INTRO: THE BEST EVER CROP OF FIRST BASEMEN
As a bit of a stats geek (though I can’t quite hang with the elite), I’ve been amazed at how first basemen now dominate the offensive stats in both leagues. No other single position can boast close to the combined production of the first sackers.
I wonder if any one position has ever so dominated the game.
Yes, the AL of the 1930s featured three Hall of Famers with seven MVPs between them—Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig, and Hank Greenberg.
The 1950s gave us Willie (Mays), Mickey (Mantle), and the Duke (Snider) lyrically mastering center field in New York.
But while there may not be a similar big three today, there are more than 10 first basemen this season who are absolutely tearing it up.
Let’s visit the top 10 MLB leaders in various offensive categories. HRs? Six out of 10 are first basemen. RBI: 5; BA: 3; Runs: 4; Slugging %: 5; OPS: 5. If Justin Morneau weren’t on the shelf, you could probably add one for each of those categories too!
Here's my premise: If I were picking a first baseman to anchor my infield next season, here are my picks—in ascending order. Find out where Ryan Howard and others rank, and let the debates begin!
You’re still only 30, and you’re at it again. You’re likely headed for a fifth season of 40 HRs and 100 RBI. Sorry, no group for you.
Yes, you hit .306, with 34 dingers and 106 ribbies last year, and you may recover fully from that silly injury, but nah…
You’re Mr. Rockies, a borderline Hall of Famer, a great defensive first baseman, and a class act. We’ve decided to go in another direction.
Maybe there was a spot for you, maybe not, but you’ve actually played more games in the outfield than first this year. You're disqualified (and I’d still take any of my top 10, plus Morales and Dunn).
Maybe you’ll (all) feel better when you see who’s in 10th place!
The Flesh Prince has already had seasons of 50 and 46 homers under his extra-wide belt, and he had 141 RBI just last year.
Though having a down year by his standards (.270, 25/64 with 75 runs), he’ll still draw over 100 walks, and his defense has improved somewhat.
This illustrates just how tough the competition is.
This oft-overlooked slugger is rarely talked about, yet he almost always produces. He quietly has a lifetime BA of .280 with 357 HRs and 1,132 RBI. He’s even turned it up a bit in 2010, which could be his career year.
In 2010, his 12th year on the south side of Chicago, PK’s numbers are .314/31/87—with an OPS of .974. Not bad at all.
Is 500 dingers out of the question for his career?
Youk is one of those gamers you’d want on your team even if his stats were not great. He plays a smooth first base and is clutch as heck—and yes, his offensive numbers are great.
Before succumbing to the Great Boston Injury Hex of 2010 and ending his season on August 2, he was headed for his third straight .300 season—with a likelihood of 30 homers and 100 RBI.
Tex seems to always start slowly (seemingly below the Mendoza Line every May 15), but when the dust clears, he always gets you .280/30/100—and sometimes a lot more than that!
Somehow, he’s even leading the majors in runs scored this year, and the guy is a magician at first base.
So, why is he my seventh choice? Stay hungry, my friends!
Adrian Gonzalez—the only real big bat in the Padres lineup—is a possible MVP candidate. Hey, all the serious NL candidates are first basemen: Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Gonzalez.
Although he plays in cavernous PETCO Park, Gonzo is flirting with .300 and will cruise past 30/100 with a high OPS. He may even win his third straight Gold Glove.
Like Tex and maybe even Youk, he’s clearly top five-worthy, but who would you throw out to make room for him?
Miggy’s many fans (he has them, right) will probably kill me for having him so low. The guy may be the second best pure hitter in the game today—behind we-all-know-who—and appears to have put his erratic 2009 behavior behind him.
The guy's been killing the ball since he came to the bigs as a skinny (not really) 20-year-old third baseman with the Marlins, and he may be just peaking now.
Cabrera's having a monster year and might be the AL MVP if not wasted on a Tigers team that’s otherwise floundering.
Everyone’s favorite new household name was already good the last few years, and now he’s elite. Right now, he’s leading the league in BA, tied for first in runs, and second in HRs and RBI.
It will be fun to see Joey and Albert Pujols duel for the division lead, as well as for all three Triple Crown categories. He can even steal a base and play good “D.”
(Weren't "Joey" and "Albert" the immortal Albert Belle's two, um, personas?)
You can make a case that Votto should be up to two places higher, but here are my top three...
Too high, or too low?
The slightly lesser-known half of the Twins’ M&M boys, Morneau was hitting .345 when sidelined in early July and well on his way to exceeding 30 and 100.
He’s also virtually error-free at first, and he has never struck out 100 times in a season.
Morneau has four straight All-Star selections, and the Twins slugger has captured an MVP (2006) with a runner-up as well (2008).
I’m a Phils fan, but don’t believe this is a homer pick.
The Big Piece—he needs a much better nickname, by the way—just might be the most feared pure power hitter in the game. Look at these HR-RBI totals for his first four full seasons (after winning ROY in his half-season of 2005):
58-149 (2006); 47-136 (2007); 48-146 (2008); and 45-141 (2009). That’s unmatched power production during those years, even if his inside numbers are not Pujolsian.
We all know the knocks against him. He strikes out as much as anyone not named Mark Reynolds, and he’s not Keith Hernandez around the bag. Actually, Howard’s glove work is more than adequate—although I'm tempted to pull the Curt Schilling towel-over-my-head routine whenever he gets set to launch a throw toward second base.
There are better all-around players at first, but Howard is so prodigious and menacing a power hitter that he's my runner-up selection to...
What...you were expecting Ike Davis?!
How do you begin to say something new about the consensus best player in baseball—which makes him, of course, the best first baseman on the planet?
You may not realize that The Machine has the highest career BA (.332) of any active player—yes, higher than Ichiro. Not bad for a guy who averages 42 HR, 128 RBI, and 123 runs.
Oh, he can steal bases and is a terrific first baseman with one Gold Glove. He probably should have a couple more when you look at those Range Factor stats that he routinely tops.
His stat lines toy with perfection. Albert arrived in the bigs in 2001—at age 20—so he will have completed exactly 10 seasons, at age 30, when 2010 concludes.
If you just cherry-picked the numbers from his worst seasons, he would have only scored 99 runs, hit only 32 homers, and driven in a paltry 103 runs (all in 2007), with a BA of .314 (2002). That’s a career year for most guys!
WAIT, I NEED ANOTHER SLIDE FOR THIS GUY!
ALBERT PUJOLS...STILL NO. 1
So, does he have any flaws?
Sure. Somehow, he missed the All-Star game in 2002, and one season—just one season, when he happened to be Rookie of the Year—he actually had more whiffs than walks.
(But in an era where power hitters routinely strike out 150 times a year, Albert’s never whiffed 100 times.)
In his nine full seasons, he has three MVPs, three seconds, a third, a fourth, and a ninth during that terrible 2007 season where he only batted .327 with an OPS of .997.
Oh yeah...now that Barry Bonds has been retired for a few years, El Hombre also draws more intentional walks than anyone in the game.
Okay, I’m done, but he’s not!
Now, it's your turn!!
SORRY ABOUT THAT (Couldn't be totally, deadly serious, you know)
My guideline for this ranking was to select the first baseman I would want on my team for a full season—right now.
I believe this to be the golden era of first basemen, and even though only Pujols can now be mentioned in the same hallowed conversational breath with Gehrig, Foxx, and Greenberg, would it surprise you if several more guys on this list landed in Cooperstown one day?
So, whatcha think?! Keep it lively and civil...