It might be hard to remember, but there used to be a time when the typical big league game featured more hits than strikeouts. No, really. In fact, it just happened in 2017, before the trend lines for hits and whiffs crisscrossed in a grotesque fashion last year.
The big story from 2017, if you recall, was the record 6,105 dingers that flew out of ballparks, 412 more than any other season in baseball history. The biggest source of all those home runs was first basemen. According to league positional data from Baseball Prospectus, first basemen hammered 962 homers that year. The positional data goes back to 1950, and 2017 is the only season in that span in which a position group homered more than 900 times. Seeing as how 1950 there were only 16 teams in baseball, it's safe to say that 2017 is the only time a position group has homered that often.
MOST HRs IN A SEASON FOR ONE POSITION
2017: First base, 962
2000: First base, 899
1999: Right field, 851
2001: First base, 850
2009: First base, 840
Since 1950, there have been 14 occasions in which one position has accounted for at least 800 homers. In all but three of those instances, the position has been first base. That's no surprise, right? That's where you stick the big guy, the masher who might not be able to move, like Will Clark or Keith Hernandez, but what the heck? It's an offensive position.
After the 2017 season, a frigid free-agent winter was warmed up slightly by a pair of sizable multiyear deals going to first sackers. Eric Hosmer inked an eight-year, $144 million deal with San Diego, and Carlos Santana hooked up with Philadelphia on a three-year, $60 million pact (despite the presence of powerhouse young first baseman Rhys Hoskins). Here's what Santana and Hosmer did last season, in tandem:
AVG: .240 OBP: .335 SLG: .407 HR: 41 RBI: 148
This was kind of a theme for first basemen in 2018. To be sure, not all of them struggled. Arizona's Paul Goldschmidt and Atlanta's Freddie Freeman were MVP candidates in the National League. Milwaukee's Jesus Aguilar was a breakout force with 33 homers, and the Cubs' Anthony Rizzo overcame a slow start to join Aguilar as the only first basemen to drive in 100 runs. All of those guys, you might have noticed, played in the senior circuit. The American League home run leader among first basemen was ... well, try to guess. No cheating.
Give up? It was Oakland's Matt Olson with 29. He also led AL first basemen with 84 RBIs. After the long-ball heights reached by first basemen in 2017, the entire position crashed to earth in 2018. The aggregate first-base homer tally fell all the way to 772. It was still the most of any position, but something was very off. Here is how 2018 first basemen rated in comparison with their predecessors in a few telling categories, going back to 1951:
2018 FIRST BASEMEN VERSUS HISTORY
Batting average: .253, 67th of 68 seasons
Percent of runs created by all positions: 12.69 percent, 67th
Percent of home runs hit by all positions: 13.82 percent, 66th
First basemen accounted for less offense, as a portion of overall league production, than in any season since 1951. Suddenly, with teams using first base as more of a rotational position than ever, the spot has fallen into a dark age. This winter's free-agent class for first basemen -- admittedly not a great one -- has not seen a single member ink a multiyear contract. The only exception might be the two-year, $24 million deal veteran Daniel Murphy signed with Colorado. Murphy played just 14 games at first base last season, but he is expected to be the Rockies' regular at the position in 2019.
As with catchers, in our series lid-lifter on Monday, we're again looking at a position in a bit of a fallow period. There are more All-Star-level first basemen in baseball at the moment (at least in the National League) than there are catchers who are providing All-Star production. But as with the backstops, this is not a great time for first basemen, neither on the stat sheet nor in the marketplace.