The Obstacles for the Underpowered First Baseman

Last Monday, Eno Sarris published a post here examining the possibility — based on some reasonable questions regarding the positional adjustments which inform WAR — that giant, large slugger-types are more valuable than our typical assumptions about the market have previously indicated. Eno’s conclusion: they’re still probably not (more valuable, that is). For whatever benefits these sluggers might receive from a revision of those positional adjustments, it probably doesn’t compensate for the other deficits generally tied to this type of player.

Eno’s work rests largely on this thread of logic: first basemen (and designated hitters) aren’t particularly great long-term free-agent investments because power tends to age poorly. There is, one finds, an assumption embedded within this claim — i.e. that the value of first basemen is tied strongly to power. And the assumption is supported by evidence. Regard: in 2015, first basemen and designated hitters produced the highest isolated-power figure (ISO) among all position types. In 2014, first basemen and designated hitters also produced the highest ISO among all position types. The year before that, in 2013, first basers and DHs produced the highest ISOs. This is very probably the case for every other season, as well. Nor is this a surprising development: in order to compensate for the runs they’re unable to save on the defensive side of the ball, first basemen have to produce more runs on the offensive side of it. Compiling extra bases is the most expedient means of doing that.

Recording extra-base hits isn’t the only means to generating runs, however. A player can also succeed as a batter by walking more than average, or striking out less often than average, or recording an above-average number of hits per ball in play. Indeed, every year, there are a handful of batters who produce above-average batting lines despite failing to post even league-average ISO figures.

Consider: among 141 qualified hitters in 2015, 16 of them recorded both (a) an isolated-power figure below league average (which was .153 in 2015 among non-pitchers) and also (b) a park-adjusted batting mark above 100.

Below-Average Power, Above-Average Hitting in 2015
Name Team PA ISO BB% K% BABIP wRC+
Jason Kipnis CLE 641 .149 8.9% 16.7% .356 126
Jason Heyward STL 610 .146 9.2% 14.8% .329 121
Jose Altuve HOU 689 .146 4.8% 9.7% .329 120
Yunel Escobar WAS 591 .101 7.6% 11.8% .347 120
Francisco Cervelli PIT 510 .106 9.0% 18.4% .359 119
Adam Eaton CHA 689 .144 8.4% 19.0% .345 118
Christian Yelich MIA 525 .116 9.0% 19.2% .370 117
Matt Duffy SFN 612 .133 4.9% 15.7% .336 116
Dee Gordon MIA 653 .085 3.8% 13.9% .383 113
Ian Kinsler DET 675 .131 6.4% 11.9% .323 111
Odubel Herrera PHI 537 .121 5.2% 24.0% .387 110
Xander Bogaerts BOS 654 .101 4.9% 15.4% .372 109
Nick Markakis ATL 686 .080 10.2% 12.1% .338 107
Brett Gardner NYA 656 .140 10.4% 20.6% .312 105
Jhonny Peralta STL 640 .136 7.8% 17.3% .311 105
Billy Burns OAK 555 .098 4.7% 14.6% .339 102
Average .121 7.2% 15.9% .346 114

Using raw ISO figures next to park-adjusted batting indices might unfairly penalize players whose home parks inflate power while unfairly rewarding those whose home parks suppress it, but absolute precision isn’t the concern here. The point is this: not only is it possible for a player to record below-average power numbers and an above-average batting line, but also that it happened multiples times just in the past year.

Notably, however, none of the 16 players in the table above were regular first basemen or designated hitters in 2015. The list features corner outfielders and center fielders, middle infielders and third basemen, and even one catcher, but no first basemen. Why? Perhaps as a result of mere anomaly. On the other hand, perhaps… not that?

With a view to creating a “composite sketch” of the successful but also underpowered first baseman, I endeavored to locate the top seasons produced by members of that group. Starting from the start of the expansion era (i.e. since 1961), I found the top-20 seasons by prorated WAR among those players who were categorized as first basemen in the relevant season and also recorded the following:

  • Sufficient plate appearances to have qualified for the batting title; and
  • A positional adjustment of -7.5 or lower (to ensure that the relevant player had mostly occupied the less challenging end of the defensive spectrum that year); and
  • An ISO below the relevant season’s league-average mark.

