The Decline of Elite First Basemen?

Most of you probably played fantasy baseball in the roids era. If you did, you were blessed with numerous 30+ HR guys, quite a few 40 HR bats, and .300 averages galore. It was a nice time to compile sick offensive stats. If you intended to win your league, you certainly had an elite first baseman on your team. The stats that guys like Albert Pujols (.328, 47 HR), Ryan Howard (.279, 45 HR), and Mark Teixeira (.292, 39 HR) put up were ridiculous — and those stats were all from the same year, 2009.

Now that the roids era is (mostly) over and pitching has become dominant, the makeup of our teams has changed. How has this affected a cornerstone position in fantasy baseball? Is the elite 1B slugger on the decline at the same rate as the rest of the league’s offense? Is there more decline? Less?

Comparing Now to Then

Let’s look at the number of 1B eligible hitters who were top-25 players, and their average BA/R/HR/RBI.

2014: 5 – .299/91/31/100
2013: 5 – .305/97/38/122
2012: 4 – .303/92/36/115
2011: 6 – .316/104/34/108
2010: 4 – .306/110/43/120
2009: 9 – .306/100/39/118
2008: 5 – .296/99/38/126
2007: 6 – .293/99/41/117
2006: 5 – .316/106/40/128

Aside from 2009, the number of 1B in the top-25 doesn’t change very much, ranging from four to six. First base always has good producers. Therefore the answer from a rankings standpoint is that first basemen are not on the decline. There are still elite 1B in the top-25 out there.

However, guys at the top of the rankings need less chart-topping numbers, because offense as a whole has come down.When you look at the 2014 averages, last year has the lowest HR, R, and RBI of the last nine seasons. The average is the third lowest, but it’s still basically a .300 average. Although 2013 was a rather strong year (thanks to Chris Davis breaking out and Miggy’s second consecutive MVP season), 2012 has the second lowest averages in HR, R, and RBI. The two lowest in the last three years is a bit of a trend.

Now let’s take a look at a few of the top 1B from the past not named Pujols, because he was truly in a class of his own and was often the #1 player in fantasy. Then I’ll add the top two first basemen from last season.

2006 Ryan Howard – .313/104/58/149
2009 Prince Fielder – .300/103/46/141
2010 Joey Votto – .324/106/37/113
2014 Victor Martinez – .335/87/32/103
2014 Jose Abreu – .317/80/36/107

There’s a bit of a difference in just a few seasons. V-Mart can keep up with Votto from four years ago in everything but runs, but there’s a clear gap between 2014 and earlier years.

The Caveat

With run production down across the league, there are fewer 100 R and 100 RBI combo players; the sluggers in the middle of the lineup still drive them in, but they don’t score as often themselves. And even when it comes to RBI, there weren’t any extremely high totals in 2014 like there were in Howard’s and Fielder’s heyday. I won’t go into the power drop because it speaks for itself. You’re getting less with from your first basemen than you used to. But again, in the context of today’s game, that’s okay and the elite 1B are still worthy of first-round selection.

So what’s the best way to prepare a draft strategy for first basemen? Don’t expect the crazy numbers of the past. Understand that the definition of elite has changed a bit in the last ten years. You have to adjust what you feel is top production to the game as it stands now. However with that said, first basemen will still have strong representation in the first two rounds of a draft. Also, there is still a lot of power to be had at the position, with low-BA options like Chris Carter, Brandon Moss, and Mark Trumbo. Take another look at the BA for those 1B in the top-25. Average has declined as well as power in the last several years, so what really sets apart the elite first basemen is the ability to hit for BA as well as HR.

Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.