There’s been a lot to celebrate as a Yankee fan over the past three years. The debuts of rookies like Aaron Judge and Gleyber Torres have represented the crowning achievement of a quick rebuild. Brian Cashman has assembled one of the greatest bullpens in the history of baseball...a couple of times. And in 2018, the Yankees have the second-best record in all of baseball. There’s one glaring flaw that’s carried over the last number of seasons, though, and it’s the lack of production at first base.
Greg Bird has been part of the problem, and I’ve written about how he may never turn out to be the player the Yankees thought. When Bird’s been injured, which has happened quite a bit, his replacements have been no better. In fact, over the last three years the team’s first basemen have combined for just a 109 wRC+ and 0.49 combined fWAR, not what you want - or need - from a position that historically boasts some of the most powerful players in the game.
That historical association, however, may be just that; history. First base is no longer the top offensive position in the game, and indeed 2018 is on track to be the third-worst season for first basemen since 2002, with the only two worse years coming at the height of the pitching revolution earlier this decade.
Obviously, the season isn’t over yet, but take a look at the below chart:
MLB first basemen are projected to finish with just under 60 wins this season, and the only other times this century they’ve performed so poorly were in the pitching-rich 2012 and 2013 seasons, the last time MLB had serious concerns about lowering the pitching mound and pre-flyball revolution.
Of course, New York’s production at first base mirrors the MLB-wide trend pretty closely, matching most peaks and valleys. This shows that a dropoff in the quality of play at first base isn’t a Yankee phenomenon, but a baseball-wide one.
To add on to this, the production we do see from first base tends to be from a select few elite players, rather than a broad base of quality players. Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Matt Carpenter and Justin Smoak provide so much more value than the rest of the pack that they’re actually skewing the cumulative results. To factor this in, I like to look at quartiles.
Basically, we can sort first basemen into four buckets. The truly bad ones, in the first quartile. The “meh” first basemen will cluster around the median and the good-but-not-great fit in the third quartile. Using our same dataset as above, the quartile distributions look like this:
Since the points of bad and meh production have remained relatively stable since 2002, the number of players in those buckets is pretty well constant. Every team has the Quad-A guy they stick at first base in September because they can’t figure out where to play him. Where you see a real decline is in the third quartile. 75% of first basemen in 2018 are projected to be worth less than 1.25 fWAR, as above that’s the lowest outside of 2012-13. A couple of big names are still the class of the position, but their success belies a rapidly deteriorating corps of players.
So...why is that?
The first explanation is likely that the game is cleaner than ever before. First base used to be the province of large, swing-happy men whose abilities were often enhanced by less-than-natural methods. You saw this in the tail end of the nineties into the new millennium, but as baseball has taken strides to clean itself up, those less-than-natural players are fewer and far between.
The bigger cause, though, is probably the acceptance of positional value. Obviously, third base is a more challenging position defensively than first, and shortstop more challenging than both. You can get an in-depth breakdown of positional values here . As teams have moved to optimize total value from their rosters, and with infield shifting becoming commonplace, players who would otherwise have been moved to first base are staying at other positions, drawing away value from 1B.
Miguel Andujar is a great example of this. Everyone knew that his bat was MLB quality, but the primary concern even in the lower minors was defense. He never really got better, and even though he’ll certainly be a Rookie of the Year finalist, he’s also tracking to be just about the worst defensive third baseman in baseball. A decade ago, he would have been moved to first in Triple-A. Now, with a better understanding of positional value, teams know that a 130 wRC+ hitter is more valuable at third than at first, and even with Andy’s defensive shortcomings, he’s more valuable at the hot corner, so he’s going to stay there for the time being.
Positional value doesn’t just affect first basemen. It’s the chief reason Manny Machado was so adament about playing shortstop this year, a contract year. The positional boost he got from being at short should make his numbers more impressive, leading to a bigger free agent contract.
The Yankees have had real holes at first over the past several seasons, but it’s not a total failure of the organization. Its a symptom of a larger, sport-wide trend, and one without a clear and obvious solution.