Pujols is the best first baseman in 2011, but is he the best that the Cardinals have ever had?
First base is a funny position.
Often, the first baseman is the team's best hitter, but one of its worst fielders. Many first baseman are both indispensable (to the batting order) and replaceable (in the field).
Though their impact is sometimes mixed, first basemen are vital to their team's ultimate success. The 2010 Playoff teams are exhibit A toward that point; the starting first basemen in last year's playoffs were Mark Teixeira (Yankees), Carlos Pena (Rays), Justin Morneau (Twins, injured), Jorge Cantu (Rangers), Derrek Lee (Braves), Ryan Howard (Phillies), Joey Votto (Reds), and Aubrey Huff (Giants).
Those names represent not only some of the best first basemen, but some of the best hitters in baseball at large. The position is home to some of the best players in today's baseball and of all-time.
What follows is a list of the best first basemen of all-time for each the current 30 teams. Using this advanced statistical page from fangraphs.com, I based the rankings on WAR, wins above replacement. This statistic is an all-encompassing aggregate of a player's value as it relates to the average player at that position and asks the question, if this player got injured and was replaced, how much would the team be losing? For a season, the average WAR for a full-time starter is 2.
Hopefully that gives some context and criterion for ranking players. I will organize them by decreasing WAR, so the order of teams will seem random, but it isn't.
Let's get to the list.
Stan the Man ranks even higher than Albert Pujols in career wins above replacement.
We're off with a controversial bang that is sure to draw the ire of the generation of young Cardinals fans who didn't know the team existed before Albert Pujols was on it.
Musial actually tops the all-time list for first basemen, surpassing some legendary names to follow shortly. Now, baseball buffs will try to invalidate this selection, citing that he played less than half his career games at first base, mostly roaming the outfield in his 22 seasons.
However, he still played 1016 games at first, which is over 6 full seasons. How many major league players start full-time at the same position for 6 full seasons? Not many. If the almighty fangraphs.com considers Stan the Man a first baseman, that's good enough for me.
Musial's career WAR: 139.3
Gehrig is forever commemorated in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium.
The original Iron Man was a mainstay in the Murderer's Row Yankee lineup of the 1920s. The crown jewel of that period was Gehrig's monumental 1927 season: 47 HR, 149 R, 175 RBI, .373 BA in 155 games, one of the best hitting seasons of any player ever. Of course, hitting behind Babe Ruth probably allowed him to see a few more pitches.
In 17 seasons, Gehrig slammed 493 home runs, drove in just shy of 2000 runs, and hit .340. Had his life not been tragically cut short by ALS, which is popularly named after Gehrig, those numbers would be even more impressive.
Gehrig's career WAR: 125.9
Before A-Rod, Foxx was the youngest player ever to hit 500 homers. He ended with 534 in 20 seasons, but combined for just 34 jacks in his last four seasons. That calculates to a healthy 31 home runs a year for his first 16 seasons.
That average becomes even more impressive if you chop off his first four seasons, none of which were full for Foxx. With just 16 homers in his first four seasons, he hit a staggering 484 in his middle 12 seasons for a staggering 40 per year over that time. Project that 40 home runs over the 20 seasons that he played and you're looking at 800 career home runs.
It's safe to say that nobody did as much with his best years as Jimmie Foxx did.
Apologies to Mark McGwire for not collecting this accolade.
Foxx's career WAR: 112.3
A 27-year veteran, Cap's career really didn't take off until his 14th season, when he put up then-career highs in home runs (21), runs (108), RBI (102), and games played (112).
Playing for the White Stockings--the ancestor of the Chicago Cubs--Anson had some bizarre stats and seasons. Five times he drove in over 100 runs with ten home runs or less. For his career, he hit just 97 home runs, but collected 2076 RBI, good for third all-time. Crazy right?
Anson's career WAR: 88.7
Bags' took one of the most memorable stats in all of baseball.
Bagwell is the list's first player that the under-75 audience watched play. The Astros were a perennial contender in the late-90s and early 2000s as Bagwell anchored the "Killer B's."
There may always be speculation that Bagwell was involved in the steroids scene at its height, but his career numbers are among the greatest of any recent player: 449 home runs, .297 batting average, 1529 RBI, and 202 SB. The fact that he played all 15 of his seasons at first for the Astros makes his career that much more significant.
