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Is third base passing first base as baseball’s power position? – WSAIGO Sports
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Is third base passing first base as baseball’s power position?

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Here’s a trivia question you can bring to your cool holiday parties, where the appetite for baseball trivia is no doubt out of control: Which American League first baseman finished highest in MVP voting this year?

It’s a trick question, of course. No player who played primarily first base was named on a single ballot. Of the 18 hitters who got AL MVP votes, only one spent any time at first: Whit Merrifield, a speedy utility player who played all of 44 innings at the cold corner for Kansas City. That’s less time than he spent at second base, center field, right field or designated hitter. But the answer is, somehow, Whit Merrifield. Grab me another drink?

Meanwhile, the top of the ballot was filled with AL third basemen of varied skill sets: Matt Chapman, Alex Bregman and Jose Ramirez all finished in the top seven. The National League had first basemen in contention, but even Freddie Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt finished behind Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado and Cubs sometimes-third baseman Javier Baez.

These are just anecdotes, names to make the top of this article pop. But the stats suggest something less anecdotal, and perhaps more permanent. An interesting thing might be happening at the corners.


For as long as baseball has been played, defensive position has been offensive destiny. The harder the position, the fewer living human beings who can play it. The smaller that pool of humans, the lower the chance that there will be a bunch of elite hitters among them. And the less important the position, the more a team is willing to live with bad defense in pursuit of more offense.

Here’s a messy chart showing offense (as measured by OPS+) by position by year, going back to 1925:

Messy as it is, you can tell that those nine lines run mostly alongside each other, rather than crisscrossing with each other. Right fielders always outhit center fielders. DHs always outhit catchers. Left fielders always outhit shortstops. Defensive position is offensive destiny.

Very, very occasionally, though, baseball will start to realign itself, and if you unmess that chart, you can see those moments. In the late 1960s, for instance, baseball changed what it thought of the middle infield. Second base and shortstop had long been offensive equals, but teams discovered second base (with fewer plays and a shorter throw than shortstop) was a position where they could stash a bigger, slower, but better-hitting human:

And, for the next 50 years, shortstops didn’t outhit second basemen again. There are blips in the messy chart — every so often center fielders outhit left fielders, or second basemen match third basemen — but the realignments are rare.

So what is happening at the corners, a blip or a realignment? Last year, third basemen hit better (relative to the rest of the league) than they had since 1970. First basemen hit worse than they had since 1951. On Aug. 31, just one point of OPS separated the league’s third and first basemen. Third basemen then had a miserable September, but for the season they still nearly closed the extremely reliable gap between first and third base:

There is, of course, context to this movement. Just a few years ago, baseball writers were in a panic over the disappearing first basemen, who were worse in 2012 than they’d been in years and were nearly absent from top prospect lists. First basemen recovered — 13 got MVP votes in 2015, if we include the DHs who also played first — and the panic looked to have been just one of those fluky aberrations. But here we are again. First basemen are mostly bad. The ones who are good are mostly old. No first baseman this year got a Rookie of the Year vote. And (with some caveats) there are no likely first basemen among at least the top 50 or 60 prospects in the game.

We could list any number of hypotheses — about the role that shifts and strikeouts play in teams’ defensive decisions, about whether easy homers have made slugging first basemen less special, about the impact of super-utility players on each team’s defensive decisions, about the value of athleticism across all levels of the game — but here are two that are accompanied by what I think are interesting data:

1. It’s about bullpens. Yes, bullpens. As starters throw fewer innings and relievers slot into specialized, limited roles, every team carries 12 pitchers and some carry 13. That leaves fewer roster spots for extra hitters and makes versatility almost a requirement for any non-star. The slugging bench bat who offers no defensive versatility is gone; players who can move up and down the defensive spectrum easily fill benches.

Two consequences follow: One is that, when a starting first baseman gets hurt, doesn’t hit or simply needs a day off, there is less likely to be a major league caliber backup ready to take his spot. A marginal first-base prospect might also get fewer chances, and a marginal first-base draft candidate might get passed over, shrinking the pool of future first basemen and future breakout candidates.

The other consequence is that, because there are so few position players available, there’s a very good chance that every utility infielder (or utility outfielder or flexible starter, e.g., Whit Merrifield) is going to end up playing some first base. A record 189 players appeared at first base last year, the fifth year in a row that the league set that record. (Records were also set at second base, third base, center field, right field and catcher. They were nearly set at short, left and DH.) So first basemen move closer and closer to league-average offense because more first-baseman plate appearances are going to whatever average guy happens to be standing around with a glove.

