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Saturday, August 08, 2020

What Happened to MLB’s Elite First Basemen?

The two worst OPS+ for first basemen relative to league splits, at least as full records exist since 1973, have occurred in each of the past two years: 111 last year and 112 in 2018. And the early returns this year are that it’s getting worse. It’s down to 106. First basemen are off to a .226 start.

The last time any other position posted a better OPS+ than first base was 29 years ago–and that “position” was DH. For the first time anybody can remember first basemen have posted a lower OPS than three other positions: shortstop, center field and right field. That just should not happen for a position with low defensive requirements.

RoyalsRetro (AG#1F) Posted: August 08, 2020 at 12:12 AM | 11 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: first basemen

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   1. Cooper Nielson Posted: August 08, 2020 at 01:56 AM (#5968413)
The two worst OPS+ for first basemen relative to league splits, at least as full records exist since 1973, have occurred in each of the past two years: 111 last year and 112 in 2018.

"People are saying" if you take away Chris Davis, it was 130 last year and 132 in 2018!
   2. Walt Davis Posted: August 08, 2020 at 03:43 AM (#5968414)
2019 might have been the most balanced year ever (someebody else can check):

1B 111 tOPS+
3B 110
LF 108
RF 111
DH 106

You can add SS at 103! and CF at 97, 2B at 95 an C at 90.

OK, looks like 2018 is even more balanced

1B 112
3B 110
LF 110
RF 111
DH 112

But not 2017
1B 121
3B 106
LF 101
RF 112
DH 97 (ugh!)

And SS again over 100. A big story there is 3B moving into equality with the other "corners." At 97, 101, 100 the middle positions were pretty indistinguishable too. (Cs and PHs aren't enough to bring that down to 100 so I wonder if tOPS+ includes pitcher batting unlike regular OPS+)

Anyway, the two most obvious possibilities are that other positions are hitting better or 1B are being selected more for defense than they used to. Or a combo. Could be teams are more reluctant to move decent bats/mediocre gloves off of 3B to 1B, meaning fewer moves of good-hitting/mediocre-fielding SS to 3B and 2B, etc.

Anyway, for what it's worth, statcast's new IF measure which goes back 3 years now doesn't seem to show a big difference. It's supposed to be a position-neurtral measure. At 1B in 2019, there were 10 guys rated at +2 or better, up to Matt Olson at +9 runs (12 outs, they now provide both). At 2B, the top 10 range from 3-9 runs; at 3B, it's 3-12 with just Arenado and Chapman topping Olson. So SS is the only place you see any real differentiation with a top 10 ranging from 5-14 (although Simmons was at a much higher rate than that). 5 of those top 10 SS were good hitters too -- Javy, Story, Lindor, Correa and deJong.

For 2018, top 10 ranges:
1B 0-5 (that's better)
2B 2-12
3B 2-6
SS 4-21

1B 2-6
2B 2-8
3B 3-8
SS 3-11

So if statcast is onto something, then over the last 3 years there's been very little difference between 1B, 2B and 3B and even SS are only maybe 5-6 runs ahead of 1B, not 15+.

So both offense and defenses are pretty balanced these days. In 2019, although they out-HR'd SS by 230 HR, 1B only out-SLG'd SS by 17 points (30 points of ISO). The value of the extra XBH is basically balanced by extra hits leaving the main difference the 12 point gap in OBP worth about 7 runs a year.

So it's 2B who seem to stand out. Somebody here (I think) did some digging and found that, for whatever reason, today's 2Bs tend to be quite short. They are 45 points of SLG behind 1B and it's all ISO (in 2019) with an OBP deficit too. The 3B, LF, RF lines in 2019 were very close to the 1B line, bit more BA but same SLG and OBP which, if anything, makes them a smidgen more valuable than 1B.

We only have those 3 years of data for statcast so we don't know how long this may have been going on. (Assuming the statcast took is useful and accurate.) Maybe it's always been that way and we (and MLB managers and coaches) have greatly messed up the defensive spectrum or this is a recent change due to, for example, nearly all players bulking up now or teams valuing defense less in a TTO-heavy era ... which leads to more TTO which leads to ...

I do note that in 2019, there were 15 players with 100+ starts at 1B. The two olders were Gurriel and Votto at 35 and 9 were under 30. In 1979, 19 players started 100+ including Perez 37, Rose 38 and Stargell 39 and 9 of the 16 were under 30. That's not as big a difference as it looks given #16-19 in 2019 were aged 34 (Daniel Murphy), 39 (Pujols), 28 and 32 (Thames) but by then you're down to 89 starts. (And go down to 89 starts in 1979 and you pick up 4 more players all under 30.) Anyway, it's possible the current players at 1B are younger than in most other eras.

