Examining the Bill James Greatest First Basemen List in 2017 (Part 2)

james-book

In his book, the Bill James Historical Baseball abstract, James created a Top 100 Players of All Time list and a Top 100 Players of All Time for each position.  The problem with James’s extraordinary book is that it was last updated in 2001.  Because James has been employed by the Red Sox since 2003, he has been 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 are 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.  This makes the Top 100 positional lists in James’s book in need of a major overhaul.

Rather than attempt a complete historical re-rank, I thought it would be more interesting to examine players that were not included 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.

I used the JAWS rankings on baseball-reference.com to help narrow down the prospective candidates.  JAWS, created by Jay Jaffe, attempts to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness by applying statistical measures to smooth out variations between eras and then evaluate the player’s accomplishments against already enshrined players.

In PART 1 of this article, I started with 28 candidates from Jaffe’s list:

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

This list was reduced to 14 candidates for various reasons (see PART 1 for detailed analysis).  The remaining candidates for consideration on an updated All Time Greatest First Basemen list 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

Before the resume for each of the remaining 14 players is examined, I thought it would be important to take a brief look at a section of Bill James’s Top 100 First Basemen of All Time list (2001).  Specifically, the players that populate the slots 90 through 100.  This may provide context as to the qualifications of a player that populated the final slots on James’s 2001 list.  Here are the players from the end of that list in sequential order:

90. Whitey Lockman: 771 games at first and 752 games in the outfield. 15 seasons.  OPS+ average of 95, 18.2 WAR.

91. Jason Thompson: 1314 games at first. 11 seasons.  OPS+ average of 122, 24.8 WAR.

92. Dan McGann: 1377 games at first.  12 seasons.  OPS+ average of 117, 34.3 WAR.

93. Tommy Tucker: 1670 games at first.  13 seasons.  OPS+ average of 102, 25.1 WAR.

94. Jim Gentile: 854 games at first.  9 seasons.  OPS+ average of 136, 17.0 WAR.

95. Wes Parker: 1108 games at first. 9 seasons.  OPS+ average of 111, 22.9 WAR.

96. Pete O’Brien: 1377 games at first.  12 seasons.  OPS+ average of 104, 19.1 WAR.

97. Don Mincher: 1138 games at first. 13 seasons.  OPS+ average of 127, 23.0 WAR.

98. Deron Johnson: 880 games at first, 332 at third, 287 at designated hitter, and 249 in the outfield.  16 seasons.  OPS+ average of 102, 6.2 WAR.

99. Joe Pepitone: 953 games at first and 496 games in the outfield.  12 seasons.  OPS+ average of 105, 9.7 WAR.

100. Ripper Collins: 894 games at first.  9 seasons.  OPS+ average of 126, 23.5 WAR.

A majority of these players will likely fail to remain on the All Time First Basemen list if all player seasons through 2016 are included in the general analysis.  Eyeballing some of the other names that were slotted higher on James’s 2001 list may be found wanting as well. While this may very well be the case, I fear falling victim to potential recency bias.  I worry about opening the door for too many modern day players only because I had the chance to see them play, have more knowledge about them than players from the past, and/or because I am subconsciously swayed by their fame or persona.

With that caveat, let’s move forward and examine the remaining 14 players from the list:

howard

Ryan Howard – Howard played 13 seasons with the Phillies.  Although he broke in during 2004, he didn’t play more than 100 games with the team until the 2006 season.  That was his age 26 season.  He led the league in homers twice, RBI three times, and strikeouts twice.  He won the NL Rookie of the Year in 2005, the NL MVP in 2006, finished 2nd in ’08, and 3rd in ‘09.  He also made 3 All Star appearances, won 1 Silver Slugger, and was on 1 World Series winner.  He has an average OPS+ of 125, totaled 382 home runs, and earned a surprisingly low 14.9 career WAR.  Getting a late start to his major league career hurt Howard as his decline was fast and severe.  His inability to hit lefties became catastrophic while his fielding was always rated to be beyond sub-par.  His 2006-2009 prime was tremendous but four years of super-human production does not make Howard an all-timer.

