Positional Case Study: Cleveland First Basemen

Jim Thome is the best first baseman in Cleveland's history. (via Erik Drost)

Jim Thome is the best first baseman in Cleveland’s history. (via Erik Drost)

Since 2013, I have written several pieces evaluating the way that a particular team has filled a particular position over the past several decades. You can see them in the sidebar at the right. While front offices change, managers and field personnel change, and the game itself changes, I find these deep dives fascinating, and hope that you do as well.

Alex Remington’s Sporadic Positional Case Studies

May 16, 2013: Atlanta Braves Center Fielders

June 20, 2013: New York Mets Second Basemen

Oct. 24, 2013: San Diego Padres Shortstops

Apr. 13, 2015: Colorado Rockies Starting Rotation

Dec. 2, 2015: Minnesota Twins Third Basemen

You would think that first base would be a relatively easy spot to fill, being at the extreme left of the defensive spectrum. But Cleveland has had an American League team since 1901, and for the past 116 years, that franchise has waged an epic struggle to fill first base with anything better than replacement level players.

Here’s one stat: Only eight Cleveland first basemen have amassed at least 10 career wins above replacement. (I defined a “first baseman” as someone who played at least 40 percent of his games at first base, and I generated this list using the Play Index, so that’s where that WAR measure comes from. All subsequent WAR references are FanGraphs.) Only three of them started playing after World War II: Mike Hargrove, Jim Thome and Carlos Santana.

For comparison, the world champion Chicago Cubs have had 10 such players, and half have played in the last 50 years: Ernie Banks, Leon Durham, Mark Grace, Derrek Lee and Anthony Rizzo. The Cardinals have had 12.

Obviously, players like Thome make it look awfully easy. He averaged 146 games a year from 1995-2002, starting at third but then shifting to provide stability at first base. But the rest of the time was a major struggle. Here’s how the team staffed the position from 1980 onward:

That isn’t every player who played an inning at first base in Cleveland; it’s just the players who played significant innings in at least one season. As in my Mets case study, I generally defined that as at least 10 starts in a year in which no one started 100 games at first base, or at least 20 starts in a year in which one player started at least 100 games at the position.

To state the obvious, they tried a whole lot of guys. In the last 37 years, 47 different men have worn the easiest mitt on the diamond for at least ten games in a season. (There were 76 different first basemen over that period overall.) In fact, there have been only six seasons since 1980 in which a first baseman started at least 130 games. What’s more, in 15 of those 37 seasons, Cleveland didn’t have a single player who started 100 games at first. It has been somewhere between a platoon and a revolving door.

Still, the bulk of the innings went to a few bold names: Mike Hargrove, Pat Tabler, Paul Sorrento, Jim Thome, Ben Broussard, Ryan Garko, and Carlos Santana. Those seven accounted for 55 percent of Cleveland’s starts at first since 1980. (The man with the eighth-most starts in the period was Matt LaPorta. As I said, this isn’t pretty.)

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Hargrove, Tabler, Sorrento, Broussard and Santana all came via trade; Thome and Garko were draftees. None was a free agent. The longest-tenured free agent first baseman was the late Carlos Martinez, who is best remembered today for having hit the ball that bounced off Jose Canseco’s head for a homer. He started a grand total of 172 games at first in three years in a Cleveland uniform, producing negative WAR each year.

Let’s take a closer look at what happened.

In 1979 Cleveland got Mike Hargrove, the Human Rain Delay, in a summer swap for Paul Dade, a utility outfielder. Hargrove had been rookie of the year in 1974, and he mainly played left field for his new team, who had Andre Thornton at first. But Thornton was out all of 1980 with knee injuries, and when he came back, he was pretty much a DH.

So Hargrove got the job. He didn’t have much of a glove, and he didn’t have a lot of power, but he did one thing surpassingly well: get on base. He didn’t strike out and he walked all the time, and he was worth around three wins in both 1980 and the strike-shortened 1981. Then his power slipped a little more, and his bat turned from an asset to a liability, but the job still belonged to him for three more years, though the team just got 0.9 WAR at first in 1983, 2.7 in 1984, and 1.2 in 1985.

Pat Tabler split time with Hargrove in 1984 and 1985, then took the bulk of the starts in 1986 with Joe Carter as a backup, then split time evenly with Carter in 1987. Interestingly for a big RBI guy like Carter, they didn’t mind moving him around the field. Over those two years, he played roughly as many games in the three outfield positions as he did at first. (Moving players around with little concern for consistency at first base was a longtime habit for Cleveland.)

Carter was the opposite of Hargrove: tons of power, but very few walks. Tabler, meanwhile, was something like Martin Prado: a high-average guy who took an average number of walks and didn’t strike out a ton. Those two years worked out quite well, as the team got 6.7 WAR at first in 1986 and 3.0 in 1987.

Both Tabler and Carter had been trade acquisitions. As with Hargrove, Cleveland got Tabler in return for a utility guy who didn’t amount to much, Jerry Dybzinski in this case. Carter came over in a blockbuster trade with the Cubs, coming with Mel Hall in return for Rick Sutcliffe and a couple of other men.