Below are the results of that search. To better represent each batter’s numbers relative to the offensive environment in which he played, I’ve presented walk rate, strikeout rate, and BABIP as index stats. A figure of 100 denotes league average and above 100 denotes a mark better than that. (Note: this is also true for strikeout rate. That is, a higher number represents fewer strikeouts relative to league average.) For reference, I’ve also included fielding runs per 600 plate appearances.

Top-20 Underpowered First Basemen Seasons Since 1961
Name Team Year PA Pos/600 ISO+ wRC+ BB+ K+ BABIP+ Fld/600 WAR/600
Keith Hernandez NYN 1986 652 -8.2 97 146 160 128 116 8.3 5.3
John Olerud NYN 1999 723 -7.9 99 135 180 143 101 10.0 4.8
Keith Hernandez NYN 1985 682 -8.4 88 130 128 136 114 12.3 4.4
Daric Barton OAK 2010 686 -10.0 88 126 184 117 106 10.3 4.3
Mark Grace CHN 1997 654 -8.2 94 130 148 158 107 11.0 4.3
Rod Carew LAA 1982 612 -7.8 65 123 130 137 121 17.6 4.2
Keith Hernandez STL 1982 694 -8.2 88 126 171 123 113 10.4 4.1
Rod Carew MIN 1978 651 -8.0 88 135 138 121 129 0.0 4.1
Joe Cunningham CHA 1962 652 -8.1 93 131 170 129 111 7.4 4.0
Doug Mientkiewicz MIN 2003 574 -10.6 93 125 148 140 107 9.1 3.9
Mike Hargrove CLE 1981 398 -8.6 73 140 178 167 115 1.5 3.9
Mark Grace CHN 1992 689 -8.4 99 128 120 163 108 7.0 3.8
Mark Grace CHN 1996 616 -8.2 78 127 109 158 113 9.7 3.8
Rod Carew LAA 1981 421 -8.0 60 121 126 111 122 11.4 3.8
Mike Hargrove TEX 1975 610 -7.8 95 131 141 113 115 1.0 3.5
Kevin Seitzer 1996 675 -10.4 88 123 139 127 118 3.6 3.4
Scott Hatteberg OAK 2002 568 -11.3 96 121 135 139 99 7.9 3.4
Wally Joyner SDN 1996 510 -8.5 79 116 145 113 103 12.9 3.3
Keith Hernandez NYN 1987 676 -8.0 94 123 132 97 111 3.6 3.2
Wes Parker LAN 1966 564 -8.2 99 114 153 94 101 7.4 3.2
Average 615 -8.6 88 128 147 131 112 8.1 3.9

The observant reader will note that this table allows for at least one variable that the first did not — namely, the influence of single-season fielding metrics. While one might suppose that the variance inherent to single-season defensive numbers would render the table an exercise in chaos, it actually creates an illustrative consistency. Regard: just three players are responsible for half the seasons displayed here.

Indeed, the seasons here authored by Rod Carew, Mark Grace, and Keith Hernandez conspire to provide a helpful blueprint for the underpowered first baseman’s success. Like the other members of this table, that triumvirate almost always produced better-than-average walk and strikeout rates — and above-average BABIPs — while also saving enough runs in the field to more or less negate the influence of the penalty imposed by their positional adjustment.

At the bottom of the table above, I’ve presented the average mark for each metric among these top-20 seasons. One finds, for example, that the members of this group produced a collective walk rate 47% better than league average. And a strikeout rate 31% better (i.e. lower) than league average. And a BABIP that was collectively 12% better than league average.

Presented merely as index stats, those numbers may not signify much. So, to better ground them in the context of the present run environment, I’ve translated them to 2015 stats below.

Top First-Basemen Seasons Translated to 2015 Numbers
Metric Index Equals in 2015
ISO 88 .134
BB% 147 11.4%
K% 131 13.8%
BABIP 112 .336
Def -0.5

So, in other words, the average player from that list of top-20 underpowered first-basemen seasons from above — were he transported to the present day — would produce the numbers one finds here: a .134 ISO, an 11.4% walk rate, a 13.8% strikeout rate, etc.

