By the Numbers: When you’re one of greats at first base, you get paid

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

When you have career numbers like a .328 average, 445 homers, and a .420 on-base percentage, people tend to notice, which explains how Albert Pujols landed a 10-year contract worth the GNP of a small island nation this past offseason.

During his time with the St. Louis Cardinals, Pujols put together the most productive 11-year start to any career in baseball history. Need some supporting documents? Try three MVP awards, three runner-up finishes, and 10 top-five finishes in those 11 seasons. By comparison, Willie Mays had nine top-five MVP finishes during his 22-year career.

So, as Pujols moves on to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, he brings with him a historic résumé. Which makes this as good a time as any to examine where he ranks in the baseball pantheon.

Here are my rankings of the greatest first basemen in history, starting with Nos. 11-20:

20, Jason Giambi; 19, Keith Hernandez; 18, Todd Helton; 17, Rafael Palmeiro; 16, Cap Anson; 15, Dick Allen; 14, Harmon Killebrew; 13, Jim Thome; 12, Dan Brouthers; 11, Will Clark.

10) Mark McGwire, 1986-2001

For the purpose of ranking players, I judge them solely on what they did to help their team win games. McGwire cheated, but baseball had no penalty in place at that time. Until they go back and start taking away victories and championships, what he did on the field and in the clubhouse is all that matters.

Would you have wanted McGwire on your team? Of course. The antithesis is Dick Allen, who was about as good of a hitter as anybody on this list — but you wouldn’t necessarily have wanted him on your team.

McGwire was a one-dimensional player. It was a pretty valuable dimension.

9) Hank Greenberg, 1930-47

In 1937, Greenberg had 183 RBI; the next year, he hit 58 home runs. He had 63 doubles one season, and drove in 170 runs in yet another.

He played only 13 seasons, missing nearly four years because of military service. But for every 162 games he played, he averaged 122 runs, 44 doubles, 38 homers and 148 RBI while batting .313.

8) Eddie Murray, 1977-97

Displaying the consistency of metronome, Murray became one of four players in history with 500 homers and 3,000 hits — along with Hank Aaron, Mays, and Palmeiro.

7) Willie McCovey, 1959-80

In 1959, McCovey hit .354 with 13 homers in 52 games and was the NL Rookie of the Year. The next year, he slumped a little and got sent to the minors for a time. In fact, partly because the Giants had Orlando Cepeda, McCovey didn’t become a full-time player until his fifth season.

That, combined with the fact that McCovey’s prime came during the late 1960s, kept him from ending up with 600-some home runs. (But, no, playing in Candlestick Park did not hurt his statistics.)

6) Frank Thomas, 1990-2008

From 1990-97, The Big Hurt’s Offensive Winning Percentage was .797. The rest of his career it was .658.

He ended up with 521 homers, 1,704 RBI, 1,667 walks, and a .301 average. Awesome numbers, but not quite the historic career that appeared to be his destiny.

5) Johnny Mize, 1936-53

To most people, Johnny Mize probably is a surprise here. After all, for the first 23 years of his eligibility, he wasn’t deemed worthy of the Hall of Fame.

Mize’s career numbers weren’t huge — 359 homers, 1,337 RBI — but he missed three full seasons during World War II, and he receives some credit here for those (as did Greenberg).

As baseball historian Bill James argues when producing his evaluations, we’re trying to rank the best players. Mize was still a great player when he was in the military; he just couldn’t play due to circumstances. This is different from somebody who is injured; if he can’t play, then he isn’t a great player at the time.

Per 162 games during the first nine seasons that he played, Mize averaged 110 runs, 38 doubles, 11 triples, 34 homers, 126 RBI and 80 walks while batting .328.

For his best three-year stretch, Mize had an OWP of .817; Pujols’ best three-year stretch is .803. In other words, Mize was a truly great player who should have gone into the Hall of Fame long before 1981.

4) Jeff Bagwell, 1991-2005

In 1994, Bagwell had a slugging percentage of .750, which at the time was the highest mark since Babe Ruth.

In 1999-2000, he scored 295 runs, which still is the highest two-year total since Lou Gehrig.

He hit 47 homers in one season. He stole 31 bases in another. He batted .368 in another. He walked 149 times in yet another.

3) Albert Pujols, 2001-current

As Pujols moves to the Angels, he already stands as the third-best first baseman in major-league history. With a typical Pujols season this year, he will move into second; he’s probably four great seasons away from No. 1.

Odd Pujols trivia: In 11 seasons, he has 10 years of 100 runs, 10 years of 100 RBI, and 10 years of batting .300. The years he missed, he scored 99 runs in 2007, drove in 99 in 2011, and batted .299 in 2011. He also has 11 consecutive years of at least 32 homers.

2) Jimmie Foxx, 1925-45

Foxx was the second player after Babe Ruth to reach 500 homers. After his playing days, he managed for one season in the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League, ostensibly becoming the basis for the Tom Hanks character in “A League of Their Own.”

The 534 homers had more to do with his ranking here.

1) Lou Gehrig, 1923-39

One difficulty with these rankings is comparing players from before the color line was broken with those who played in an integrated major leagues.

While the pool of talented players expanded after 1947, those who came before that also competed at a time when most of the great athletes in the United States gravitated toward baseball. It was the national game.

These days, Gehrig probably would be an NFL linebacker. Back then, a great athlete would be either a baseball player or a boxer. The evaluation isn’t quite as simple as saying, “Well, Gehrig didn’t play against blacks,” although that should be given some weight.

That said, he still stands as the greatest first baseman, with the fifth-highest on-base percentage (.447) and the third-highest slugging percentage (.632) of any player in major-league history.

It will be interesting to watch over the next several years to see whether Pujols can supplant Gehrig as the consensus choice as the greatest first baseman.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531 or online by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To “Like” him on Facebook, search for “Greg Jayne - The Columbian.”