This isn’t only about first basemen. Look at that first chart, and you’ll see almost all positions moving toward the average. Good fielders are forced to play positions at which the offensive standard has traditionally been higher, and good hitters are forced to play positions they were previously considered unqualified to defend. Offense in left field reached all-time lows in 2016 and 2017; right field had its all-time low in 2016 and DH had its all-time low in 2017, as many teams have decided they can’t employ a full-time DH if they’re carrying only 12 hitters. Over the past three years, meanwhile, second basemen and shortstops have been around league-average hitters, the highest they’ve been since the 1940s.

The bottom line is this: Differences among the nine non-pitching positions (as measured by standard deviation) have shrunk this decade to the lowest in history. In the 1970s, batters at “offensive” positions (first base, third base, left field, right field and DH) had an OPS 68 points higher than those at “defensive” positions (catcher, second base, shortstop, center field). Last decade, the difference was 59 points. This decade, the difference is just 39 points.

2. It’s about age. The roster crunch helps explain why first basemen don’t collectively hit as well as they used to — fewer are given chances to break out, and more of the plate appearances are going to non-first basemen — but it doesn’t explain why third basemen are simultaneously having their best seasons in a half-century. Earlier this week, though, we wrote about something that might offer an explanation: Young players are reaching their offensive peaks much earlier.

Nearly every player moves down the defensive spectrum as they age: Shortstops at 23 become second basemen at 29. Second basemen become third basemen. Third basemen become first basemen. And first basemen become DHs as they get thicker, slower, diminished by injury and so on. In any given year, then, the third basemen are going to be collectively younger than the first basemen. Last year, the 30 third basemen who played the most innings were almost two years younger than the 30 first basemen who played the most.

But while defense peaks early and declines almost immediately, the trade-off traditionally has been that the older players become better hitters. As we wrote earlier this week, that trend has reversed. Players are peaking at younger ages, not just in their defense or running skills, but in power hitting, plate discipline and overall offense. Last year’s young players, 25 and under, were better than any young hitters in decades and better than the rest of the league, which is a rarity.

The consequence of that is that third basemen are no longer young defenders waiting for their power to develop at the plate. They’re young defenders who are already developed, who are ready to hit major league pitching.


A third possibility is that this is, in fact, just a blip. Maybe there’s just a bunch of good third basemen right now and a dearth of good first basemen, because sometimes that happens. Just eight years ago, third basemen were as bad as they’ve been in decades, outhit even by second basemen. Just eight years ago, first basemen were dominant, with a collective OPS almost 100 points higher than that of third basemen.

But there’s something about this chart that makes me think it’s probably not a blip:

For most of history — at least since the DH was added to the American League — first basemen, third basemen and DHs tracked each other pretty closely. Sometimes they were a little up, sometimes they were a little down, but they were usually up or down together. This makes sense: The positions overlap a lot, with DHs who often play first base, and first basemen who had just moved over from third base, and first basemen who sometimes play third. If there were a lot of good first basemen, the spillover would benefit third basemen and DHs too. They were a family, and they fluctuated like a family.

Last year, though, they didn’t move like a family. First basemen were as bad as they’d ever been, but the scarcity didn’t affect either of the 1B-adjacent positions. DHs hit better. Third basemen hit better.

It suggests that we could be seeing a realignment around first base. There will always be a handful of walloping sluggers who can only play first base. Some will hit 45 homers and win MVP awards. But the way the game is played today, there might not be room for 30 of that type around the league. We might be seeing first base being pulled into the versatility era. We might see third basemen outhit first basemen in 2019. At least it’s something to watch.

Historical stats via the Play Index at Baseball-Reference.

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Excitement, angst face Cubs fans as winter winds down

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CHICAGO — Talk to a Chicago Cubs fan these days and you’re likely to find mixed emotions. That’s been the theme of the offseason right up to, and through, this past weekend’s annual winter fan convention.

Mixed emotions. Conflicting thoughts. Excitement and angst.

Those are all part of the Cubs experience right now as the calendar inches toward spring training. In the past, the Cubs signed big-ticket free agents like Jon Lester, Jason Heyward, Ben Zobrist and Yu Darvish. But this winter has been anything but big. The front office forecast early that the budget wouldn’t allow for additions like those splashes. Utility man Daniel Descalso is the lone new player on the team that’s won the most regular-season games the past four seasons but has come up short in the postseason the past two years.

