Examining the Bill James Greatest First Basemen List in 2017 (Part 1)

james-book

I have been enjoying the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (the 2003 first Free Press trade paperback edition).  This is the baseball reference for people who love the game.  There are three main parts to the book.  Part one examines each decade of baseball starting in the 1870s and culminating in the 1990s.  The second part ranks the 100 greatest players of all time and creates a Top 100 list of players for each position.  The third part is a general reference for the James statistic Win Shares.  Although each component is excellent in its own right, I have been drawn to Part 2 which creates the Top 100 lists.  There are a number of reasons that I keep coming back to Part 2 but I think that any attempt to create a single list from culling through the entire history of a sport has the ability to drive conversation and debate and creates the most enjoyment for those of us who enjoy talking baseball.

Bill James referenced six resources while formulating his own 100 Greatest Players of All Time.  These were: The Sporting News Selects Baseball’s Greatest Players (1998), The SABR list (1999), The Total Baseball list, The Faber List published by Charles Faber (1985) which excludes pitchers, The Maury Allen List from Baseball’s 100 (1981), and The Ritter/Honig List from The 100 Greatest Baseball Players of All Time (1981).  Although James does not state that he used these lists while developing his positional Top 100 rankings, because he used it for his overall 100 best players, I would assume these six lists played a large role in his creation of the ‘by position’ lists as well.

The problem with James’s extraordinary book is that it was last updated in 2001.  James, perhaps the greatest thinker/writer the game has ever known was scooped up by the Red Sox in 2003 and has remained with the organization.  This has made him unable to share statistical information and developments or even his personal thoughts and opinions about professional baseball players.  Sabermetrics has continued to evolve and has changed the way the game is measured and played as well as what is valued by teams.  Additionally, there is a large number of modern players whose career trajectories substantially changed since the 2001 publication/rankings.  Similarly, many players that were unknown in 2001 are now perennial all-stars whom many consider to be some of the best talent in decades, if not ever.  This makes the Top 100 positional lists in need of a major overhaul.

james

I am far from qualified to take on the herculean task of a historical re-rank.  Rather, than try take on that job, I thought it would be more interesting to examine some of the players that were not ranked on James’s published lists and give a rough estimate regarding whether they should be included on a positional Top 100 list circa 2017.  There are a number of ways to measure a player’s career which makes this task, by itself, difficult enough.

In an attempt to hone my focus, I used the JAWS rankings on baseball-reference.com.  This measure created by Jay Jaffe attempts to gauge a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness by applying statistical measures to smooth out variations between eras and then measure the players accomplishments against already enshrined players.  To see a more detailed description of Jaffe’s system,  visit here.

jaffe

This article will examine the first base position.

In my analysis, twenty eight players on Jaffe’s list have distinguished themselves as potential candidates for inclusion on the updated 2017 Top 100 first basemen list.  The following twenty eight players make up this candidate pool:

Albert Pujols

Jim Thome

Miguel Cabrera

Todd Helton

Jason Giambi

David Ortiz

Mark Teixeira

Joey Votto

Carlos Delgado

Adrian Gonzalez

Kevin Youkilis

Paul Goldschmidt

Justin Morneau

Edwin Encarnacion

Travis Hafner

Tino Martinez

Paul Konerko

Carlos Pena

Prince Fielder

Freddie Freeman

Anthony Rizzo

Aubrey Huff

Chris Davis

Ryan Howard

Brandon Belt

Lyle Overbay

Eric Hosmer

Mark Trumbo

After creating this twenty eight player list, I examined playing time at first base since a number of these players have played positions other than first base during their careers.  Results indicate that it may be best to exclude six players from this list due to playing time.  David Ortiz played 2029 games as a designated hitter and only 278 games as a first baseman.  Travis Hafner played 1043 games as a designated hitter and only 72 games as a first baseman.  Edwin Encarnacion has played 674 games at third, 425 games at designated hitter, and 388 games at first.  Aubrey Huff played 555 games at first, 408 at designated hitter, 360 at third base and 329 as an outfielder.  Finally, Mark Trumbo has played 371 games as a first baseman, 361 games as an outfielder, and 13 games as a designated hitter.

ortiz     hafner     encarn     huff     trumbo

 

 

Based on these results, Ortiz, Hafner, and Encarnacion should not be considered first basemen as they played other positions more frequently during their careers (although Encarnacion has the potential to continue amassing appearances as a first baseman as his career progresses).  Although Huff most often appeared as a first baseman, his starts there account for approximately only 34% of his games played.  Similarly, only about 43% of Trumbo’s starts have come at first base.  These five players did not distinguish themselves as first basemen, especially defensively, and as a result are dropped from consideration for the updated Top 100 first basemen list.

youk

Kevin Youkilis shares commonalities with this group but his overall profile is slightly different.  A review of his playing career indicates that he played 55% of his games as a first baseman.  Defensive metrics generally view his work in neutral to slightly positive terms (he won a Gold Glove in 2007).  However, playing only 613 games at first is not enough of a resume when compared to the games played at first base by players that already populate James’s 2001 list.  Thus, Youkilis is also excluded from the updated Top 100 first baseman list.

