Saturday, October 25, 2008

2008 Positional MVP Picks: First Basemen

Yes, it’s been a little while since I pitched my picks for the top catchers of 2008, but unfortunately real-world responsibilities were kicking my butt this past week. But it’s the weekend, and that means it’s time for…

Installment #3: First Basemen

On the one hand, picking the top first basemen in a given year is remarkably easy: all a fan really needs to do is pore over the offensive statistics of his or her choice and choose the top offensive performers by those metrics. Unless a first baseman has the defensive capabilities of a potted plant, his value to his team is almost entirely dependent on his bat.

But on the other hand, narrowing down fifteen or so first basemen who can absolutely mash into a top-whatever list is very, very difficult, even ignoring all those pesky fielding statistics. And that is why, even though I’ve cheated a bit and kept seven players on my top five list, there are still a lot of extremely good players missing from my list. Among the honorable mentions: Prince Fielder, Carlos Delgado, Ryan Howard, and Carlos Pena. All had excellent offensive years, but at a position where excellent offensive years are the norm rather than the exception, and are therefore fourth-tier candidates.

Those who did make the list fall into a few categories. My pick for the #1 spot is, in my opinion, all alone at the top not only at his position, but for the 2008 MLB MVP (if such an award existed). Numbers two through four are second-tier positional MVP picks, and although I am confident in my decisions regarding their overall rankings, I can imagine some pretty reasonable arguments for shuffling the order around a bit as long as none of these players drops below #4. Numbers five through seven are almost too close to call (and third-tier picks this season). So what do I mean by all this “tier” nonsense? Quite simply, unless those of you who disagree with my rankings can give me some very compelling evidence, I’m unlikely to buy into a counterargument that argues for re-rankings which move players from one tier to another.

That said, on with the list!

7.) Miguel Cabrera’s excellent year went largely unnoticed amidst Detroit’s abysmal regular season showing. In his first year as a regular first baseman, Cabrera hit .292/.349/.537 with 37 HR, an OPS of .886 (OPS+ 130), a .298 EqA, 21 win shares, and a VORP of 46.8.

His numbers aren’t mind-blowing for a first baseman, but they are very, very good, and Cabrera could legitimately be ranked as high as fifth on this list despite having regressed from his ridiculous ’05-’07 numbers in 2008. In fact, I think any order for #’s 5-7 is defensible, though any higher or lower for these three players would be a much harder sell to me.

6.) Adrian Gonzalez once again put together a tremendous year without generating any media buzz outside of San Diego (where I can only hope he gets a lot of well-deserved love). His 2008 line? .279/.361/.510 with 36 homers, an .871 OPS (OPS+ 138), .309 EqA, 26 win shares, and a VORP of 43.6. The fact that he played half his games in Petco “Pitcher’s Paradise” Park (.796 park factor in 2008, by far the lowest in the majors), and all his games with little protection from a San Diego lineup ranked at or near the bottom of the league in every offensive category, makes Gonzalez’s numbers, particularly his non-adjusted stats like HR, OBP, SLG, etc., even more impressive.

Like Cabrera, Adrian Gonzalez suffered on a last place team, but the Padres were significantly worse than the Tigers this year, rendering Gonzalez all but invisible even to some very knowledgeable baseball fans (my roommate, for example, responded “Who?” when I told him Adrian Gonzalez was my pick for #6 on this list). But over the last three seasons, Gonzalez has proven that he should be anything but anonymous, and 2008 was his career year. Still, I don't buy any argument for Gonzalez that places him higher than fifth, as the top four players on this list put together ridiculous 2008 campaigns.

5.) Justin Morneau was nearly back to his ’06 form in 2008. His .300/.374/.499 line was good for an OPS of .873 (OPS+ 137), to which the Twins first baseman added 23 HR, a .308 EqA, 29 win shares, and a VORP of 45.5. And, like Gonzalez, Morneau put up these numbers in a pitcher’s park (the Metrodome’s .887 park factor was third lowest in the bigs this year), though he did so with a better supporting offensive cast.

Along with teammate Joe Mauer, Morneau is one of many MVP candidates in a wide open field, but his candidacy is, in my mind at least, far less defensible than Mauer’s. For one thing, Morneau’s offensive numbers are, at best, only slightly better than Mauer’s. Mauer’s OPS+ was three points lower than Morneau’s (137 to 134), and Morneau hit 14 more HR and 30 more XBH (74 to 44), but the Twins catcher posted a higher EqA (.316 to .308), more win shares (31 to 29), and, most tellingly, a significantly higher VORP (55.5 to 45.5). Furthermore, Mauer plays a skill position, which explains the dramatic difference in VORP despite both players’ similar offensive numbers. Further weakening Morneau’s candidacy (at least, in the parallel universe in which I pick baseball’s end-of-season award winners) is the fact that there is an AL first baseman ahead of him on this list.

But despite the fact that he shouldn’t (and probably won’t) win his second AL MVP award this year, Morneau was one of the best offensive first basemen of 2008, which is high praise at such a competitive position.

