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    Monday, August 15, 2011

    Re-Run: Future Hall of Fame, First Basemen

    I have always figured there were a lot of first basemen in the Hall of Fame. I assumed that, since they are usually the best hitters, they would look more impressive to voters.

    Not so. Only eight first basemen have been elected by writers to the Hall of Fame. Granted, this doesn’t count odd cases, like the exception of Lou Gehrig, or several players (such as Johnny Mize and Orlando Cepeda) who, while now thought of as legends, actually had to wait for the Veterans Committee to elect them.

    But enough with the history lesson. The position is currently loaded with talent, making it difficult to appreciate it all. Nevertheless, I feel like, within thirty years, the likes of these players may even double the number of first basemen in Cooperstown.

    Jim Thome As I recall, there was some doubt that Thome was a Hall of Famer back when he hit his 500th home run. That was back in 2007, and since then, he’s compiled 74 more. At 39, he’s still going strong, thanks in part to a switch to DH when he returned to the AL. He looks like a lock for 600 home runs (and, by extension, the Hall), and has a ridiculously strong .277/.404/.557 line for his career (batting average/on-base percentage/slugging percentage). For those who are a fan of players with a strong peak, he had an OBP of .385 or better and a slugged .500 or better every year from 1995 to 2007 (with the exception of 2005, when, in 59 games, his OBP was “merely” .360). Despite logging over 660 games at DH, he still has played more games at first (over 1100). For one last stat, he has amassed 71.2 WAR for his career (Wins Above Replacement; it’s an advanced stat that tries to account for every part of a player’s game. Players with 60 usually have a good shot at the Hall, while players with 70 or more are mostly locks).

    Jason Giambi He has a very good peak; every year, from 1999 to 2006, he hit at least 30 home runs, got on base at .400 or better, and slugged .500 or better every year (with the exception of an injuried-riddled 2004). He has 412 homers, 1899 hits, and a .282/.405/.525 line. However, I don’t think he has a great chance of getting in the Hall. Giambi is currently 39, and has not held together nearly as well as Thome has. Giambi also played during a peak of offensive numbers, at a position that is usually reserved for hitter, making it hard to stand out. He also stands at 54.3 WAR, which would be borderline at most positions other than first base (it is worth noting that his defense has cost him around 6.5 wins). Giambi has had a solid career, but the Hall doesn’t look likely to come calling for him.

    Todd Helton Helton actually has a much better chance at the Hall than his teammate, Giambi. However, the last few years of his career will be critical in securing his place in the Hall. As it stands, he has 2195 hits, 519 doubles, 327 homers, and a .325/.424/.557 line. However, he’s only 36, so he has time to bring those numbers up. However, this season has been the worst of his career, and has actually brought many of his stats down. For example, his WAR for this year has been -0.4, which has brought him down to 59.9 for the career. This may just be due to injury; last year, he hit .325/.416/.489, and posted 3.8 WAR. If he can rebound to numbers even somewhat below those for three to five more years, he can probably lay claim to a spot in Cooperstown. The fact that he has played his entire career for one team helps, as those players usually receive a boost in the Hall chances.

    Derrek Lee You probably haven’t thought much of Lee as a Hall of Fame candidate, and, really, you probably don’t need to. However, as I said about Jason Kendall in my catchers article, he’s likely better than you think. He never had the peak of Jason Giambi or Jim Thome, or even Todd Helton, but he has been remarkably solid for a long time. He’s posted 1776 hits, 393 doubles, 303 home runs, and a .282/.367/.497 line. But, his 36.9 WAR is underwhelming. Also, he’s playing at a strong position offensively, and he doesn’t quite stand out of the bunch much. Also against him is that he’s 34, and his numbers are declining. Like Helton, he was strong last year, and could rebound. However, Helton has a better case to build off of.

    Paul Konerko Konerko is fairly similar to Derrek Lee. His 1777 hits, 325 doubles, 346 home runs, and .278/.354/.494 line are virtually indistinguishable from Lee’s numbers. They’re both in their 14th season in the Major Leagues, and they’re both 34. So most of the same things apply. However, there are two major differences. First, Konerko has only accumulated 27 WAR, so he has more ground to make up than Lee. Second, Konerko is currently in the midst of (arguably) his best season yet. Only time will tell whether it’s an anomaly or a trend, but I would still bet against him, in either case.

    David Ortiz Ortiz lands here because I don’t know where else to put him. He’s the only candidate I could think of who has played most of his games at DH, and I didn’t want to make a separate article for one player. So, even though Ortiz has only played 248 games at first (compared to 1525 total), he’s in this article.

