First base is always a position that is loaded with Hall of Fame candidates. So, when we look at modern first basemen we have to divide them into two distinct groups. There are those that are retired, but are not yet eligible to be on the Hall of Fame ballot and then there are those that are still active. Players must wait five years to become eligible for the ballot. As it happens, there are a few interesting candidates in addition to David Ortiz who we profiled last time.
Recently Retired candidates
Two of the three candidates for the Hall of Fame have serious issues getting in the way of their candidacy. Todd Helton retired after the 2013 season after 17 seasons in Colorado. Most critics point to the fact that he played half of his games a mile above sea level. Coors Field has a way of inflating numbers. Of course, that is one of the reasons why we employ something like the index to distill out the effects of the home ballpark. Just to be sure, we ought to take a look at what the critics are talking about.
In some ways, you could say that the hullabaloo over Coors Field is overblown. Some people think the hitters are ordinary outside of Denver. That might have been true of players like Dante Bichette and Vinny Castilla, but Helton was a cut above. An .855 road OPS is nothing to sneeze at. If you multiple the road numbers by two you see a guy with 284 career home runs, 1054 runs scored, and 1094 RBI. That’s not Hall of Fame worthy, but it also assumes completely neutral home statistics. It is not uncommon for players to enjoy a little bump at home.
Jason Giambi was of course implicated in the whole steroids era as a user. Late in his career, he came out and made a tearful apology for doing wrong without specifically mentioning steroids. Unlike Helton, he won an MVP award and probably should have won two. By any accounts, he was the best player in the American League in 2001 by a significant margin, but the world was captivated by Ichrio Suzuki.
Giambi supposedly admitted to using human growth hormone and steroids for three seasons beginning in 2003. If that is true then we can surmise he was clean for the last ten years of his career and the first six years of his career. If we buy his timeline then his best two seasons were played clean. Of course, as we know from the Mitchell Report, Oakland was one of the epicenters of the steroid culture. Heck, it was where Balco was housed.
For the time being, we will buy his timeline and say he only used when he was in New York. Still, we can’t help but question his account because it sounds eerily similar to Alex Rodriguez’s account. They were clean until they got paid tens of millions of dollars. That doesn’t remotely seem plausible, but whatever. We will consider the index scores for these two players and Mark Teixeira.
Helton looks awfully good when we look at career value. We can discount the numbers all we want, but he produced with the bat and the glove. In fact, when we look at the fielding numbers for all three players we can definitely see why Helton was a cut above according to the value numbers.
Teixeira played some at third base in his career, so when you take the defensive WAR methodology you can see why he comes out ahead. An average third baseman is worth more than an average first baseman in terms of replacement level performance. Add in win shares proclivity to give extra credit to players that played on winning teams and we can see why it would appear that Helton is not as good as people claim. UZR started in 2002, so Helton likely would have an even bigger advantage had we started from the beginning of his career.
Add it all up and we can see why Helton is a cut above the others in career value. In spite of all of that, he had only one top five finish in the MVP voting. He led the National League in bWAR in 2000 and finished in the top ten five different times in addition to that. Clearly, the BBWAA didn’t quite grasp his greatness. At least they didn’t in comparison with Jason Giambi. Of course, peak value is often the tiebreaker in these situations.
We can comfortably eliminate Teixeira from Hall of Fame consideration. Like many others, he wasn’t healthy enough for long enough. However, it would appear that Helton should be in the Hall of Fame based on his index numbers. Giambi is a somewhat intriguing candidate given his MVP and career numbers, but the PED use and borderline score combine to do him in.
The Absurdity of Counting Statistics
There is one modern candidate who really doesn’t qualify as significant Hall of Fame candidate, but he does serve as a cautionary tale to the gods of counting numbers. Sports fans are captivated by round numbers. It’s easy to see why. In football, it’s the 1000 yard season for running backs and wide receivers. In basketball, it’s 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 10 assists per game. In baseball, it is our fascination with the .300 batting average, 100 runs scored, and 100 RBI. For pitchers, it is 20 wins and 300 strikeout seasons. Even if those numbers are universal throughout time, holding steadfastly to them seems foolish at times. Is there a remarkable difference between say 99 RBI and 103 RBI? Let’s bring back our Player A and Player B test. Numbers represent the beginning of the 2018 season for the modern player.
That is about as close as two players can get in terms of OPS. Of course, we are talking two different eras and these numbers are crude, but you would be hard pressed to call either one a significant Hall of Fame candidate. Are they good players? Clearly, most players don’t get to 300 career home runs and 1000 RBI. Furthermore, both players hit for a decent average and showed the ability to get on base.
We would surmise that Player A is slightly better, but Player B isn’t done playing yet. If he puts up one or two more decent seasons then he could be right there in all three run producing categories. As we have seen in the last two seasons, Player B is likely done as a productive player, but we are still early in the 2018 campaign. Stranger things have happened.
