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There follow two consequences. 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 between 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.
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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.