By the way, the 1979 positional OPS+ splits:

1B 117
2B 91
3B 107
SS 79
LF 113
CF 107
RF 119
DH 106
   3. sunday silence (again) Posted: August 08, 2020 at 11:08 AM (#5968444)
a whole slew of nice posts from Walt. Question: is there a reason you left out catchers on this list of OPS+?

Again real nice post.
   4. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 08, 2020 at 02:34 PM (#5968471)
I would guess with the massive increase in K's and HR, an corresponding decrease in BIP, defense doesn't matter at other positions nearly as much as it used to. So, great bat, meh glove, 3B/2B/SS/OF aren't migrating to 1B at nearly the same rate.
   5. Walt Davis Posted: August 08, 2020 at 06:19 PM (#5968529)
Thanks SS. I left Cs out since we all know they generally don't hit as well as other positions, they don't tend to move around much, and I didn't notice any obvious evidence that their offense has shifted over the last X years. But if memory serves, they were around a 95 OPS+ in 1979 but I guessed/assumed that was a bit of a fluke. I do think that until recently they outhit SS in most years.
   6. Never Give an Inge (Dave) Posted: August 09, 2020 at 08:37 AM (#5968587)

The highest OPS+ out of a guy who played 50+% of his games at 1B in 2018 was Max Muncy with 161. In 2019 it was Pete Alonso with 148.

2010-2017 saw 12 first basemen seasons with >161 and 28 seasons with >148 OPS+. So yeah, the elite-hitting 1B are not what they were a couple of years ago.

Most of those 28 seasons were put up by three guys -- Votto (7), Cabrera (5), and Goldschmidt (3). Then there's Freeman (2), Adrian Gonzalez (2), Prince Fielder (2). And then a few one-timers -- Chris Davis, Rizzo, Encarnacion, Youkilis, Jose Abreu, Konerko.

And of course, there's Pujols, who did it for a decade straight from 2001-2010 but never thereafter.
   7. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: August 09, 2020 at 10:56 AM (#5968591)
And of course, there's Pujols, who did it for a decade straight from 2001-2010 but never thereafter.

Pujols is a great example. He was fairly athletic early on, playing LF and 3B, and his stats weren't bad.

In today's environment, I think he stays at one of the positions for several more years before going to 1B.
   8. Jack Sommers Posted: August 09, 2020 at 11:22 AM (#5968592)
I think we see a swing back within a few short years. With fewer than ever balls being put in play, and fewer ground balls being hit by the ever rarer BIP, defense just matters less and less.

So we'll see some big time mashers that can't field a lick start getting more playing time at first in the coming years.

   9. Walt Davis Posted: August 09, 2020 at 06:27 PM (#5968664)
Wasn't Pujols moved first to put Rolen at 3B then because he hurt his shoulder?

Anyway, an issue with #6 is that those numbers are relative (as are most of the numbers we use). A long-term decline in OPS+ at a position means that position hits relatively worse not necessarily worse in some absolute sense. If SS are now 6-4, 215 (Corey Seager "officially") and slugging 445 (2019), then the gap to 1B is gonna be reduced.

2019: 1B 256/338/462 ... SS 269/326/445 ... All 252/323/435
2009: 1B 277/363/483 ... SS 271/328/393 ... All 262/333/418

Two years not definitive in any way, I don't know if that was a consistent trand even, but 1B ISO was 206 in both years; SS ISO went from 122 to 176. Otherwise SS performance was much the same while 1B BA slid and took OBP with it. (The BA/OBP stability of SS is interesting, I wouldn't have guessed that. Maybe a fluke as that 269 is 6+ points ahead of every other position.)

More generally, as we've noted many times, teams hit as many or more HR than the height of the sillyball era yet we aren't seeing 60-HR seasons or even getting particularly close to them. So that means we are seeing more HR up and down the lineup which suggests that the traditionally low-power positions have added bulk/strength (and wouldn't it be nice if we could trust the H/W numbers and have them throughout a player's career). Whether that's a product of the "same" players adding strength or it's a product of teams not moving those "same" players off of SS is unanswerable from our end.

We have no way of measuring absolute performance really -- possibly statcast will give us some ways to do that once we start to accumulate enough data over the next decade plus.
   10. Ron J Posted: August 09, 2020 at 09:20 PM (#5968702)
#9 He also had foot problems. Pretty sure he ends up at first just to maximize the chance of his remaining in the lineup.
   11. Rally Posted: August 10, 2020 at 09:11 AM (#5968738)
Wasn't Pujols moved first to put Rolen at 3B then because he hurt his shoulder?

They got Rolen in mid-2002. Pujols didn't play fulltime at first until 2004. In 2003 he mostly played left field as they still had Tino Martinez.

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