“We didn’t have the flexibility this year to go ahead and sign a huge free agent and I’m not sure we would have anyway,” owner Tom Ricketts said on ESPN WMVP-AM 1000 last week in a rare interview. “We like the team we have. We have strong young guys at most positions.”

So free agent Bryce Harper would not have been on the Cubs’ radar, even with the budget for him? Not many fans believe that from an owner who has been less transparent in recent days. Ricketts canceled his annual fan forum over the weekend for the first time since buying the team in 2009. Yet team president Theo Epstein held a session with fans himself. He wanted to face the music after a disastrous end to 2018, and he did.

So there was transparency from one executive, whereas the owner claimed “low ratings” from previous years were to blame for canceling his own panel discussion. Ricketts did explain himself regarding the employment of shortstop Addison Russell, who is suspended for the first 28 games of 2019 after violating the league’s policies on domestic violence. That’s yet another topic ripe with mixed emotions, especially when you consider the Cubs won’t invite former star Sammy Sosa back into the fold until he comes clean about use of performance-enhancing drugs. For some fans, that opened the door to compare and contrast Russell’s and Sosa’s situations. Right or wrong, it doesn’t sit well that one has a job with the team and the other can’t wave to the fans at a fan convention.

Without Ricketts answering questions, without charismatic team leader Anthony Rizzo in attendance (he was on his honeymoon) and without a major new addition to the team, the headlines from the convention fell to Kris Bryant. He was openly critical of how free agency has played out again this winter, then hours later called the city of St. Louis “boring” — starting an offseason feud with the rival Cardinals. Many fans loved it, but since Bryant and his team must now back up the rhetoric, even that moment brought some mixed emotions.

Eventually, the weekend discussion returned to the field, where the Cubs failed on offense down the stretch last season and then vowed to fix what ailed them. That’s when the Harper discussion picked up, only to be quashed early in the offseason.

“The money got eaten up in a lot of ways by the guys that were coming through the [arbitration] system, and it’s not like we had a big contract roll off,” Ricketts said.

So the team turned inward, with manager Joe Maddon saying over the past few days there was more to “extrapolate” from his current group, while the front office has asked players to maximize their day-to-day prep better. After all, the Cubs won 95 games last season. Tweaking to maximize potential only makes common sense.

“You turn over every stone,” Zobrist said. “You’re thinking about ‘why.’ It’s not just that it did happen. You have to figure out why and then you have to make an adjustment and do something different.”

The Cubs also want better leadership in the clubhouse. This was supposed to be a tight group — the same that won the World Series in 2016. But perhaps it’s been too tight. Calling each other out, when needed, hasn’t been a part of the room since David Ross and Jon Jay moved on. Perhaps a full season with pitcher Cole Hamels will provide some extra leadership.

“That’s where I need to be,” Hamels said this past weekend. “That’s the role directed towards you if you play this game long enough. Being more vocal, instead of just letting it play out on the field.”

Ultimately, if the Cubs start to hit again, the rest should take care of itself. The starting staff is deeper — Darvish is healthy and seems more confident — and Epstein has found effective arms for his bullpen over the years, even if they aren’t always the biggest names. The key might simply be the Cubs’ attitude. They were once on top of the world, but the end of last season knocked them down. How they get up off the mat is how they’ll be judged moving forward. Mixed emotions and all.

“We’re a confident group,” Albert Almora Jr. said. “We just have to finish what we start. We want to send a message early on.”

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MLB — Everything you need to know on Hall of Fame announcement day

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The results of the second stage of the annual Hall of Fame voting process will be announced Tuesday evening with the Baseball Writers’ Association selections, and we can safely say not to expect any stunning news along the lines of what happened in December with the Today’s Game Era committee.

In other words, we’re not going to see a reunion of the 2005 White Sox with the elections of Jon Garland and Freddy Garcia.

The committee’s election of Harold Baines, however, does raise an interesting question: How much does the BBWAA vote even matter if a 16-person committee is simply going to override those results in the future?

Take Fred McGriff. He’s on the BBWAA ballot for the final time. He’s not going to get in. Not to worry; in a few years he seems like a surefire committee choice. He’s like Baines — a one-dimensional slugger, highly respected, played a long time — except even better at that one dimension. McGriff hit .284 with 493 home runs and an OPS+ of 134. Baines hit .289 with 384 home runs and an OPS+ of 121. McGriff’s 52.6 WAR dwarfs Baines’ 38.7. He’s fared much better in BBWAA voting than Baines ever did.