4.) Kevin Youkilis has long been a favorite of sabermetricians, but in 2008, the Greek God of Walks put up numbers that anyone can love. Youkilis hit .312/.390/.569 with a career high 29 HR, an OPS of .959 (OPS+ 143), a .313 EqA, 29 win shares, and a VORP of 55.8. Although his walk totals were down in 2008, his power numbers were way up (he eclipsed his previous career bests in home runs and slugging by 13 and .116, respectively), and he hit 30 points higher than his career best to keep his OBP from dropping a single point between ’07 and ’08.

Youkilis was generating some MVP buzz late in the season, particularly after Carlos Quentin’s ridiculous wrist injury broke (get it?) the AL MVP race wide open. But like Morneau, Youkilis’s candidacy suffers from the fact that he may not even be the most valuable member of his team, let alone the league. I love Kevin Youkilis as a player, and I hope that his 2008 season makes a name for him outside of Red Sox and sabermetric circles, but I don’t think he should be the AL MVP. I do, however, think that he is the AL 1B MVP for 2008.

3.) In a year of huge midseason deals, Mark Teixeira is easy to overlook. But the Braves-turned-Angels first baseman had another huge year (and a second consecutive year in which he switched leagues and was therefore excluded from the MVP debate). Teixeira’s combined totals: .308/.410/.552 with 33 HR, an OPS of .962 (OPS+ 151), an EqA of .328, 30 win shares (15 each for Atlanta and Los Angeheim), and VORPs of 37.0 with the Angels and 30.7 with the Braves (9th and 14th, respectively, among full season totals for first basemen).

To put things in perspective, in only 54 games with Anaheim, Teixeira had a higher VORP than Ryan Howard, Carlos Pena, Jason Giambi, Derrek Lee, or NL RoY candidate Joey Votto compiled over the course of the entire season. And Teixeira’s ridiculous season totals aren’t just the result of two torrid months in Southern California; he was already putting together an excellent season (.283/.390/.512 with 20 HR and an OPS+ of 136 in 103 games) in Atlanta before being traded to the Angels at the deadline.

Teixeira may have proven once again that he is one of the premier first basemen in the Major Leagues (if not the flashiest), and his 2008 campaign was nothing short of stellar, but he falls well short of the top spot (in fact, the top two spots) in 2008.

2.) During the first three months of the 2008 season, Lance Berkman hit absolutely everything big league pitchers could throw at him. Through June 30, Berkman was hitting .365/.448/.699 with 22 homers and a 1.147 OPS. He cooled off by midseason, but still put up ridiculous numbers, compiling a .312/.420/.567 line with 29 HR, an OPS of .987 (OPS+ 159), a .333 EqA, 38 win shares, and a VORP of 72.2 for a surprisingly good Astros team.

The case against Berkman at the #2 spot rests firmly on his splits; he was otherworldly for two months, but merely very good for the remaining three. But the same could be said of his closest competition (Mark Teixera at #3), and both Teixera and Berkman put up better season-long numbers, hot streaks or no hot streaks, than the rest of the first base field. But considering the season the next man on this list put together, not even Berkman’s two months as the second coming of Ted Williams could land him the #1 spot.

1.) If you weren’t expecting to see Albert Pujols at the top of this list, you were obviously not watching the same sport as the rest of us were in 2008. Pujols’s numbers were, as usual, absurd—albeit even more so than usual: .357/.462/.653 for a 1.115(!) OPS (190 OPS+) with 37 HR, a .372 EqA, 35 win shares, and an absolutely ridiculous VORP of 96.8.

Put simply, if Pujols doesn’t win his second NL MVP award this year, I think it’s safe to say that the BBWAA has collectively gone mad. Frankly, any first-place vote for a non-Pujols candidate is foolishness (I’m looking at you, Ryan-Howard-and-his-.339-OBP supporters!); Pujols led the majors in a slew of offensive categories, including SLG, OPS, OPS+, total bases (342), intentional walks (34), runs created, EqA, and VORP, and was second in BA, OBP, and win shares. He remained incredibly patient at the plate (a career-high 104 BB) but virtually impossible to strike out (54 SO), particularly for a power hitter.

And to those MVP voters and would-be-voters who privilege postseason berths over numbers, consider this: without Pujols (and, to a lesser extent, Ryan Ludwick), the Cardinals would have been cellar-dwellers in 2008 instead of remaining a Wild Card threat until late in the season. The Cardinals won 86 games this season despite getting only four starts—total!—from Chris Carpenter and Mark Mulder and being forced to replace their former closer, Jason Isringhousen, after watching him go from a lights-out reliever (177 ERA+ and 1.071 WHIP in 2007) to a man who couldn’t buy an out (75 and 1.641 in 2008). They didn’t win with pitching (St. Louis pitchers combined for a roughly league-average OPS+ of 101), and Pujols was easily the most valuable piece of a surprisingly potent St. Louis offense.

There is only one real choice for the most valuable first baseman of 2008. There is only one real choice for the 2008 National League Most Valuable Player. And there is only one real choice for the most valuable player in Major League Baseball in 2008.

That choice is Albert Pujols, ladies and gentlemen. Carlos Pena may have (rightfully) stolen the spotlight at first base in ’07, but make no mistake: Pujols is the finest first baseman (and arguably, the finest player overall) of our generation, and certainly the best across the board in 2008.

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