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First base: A more valuable position than many people think
As a long-time baseball coach, I can attest that no position on the field is unimportant, not even the much-maligned right field. But coaches do place priorities on some positions, which change with various levels of competition.
At the Little League level, for example, coaches usually try to put a kid with a strong arm at shortstop to heave the ball across the diamond. They put a fast kid in centerfield to run down the fly balls that the other team’s big star hits to the outfield. And in many cases, they place their best all-around player at first base.
First base is a key position in Little League
The reason is simple. Since Little League (at the regular city league level, not the traveling all-star teams) is so inclusive, there often are a lot of kids who struggle to hit the ball, and most of them are righthanded. If they hit the ball they generally swing late and hit nubbers to first base. At this level the first baseman usually fields more grounders than any other position. If the batter manages to hit a grounder to one the other fielders, a first baseman who can catch a thrown ball is a high priority, especially one who is athletic enough to go after the poorly thrown ones. He’s also a valuable cut-off man for throws to other bases for the balls that do reach the outfield.
It’s not unusual to see the kid who was the star first baseman in Little League transition into the star shortstop at the high school level. If he’s a lefty, he’ll become the star centerfielder.
WAR places little value on first basemen
I bring this up because the past few years a number of writers and sabermetricians have touted the ability of WAR (Wins Above Replacement) to predict a player’s value. WAR strives to combine all areas – batting, fielding and baserunning – into one uberstat. While I don’t discount the value of WAR, I do have some issues with it (among them that I think it’s impossible to boil baseball down to a single stat). One issue I have with it is the way it weights the different positions based on their supposed importance.
In this system, a centerfielder is inherently more valuable than a leftfielder. For example, if a centerfielder and leftfielder have identical hitting and baserunning stats, the centerfielder will still have a higher WAR because of the position he plays. In fact, according to FanGraphs – one of the leaders of WAR – putting a player in centerfield automatically makes him worth 10 more runs than if you had put him in leftfield. The thinking is that it is easier to find someone to play leftfield than centerfield. Similarly, a shortstop carries more weight at his position. First basemen, for reasons that aren’t adequately explained, rank the lowest among all defensive positions, at minus 12.5 runs (I believe this is over the course of 600 plate appearances).
FanGraphs’ explanation doesn’t say what you subtract the runs from, but the point is that they place little value on a first baseman. In fact, their explanation states “It’s not that difficult to be a +5 defender at a position like first base, but it takes considerable talent to be a +5 defensive centerfielder.
Their thinking, I believe, is it’s much easier to find an adequate replacement first baseman than a replacement centerfielder, i.e., anybody can play first but it takes a special talent to play centerfield. But I think that is an archaic view.
Role of first basemen has changed since 1970s
It’s true that there was a time when many managers used first base to “hide” a lumbering slugger or an aging outfielder who couldn’t move well. The philosophy seemed to be that as long as he could catch a thrown ball he could play first. So in the past men like Ted Kluszewski and Frank Howard, as well as Mickey Mantle and Carl Yastrzemski late in their careers, played first base. If you had a good-fielding first baseman, it usually meant he wasn’t a slugger, like Wes Parker or Mike Hegan.
But starting with Keith Hernandez in the late ‘70s and continuing with Don Mattingly, a shift began in the attitude about first base. The designated hitter played a part in this change. Managers could now slot their aging or fielding-challenged players into the DH role. The DH-less NL sent some of their iron-gloved players to the AL. Minor league systems also spent time developing players to play first base, allowing them to hone their fielding skills without losing their power hitting abilities.
As a result of this transition, today you see many more superb fielding first basemen than ever before. Mark Teixeira, Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols, Carlos Pena, Todd Helton, Joey Votto and many others are all regarded as superb fielders as well as power hitters. Before them you had others like Derek Lee, Rafael Palmeiro, Jeff Bagwell, Mark Grace and Will Clark, all great hitters who also fielded their positions well.
Players like Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder, who aren’t among the elite at first, have still worked hard enough on their defense that they are no longer considered a liability with the glove.
A good first baseman is as valuable as a shortstop or centerfielder
I believe that a good-fielding first baseman, especially one the caliber of Teixeira or Gonzalez, is just as valuable as a good-fielding shortstop and more valuable to a team’s defense than third base, second base and possibly even centerfield.
One reason is the sheer volume of balls a first basemen handles in any given game or season. In a game where the third baseman handles three grounders, the shortstop five, the second baseman two and the pitcher two, the first baseman may handle twelve thrown balls. That’s not including the pickoff attempts from both pitcher and catcher, as well as cutoff throws from the outfield.