The next four years were unsettled. Tabler was traded to the Royals for Bud Black (now the Rockies manager), Carter moved to center field, and Cleveland turned to Willie Upshaw, obtained from the Blue Jays for cash. He led the group to 0.8 WAR at 1B in 1988, then retired. Next up was Pete O’Brien, who had come over from the Rangers with Oddibe McDowell in exchange for Julio Franco. He was little better: 1.3 team WAR at first base in 1989.

The next two years featured five-man committees anchored by Brook Jacoby, who led the team in first base starts (62 starts in 1990, 47 starts in 1991) despite the fact that, most of the time, he was the team’s starting third baseman. Jacoby was an All-Star in 1990, but his success helped to underline just how pitiful his basemates were: Cleveland received 2.7 WAR at first in 1990, but Jacoby produced 3.7 WAR that year. In 1991, it was a true committee — seven men started games at first, and none started more than Jacoby’s 47 games — and they collectively collapsed, producing -1.9 WAR for the team.

In 1992, Paul Sorrento took over the job. As usual, he came via trade, as Cleveland traded minor league pitching prospects Oscar Munoz and Curtis Leskanic to the Twins to obtain the 26-year-old first baseman. Though he only had 213 major league plate appearances to his name at that point in his career, he was coming off a promising September 1991, in which he’d hit .294/.333/.618 in 36 plate appearances, mostly off the bench.

He received the lion’s share of starts at first for the next four seasons, but he was little better than Upshaw and O’Brien had been, as he led the team to 2.7 WAR at the position in 1992, 1.0 in 1993, 0.4 in the strike-shortened 1994, and 1.3 in 1995.

That winter, Cleveland reacquired the ageless Julio Franco, who was coming off a season with Chiba Lotte in Japan. (His manager was Bobby Valentine; the staff ace was Hideki Irabu.) Though Franco had been a shortstop and second baseman during his first tour with the team, by this point he was a first baseman/DH, and he did a fine job of holding down the fort in 1996, leading the team to 3.3 WAR at the position. But he scuffled in 1997, and so, as in 1990 with Jacoby, the team decided to fill  first base by moving a man from the hot corner: Jim Thome.

Obviously, that worked out pretty well. Thome was the team’s regular first baseman for six years, during which time he hit 241 home runs and accrued 29.8 WAR, an average of five wins per year. But all things must pass, and he decamped for Philly as a free agent in 2003. That brought on the Ben Broussard Era.

Thome was one of the key products of an astonishingly fecund farm system in the 1990s. In 1992, his teammates at Double-A Canton-Akron included fellow 21-year-olds Brian Giles and Paul Byrd. Two years prior, in 1990, that team had featured Albert (Joey) Belle, and one year later, in 1993, it had David Bell, Paul Shuey, Julian Tavarez, and Charles Nagy. In 1996, Canton-Akron had Bartolo Colon and Richie Sexson.

The Cleveland teams that won league pennants in 1995 and 1997 were built through some good drafting and a lot of savvy trades for prospects, including Sandy Alomar Jr. (originally drafted by the Padres), Carlos Baerga (likewise), and Kenny Lofton (Astros), none of whom had played significant innings for their original team before being traded.

However that was also the way that Cleveland acquired some of its less distinguished starters, like Sorrento and the man who replaced Thome, Ben Broussard. Prospects are cheap, and they’re even cheaper when another team pays their signing bonus. But they’re not always good. When Thome gave way to Broussard in 2003, Cleveland’s production at first base declined from 6.3 WAR to 0.7. Broussard was basically Sorrento 2.0: he was an 18-homer-a-year man who didn’t get on base enough to offset the fact that he had no other outstanding skills.

Thankfully, Broussard’s walks spiked in 2004, and he had a career year, leading Cleveland to 2.4 WAR at first; it was miles from what Thome had done (or even, for that matter, Pat Tabler), but it was a two-win improvement over 2003.

It didn’t last, though. Cleveland got 0.3 wins at first in 2005, and 1.6 WAR in 2006. Also receiving starts at first during that period were Lou Merloni, a light-hitting backup shortstop; Jose Hernandez, far past his prime; Travis Hafner, a future DH who hadn’t yet come into his own as a hitter; and Ryan Garko, who became the next man to anchor the position.

The best thing that Ben Broussard ever did for Cleveland was to headline a deadline deal in 2006 to the Mariners for Shin-Soo Choo, another superstar trade acquisition. After the July trade, Garko received the bulk of the starts at first for the next three years. And thanks to his stone glove, his performance was even worse than Broussard’s: the team received 0 WAR at first base in 2007 and 0.5 in 2008.

In 2009, the team turned to a 1991-style committee, no man starting more than 50 games at first. Garko’s main partners were Andy Marte, a former top prospect who simply never figured out how to hit, and Victor Martinez, the team’s starting catcher, who frequently rested his legs at first before being sent to Boston in a deadline deal for Justin Masterson and two other prospects. Largely thanks to Martinez, the team received 1.7 WAR at first in 2009.