fielder

Prince Fielder – Fielder appeared in 1324 games at first over his 12 year career.  Injuries led to poor production and few games played in two of his last three seasons and ultimately forced him into retirement.  Fielder led the league in homers once, RBI once, walks once and games played 4 times.  He’s a 6 time All Star and won a Silver Slugger 3 times.  He ended his career with 319 homers, an average OPS+ of 134, and 23.8 WAR.  Defensive metrics trashed his glove work annually.  He had some great seasons offensively but his defense and health issues keep him from making the All Time list.

morneau

Justin Morneau – Morneau has made 1324 appearances at first base during his 14 seasons in the big leagues.  He’s been the league leader in games played once and batting average once.  Morneau won the 2006 AL MVP, won a Silver Slugger twice, and was a 4 time All Star.  He has 27.3 career WAR and an average OPS+ of 120.  He had a 5 year stretch where he looked destined to be an all-timer but unfortunately Morneau’s career was derailed by a series of concussions.  He’ll be 36 in 2017 and is currently a free agent.  Morneau’s played a total of 107 games during the past two seasons so even if he finds a job, he’s not likely to play many games or generate elite production.  He doesn’t crack the list.

konerko

Paul Konerko – Konerko retired after the 2014 season after appearing in 1904 games at first.  He played 18 seasons and amassed 439 homers, averaged a 118 OPS+, and 27.6 WAR.  He was a 6 time All Star and was on the World Champion 2005 White Sox team.  Konerko never led the league in any category (unless you count grounding into double plays in 2003) and the defensive metrics indicate negative contributions for his first base work.  He had some nice seasons and was an important part of a few good White Sox teams however his overall numbers (especially when defense is accounted for) leave him an interesting candidate but not an all-time great.

giambi

Jason Giambi – Giambi played 20 seasons and amassed 1307 games at first (62% of all appearances), 595 at designated hitter, 113 in the outfield, and 70 games at third.  He compiled 50.4 WAR, averaged a 139 OPS+, and hit 440 homers.  He was a 5 time All Star, won the AL MVP in 2000, and won two Silver Slugger awards.  He led the league in walks 4 times, OBP three times, doubles once, strikeouts once, slugging once, and OPS once.  His defense was a completely different story.  He never posted a positive dWAR in any of his 20 seasons.  Giambi had a strong peak but his peak came in the midst of PED use (although it has never been determined how many of his best seasons occurred while he was using).  He’s not an All Timer at first base.

helton

Todd Helton – Helton played 2178 games at first base over 17 seasons in Colorado.  He generated 61.2 career WAR, averaged a 133 OPS+ and hit 369 homers.  He was an All Star 5 times, won 3 Gold Gloves, and 4 Silver Slugger awards.  He led the league in OBP twice, hits once, doubles once, RBI once, batting average once, slugging once, OPS once, and total bases once.  He also walked more times that he struck out which is quite a feat for someone who had as many extra base hits as he did.  Helton had an 8 year peak and then fell to earth as injury and age caught up to him.  Helton’s resume should be taken with a grain of salt as he played half his games in the friendly confines of Coors Field.  His home and road splits tell the story:

Home: 1084 games – 329 doubles, 28 triples, 227 homers, 859 RBI, .345 batting average, .441 OBP, .607 slugging, and 1.048 OPS.

Road: 1052 games – 271 doubles, 9 triples, 142 homers, 547 RBI, .287 batting average, .386 OBP, .469 slugging, .855 OPS.