This leaves twenty two players for consideration:

Albert Pujols

Jim Thome

Miguel Cabrera

Todd Helton

Jason Giambi

Mark Teixeira

Joey Votto

Carlos Delgado

Adrian Gonzalez

Paul Goldschmidt

Justin Morneau

Tino Martinez

Paul Konerko

Carlos Pena

Prince Fielder

Freddie Freeman

Anthony Rizzo

Chris Davis

Ryan Howard

Brandon Belt

Lyle Overbay

Eric Hosmer

The next group of players put together fine careers but did not meet the threshold for inclusion as an all-time great.  This group includes Carlos Pena and Lyle Overbay.

pena     overbay

Pena has great numbers from 2007-2009.  During this time, he made an All Star team, won a Gold Glove, and a Silver Slugger.  He hit 116 home runs and drove in 323 runs.  These monster seasons, as well as a handful of others solid performances, gave him a career OPS+ of 117.  Unfortunately, Pena did not compile gaudy statistics that make his work jump off the page.  He had some nice moments but does not make a strong case for inclusion on an all time greatest first baseman.  Overbay played over 1400 games at first base and although the defensive metrics don’t love his work, various measures indicate that his defense was solid.  His bat played well at times (he led the league in doubles once, had two seasons of batting over .300, and 6 seasons of an OPS+ that was 100 or better) but he never had a strong peak or sustained great run.  No All Star selections, no Gold Gloves, no Silver Sluggers, and the last 4 or 5 years were forgettable.  He’s not an all timer.

This brings the list to twenty players:

Albert Pujols

Jim Thome

Miguel Cabrera

Todd Helton

Jason Giambi

Mark Teixeira

Joey Votto

Carlos Delgado

Adrian Gonzalez

Paul Goldschmidt

Justin Morneau

Tino Martinez

Paul Konerko

Prince Fielder

Freddie Freeman

Anthony Rizzo

Chris Davis

Ryan Howard

Brandon Belt

Eric Hosmer

The next group is the “young, and on the right trajectory” group.  These players are today’s star first basemen.  Although elite, these players have not amassed the statistics, awards, and games at the position needed to legitimately crack the All Time greats list.  This group includes Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, and Anthony Rizzo and to a lesser degree Brandon Belt, Eric Hosmer, and Chris Davis.

gold     freeman     rizzo

Goldschmidt has made 764 appearances at first base in his five full and one partial season with Arizona.  He’s a 4 time All Star that’s won two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers.  He’s averaged a 147 OPS+ and totaled 29 WAR to go along with 140 home runs and 99 steals.  If Goldschmidt puts up an additional five seasons that are like his last five there is no question that he will earn a place on the All Time Greats of first base.  Freeman has made 898 appearances in his six full seasons and twenty game September call-up (2010) with the Braves.  Freeman has averaged a 134 OPS+ during his time in the bigs and has amassed 22.1 WAR to go along with 138 homers and two All Star selections.  He is 27 years old and has the opportunity to put some prime production in the books if he can continue to build on his impressive 2016 season. Rizzo has two partial and four full seasons as a pro.  He has made 743 appearances at first base.  Rizzo has a career 21.7 WAR and 130 OPS+ (with an OPS+ of 152, 146, and 146 in his three most recent seasons).  He’s earned three All Star selections, one Gold Glove, one Silver Slugger, and was a member of the curse breaking/World Series winning 2016 Cubs.  Rizzo has an opportunity to gain national recognition with the Cubs if the team is able to fulfill their lofty expectations as perennial World Series contenders.  I like his chances for inclusion on a future All Time Great List of first basemen.

