Monday, August 25, 2014

Ranking Baseball's Best First Basemen

More than 70 years after his premature death, Gehrig is still the best
Writing about Jim Thome's recent retirement got me thinking about where he rates on the list of all-time great first basemen. Here's my top-10 list:

1. Lou Gehrig
75 years since the Iron Horse played the last of his 2,130 consecutive games, Gehrig is still the greatest first baseman of all time. Larrupin' Lou leads the position in OPS, OPS+, and JAWS score with both the highest career and peak WAR of any first sacker.

2. Albert Pujols
Pujols is very much the modern day Foxx. Their career OPS+ scores are dead even at 163 and bWAR has them less than half a win apart (in Foxx's favor). But since Pujols has played fewer games, he's been slightly more valuable on a per-game basis. He also comes out ahead in peak bWAR, which I believe since the numbers suggest he was a better baserunner and defender than Foxx while matching him with the bat. Thus, I give the nod to the Machine.

3. Jimmie Foxx
Double X was the righthanded Gehrig. When he hung up his spikes for good in 1945, his 534 home runs were the most by any man not named Babe Ruth.

4. Jeff Bagwell
Until Pujols came along, Bagwell had been the best first baseman of the post-World War II era. A tremendous all-around player, the 1994 NL MVP combined great power and plate discipline with speed and strong defense.

5. Frank Thomas
Thomas was a better hitter than Bagwell, but played more than half his games at DH. A career National Leaguer, Bags had no such luxury. It might very well have extended his career, which ended abruptly in 2006 spring training because of an arthritic shoulder. But even without the extra time at the back end of his career, Bagwell was still the superior ballplayer, which is reflected in his better bWAR (career and peak) totals.

6. Jim Thome
The recently-retired Thome has the most home runs and walks of any first baseman. A terrific slugger and on-base machine for many years, Thome was just a notch below Thomas.

7. Eddie Murray
Steady Eddie enjoyed two decades of uninterrupted productivity, from his Rookie of the Year campaign in 1977 through his final full and penultimate season in 1996. In between he made eight All-Star teams and won a trio of Gold Gloves and Silver Sluggers. And while he never won a Most Valuable Player award, he was runner-up twice and finished in the top-eight eight times. He was a better defender than Thome and was a good player for a very long time, but Thome's sizable superiority as a hitter more than made up for Murray's advantages elsewhere.

8. Johnny Mize
The Big Cat had the equivalent of Joe DiMaggio's career--seven phenomenal seasons prior to World War II and a few more big ones afterwards--but has never received his due for it. Such a shame that his name has largely been forgotten to history, because this Hall of Famer was one of baseball's best players for more than a decade. In fewer than 7,500 plate appearances, he still managed to contribute more on offense than Willie McCovey, Harmon Killebrew and Willie Stargell did, which is really impressive considering all of them made at least 9,000 trips to the plate.

9. Mark McGwire
Steroids aside, Big Mac did some amazing things as a hitter. There are the 583 home runs, of course, the four conseutive seasons of over 50 including back-to-back campaigns with 70 and 65. His .982 career OPS is the fifth-highest of any first baseman who played at least one full big league season and, oh yeah, he holds the best HR/AB ratio of all-time. It's impossible to know how much PEDs helped him, but there's no denying that he reached heights nobody had ever reached before.

So why did I rank him below Mize? An interesting question, especially given how close many of their numbers are:

Mize: 1,884 G 7,370 PA 1,118 R 1,337 RBI .959 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,621 TB 809 XBH 71 bWAR
Mac: 1,874 G 7,660 PA 1,167 R 1,414 RBI .982 OPS 157 wRC+ 3,639 TB 841 XBH 62 bWAR

Both had extraordinary peaks but otherwise brief careers, were tremendous sluggers who never won an MVP. As hitters they come out about even, with the slight edge probably going to McGwire. But defensively and on the bases Mize was better, and thus rates as a more valuable players according to B-R and FanGraphs. While Mize's peak wasn't quite as high as McGwire's, it was still pretty darn good and he sustained it longer despite missing three full years to the war (many of McGwire's seasons were hampered by injuries). That's why I give Mize the slightest of edges.

10. Hank Greenberg
I had a hard time deciding where to place Greenberg. How much credit should one give to him for losing almost five full seasons to military service? At his best, he was every bit as good as Foxx and Gehrig.

From 1934-1940, between them won four MVPs, five home run crowns (Foxx and Greenberg shared in 1935) and five RBI titles. One of them led the league in OPS every year (Gehrig and Foxx three times each, Greenberg once).

Gehrig:     .337/.457/.626/1.083 174 OPS+  349 Rbat 39.8 oWAR 14.77 AB/HR ratio
Greenberg .329/.424/.645/1.070 166 OPS+  337 Rbat 40.8 oWAR 14.81 AB/HR ratio
Foxx:       .329/.440/.633/1.072 166 OPS+  384 Rbat  46.3 oWAR 13.58 AB/HR ratio

Hammerin' Hank had a killer peak, winning two MVPs, neither one of which was given to him the year he fell one short of Gehrig's AL RBI record (1937) or the following year when he challenged Ruth's single season home run record. Greenberg finished third both times, and with better luck could have been the first player to win four MVPs. And he was still great when he returned from the war in his mid-30s too, pacing the Junior Circuit in home runs and RBI in 1946 with all of baseball's brightest stars back in uniform. There's little doubt that, health permitting, he would have continued to rake during the war years and ended up with some truly impressive career numbers. Unfortunately we'll never know for sure, and I just can't give him credit for something he didn't accomplish. In his prime he was easily a top-five, probably top-three first baseman, but I can only rank a player with fewer than 1,400 big league games so high.

Honorable Mention: Willie McCovey, Rafael Palmeiro, Harmon Killebrew


  1. Stan the Man played over 1,000 games at 1B. I'd put him in the mix too --- somewhere in the top four.

    1. True but he played nearly twice as many games in the outfield so I'll leave him out. Ditto Ernie Banks and other guys who shifted to first later in their careers.

  2. Your man-love for Jeff Bagwell is a ridiculous. His career dWAR is -7.9, which is far below that of Pujols (a better example of "strong defense" at 1B in his prime). Bagwell's dWAR numbers in his prime are similarly unspectacular, and his arthritic shoulder rendered him a defensive liability in the early 2000s. Given that, I seriously doubt that the "luxury" of playing DH vs. a physically undemanding position such as 1B would've prolonged his career. You are correct that he was a tremendous all-around player, and it's a shame that his career ended prematurely. However, durability and longevity are important as well. And this is why, unlike Thomas and Thome, Bagwell will not be enshrined into Cooperstown.

    1. If you think anything other then steroid allegations are keeping Bagwell out, you are fooling yourself. Despite only 15 seasons he's better then Cepeda, Perez, or Killerbrew easily. He also matches up well against McCovey and Thomas

    2. Bagwell was better than Thome and Thomas at his peak, and had as many good seasons as Thomas at least. Much better all-around player than either one.

  3. What is the matter with GIL HODGES. According to Prime 9 he was considered to be the best 1st baseman of the 50s and best 1st baseman NOT in the HOT. According to Baseball Digest in runs (8th), home runs(2nd), and runs batted in (2nd) for the decade.

  4. Definitely an oversight on my part should have at least had him as an HM