Helton had some great years but the overall numbers are definitely inflated thanks to the Colorado altitude and spacious dimensions of his home park.  I saw Helton as a no brainer for the All Time list when I started this project.  After closer inspection, I am not as sure.  He was a great player who was consistently among the better first basemen for a better part of a decade but if his road stats were doubled to create a hypothetical career, I think we would be looking at a very good, but not All Time great.  If he resides on the All Time list, he lives on the edge of town.

teix

Mark Teixeira – Teixeira played 1769 games at first over 14 seasons.  He compiled 51.8 WAR, 409 homers, and averaged 126 OPS+.  Teixeira led the league in games played twice, runs once, homeruns once, RBI once, and total bases twice.  He was an All Star twice, won three Silver Sluggers, five Gold Gloves, and was a member of one world championship with the Yankees.  Teixeira was a well rounded player and consistently contributed with his glove and his bat.  The fast start to his career and strong middle of his career helped solidify his reputation in the game.  Unfortunately, Teixeira’s last few seasons were cut short by various injuries and as a result his overall level of play suffered especially his power and batting average which were once a hallmark of his game.  Although he was a 2015 All Star selection during this time frame, the final third of his career was mostly non-descript and keeps him from being a no brainer for the All Time list.  Like Helton, Teixeira lives on the periphery and depending on the measures being used he may fall just on or just off the All Time list.

tinomartinez

Tino Martinez – Martinez played with 5 organizations over 16 seasons (although his first two years consisted of 60 total games played).  He appeared as a first baseman in 1869 games, tallied 28.8 WAR, averaged an OPS+ of 112, and hit 339 home runs.  He was a two time All Star and won a Silver Slugger award once but he never led the league in any category (unless you count sacrifice flies once).  His glove work was solid – not great but nowhere near as suspect as some of his contemporaries.  His arrival in New York coincided with the team winning four world championships in five years.  Martinez is a borderline candidate on a Best First Basemen list but being a fan favorite and respected clubhouse presence who was a contributing member of a dynasty gives him a slight bump.  He’d be #100 on my Top 100 First Basemen of All Time list.

votto-2

Joey Votto – Votto will enter his 11th season with the Reds.  He’s played 1240 games at first base, averaged a 157 OPS+, and has earned 47.3 WAR.  He’s won the NL MVP, has been an All Star 4 times, and has won 1 Gold Glove.  Votto has led the league in games played once, doubles once, walks 4 times, OBP 5 times, slugging once, and OPS once.  Throughout his career Votto has been somewhat polarizing among the fans and analysts.  Old schoolers have knocked him for not trying to connect for more homers and RBIs while the stat-heads believe his best skills are often overlooked and undervalued.  Votto lost most of 2014 to injury which robbed him of one peak season and his presence on a Reds team that has been in rebuild mode for the past few seasons likely depressed some of his counting stats.  As he enters the 2017 season, Votto’s resume puts him on the cusp for the All Time distinction.  If he is able to put up another year or two of typical Votto production, he solidifies his place on the All Time First Basemen list.  I have little doubt he gets there.

gonzalez

Adrian Gonzalez – 2017 will be Gonzalez’s 14th pro season.  He has 1728 appearances as a first baseman.  During his career, Gonzalez has compiled 308 homers, averages a 133 OPS+, and has amassed a 43.8 WAR.  He’s a 5 time All Star, a 4 time Gold Glove winner, and has won a Silver Slugger twice.  He’s led the league in hits once, RBI once, walks once, and games played once.  Gonzalez is a consistently good batter even if his power tool never fully emerged.  Additionally, the fielding metrics often rate his work at first as quite strong.  He’s done enough to be included on the All Time list already.  If he can put up a few more good years with the bat while maintaining solid glove work (adding a world championship wouldn’t hurt either), he’ll continue to climb up the All Time list of first basemen.  It will be interesting to see if he can stave off a steep decline period and put together enough additional above average seasons to become a potential Hall of Fame candidate.