The same can be said of some of the other borderline candidates on the ballot, such as Larry Walker, Scott Rolen and Jeff Kent. Todd Helton and Andy Pettitte are on for the first time. They aren’t strong candidates based on traditional BBWAA standards, but compared to Baines, Lee Smith and Jack Morris — elected the past two years by the special committees — they look pretty good. We can debate their merits, but in the long run they’re probably all getting in. The BBWAA vote only (potentially) expedites the process.

That isn’t to suggest that everyone better than Jack Morris or Harold Baines should get in. Heck, there are 21 players on this ballot with a higher career WAR than those two. What remains to be seen is how the soft selections of Morris, Baines and Smith might start influencing the BBWAA vote.

Anyway, here are some key things to look for with Tuesday’s results. All references to voting totals are courtesy of the great work Ryan Thibodaux does with his Hall of Fame vote tracker.

Will Mariano Rivera become the first player elected unanimously?

Among those who obsess about Hall of Fame balloting, there is a small subset who obsess over this twist of history: No Hall of Famer has received 100 percent of the vote. Somehow, 23 people didn’t vote for Willie Mays. Nine people didn’t vote for Hank Aaron. Imagine having a Hall of Fame ballot and not voting for Willie Mays or Hank Aaron. Twenty didn’t vote for Ted Williams, but, hey, a lot of writers despised the man. In the first election in 1936, 11 writers didn’t vote for Babe Ruth. The rules might not have been entirely clear: Ruth had just retired the previous year. Still, Ruth received just 215 votes out of 226 ballots.

So, as Joe Posnanski related in a recent column, the issue of unanimity became a thing right from the beginning.

Tom Seaver came close. He was named on 425 of 430 ballots in 1992. Three writers sent in a blank ballot, protesting that Pete Rose was not on the ballot. One writer had just gotten out of open-heart surgery and simply missed checking off Seaver’s name. The final non-vote, as Posnanski writes, came from a retired writer named Deane McGowan, who apparently refused to vote for any player on his first ballot. And you think Baseball Twitter is cranky.

Ken Griffey Jr. set the record with 99.3 percent of the vote in 2016. Three writers didn’t vote for him. We don’t know who they were since voters don’t have to reveal their ballots. Maybe somebody sent in a blank ballot. Maybe somebody refused to vote for anybody who played in the steroid era. Maybe somebody decided, “If Babe Ruth wasn’t no unanimous, nobody should be unanimous.”

So it goes. As did Griffey, Rivera has received 100 percent of the publicly revealed ballots. He’s 180-for-180 so far. My guess: He won’t get 100 percent. Somebody will enforce the Ruth rule. Maybe somebody feels no reliever deserves to be enshrined. Maybe somebody, knowing Rivera will get elected, will use his or her 10 spots on the ballot for other candidates. But Rivera has a chance to end the silly 100 percent stigma.

Does Edgar Martinez get in on his final ballot?

It would be a little awkward if Baines is giving a speech in July and Martinez isn’t. After all, the Designated Hitter of the Year award isn’t named after Baines. Fortunately, it looks like Martinez will get elected. He’s received 90.8 percent of the public ballots, compared to 76.3 percent last year, when he finished at 70.4 percent. So even with an expected decline in the percentage he receives from the private ballots, he looks in good shape. Book those hotel rooms now, Mariners fans.

Does Roy Halladay get in on his first ballot?

Halladay is polling at a surprising 94.1 percent — not that he’s undeserving, but he’s not a slam dunk by career WAR (64.3) or wins (203), standards that BBWAA voters have employed in the past. Compare him to Mike Mussina and Curt Schilling:

Halladay: 64.3 WAR, 203-105, 3.38 ERA, 131 ERA+
Mussina: 83.0 WAR, 270-153, 3.68 ERA, 123 ERA+
Schilling: 79.6 WAR, 216-146, 3.46 ERA, 127 ERA+

Mussina is on the ballot for the sixth time and received just 20.3 percent of the vote on his first ballot. Schilling is on for the seventh time and received 38.8 percent of the vote his first time. There are reasons to like Halladay over Mussina and Schilling — he won two Cy Young Awards and finished second two other times, and his seven-year peak is highest of the three (50.4 WAR, 48.7 for Schilling, 44.6 for Mussina) — but it seems Halladay is being viewed much differently than those two. Perhaps his unfortunate death in a plane crash is helping his vote total.

