Today we continue through our journey around the diamond listing the best ever to play the game at each position. Well, actually, we’re still at first base. A week ago, we revealed our top-20 at the position, today it’s 21-40, and in a week we’ll name the top-20 second basemen ever. All rankings are based on Eric’s CHEWS+ and my MAPES+ lists. And we won’t stop until we give you the top-40 at every position and the top-120 pitchers.
First Base – 21-40
Where do we project the active player to finish in our rankings?
Joey Votto: Eric doesn’t address Votto because he did so last week as the 20th ranked guy on his list. For a player with six OBP titles and almost 55 WAR, Votto is criminally underrated. Unfortunately for him, he’s only hit 30 homers twice and only drive in 100 three times. On the other hand, just looking at straight WAR, he’s never had an 8-win season. But I digress. This question is about where he’ll end up. My adjusted numbers gave him 7.47 WAR a year ago. But he will be 34 this year. Imagine a graceful decline of 5, 4, 3, 2, and 1 WAR. He’d pass seven guys and move into 17th place on my list. But maybe the decline will be even less pronounced, seeing him fall to 6 WAR this year and then age gracefully. He’s now fighting George Sisler for 10th in history. I’m not saying it’ll happen, but it certainly could. —Miller
Where do our rankings diverge the most from the conventional wisdom?
It’s an easy enough call to say that it’s David Ortiz. After all, conventional wisdom says he’s going to waltz into the Hall. But I think nearly 100% of the writers for vote for Papi will do so noting his specialness or clutchiness or Papiness or all three. Ortiz deserves the Hall based a lot more on Fame than on greatness. And if you’re thinking his playoff greatness puts him over the line, well, maybe it does, though I did contribute a meandering post about the incredible amount of value you’d need to give playoff excellence to get the Sox great over the line. —Miller
It would be easy to spotlight old timers like Harry Stovey or Jack Fournier or even Dolph Camilli here. But there’s two guys on this list where I see divergence. First, no one during his career ever thought that John Olerud was a Hall-caliber player. He got attention when he took a run at .400 early in his career. He got some kudos as the slick-scooping glue that held the Mets’ infield defense together in the Piazza era. He was also known for the piano he carried on his back when he ran the bases. But his case for the Hall is actually pretty damned good thanks to a combination of good hitting and excellent fielding. Then there’s Harm Killebrew. The 500 homers pretty much starts and ends the conversation on him, and, ipso facto, he’s a Hall of Famer. Well, he was an abysmal fielder, a bad baserunner, and hit into a lot of double plays. The entire package isn’t nearly as good as the gaudy homer figures would indicate, and if you only stop at 573, you won’t agree with us.—Eric
Where do we disagree with one another the most?
Nothing to see here. There’s no meaningful disagreement.
Are there any players that MAPES+/CHEWS+ might overrate or underrate?
In this group, not especially. So I’d like to take just a moment to talk about how a team might have underrated a player. In 1967, the Reds moved Tony Perez to third base. He’d never played an MLB inning at the hot corner, but during his minor league apprenticeship, he’d played a vast majority of his games there. Arriving in Cincy in 1964, Perez played nothing but first base for three years, and he was slightly below average (-3 runs) in 174 games. The Reds realigned their infield for ’67, moving Perez off first base, pushing incumbent Tommy Helms to second base, putting Pete Rose to pasture in left field, and putting defensively inept left fielder Deron Johnson at first base where he could do less damage (and they were right). In 1966, these players combined for -24 runs. In 1967 they combined for -10. Bob Howsam and Dave Bristol saved themselves at least a win’s worth of runs just by putting their players where their skills made the most sense. Perez was the weakest link at -9 runs in 1967, but over the next four years, he accumulated positive value at third base.
Prior to the 1972 season, the Reds acquired infielder Denis Menke who had at one time played a decent shortstop, but whose glove faltered badly. He could hit a little, and the Reds picked him up in one of the most lopsided trades in baseball history.
November 29, 1971: The Houston Astros trade Ed Armbrister, Jack Billingham, Cesar Geronimo, Denis Menke, and Joe Morgan to the Cincinnati Reds for Tommy Helms, Lee May, and Jimmy Stewart.
Morgan alone brought back 58 WAR, with Geronimo returning 13, Menke 4, Billingham 2, and Armbrister none. For their efforts, the Astros got 4 wins from Helms, though they later flipped him for Art Howe who earned 13 WAR with the ‘Stros; 6 from Lee May who they later made part of a trade for Enos Cabell and Rob Andrews; and -1 from Stewart whom they later cut.
For Perez’s part, however, the departure of May and Helms opened holes at first base and second base. Morgan, of course, would man the keystone sack. Who would play first base? They had options on hand. Obviously Perez had played there previously and was fine. Menke might also be stationed there. He had, in fact, been the Astros’ primary first baseman the year before and played there about as well as Perez had in the past. Pete Rose had moved from left field to right field in deference to rising youngster Bernie Carbo. Cabo had been worth 4.4 WAR in 1970, faltered in 1971, and after a slow start was dealt in 1972, pushing Rose back to left. The young Hal McRae got a lot of playing time and might have been an option. George Foster was on the roster but didn’t play much and hit poorly when he did. The Reds chose to stick Menke at third base and slide Perez across the diamond.
I wasn’t there, and I don’t know what all happened, but here’s the thing. Menke was a short timer however you looked at it, and the Reds had more good hitters than the WBA, WBC, and IBF combined. But Perez looked like a first baseman and hit like one, so the move made sense. But in retrospect, leaving Perez be would have given the Reds many more opportunities and made Perez more valuable. During his time at third base, Perez earned 12 positional runs (he did appear other places from time to time). Perez left Cincinnati after 1976, but in those five years, the positional adjustment for third base was three runs a season, or 15 runs over those five years. At first base it was -45 runs. If Perez played every day, the difference between the positions was 60 runs without factoring in defense or anything else. Perez was a good first baseman from 1972–1976 and picked up 17 fielding runs. So the net of his positional adjustment and fielding was -28 runs. Perez could have been a -42 run fielder at third base over that same time and still have earned out at the hot corner.
The worst defender with 50% of his games at third base in that time as Richie Hebner who “earned” -37 runs. Bill Madlock placed with -32 runs. Dave Roberts to show at -30. Bill Melton next at -29, and the only other player over -20 was Paul Schaal at -30. Whether contemporary observers saw it or not, Perez played a good enough third base to have likely avoided that kind of disaster artistry.
And that’s just the BBREF Rfield side of the story. DRA pegs him at 8 runs instead of 17 from 1972–1976, and it likes his defense a lot at third, to the tune of 22 runs from 1967–1971. I understand why Sparky Anderson and Bob Howsam made the move they did. It seemed like a good baseball move based on the understandings of the game in 1972. Looking backwards, though, it’s possible that the difference between Tony Perez first baseman and Tony Perez Hall of Merit third baseman came down simply to a trade, a decision, and 100 years of soon-to-be-obsolete conventional baseball wisdom.—Eric