delgado

Carlos Delgado – Delgado made 1767 appearances at first base during his 17 year playing career.  He led the league in doubles once, RBI once, OPS once, and games played twice.  Delgado amassed 473 homers, 44.3 WAR, and averaged a 138 OPS+.  He was a two time All Star and won three Silver Slugger awards.  The defensive metrics indicate that his play at first base was well below average.  Although his collection of award hardware is sparse, he garnered MVP votes in 7 seasons.  Delgado was likely underappreciated as he spent a good deal of his career in Toronto.  Additionally, although he put up excellent numbers, his teams didn’t make the post-season which denied him a larger stage to showcase his talents (His lone post season came in 2006 with the Mets where he hit extremely well in the NLDS and NLCS.).  He was able to maintain strong offensive play for over a decade and separated himself from his peers with his bat alone.  Even getting dinged for poor defense, Delgado gets a spot (albeit, towards the bottom) on the All Time First Basemen list.

thome

Jim Thome – Thome played 22 seasons.  He tallied 1106 games at first base, 818 at designated hitter, and 493 at third base.  Thus, Thome played only 45% of his games as a first baseman.  He earned 72.9 WAR, averaged a 147 OPS+, and his 612 homeruns ranks 7th all time.  He made five All Star teams and won 1 Silver Slugger.  He led the league in homers once, walks 3 times, strikeouts 3 times, slugging once, and OPS once.  Thome is clearly an all time great of the game, but he played only 45% of his games at first (although this is the position he played most frequently).  If Thome is going to be considered a first baseman, he is included on the All Time Best First Basemen list.  However, since he didn’t play at least 50% of his games at first, I am not sure that he should be represented on a positional list and instead may be better included on an ‘All Time list’ that doesn’t take position into account.

cabrera

Miguel Cabrera – 2017 will be Cabrera’s 15th season in MLB.  He’s appeared in 978 games as at first, 697 games at third base, 347 in the outfield, and 78 as a designated hitter.  This means Cabrera has only played approximately 47% of his games at first.  He’s an 11 time All Star, 7 time Silver Slugger, won 1 World Series, and won the triple crown in 2012.  He’s led the league in games played once, doubles twice, homers twice, RBI twice, batting average 4 times, OBP 4 times, Slugging twice, OPS 2 times, and total bases two times.  In 14 years, Cabrera has compiled 446 homers, a .321 lifetime batting average, 69.6 WAR, and has averaged a 155 OPS+.  Let’s just not talk about his defense…   Cabrera’s case is similar to Thome’s.  If he is to be considered a first baseman, his inclusion as an all-timer is a no brainer.  However, if the percentage of games played needs to reach a certain threshold (ex. 50% or greater) then Cabrera will have to toil at first a while longer to get himself over the 50% mark or be excluded from a positional list and reside only on a non-positional All Time list.

pujols

Albert Pujols – Pujols burst onto the scene in 2001 and never looked back.  2017 will be his 17th year in the bigs.  He’s played 1728 games at first base and although age and injuries have taken their toll on his performance, Pujols continues to add to an already incredible career.  He has led the league in runs 5 times, hits once, doubles once, homers twice, RBI once, batting average once, total bases 4 times, slugging 3 times, OBP once, and OPS 3 times.  He enters 2017 with 591 homers, an average OPS+ of 157, and a WAR of 101.1.  His hardware is also impressive.  He’s won two championships with the Cardinals, was NL Rookie of the Year, NL MVP 3 times (with 4 second place finishes as well), has been an All Star 10 times, won 6 Silver Sluggers, and 2 Gold Glove awards.  So, yeah… he’s at or right near the top of any All Time First Basemen list.

In summary:

“No” – Howard, Fielder, Morneau, Konerko, and Giambi

“Depends on how you slice it” – Helton and Teixeira

“Just over the hump” – Martinez and Votto

“Yes” – Gonzalez and Delgado

“Yes, of course! (as long as they qualify as first basemen)” – Thome and Cabrera

“Without a doubt” – Pujols

Any list is bound to stir up strong feelings about particular players getting onto or being left off.  There are no right or wrong answers, just opinions.  I hope this article can generate some thoughtful conversation.  I would love to hear your opinion about who you feel qualifies and who doesn’t.  Thanks for taking the time to read.

