American League First Basemen Aren’t Good

Debates about All-Star selections are generally pretty fleeting. The selections are announced, there’s maybe a week’s worth of complaints, then the game, then the sport is overwhelmed by the trade deadline and ensuing pennant races. That said, one of the complaints that pops up is that every team gets an All-Star and more deserving players are left home while less-deserving players on bad teams are selected for the game. This year, Salvador Perez might be one such selection. Perhaps Yan Gomes might have been more worthy. It isn’t just teams needing to send at least one player that can result in potentially deserving candidates failing to make the squad. The nature of the game itself, pitting the American League against the National League, brings about a similar issue.

Take Mitch Moreland, for example. Moreland has a 134 wRC+ and a solid 1.5 WAR in 269 plate appearances on the season. He’s arguably the best first baseman in the American League this year and therefore deserving of his place at the All-Star Game. On the other side of the coin, here are the top qualified first basemen in baseball this season ranked by WAR.

Best First Basemen of the First Half
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR
Freddie Freeman Braves 399 16 152 3.6
Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 394 20 148 3.3
Brandon Belt Giants 323 13 146 3.0
Jesus Aguilar Brewers 285 23 162 2.8
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 356 17 137 2.8
Joey Votto Reds 398 9 140 2.7
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 364 17 119 2.0
Matt Olson Athletics 373 19 117 1.7
Carlos Santana Phillies 381 14 114 1.3
Jose Martinez Cardinals 339 13 129 1.1

Freddie Freeman is having a great year, with Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Belt, Jesus Aguilar, Matt Carpenter, and Joey Votto all relatively close. We could remove Carpenter given that he’s started more games at third base, but it doesn’t change the overriding theme of National League superiority at first base. Of those top five players, just two have been named to the All-Star Game. Jose Abreu is a good player having a bad year and was voted in the by the fans. Moreland isn’t even on this list because he hasn’t qualified for the batting title because he was splitting time with Hanley Ramirez early on and gets some days off against lefties.

The only AL player on the list above is Matt Olson. The A’s first baseman has a 117 wRC+, which is solid, but it is lower than the average of all NL first basemen this season. The list of first basemen in the AL only includes two players (three if you count Niko Goodrum) on pace for above-average seasons.

AL First Basemen
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR WAR/600 PA
Matt Olson Athletics 373 19 117 1.7 2.7
Mitch Moreland Red Sox 269 11 134 1.5 3.3
C.J. Cron Rays 351 17 119 1.1 1.9
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 340 12 123 0.9 1.6
Niko Goodrum Tigers 256 8 112 0.9 2.1
Yonder Alonso Indians 315 13 107 0.9 1.7
Yulieski Gurriel Astros 310 6 116 0.8 1.5
Ronald Guzman Rangers 228 8 104 0.7 1.8
Joey Gallo Rangers 345 21 95 0.6 1.0
John Hicks Tigers 248 8 109 0.6 1.5
Joe Mauer Twins 251 2 100 0.4 1.0
Jose Abreu White Sox 378 12 105 0.2 0.3
Ryon Healy Mariners 295 18 104 -0.1 -0.2
Logan Morrison Twins 291 10 77 -0.3 -0.6
Albert Pujols Angels 355 13 89 -0.3 -0.5
Luis Valbuena Angels 254 9 67 -0.4 -0.9
Neil Walker Yankees 202 2 51 -0.8 -2.4
Chris Davis Orioles 300 9 38 -2.0 -4.0

As a whole, first basemen are having their worst season in the American League in more than 50 seasons.

The 99 wRC+ for AL first basemen is perfectly acceptable as an average offensive player, but because first base is generally the easiest position to play on the diamond, the standards are generally higher for the bat. American League first basemen haven’t finished a season below average at the plate since 1957, and the only other time it has happened in the last 100 years was in the 1948 season. As the graph above shows, they are generally comfortably above average, with only the 1982 season getting close. As the season wears on, first basemen should start performing a bit better than they have, but right now they are nowhere close to the top of the pecking order by position.

First basemen are actually in the bottom half of the league. The caliber of shortstop play is tremendous and third basemen are doing great as well, but first basemen really shouldn’t be this bad. It’s clearly not an MLB-wide issue, as their NL brethren are having no such problem carrying up the average enough to be pretty close to historical norms. It might be fun to lay the blame on Chris Davis, but first basemen would still be only slightly above average on the season without Davis’ contributions, if you want to call them that.

I checked among the designated hitters to see if the league was missing some good ex-first basemen that might be skewing the results, but all the top DHs this season — J.D. Martinez, Nelson Cruz, Shin-Soo Choo, Giancarlo Stanton, and Khris Davis — are converted outfielders. The converted first basemen are either barely above average (Edwin Encarnacion) or well-below (Albert Pujols, Logan Morrison). A quick look at last year’s AL first basemen shows some drain over to the NL, but mostly these are just poor performances from good players mixed in with a bunch of players not expected to do all that well.

2017 AL First Basemen
Name Team PA HR wRC+ WAR
Jose Abreu White Sox 675 33 138 4.2
Eric Hosmer Royals 671 25 135 4.1
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 637 38 132 3.5
Logan Morrison Rays 601 38 130 3.2
Carlos Santana Indians 667 23 117 3.0
Joey Gallo Rangers 532 41 123 3.0
Yonder Alonso – – – 521 28 132 2.4
Joe Mauer Twins 597 7 116 2.2
Chase Headley Yankees 586 12 104 1.9
Yulieski Gurriel Astros 564 18 118 1.7
Trey Mancini Orioles 586 24 117 1.7

Hosmer and Santana are now in the NL, though Hosmer isn’t playing all that well. Smoak is having a decent season, but the rest of the players are not, nor are they expected to do well the rest of the year. A quick look at our projections will tell you, it isn’t just first-half performance that seems to indicate the balance of power is in the NL, as our best estimate of talent says the same thing.

First Baseman Projected wOBA
Name Team PA wOBA
Joey Votto Reds 288 .395
Freddie Freeman Braves 293 .392
Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 288 .386
Anthony Rizzo Cubs 294 .375
Brandon Belt Giants 242 .363
Matt Carpenter Cardinals 284 .362
Eric Thames Brewers 241 .361
Carlos Santana Phillies 282 .360
Cody Bellinger Dodgers 268 .357
Steve Pearce Red Sox 76 .353
Jose Abreu White Sox 283 .351
Justin Smoak Blue Jays 290 .347
Matt Olson Athletics 279 .345
Jose Martinez Cardinals 284 .345
Matt Adams Nationals 80 .343
Yonder Alonso Indians 290 .343
Joey Gallo Rangers 266 .342
Jesus Aguilar Brewers 241 .342
Justin Bour Marlins 259 .341
Mitch Moreland Red Sox 239 .338
Blue=NL, Red=AL

American League first basemen aren’t always going to be this bad, but they have been so far this season. This is just a weird time in the cycle for the position, probably not helped by the lack of competition for playoff spots in the league compared to the NL. Many might be up in arms over Jesus Aguilar or Brandon Belt not making the All-Star team. It isn’t that they aren’t deserving of a spot as one of the top-60 or so players in baseball, or one of the top six players at their position. They just happen to play in the wrong league.

Craig Edwards can be found on twitter @craigjedwards.

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5 years ago

And that’s with Ian Desmond having started 70 games at 1B for the NL.

5 years ago
Reply to  LHPSU

And the Mets’ dangerous duo of Adrian Gonzalez and Dominic Smith