    Big Papi has a slightly better chance at the Hall than Konerko or Lee, but his odds still aren’t great. He does have 1524 hits, 335 home runs, and a .281/.377/.545 line. Now, the negatives. He still hasn’t reached any milestones, and doesn’t look likely to. He only has 34.3 WAR for his career. He has primarily been a DH in his career. And lastly, he’s 34 and declining. He’s started slow two seasons in a row, both times prompting calls for his release. And, even this year, his numbers show some disturbing trends under the surface-his OPS against lefties is .578, compared to 1.092 against righties. His stats this year show decline as the game wears on (his splits are much lower for the sixth inning on). And, his contract is nearing its end. I’m not sure many teams will be willing to spend on a DH who can’t hit lefties, or after the fifth inning. However, he does have one thing; he played very well, for a large market, and had some notable clutch moments. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Jim Rice Most Feared Slugger of His Time Card™.

    Lance Berkman Lance Berkman will end up being considered as a first baseman. It is interesting to note, though, that he has played over 950 games in the outfield, compared to almost 700 at first. The switch hitter has 325 home runs, 1641 hits, and a .297/.410/.551 line. Also, his 55.6 WAR puts him in a good position. Again, though, he’s 34. He was good last year, but started off fairly weak this year (mostly due to an injury, though, so make of that what you will). He does have the one team thing going for him, and it’s even his hometown team, to boot. However, I don’t know how much longer that will last, or how much a trade would hurt his candidacy. For now, though, I would put his chances at least equal to Todd Helton’s, if not better.

    Albert Pujols
    The Man. The Myth. The Legend.

    All melodrama aside, Pujols is a lock for Cooperstown, possibly the only one with a case close to Thome’s. And, believe it or not, if he had retired prior to this season, he wouldn’t even be eligible for the Hall; you need to play ten seasons to make the ballot, and Pujols is currently in his tenth. Consider these numbers: 2001 Rookie of the Year, nine-time All-Star, three-time MVP (as well as three-time runner-up), 1816 hits, 387 home runs, 1176 RBI, a .332/.426/.625 line, and 76.7 WAR. The fewest home runs he’s had in a full season is 32. The lowest OPS (on base-plus slugging) he’s had in his career is .955. The fewest WAR he’s had in a full season is 5.7. He is the second player, after Lou Gehrig, to record nine straight seasons with a .300 average, 30 doubles, 30 homers, and 100 RBI. And the man is only 30.

    Adam Dunn Adam Dunn is an interesting player to watch. I’ve seen him play several times, and it’s always an experience. Usually he hits at least one home run, and gets at least one other hit. But then there’s always one play that’s memorable because it’s odd-for example, he accidentally grounds out to the pitcher, or misses second base on another player’s hit. It’s always an adventure, though.

    He has the potential to be an extreme form of Jim Thome. At 30, he’s already up to 338 home runs, and has a .252/.383/.524 line. I want this to be mostly my thoughts, but it is interesting to note that this Bill James stat calculator projects that he has a 97% chance of reaching 500 home runs, and a 48% chance of reaching 600.

    That said, it’s criminal that no AL team has picked him up yet. The man is awful on defense. I can’t imagine someone worse in the field, short of a player with both of his feet nailed to the ground (and only both of them; you only nail one foot down, and he could give Dunn a run for his money). This is the textbook case of why we have a DH, and yet, only NL teams have ever wanted him. His WAR is a low 26.8, mostly because he’s given back nearly 12 (!!!) wins in the field.

    I’d still say he has a good chance to make the Hall. If he becomes a DH, his WAR should jump, and it’ll be harder to argue against him. His offense will be good either way, though, and that’s what most voters look at, particularly round numbers, like 600.

    Mark Teixeira Teixeira feels like yet another strong candidate. He’s certainly more well-rounded than Adam Dunn. Teixeira has been excellent with the glove, contributing nearly 4 wins with just his glove in his career(for reference, that is well-above anything I’ve seen while writing this article, even counting longer-tenured players). Batting-wise, the 30 year-old has 1254 hits, 259 home runs, and a .287/.377/.538 line. His 34.6 WAR is impressive, as he’s only in his eighth season. Accumulating rings in New York will likely only help his case. So far, he’s very well-rounded, and it’s very hard to find any major flaw in his career that might hurt his odds.

    Miguel Cabrera Miguel Cabrera feels like he’s been around forever; indeed, he’s in his eighth season right now (it is substantially less than forever, but you get my point). You may be surprised to learn this, but Cabrera is only 27. Yes, he is only now ENTERING his prime. There is a very good chance he could have several more seasons like the one he is having now. He already has 1328 hits, 280 doubles, and 231 home runs, to go along with a .314/.386/.550 line. Also, he’s already at 34.9 WAR. There are many players one this list who could be borderline Hall of Famers. Miguel Cabrera doesn’t look to be one of them.