And then the position crashed again. The next regular first baseman was Matt LaPorta, who, like Andy Marte was a former top prospect who never figured out how to hit big league pitching. As usual, both were acquired by trade, Marte in a big swap involving Josh Bard and Coco Crisp, and LaPorta in the blockbuster CC Sabathia trade. LaPorta was one of the bigger prospect busts of his era, and the team got 0.4 WAR at first in 2010. (Over his four-year major league career, LaPorta accrued -1.4 WAR.)

In 2011, things improved, because Cleveland again allowed a hot-hitting catcher to put up his feet at first. Carlos Santana got 3.3 WAR that year, but the team only got 2.7 WAR from first base because LaPorta had the mitt the rest of the time. (As usual, Santana came over when he was a prospect, from the Dodgers for Casey Blake.)

But that success was too good to last. The team turned to another former top prospect who’d failed to develop, Casey Kotchman, who was near the end of his career, and who signed as a free agent. Santana spent most of his time behind the plate, and Kotchman spent the year in miserable fashion, hitting a Belanger-esque .229/.280/.333 in 500 plate appearances. Cleveland got -1.9 WAR from first base in 2012.

In 2013, Cleveland did something it hadn’t done in decades: opened up the checkbook to sign a first baseman to a multiyear deal, spending $56 million on 32-year-old Nick Swisher. He was not an unmixed success: his power and average dipped substantially, and Swisher dropped from the 4-win player he’d been in 2010 and 2012 to being worth just 2.1 WAR in 2013, anchoring a platoon that netted Cleveland 1.7 WAR at the position. Still, it was a four-win improvement over 2012.

Swisher’s caddy that year was Mark Reynolds, who was worth -0.5 WAR. Indeed, many of Cleveland’s first base platoons had a number of players with negative value, so the groups produced less value than their best individual members, which negates the entire purpose of platooning.

Just as Kotchman had done in 2012, Swisher crashed in 2014, hitting .208/.278/.331. Cleveland brought Santana back to first, and he garnered the lion’s share of starts, but it wasn’t enough to offset Swisher’s woeful work: though Santana was worth 2.6 WAR in 2014, Cleveland got just 0.1 WAR at the position. Having perhaps learned a lesson, Cleveland kept Santana at first in 2015,and got 2.2 wins at the position for their trouble.

Finally, in 2016, Cleveland found a platoon worth the name, backing up Santana with Mike Napoli, who was actually worth 1.0 WAR himself, on top of Santana’s 3.7 WAR. For the first time since Thome left, the team received 4.7 WAR at the position, and for the first time in ages,  received positive benefit from multiple players in a first base platoon. And for the first time since 1997, Cleveland won the American League pennant.

Carlos Santana may be the third-best first baseman in Cleveland’s history, behind Thome and Hal Trosky and comfortably ahead of Mike Hargrove and others. But between the relative productivity of the Hargrove, Thome and Santana eras, the team endured multiple decade-long slumps at a position that should be an offensive cornerstone of the lineup, frequently accepting production no better than replacement level.

Despite the productivity of the farm system, the vast majority of Cleveland’s first basemen over the past four decades were obtained by trade. Thome is really the only successful first baseman since World War II who was originally signed or drafted by the team. (That cutoff narrowly excludes Hal Trosky, who debuted in 1933 and played until 1946.)

That drought has sometimes been offset by canny trades for players like Santana, Hargrove, and even Tabler and Carter, but the trade-first strategy has also yielded a parade of undistinguished seatwarmers, from Sorrento and Broussard to Marte and LaPorta.

There’s really only one other way of getting talent: free agency. And that’s where Cleveland’s penchant for pennypinching owners has been especially brutal. The Swisher deal turned out to be a bust, but prior to that deal, the team seemed very unwilling to spend money on the open market to address the first base needs, a bit like the Minnesota Twins and third base.

Wanting to keep costs down is understandable, and no team likes the feeling of overpaying for homers.

But decades of replacement-level performance is expensive, too. It strains fan loyalties and keeps stadium seats empty, something that few teams can afford. When you think of it that way, paying for couple of extra wins at first base may be cheap at the price.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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7 years ago

It would have helped if they didn’t give away a couple guys named Mickey Vernon, Norm Cash and Chris Chambliss.

John G.
7 years ago

Interesting indeed. Regarding your observation that only three post-WWII first basemen had 10+ WAR for Cleveland (Hargrove, Thome, Santana), arguably we could add Andre Thornton to that group if we look at the numbers from a slightly different angle…

From 1977-1979, Thornton played 392 games at first base, and only 22 games as DH, for Cleveland. Over those three seasons as Cleveland’s first baseman, it appears that Fangraphs credits Thornton with 11.6 WAR. As you noted, his subsequent knee injuries turned him into a DH, and he ended up playing more games as DH over his ten seasons with Cleveland than he played in the field. But, Thornton did have that three-year stretch as Cleveland’s first baseman with 11.6 WAR.

Again, enjoyed the deep dive. Thank you.

Fireball Fred
7 years ago

Cleveland’s penchant for moving players around – they did it with Vic Wertz, a perfectly adequate 1B, in the ’50s – seems to me to be the strongest pattern here. It’s as if there was an organizational belief that there really isn’t any such thing as a first baseman.