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Matt Adams and above-average first basemen

In the last two years 10 first basemen have managed a bWAR between two and three—in the "above-average but not spectacular" range. Ryan Howard did it twice, but he hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 RBI and struck out 329 times, and if you do the first two things baseball purists don't care about the last one, apparently, so let's assume he's way better than these other guys.

Actually, that's the most striking thing about these guys—three of them are franchise players ostensibly in their primes. Aside from Howard there's Mark Teixeira last year and Prince Fielder the year before that. But I'll get back to that.

I brought up this list—here it is—because I've been thinking about Matt Adams, who came up a few times in the red baron's Spring Surprises post. All last year I was skeptical of Adams's ability to be a star first baseman, and I still am, but with Albert Pujols gone and the Cardinals no longer structured around an outstanding first baseman—or any one outstanding player—it's time to imagine him as a possible average contributor, one of the cheap cogs on a team that will ideally be filled with them.

So if 2 WAR is an average first baseman, and 3 WAR is a nice first baseman, here are some pictures of average-ish first basemen.

Ryan Howard—2.0 WAR, 143 G. This is 2010, when Ryan Howard hit 31 home runs, drove in 108, batted .276, got MVP votes, and made me afraid of slugging first basemen forever. Great power, pretty-good average and walks, and Ryan Howard-like base running and defense look like this. From 2007 to 2010 Howard alternated 140 OPS+ and 120 OPS+ seasons, and I'm not sure people who imagine baseball players as the Platonic ideals of themselves were willing to differentiate between them. He was always Ryan Howard, Slugging First Baseman.

Carlos Pena—2.2 WAR, 153 G. I like this Carlos Pena season because, thanks to his inability to make contact, it shows just how gaudy your numbers can be in an area or two while you remain no more than cromulent at first base. Last year, as the Cubs' caretaker first baseman for the big free agent that never materialized, Pena walked 101 times and knocked out 58 extra-base hits.

Gaby Sanchez—2.9 WAR, 159 G. Sanchez tops this list, having played just well enough to avoid graduating, despite having some superficially unpleasant numbers for a first baseman. In a full season's worth of games he hit 19 home runs, batted .266, and walked 74 times on his way to a not-especially-OBP-heavy .779 OPS.

Here's how he did it:

  1. He got year-of-the-pitchered. In 2011 National League first baseman hit .270/.350/.451, for an OPS of .801. That's 12 points lower than in 2010 and 58 points lower than in 2009, the last Year of the Guys Who Aren't Pitchers. Presumably Matt Adams will have this advantage as well, with the added benefit of lowered expectations as we adjust to a new offensive environment.
  2. He played all year. 159 games counted for fifth in the NL in 2011, and WAR is a counting stat. Matt Adams is built like a tank in the bad way, but then Matt Holliday lost time dealing with appendix and moth problems and he, in addition to being built like a tank in the good way, spent his whole offseason playing squash in a David Freese t-shirt. So who knows.
  3. Here's the big one: Last year Sanchez did all the things first basemen don't usually do well enough to avoid a penalty we usually don't bother levying on first basemen in the first place. He was a league-average baserunner; he fielded his position well.

Here's why I'm worried about Matt Adams: Slow, unathletic first basemen have no slack. Since an average-hitting first baseman is probably also a slug who can't field his position especially well, the real average first basemen have to bring something else to the table. And unless they hit on all the harder-to-measure things in the same year, like Gaby Sanchez, the above-average ones—the guys who might make an All-Star team or two—have to hit at a level that we've historically associated with stardom.

It's such a brutal position that even the players we've historically associated with stardom don't have to lose very much to be just really useful. You can have great power—Teixeira hit 39 home runs in his year in pretty-good-first-baseman purgatory—but if you don't get on base a lot, you could still be out of luck.

Matt Adams doesn't get on base a lot. He could be useful, even really useful, but unless he has another gear we haven't seen yet, when he falls off like Howard, Fielder, and Teixeira all did here, it will be directly into not useful.