Those average figures provide a clue as to the reluctance of clubs to rely on underpowered first basemen. Because, while certain of these metrics (isolated power, walk rate, strikeout rate) are likely to depict something like true talent over the course of one season, others (BABIP, defensive runs) are much more susceptible to variance in a single year. These productive but underpowered seasons are the result, in no small part, of success on balls in play and fielding runs. And while it’s entirely possible for a player to possess an actual skill that will allow him to excel by either or both measures, it’s a much greater challenge to identify those skills.

By way of illustration, consider the following table. In this case, I’ve isolated the four measures by which the successful, underpowered first basemen have excelled — and, in so doing, been able to compensate for their relative paucity of extra-base hits. For each of those four measures, I’ve also included the number of players forecast to exceed the relevant mark in 2016 according the Steamer projections. Note that the Def mark denotes players who’ve received a positional adjustment of -7.5 or worse (and therefore can be reliably expected to play mostly first base), but still received a defensive projection of -0.5 or better.

Benchmarks of Underpowered First Basemen vs. Projections
Metric Index Equals in 2015 # Projected to Beat
BB% 147 11.4% 34
K% 131 13.8% 104
BABIP 112 .336 10
Def -0.5 0

This table summarizes the challenge of employing an underpowered first baseman: while his lack of extra-base strength requires him to compensate by means of the four categories represented here, expecting a batter to meet the necessary thresholds is unreasonable. As the Steamer projections reveal, over 100 batters can be expected to surpass the requisite strikeout-rate threshold in 2016 and 30-plus batters will do the same thing for walk rate. Only 10 batters, though, can be reasonably expected to reach the BABIP mark and literally no one can be expected both to play first base and reach the -0.5-run mark on the defensive side. The absence of even league-average power, in the end, puts considerable pressure on the player to succeed by other means. Not so much pressure that it has happened before, but enough that it doesn’t happen dependably.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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Mr Punch
8 years ago

The other side of the coin is that teams generally want power somewhere in their lineups, and first, DH, and the corner outfield spots are usually the places to put it. So an exceptional fielder with a high OBP (your list, basically) works at first, but you’d probably rather sacrifice some defense — it’s not like those top 20 seasons match Frank Thomas’s good years.

8 years ago
Reply to  Mr Punch

I think that the reality that Cistulli is getting at is that good fielders with a high OBP are rare. More importantly, Cistulli’s list involves superb fielders with a high OBP. Only 2 players in the 1b category put up a positive DWAR between 2000 and 2015. And one of them is Darren Erstad, who put in a few seasons at 1B, but who put up his DWAR numbers in the outfield. So that leaves Travis Ishikawa.

Even the dudes that show up all over that list averaged negative defensive value. Mark Grace put up -62.7 DRAR over 16 seasons. Olerud put up -45.3 in 17. Rod Carew put up -35.3 in 18. Kieth Hernandez put up +0.3 in 17, making him probably the best defensive 1B of all time. (if you want to go by DRAR, everyone ahead of him on the list was either primarily not a 1B (and put up their positive DRAR at another position) or from the 1900-1920 period of baseball being a very very different thing).

Essentially, to get on this list you have to be a world class defender in a good year. No one is predicted to have a better than -0.5 DRAR season at 1b next year, but someone probably will.

When I think of guys that fit this list too, I see some names that didn’t quite hit the cut. 2007 Kevin Youkilis and Todd Helton both put up pretty solid defense at 1B while having good offensive years without incredible power numbers. Both saw most of their value coming from OBP and defense. Both had just a hair too much ISO to make the cut (Helton only had 17 home runs, but he hit 42 doubles.)

Basically, what it comes down to is that even if you put a world class defender at 1B, the position is so meaningless defensively that he immediately has less of an impact. Darrin Erstad was a spectacular outfielder, but even he put up negative dRAR numbers in the years he played primarily first base. Essentially, you can scrape together a good year from a guy with no power at 1st. But it’s a safer bet to stick someone there who can really rip it. Or at least someone who is an above average hitter but can’t play any other positions.

8 years ago
Reply to  Blue17Echo

Defensive WAR is positionally adjusted. So it’s not completely fair to any of these guys to say they were a massive negative defensively. It’s all relative. Mark Grace ‘scored’ a negative 62.7 dWAR but over the course of his 15.5 year career he was deducted 193.75 by virtue of the position he played.