You can follow me on Twitter: @doctordaver

 

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6 thoughts on “Examining the Bill James Greatest First Basemen List in 2017 (Part 2)

  1. Scott Ingram says:

    Great research! To me, one of the sad things that happens to players are injuries and I am totally convinced that Justin Morneau would have been in the top 15-20 1B All-Time if not for the devastating injuries, especially the concussions. His peak just before the onset of his first concussion was thoroughly dominating in several different offensive categories and his athleticism (and thusly his defense) was greater than people realized (he was also an excellent amateur hockey player that could probably have made it in the NHL). Also, he was and still is a real genuine person and humanitarian off the field, as well.

    Texeira-Yes, even with the inconsistent last few seasons, his power was still there and he would be one of the great leaders on this list-excellent in working with young players.

    Helton-No. Primarily because of the Home vs Road factor being so explicit. Very good and along with Larry Walker probably the two greatest Rockies to this point, just ahead of Tulowitzki and maybe Arenado with a few more seasons. But the only Rockie that I would place into an MLB All-Time great category would be Larry Walker as he consistently performed for the Expos, as well, prior to donning the Rockies uniform.

    Giambi-Not quite enough numbers, but even if he had those numbers, it would be no anyway due to his PED use. But I am impressed with him owning up to his misdeeds and the great leadership he displayed over the past 5 or so years of his career. I believe if an owner would give him a chance that he would make an excellent coach and, eventually, a manager.

    Thome and Cabrera-Emphatic yes on both. Each would be in the top 15 1B in my opinion (and maybe even the top 10 for both, with Cabrera rated the highest of the two).

    Just as a side note-There are some all-time great guys off the field on this list, as well, including Pujols, Thome, Howard, Konerko, Morneau, and Texeira.

    My top 4 All-Time 1B would be Lou Gehrig at # 1, Eddie Murray at # 2, Albert Pujols at # 3, and Jimmie Foxx at # 4.

    Keep up the good work! Would appreciate analysis of each position similar to what you did with 1B.

    Scott Ingram
    Cincinnati, Oh

    Liked by 1 person

    • underthoughtsite says:

      Scott, Thank you so much for your response. I’m happy you enjoyed the article. I agree with all your additional assessments of the players you mentioned and I also liked your updated top rankings at the position. I gave a lot of thought to trying to do a complete re-rank of the Top 100 at first base and quickly realized how difficult that thank truly is and how completely unqualified I am to be that guy. 😀. Bill James is beyond phenomenal with his work and he would probably be the only one I’d trust to do a complete and proper rerank. Just looking at the last 20ish years and deciding on or off was a major challenge. Again, thanks for all the positive words and for taking the time to read the article. All the best – Dave

      Like

  2. Scott Ingram says:

    Thanks, Dave. By the way, I think the top 4 All-Time 1B separate themselves quite a bit from # 5 and below. I was thinking possibly either Willie McCovey or Willie Stargell for # 5 and it is very difficult to choose one over the other, although I lean slightly towards McCovey. But if I had to choose one or the other for a team I was managing, I would probably choose Stargell as he was one of the great leaders of all-time.

    Also, I consider Stan Musial more of an OF than a 1B. Otherwise, he would probably slot in at 2 on my list, just behind Gehrig. It would take a lot of convincing for me to rate anyone ahead of Gehrig at 1.

    Look forward to more of your articles, Dave. I am an avid Baseball historian. By the way, my top 4 2B would probably be-Joe Morgan (1), Rogers Hornsby (2), Nap LaJoie (3), and Robbie Alomar (4). And, to me, the position with the most talent and the most difficult to narrow down are the Outfielders. The only thing certain for me there is Babe Ruth at 1. After that, it gets extremely hard to narrow down.

    All the best.

    Liked by 1 person

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