Anyway, like Martinez, his total will surely drop in the private ballot, but he needs just 59.5 percent on the remaining ballots to clear 75 percent.

Speaking of Mussina and Schilling, how will they do?

Mussina is inching closer, but it looks like he’ll fall just short. He’s at 82.2 percent of the public vote and would need 69.2 percent of the remaining ballots. He received just 46.7 percent of the private ballots last year, so he will need a significant increase in that area. Still, he’s trending in the right direction and looks primed for 2019. If Halladay gets in, that helps Mussina since it clears a strong candidate off the ballot and there aren’t any strong starting pitchers hitting the ballot in upcoming years. (Tim Hudson and Mark Buehrle are the best.)

Schilling, meanwhile, continues to fall behind Mussina — even though as recently as 2016 he was well ahead (52.3 percent to 43.0 percent). Schilling is polling at 74.1 percent, which is better than the 60 percent he received on public ballots a year ago, so it’s difficult to know how much his various contentious statements on Twitter and elsewhere have hurt his vote total.

Will Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens get any closer?

We know the Hall of Fame’s stance on these two. Joe Morgan’s letter in November 2017 — he’s the Hall’s vice chairman and on the board of directors — made that clear. Issued from a Hall of Fame email address, Morgan implored voters not to vote for known steroid users. “We hope the day never comes when known steroid users are voted into the Hall of Fame. They cheated. Steroid users don’t belong here,” he wrote.

Of course, there’s the almost certain likelihood that there are steroid users already in the Hall of Fame, and recent elections have voted in players strongly suspected of steroid use. The Hall doesn’t want Bonds or Clemens in, and it could simply remove the pair from the ballot (not to mention Manny Ramirez, who actually failed tests for performance-enhancing drugs), but hasn’t had the audacity to do that.

Anyway, Bonds and Clemens won’t get in, at least not this year. They’re both polling at 73 percent, which is an increase from last year’s public ballots, when they were at 64 percent. Like Schilling, this is their seventh year on the ballot and time is running out, with just three years remaining after this vote and likely not enough momentum in the private ballots (which tend to be more anti-steroids).

What happens after that if they don’t get elected? Who knows. The Hall of Fame could simply choose not to put Bonds and Clemens on the committee ballot. Or it could put them on with the implicit knowledge they won’t get elected. We certainly know one board member who won’t vote for them.

Will Andy Pettitte stay on the ballot?

A player needs 5 percent of the vote to remain on the ballot the following year. Pettitte is at 6.5 percent. Like Jorge Posada a couple of years ago, he’s in danger of getting the boot after one year. (Even Bernie Williams lasted two years.) Pettitte has a stronger case than those two former teammates, however, and a similar — but much stronger — case than Morris. The strongest part of Pettitte’s case might be his postseason record: He went 19-11 with a 3.81 ERA over 44 starts, including 23 starts in which he allowed two runs or fewer.

Still, he’s not one of the 10 best players on this ballot, and his 3.85 career ERA is a tough hill to climb to get in. He also admitted to a one-time use of PEDs, although I haven’t seen anybody reference that as a reason they didn’t vote for him.

How close will Larry Walker get?

Walker is polling at 67 percent of the public ballots compared to 37.5 percent last year. That’s good! Except this is Walker’s ninth year on the ballot. That’s bad! It feels too late to make a run. Tim Raines, for example, was up to 69.8 percent in his ninth year and Martinez was even closer last year. Even if Walker becomes the guy everyone pushes next year, he’s probably going to have to finish with at least 65 percent of the vote this year, and it seems unlikely his private support will keep him at that level.

Even if he falls short next year, there’s always the Today’s Game Era committee. After all, Baines, who lasted only five years on the ballot, topped out at just 6.1 percent on the BBWAA vote.

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MLB — Cincinnati Reds risk overpaying to finally land Sonny Gray

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The long-rumored trade of Sonny Gray to the Cincinnati Reds came through on Monday, with Gray and minor league reliever Reiver Sanmartin going to Cincinnati, infielder Shed Long going to the Seattle Mariners, and outfielder Josh Stowers and a 2019 competitive balance pick (from the Reds) going to the New York Yankees. It’s a puzzling deal for the Reds, some value for the Yankees in moving a player they didn’t want, and I’m not really sure why the Mariners are here unless Jerry Dipoto was bored.

Gray’s tenure in New York was a disaster, but the Reds are hoping that reuniting him with his college pitching coach Derek Johnson, who came over from the Brewers and was with Gray at Vanderbilt, will help him rediscover his form.

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