Bagwell's career WAR: 83.9
Morneau, though still in the prime of his career, is the top first baseman in Twins history.
Upon first glance, it was tough to displace Rod Carew in favor of Morneau. However, deeper research yielded that Carew played roughly half his career games at first base and only his last 3 years with the Twins.
Morneau is a first baseman through and through and has won an MVP. I'm actually disregarding my WAR criterion on this one because I believe that common sense should reign supreme when the criteria do not support it.
Morneau's WAR is much lower than Carew's because it is a cumulative statistic. Carew has 19 seasons of stats piled up, while Morneau only has eight thus far. The math is real simple on this one:
Morneau's WAR: 21.6 > Carew's WAR: 80.3
This was a close race between a pair of 1880s New York Gothams (now the Giants) players, Roger Connor, teammate Dan Brouthers, and Clark.
This was another case of bucking WAR in favor of common sense, as the five-time All-Star Clark clearly is the best this franchise has had.
"The Thrill" isn't remembered as anything special, but his statistics jump off the page. While with the Giants, Clark made five straight All-Star Games and finished in the top five of NL MVP voting three times. To further drive home the point, his MVP runner-up year of 1989 held a higher WAR than Connor's highest year did.
Clark's career WAR: 54.4 > Connor's career WAR: 86.3 > Brouther's career WAR: 80.1
The Big Hurt is the unquestioned choice as the best first baseman in White Sox history. The numbers are impressive: over 2468 hits, 521 HR, 1704 RBI, .302 average, back-to-back AL MVP in 1993-1994.
To determine just how good Thomas was, I did a little digging on the ever-useful baseball-reference.com. Remember when Barry Bonds would either draw an intentional walk or hit a home run in seemingly every at-bat from 2001-2004? Well, Frank Thomas was Bonds-lite for the first eight years of his career, hitting .330 and getting on base at a .452 clip with huge power for those seasons.
His career longevity speaks volume about his hitting as well. With the A's at age 38 in 2006, The Hurt bashed 39 homers and finished fourth in the MVP voting, almost ten years after exiting the height of his prime.
Thomas' career WAR: 79.1
Murray returned to coach the franchise that owes him the title as best-ever first baseman
The 1977 AL Rookie of the Year comes in as one of the most consistent hitters of his generation, hitting between 17-33 home runs in 20 straight seasons. He was an MVP runner-up twice, and finished fifth or better in the voting three other times. He is among the elite 500 Home Run Club, which is the accepted standard for Hall-of-Fame consideration, and is ninth all-time in runs batted in.
Murray's career WAR: 78.8
Palmeiro played two stints with both the Rangers and Orioles.
Forget all the steroid allegations and the debacle Congressional hearing. This guy had one of the prettiest swings of the 1990s and could rake with anybody. Nine straight seasons of 39+ jacks and 100 RBI speak to that end.
His career ranks of 15th in RBI and 12th in HR give some historical perspective on his impressive hitting exploits.
Palmeiro's career WAR: 75.5
He has played for five teams since leaving the Indians at age 32, but Thome was the centerpiece of the Cleveland batting order for several successful years in the mid to late 90s.
Entering his 21st season this year with Minnesota, Thome needs only 11 home runs to join the 600 Club, which properly places him among the all-time power hitters. Further, the Indians' decline competitively roughly coincided with Thome's departure in 2003, speaking to his impact on the franchise's success.
Thome's career WAR: 73.5
Though Stargell alternated through a few positions for his entire career, he won his only MVP while playing first base in 1979. That season was unspectacular by historical standards, but is the best a Pirate first baseman has ever accomplished.
Stargell was a fantastic hitter, but his career does not stand out among the best in this list. He's mainly the best Pirate first baseman ever by default.
Stargell's career WAR: 70.9
Apologies to Cecil Fielder, but Greenberg earns this legitimately earns this honor for his versatility and all-around hitting ability.
Hammerin' Hank won two MVPs, most notably for his 1935 season, which comprised of 36 HR, a .328 average, and a staggering 170 RBI, which is good for the eight-best total of any season in baseball history.
Greenberg only played 13 seasons, but still managed to collect 379 home runs and almost 1300 RBI. Those totals would be among the highest ever if he had played 5-7 more years.
