How is the Youth Movement Changing Baseball? Look at First Base

Over the last two weeks the excellent baseball site FanGraphs has been releasing their positional power rankings. Most of their findings are what you’d expect: Mike Trout is the best center fielder in the league (and it’s not even close), the shortstop position is loaded with great players, and the DH is not a very valuable position.

But the really interesting one? First base is going to be a woeful position for a lot of teams this year.

Some teams have elite first basemen. The Reds (Joey Votto), Diamondbacks (Paul Goldschmidt), Cubs (Anthony Rizzo), and Tigers (Miguel Cabrera) don’t need to worry about the position. Other teams like Atlanta (Freddie Freeman), San Francisco (Brandon Belt), and Cleveland (Carlos Santana or Edwin Encarnacion) have no reason for concern either.

But beyond the top two tiers of first basemen, the talent drops off considerably. In fact, FanGraphs project over two-thirds of teams to finish with less than 2.0 WAR at the position.

Those teams with lower-quality options at first base fall into one of three groups:

The Sluggers: Chris Davis, your limo is waiting. These guys may provide some serious power to a lineup, but they often pair that with high strikeout numbers and sub-par defense. The Orioles’ first baseman is the prime example. Sure, he hit 38 home runs last season (admittedly, he gets to play 81 games in Camden Yards). But take a look at his .221 average, or his 32.9% strikeout rate, and you’ll see why I put him in this group. Some other players I’d consider sluggers include Jose Abreu and Mike Napoli.

Image result for chris davis strikeout
One of Chris Davis’s 219 strikeouts in 2016.

The Experiments: Remember how you reacted when you found out the Rockies were planning on playing Ian Desmond at first? It’s like that. The Rockies experiment is the most outlandish trial-run at first base, but other teams are thinking outside the box with untested players. Eric Thames put up gaudy numbers in the KBO last year (.425/.676/1.101), but it remains to be seen whether he can excel in Milwaukee. The Astros are trotting out Cuban defector Yulieski Gurriel at first in the hopes that he can build off of a decent showing in 36 games with the team last season. Youngster Josh Bell looks set to be the Pirates everyday first baseman, and while he’s shown potential he’s not a can’t-miss prospect. Other teams are rolling with conversion projects, players who used to play other positions in the infield. Matt Carpenter and Joe Mauer fall in this category.

Image result for ian desmond rockies
“Wait…you guys want me to play where??”

We Gave Up: Some teams seem to have given up on the position and focused their efforts and finances elsewhere. Some of these teams, like the Phillies and the Athletics, are working through rebuilds. But many contenders are settling with replacement-level players at first. The Mariners recently assigned Dan Vogelbach to Triple-A and are going to start the season with Danny Valencia at first. The Blue Jays will inexplicably stick with Justin Smoak rather than look for an upgrade. The worst offender is the Washington Nationals, who probably have a calendar counting down the days left on Ryan Zimmermann’s contract.

Image result for ryan zimmerman
6 years, $100-million…2021 can’t come fast enough.

First base has gone from a home for the best hitters in baseball to a refuge for replacement-level hitters. And the reason for that shift comes from the power of baseball’s youth movement.

Most of the top first basemen are over thirty years old. Miguel Cabrera, Joey Votto, and Carlos Santana are all over thirty. Paul Goldschmidt turns 30 this year. There’s a considerable crowd between the ages of 27 and 30 including Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, and Brandon Belt. But first base lacks the under-25 phenoms. Wil Myers may turn into a strong player, but he never quite lived up to his superstar potential, and Gregory Bird and Josh Bell both have question marks surrounding their big-league chances.

Baseball is being taken over by young superstars. Mike Trout and Kris Bryant just turned 25. Mookie Betts is 24. So is Bryce Harper. Andrew Benitendi is so young he can’t even rent a car by himself in some states. The shortstop position is particularly dominated by young stars like Francisco Lindor (23), Carlos Correa (22), and Corey Seager (22).

MLB teams are focused on building their organizations around youth and athleticism. Those traits are often lacking among major-league first basemen. More and more contenders are willing to overlook the position to focus on building their teams around younger athletes elsewhere around the diamond. And as more star first basemen edge closer to the twilight of their careers, we may see the position get even worse.

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