belt     hosmer

Belt and Hosmer are both well respected first basemen.  However, they currently are not considered in the same class as Goldschmidt, Freeman, and Rizzo.  Belt will turn 29 during the 2017 season.  He has 643 games at first base.  He’s been on two world champion Giants teams and earned his first All Star selection in 2016.  He has a career OPS+ of 127 but has totaled only 80 homers and 32 steals (he has a career 16.9 WAR).  He’s never led the league in any category and has an injury history.  He’s on the outside looking in, but I’m not ready to remove him from future consideration for an All Time Greats list just yet.  Hosmer has 871 appearances at first base and has earned three Gold Gloves.  He earned his first All Star selection in 2016 and was on the 2015 World Series Champion Royals.  For his career, he has earned 10.1 WAR and an OPS+ of 107.  He’s compiled 102 homers and 54 steals in his six pro seasons.  He has time to add to his resume but, like Belt, is probably not quite on track to make it onto the All Time Great First Basemen list.

davis

Chris Davis is likely on the outside looking in as well.  He is in a somewhat different position however because Davis struggled in his first few years and at almost 31 may have a hard time compiling enough elite seasons to make an All Time Greats list.  He has 794 games played at first base and career marks of 17.7 WAR, 120 OPS+, and 241 home runs.  He’s led the league in homers twice and strikeouts twice.  He’s a one time All Star and has won one Silver Slugger.  The home run totals are eye catching but so is the .196 he batted in 2014 and the back to back 200+ strikeout seasons he’s put up.  He’s earned negative defensive WAR in all but two of his seasons (1 season if you don’t count 0.0 dWAR as a positive).  If Davis keeps mashing 40 to 50 homers for another five years, he may sneak onto a greatest first basemen list.  But even strong homer totals might not be enough to earn him a spot as an all timer.

The potential player list has now shrunk to 14.  The remaining first basemen are:

Albert Pujols

Jim Thome

Miguel Cabrera

Todd Helton

Jason Giambi

Mark Teixeira

Joey Votto

Carlos Delgado

Adrian Gonzalez

Justin Morneau

Tino Martinez

Paul Konerko

Prince Fielder

Ryan Howard

In part two, I will examine the remaining 14 candidates.

 

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8 thoughts on “Examining the Bill James Greatest First Basemen List in 2017 (Part 1)

    • underthoughtsite says:

      Hi, thanks for your response and for checking out my post. I agree that Belt is not in the running currently as an all timer. However, he has the opportunity to still put up some great seasons and if everything broke right for him and the team, he might have the smallest of chances to squeak on the list. It is more than a long shot but again, I just wasn’t ready to write him completely off (although it definitely does not look good for him at the end of the day). Thanks again for reading and hope you check out part 2 when it comes out in a few days. Looking forward to the Giants’ 2017? They are a great team to follow. I’d love to see them take the West again from LA.

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  1. Scott says:

    No on Joey Votto-Puts up stats but is not a leader, is a cancer in the clubhouse and has no interest in working with young players. Plus, he’s been influenced by Brandon Phillips (and not in a good way).

    No on Tino Martinez-Above average consistent hitter but not an All-Time Great. His perception was helped quite a bit by the great players around him.

    Definite no on Kevin Youkelis-good hitter and very good OBP whose perception was also helped by the great players around him. Definitely not an All-Time Great. He will have to settle for being the brother-in-law of an All-Time Great (Tom Brady).

    Lyle Overbay-Anyone who puts him on an All-Time Great list, or even a possibility of one, should have his credentials revoked.

    Too many people get good, consistent players confused with All-Time Greats. These types of players of recent vintage would include-John Olerud, Travis Hafner, Chris Davis (yes, he’s not an All-Time Great plus he’s also a cheater with PED suspension), Brandon Belt, and Eric Hosmer. All good but nowhere near All-Time Great status.

    Very good but not All-Time Great-Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard (too short of a career peak and a terrible last 5 yrs).

    On track at one time but completely sidetracked by injuries-Justin Morneau.

    Definitely already an All-Time Great-Albert Pujols.

    Like

    • underthoughtsite says:

      Thanks for your feedback. I am trying to finish writing up my part two and should have it up in the next few days. It’s been a lot of fun to try and figure out an updated list. I definitely appreciate the feedback. You brought up a lot of good info and thoughts/opinions. I am hoping you like the second part once it is up. Love these list discussions as everyone sees things from his/her own perspective which leads to get conversations Thanks again for checking out my post and for your feedback.

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  2. Scott says:

    Add d to above-Mark Texeira and Jim Thome would each absolutely be considered an All-Time Great. Very close-and I would probably would include in-Paul Konerko, Edwin Encarnacion.

    Very good but not All-Time-Carlos Delgado.

    Like

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