Greenberg's career WAR: 68.2
Perez had a Hall-of-Fame career, but might be keeping this title warm for Joey Votto.
Perez was a regular on the Big Red Machine team that won two World Series' in the 1970s. No single-season or career stats really leap off the page, but nearly 3000 hits and 400 HR is better than most Major Leaguer's can claim.
My bold prediction is that when this list gets made on Bleacher Report again in 2028, Joey Votto will occupy this spot.
Perez's career WAR: 67.8
Olerud never took his batting helmet off, even in the field, because a serious medical condition caused him to wear it at first base.
Olerud had tons of manifest hitting ability, but could never ratchet his game up to the next level with the elites of his day.
Regarded as a legitimate middle-of-the-order threat, Olerud produced consistently for nearly a decade. His 1993 season was his only sniff at an MVP, with a ridiculous .363 average, 24 home runs, 107 RBI, and 54 doubles. Toronto won back-to-back World Series in 1992 and 1993, and Olerud was a huge determinant of their success, especially in his near-MVP 1993.
Olerud's career WAR: 62.4
Helton has been with the Rockies since 1997, spanning his entire career.
A career Rockie, Helton has been the beneficiary of playing at Coors Field, the most hitter-friendly park in baseball history.
This should not diminish his accolades, though, because he is one of the most talented hitters to play baseball in the last 20 years. Rarely will you see a player who isn't considered a power hitter accrue over 300 home runs, but Helton has 333. His .324 career batting average is fourth among active players, and he's played a number of seasons more than any of the three players above him.
His 2000 season included an iconic run at a .400 batting average with ESPN tracking his progress daily throughout the summer. His 42 home runs and 147 RBI were both career highs to that point, and he finished a shocking fifth in the NL MVP race.
That finish in the MVP race of 2000 is emblematic of Helton's career: overlooked, underappreciated, and surprisingly elite. Not bad for a former division 1 college quarterback.
Helton's career WAR: 60.6
Gil Hodges is the best Dodger first baseman in franchise history, with sincere apologies to Steve Garvey.
Hodges' WAR came in just a few points higher than Garvey, and many other statistics were comparable. Garvey's MVP in 1974 and general endearment to the Dodger franchise are compelling, but not enough to overcome Hodges, who is largely forgotten because he was clubbing 40 homers for the team when it was in Brooklyn. By the time the team moved to LA, Hodges was way over the hill and unknown to a completely new fan base.
Hodges' career WAR: 50.4
Adcock played for the Braves, who were then in Milwaukee, for 10 years, slamming 30 homers twice. His .277 average and 336 homers over 17 seasons are nothing to write home about, I know, but he's the best that the Braves franchise has had at first base.
Adcock's career WAR: 42.7
Mo Vaughn was the most colossal Angel failure the other side of Gary Matthews Jr.
Just kidding. What a disaster. I'm still reeling 11 years later.
Wally was a fan favorite in Anaheim even though he played for the Angels for just six seasons (I would know, I attended his games while in the womb).
The Angels do not have a storied history at first base, but this was still a tough decision. Darin Erstad and Scott Spiezio (only for his 2002 World Series memories) weren't exactly the strongest competitors, but were solid contributors to a team without much history.
Joyner played for a few teams, but he had his best years with the Angels. His first two seasons in baseball were actually his best as he finished eighth in the MVP voting his rookie year and upped the ante with 34 HR and 117 RBI in his second season. From there it was all downhill, but those stand as the two best seasons of his career.
Kendry Morales will take this title by 2016.
Joyner's career WAR: 40.4
Lee's best years came after his time in Florida, but his time there was good enough to make this list.
Yes, Lee didn't realize his potential until he left for the Cubs, but on a team that has so little history, he is the choice for best first baseman in team history.
Lee was just getting his strong hitting career going in Miami. In the last four seasons before he left, he averaged 27 homers and 81 RBI. Those are pretty good averages for a guy just entering his prime at age 27.
Just two years into his stint with the Cubs, Lee put together a top-3 MVP season, belting 46 home runs and hitting .335. That's better than anything he put together with the Marlins, but it doesn't take much to be the best ever Marlin first baseman.
