Should be fun.

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