    Justin Morneau After this long string of players making a strong case for the Hall, Morneau feels almost like a small disappointment. He’s 29, and since becoming a starter in 2005, he has 995 hits, 215 doubles, 181 homers, and a .286/.358/.511 line. His WAR stands at 21.4, even with around 2.8 coming from defense (after Teixeira, that is one of the better numbers I’ve seen while writing this). He’s been good, but he doesn’t quite measure up to some of the other candidates on this list. He is having his best season yet this year, so he might still add to his case.

    Kevin Youkilis Kevin Youkilis is kind of similar to Justin Morneau in some regards. He became a starter a year after Morneau, and has 791 hits, 193 doubles, 111 homers, and 23.5 WAR. He even has about 2.9 wins from defense (as a side note, are first basemen becoming better fielders? It seems like a lot of the good fielding first basemen debuted in a short span of time. I don’t remember a lot of the fielding stats jumping out at me, then remembered I didn’t check Albert Pujols’ fielding. Pujols has nearly 6 wins from fielding in his career. Incredible.)

    Back to Youkilis; he defers from Morneau in three major areas. Youkilis’ slash stats are .292/.393/.497. So, Youkilis’ slugging is slightly worse than Morneau’s, but he gets on base at a much higher rate. Second, Youkilis is already 31 years old, two year more than Morneau. The last one is the oddest though; Youkilis has been consistently improving since he got to the majors. Even at 31. His OPS has increased each year. His WAR has increased every year, with the exception of a one-year downturn between his first and second half-seasons. I would say his chances aren’t great, but, with that sort of trend line, he might be one to watch.

    Ryan Howard The case for Ryan Howard is not as cut-and-dry as it has been for some of the others on this list. But more on that in a minute.

    Howard is 30, and, after six seasons, has 851 hits, 239 home runs, and a .281/.373/.577 line. One potential problem could be his penchant for striking out (964 times), but it is unlikely a writer will sway their opinion entirely on a high strikeout total. His 22.6 WAR could prove more of a problem-even if you project him out to 50 WAR for his career, that still doesn’t get him into Hall territory. But neither of those is one of the potential game-changers I mentioned earlier.

    The first is reputation. Howard plays in a large market, and is widely viewed as the leader of a World Series team (regardless of whether he was the best player). Even if his numbers don’t get into Hall of Fame range, a vocal group could trot out the Jim Rice Most Feared Slugger of His Time Card™, even though that it’s tough to argue he’s even the most feared at his position. That sort of event can be unpredictable though.

    Second, he just signed one of the largest contracts in baseball. However, that contract runs for his age 32 to 36 seasons. There are plenty of ways this could go wrong (I would recommend reading Joe Posnanski’s take, if you have time) If he does poorly for even part of the life of the contract, he could leave a bad taste in many voters’ mouths.

    Prince Fielder Prince Fielder is sort of like Morneau, in that, while they’re both good, they have a harder time standing out in a very talented group. He’s in his fifth full season, and, at 26, has 180 home runs, 761 hits, a .281/.383/.544 line, and 18.8 WAR. His body type doesn’t suggest towards aging well, but you never know. I would say check back in a few years.

    Adrian Gonzalez Gonzalez is a good hitter, but is plagued with the unfortunate condition know as “playing half of your games in the long ball graveyard that is Petco Park” (it’s a long-winded, but well-named affliction). The 28-year old in his fifth season, and has 155 home runs, 820 hits, and a .283/.366/.509 line. He also seems to be in the second year of his peak, as he continues last season’s stellar numbers.. It’s worth noting that WAR, which takes park affects into account, already has him at 20.3 WAR.

    Billy Butler I hear about Billy Butler a lot, as a regular reader of Royals fan and writer Joe Posnanski. At 24, he’s in his fourth season, and already has 507 hits, 49 homers, 122 doubles, 5.3 WAR, and a .297/.355/.458 line. Also note that he is still showing signs of improvement. He could be another one to watch closely in the next few years.

    Joey Votto Votto has already attracted national attention, with his perfectly-executed plan of not being named to the All-Star Game despite MVP numbers. This is his third season, and, at 26, he has 431 hits, 75 homers, 12.8 WAR, and a .311/.396/.548 line. Also, it looks like he’s beginning a great run of seasons. It’s still a little early to tell for sure, but Votto’s off to a great start.

    Too Early to Project: Ike Davis; Kendry Morales; James Loney

    For various reasons, I felt I had to mention these players. Ike Davis was only just called up this year, so I don’t feel like I have enough to work with.

    I think Morales and Loney are still too young to rule out for certain, but their numbers still haven’t matched up to the players on this list.

    Article originally posted 7/16/2010

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