Lee's career WAR: 38.3
Yes, Tino is of Yankee fame and lore, but he got his start with the Mariners. And it was no shoddy start.
By his fourth full year in the majors, Martinez was jacking 31 home runs and 111 RBI while hitting a robust .293. He then jumped ship to the Yankees where his power and World Series numbers took off, but it took a lot for everyone to forget his success in Seattle.
Martinez's career WAR: 33.8
For reals this time.
Ok, this time I'm serious. There's nothing jokey or funny about Vaughn's time in Boston, where from 1993-1998 he averaged 36 HR, 110 RBI, .315 average and won an MVP.
In Boston's storied and lengthy history, they never had a first baseman greater than Big Mo.
Vaughn's career WAR: 33.7
It's a pretty weak case all around, but Dave Kingman is the choice for the Mets.
He had a couple great seasons with the Mets in which he played some, but not mostly, first base. His stay was short before he left, but then he returned to the Mets for a couple subpar seasons in which he played more first base.
His 36 and 37 homer seasons in 1975 and 1976 are good enough for me! Those batting averages in the .230s were unlucky anyways!
(Can you tell that I'm really reaching now?)
Kingman's career WAR: 25.0
Howard is arguably the biggest slugger in baseball today.
The Phillies have a long history, but no first baseman in their history has done nearly what Howard has over the last few years.
The feather in his cap is the 2006 MVP season that saw Howard rack up 58 HR, 149 RBI, and a .313 average, which is 34 points higher than he's ever hit in a full season otherwise.
His 253 home runs in seven seasons have him on track for a 500 home run career, provided he stays healthy and in Philly's bandbox ballpark.
Howard's career WAR: 23.3
Sweeney had a solid career in Kansas City, where his ability and stats were mainly overlooked. In his six peak years from 1999-2005, Sweeney put up averages of 23 homers and 97 RBI with a .313 average for a team that went nowhere. His five All-Star games reflect favorably back on the solid hitter that he is.
Sweeney's career WAR: 22.9
Adrian's hometown of San Diego is sad to see him depart for Boston.
This one's simple. In his five seasons with his hometown Pads, Gonzalez averaged 32 HR and 100 RBI with a .288 average in the league's worst park for hitters. Imagine what he'll do in the little league field that is Fenway Park.
Adrian was nothing but a good teammate and citizen for a team that had no one to protect him in the lineup. He kept quiet and kept hitting when the trade winds blew, and that deserves recognition. I'm just disappointed that he's going to play for the fiendish Red Sox.
Gonzalez's career WAR: 22.0
Prince's 32 HR and 83 RBI were his lowest totals in five seasons, which reveals the standard he's set for himself.
In his three best years, he's averaged 43 HR and 121 RBI while narrowly missing an MVP in 2007. At 193 career HR at age 26, Fielder is a serious threat to crack the 700 HR club if he stays healthy and powerful.
Fielder's career WAR: 20.3
Pena's consistent power pushes him above Aubrey Huff.
He only played four years for the Rays, but he earned the title as best first baseman in team history with 36 HR and 102 RBI in that time. He narrowly edges Aubrey Huff, who put up similar numbers, but didn't play nearly as many games at first base as Pena did.
Pena's career WAR: 17.5
Again, not much going at first base in Expo/National history. Dunn came in to start the 2009 season and just continued his mashing ways. He put up nearly identical seasons with 38 HR and 103 and 105 RBI, which is good enough to edge the rest of the competition.
He recently signed with the White Sox for next season, but not before earning the title of best first baseman in Washington.
Dunn's career WAR: 27.8 (mostly from the outfield)
In an unimpressive group, Tony Clark stands out with one strong season.
The research on this one was entertaining, suspenseful, and pitiful. The D-Backs haven't been around very long and have had a lot of turnover at first base. What it came down to for me was, Who had the best individual season at first base for the snakes?
The answer was Tony Clark in 2005 with 30 HR, 87 RBI, and a .304 average. He didn't come close to replicating that season in either of the following two seasons, but his 2005 stands last as the best season in Diamondback first baseman history.
Clark's career WAR: 14.6
Well, there's the list. I'd leave you with some parting thoughts or full-circle closing, but I'm exhausted from writing this.
Thanks again to fangraphs.com for driving and making my research possible. Wow.