Player A is Gil Hodges. He had seven consecutive 100 RBI seasons when the Dodgers were at their best in the 1940s and 1950s. When you produce matters, but Player B is the Mets Adrian Gonzalez. In 2009, he hit .277 with a .407 OBP. He had a career high 119 walks and had the highest OPS in his career at .958. He also hit a career high 40 home runs. By all accounts it was a great season. Unfortunately, he only drove in 99 runs. Had he collected one more RBI he would have had nine consecutive 100 RBI seasons.
This isn’t to say that Gonzalez should be considered for the Hall of Fame. Quite the opposite, he hasn’t done nearly enough to warrant that and no self-respecting analyst is suggesting he should be. However, with that one more RBI you could claim he has a stronger case than Hodges. He matches those offensive contributions with four Gold Glove awards. By all accounts he has enjoyed a very good career. He’s also fallen off the table in the last two seasons. In other words, he just wasn’t good enough for long enough. Yet, with similar credentials you have seemingly brilliant analysts that will swear that Hodges is a Hall of Famer. At least one of their selling points are those seven consecutive seasons. Absurd? Yeah, I would agree.
Modern First Basemen
First base is usually a loaded position and now is no different. There are two absolute legends currently active and one more that probably will be should he remain healthy. One of the reasons for compiling lists like this is that it forces us to acknowledge greatness when it is right in front of us. Sometimes, we have to acknowledge greatness when it isn’t readily apparent.
Joey Votto is absolutely one of the greatest first basemen in history. Some people don’t see it. That might be because Cincinnati is a small market. It also might be because the Reds are practicing a scorched earth plan that will keep them near the basement for the forseeable future. It isn’t like they have enjoyed a lot of success in his career. That’s not his fault, but it is easier to recognize greatness when it is enjoyed on a great team. The biggest factor is that the skill that makes him great is not universally recognized as a skill. He gets on base more often than any player in the modern game. Walks aren’t sexy, but they matter. They matter a lot.
No, that is not an index total for Pujols. That is just career value. Of course, he is also a cautionary tale for projecting career value midway through a career. His Cardinal numbers are enough to get him by themselves, but he has been a very different player in Los Angeles. It is hard to argue that he has been worth the investment the Angels put in him. Naturally, it is hard to calculate what he has meant in advertising and marketing. He will get his 3000th hit probably by the time you finish reading this. I’m certainly not a public relations expert, but that has to be worth a ton. The simple numbers tell a different story.
As bad as these numbers look, the reality is worse. He was one of the best fielding first basemen in the National League throughout his career in St. Louis. He is barely replacement level over the course of his time in Los Angeles. He will still go down as the second best first baseman ever, but we would have sworn he could have chased down Gehrig when we take just the Cardinal numbers. Even with two or three more prime years it might have been possible. That’s what you get for predicting the future.
Still, he should pass Willie Mays on the all-time home run list next season and he should pass 2000 career RBI this season if he plays most of the time. He has an outside chance of reaching 2000 runs scored and 700 home runs if he finishes out his contract with the Angels. So, make sure you get your commemorative promotional stuff at the ballpark as he approaches those milestones.
Cabrera gets lost in the shuffle because of Pujols. In the early going of 2018 he appears to be back on track. Since he is a few years younger than Pujols, he has an outside chance of reaching the same career milestones. Baseball hasn’t seen that level of production since Gehrig and Foxx were going back and forth in the 1920s and 1930s. Naturally, this leaves us with Votto. Votto is considerably younger and so he barely reaches the ten-year minimum. It also means his peak value and career value will be very similar. For obvious reasons I don’t feel comfortable projecting his career, but it seems fairly obvious that he is already there in terms of where the index pegs him.
Keep in mind that Votto is still technically in the midst of his ten-year peak. So, all he can do is add to his peak value at this point. It doesn’t seem outrageous to assert that he will be a superior peak value player when compared to Cabrera. It’s harder to assert career value since Cabrera is still adding to that total, but if Votto continues on his trajectory that could end up being the case. Thanks to baseball-reference.com we can compare where Votto is coming into 2018 to where Pujols was when exiting St. Louis. For fun, we will consider Cabrera’s tally as well through 11 seasons.
There are a couple of reasons why Votto’s totals are lower. First, he was called up late in 2007, so while that technically counts as his 11th season, he really has only had ten full seasons. Secondly, he missed considerable time in both 2012 and 2014 due to injury. Yet, he is as good a reason why we can’r rely on runs and RBI to tell us how good someone is as anyone in the history of the game. He is essentially as good as Cabrera was with the bat over those first eleven seasons, but both Cabrera and Pujols were surrounded by better teammates, so both players scored and drove in far more runs.
Runs and RBI are essentially opportunity statistics. You need someone on base to drive in and you need someone at the plate to drive you in. The Reds just have not been a good team over the totality of Votto’s career. Others would claim he is selfish to take all of those walks. He should swing the bat when there are runners on base. Simply put, this is backwards thinking. Your job as a hitter is to create runs. You create runs first and foremost by getting on base. Swinging at pitches out of the zone to drive in runs is not an efficient way to create runs.