Fielding at first base requires many skills
Anyone who thinks it’s easy to catch those thrown balls probably hasn’t played first base. Throws from infielders are not easy lobs. They’re thrown fiercely and often arrive with a tailing or sinking action that would make a pitcher envious – if they’re even on target. While infielders theoretically aim for the chest, throws can be anywhere from the dirt in front of the first baseman to the three over his head, wide right or wide left, and he has no idea which until the thrower releases the ball. Pickoff attempts from pitchers are sometimes erratic and have to be caught with a runner often sliding into the very spot the ball is headed. And on grounders, he faces the same sharply hit balls from lefthanded hitters as the third baseman does from righthanded hitters.
Playing first base also requires fancy footwork, which in most cases has to be made blindly. On a grounder to one of the other infield positions, a first basemen needs to keep his eyes trained on the thrown ball. How the throw arrives – high, low, wide left, wide right – determines how the first baseman moves his feet to make the correct stretch while maintaining contact with the bag. He does this with his back turned to the base. It’s not a skill that can be picked up overnight.
While it’s true he doesn’t have to throw as often as the other fielders, the throws he’s faced with are decidedly more difficult. On potential double play balls, for example, he has to throw over or around the runner as he’s heading for second. But the most difficult throw is when he fields a grounder wide of the base and the pitcher has to cover. Just watching the throw, it looks fairly simple – a nice underhand toss to the pitcher. It is actually one of the trickiest in baseball where timing is everything. The first baseman can’t throw it at the moving pitcher or it will sail behind him. He can’t throw it too hard or too soft. Ideally, it will reach the pitcher chest high as he is making his final step on the base, on the inside of the bag so he isn’t plowed over by the runner. This is the reason coaches at all levels of baseball spend significant portions of spring training practicing it.
The example of Mark Teixeira
A good first baseman, especially an exceptional one, improves the infield defense in the way that a great centerfielder can boost the outfield defense. I offer Mark Teixeira as a prime example, mostly because, thanks to MLB’s online sports package and MLB-TV, I’ve seen him play more than other first basemen. (I saw about 80 Yankee games last year and have watched all or part of around 100 this season).
Here is what Teixeira does for the Yankees at first base:
- Because he has so much fielding range at first, the second basemen can cheat to the middle of the field where they can flag down some grounders that would be hits. Since that’s usually Robinson Cano, who also has great range, there are few holes on the right side of the infield.
- His excellent footwork allows him to turn bad throws that often go for errors into outs, or at least keeps runners from advancing an additional base.
- Because of his ability to pick up bad throws, the infielders are willing to take chances on throwing balls from positions they might not otherwise attempt. These don’t always result in outs but they do often enough to warrant the risk.
- Runners hold just a bit closer because pitchers have the confidence to make hard throws to first, knowing Teixeira will field it.
I’m sure this is not unique to Teixeira. Teams with Adrian Gonzalez, Albert Pujols and other top-fielding first basemen have the same defensive advantage.
Replacing a good first baseman not as easy as some think
WAR’s theory is that it’s harder to find someone to replace a shortstop or centerfielder than a first baseman, but in practice this often isn’t true. For example, Teixeira has struggled at various times this season with injuries. In his stead, the Yankees use outfielder Nick Swisher or third baseman Eric Chavez. The difference in their fielding compared to Teixeira is noticeable in every game. It’s a difference that is far greater than you usually see when a team has to replace a shortstop or centerfielder.
That’s because teams prepare for injuries at those spots and usually carry a suitable backup (in the case of shortstop, it’s usually someone from the Dominican Republic or Venezuela – those countries must field entire teams of shortstops). The drop off in ability is more often seen in the hitting than the fielding – in fact, sometimes the backups are the better fielders.
That usually isn’t the case with first basemen. Teams pluck players from other positions to fill in, or use their DH if he happens to be listed as a first basemen (although teams with players like Adam Dunn and David Ortiz still usually have someone else they’ll insert at first. Those guys usually only play the field in interleague games).
Playing first involves a lot of intangibles
I think one reason WAR undervalues first basemen so much is that many things a good first baseman does isn’t translated into stats. For example, if Cano ranges into short centerfield behind second base to make a great stop, then bounces the throw to first where Teixeira makes a great scoop, Cano gets the credit for his great fielding range. With a replacement first baseman, that throw may well bounce into the dugout and Cano’s fielding rating goes down because he made an error. (Fielding statistics are a wild card in WAR and not adequately explained so a first baseman may get credit for scooping up bad throws but I don’t think so. If anyone knows if the fielding stats incorporate that, I’d appreciate knowing.) I do know there is no stat that keeps track of superb footwork around the bag, nor is there one for the confidence infielders and pitchers have in making throws to first.
These things are labeled, derisively so by many WAR enthusiast, as “intangibles”. Unfortunately, those enthusiasts discount anything that can’t be quantified and counted. But coaches and players know that the little things first basemen do are every bit as valuable as running down a fly ball in the gap or making a diving stop in the hole.
I hope someday the people who bring us WAR and other stats will recognize how valuable a first baseman can be to the a team and make adjustments accordingly.