WAR Lords of the Diamond (First Basemen)

After a relatively depressing look at the "best" catchers in Rockies history, my next focus is the Rockies' first base position. First base is a position that is near and dear to my heart, having played it during high school, and it is one from which a MLB club expects to receive a large chunk of its offense. On that account, the Rockies have done quite well for themselves--what they lack in quality, they more than make up for in quality.

Indeed, the Rockies have only a pair of first basemen in their history that have started over 100 games at the position--that would be Todd Helton (1690) and Andres Galarraga (677). But what a pair! I'll discuss just how good each was after the jump.

Once again, here's my methodology in ranking players by WAR:

1. I only used stats accumulated in seasons in which they mostly played for the Rockies.

2. The categories used were: career with Rockies, best three consecutive years with Rockies (establishes average production), and best single year with the Rockies (establishes peak production).

3. If the players spent less than five (or three) years with the Rockies, their career total was used in the other metrics as well. If the player was at different positions for different years, the player would be considered for the position in which he had the most starts (or greatest impact, at my discretion) for the Rockies.

4. The players were ranked in each category. Those ranks were added and averaged out--the lowest average rank was the most valuable Rockie.

5. The data used was only for seasons that were completed (e.g. not 2009).

Once again, I used Sean Smith's career WAR database to gather data for this article. Here's my primer on what WAR is and how it is calculated.

 First Basemen

As I mentioned above, there were two players that stood well above the rest, so I'm going to rank two utility players here that made an impact at first base as well in addition to Helton and Galarraga.

Without further ado...the rankings:

1. Todd Helton

Career WAR: 53.9 (1st)
Top Three Seasons: 21.7, 2000-2002 (1st)
Top Season: 8.8, 2000 (1st)
Average Rank: 1

This just in: Todd Helton is pretty good. The Rockies' 1st rounder (8th overall) in 1995 has been the starter at first base for the last eleven seasons and counting, starting 140+ games in each season from 1998-2007. Just how good has Helton been? Let's look at his numbers:

Year wOBA WAR
1997 .352 -0.2
1998 .390 2.5
1999 .413 2.2
2000 .476 8.8
2001 .456 6.7
2002 .422 6.2
2003 .450 7.7
2004 .455 7.4
2005 .417 4.6
2006 .375 2.2
2007 .399 5.2
2008 .347 0.8
PA Adj. .421 .007573

Some notes on these figures:

  • In only two years (his short stint in 1997 and his injury-plagued 2008) has Helton been even a below league-average player (2 WAR).
  • In a previous session I looked at Helton's value to the Rockies according to Fangraphs' value stat, which has been available since 2002. Helton has produced $109.8 million worth of value for the Rockies in that time period (which doesn't include two of his best years).
  • Given that league average wOBA usually sits around .333, Helton has been ridiculously good (his average production is better than Matt Holliday was for the Rockies last year). In fact, Helton's career .421 wOBA places him above many Hall of Famers. If only the Hall voters focused on such statistics when voting. Who knows, maybe Helton will have a WS ring to boost his candidacy?
  • Helton has been worth about .076 RAR for every plate appearance. Extrapolated over a 600 PA season (considered the norm by Fangraphs for wOBA), that's 4.54 WAR/season. 

 2. Andres Galarraga

Career WAR: 11.3 (2nd)
Top Three Seasons: 6.3, 1995-1997 (2nd)
Top Season: 3.6, 1993 (2nd)
Average Rank: 2

The Big Cat, El Gato Supremo. Andres Galarraga was my favorite player on the early Rockies and perhaps my favorite ever. His unique batting stance, gigantic homeruns, and imposing presence at the plate made Galarraga a player that seemed larger than life to a five year old kid in 1993--and a big part of the reason that I became hooked on baseball. His poster still hangs on my wall alongside other Denver heroes John Elway and Terrell Davis (and no, I don't have a girlfriend--there may be some correlation there).

Maybe these outsized memories are why I was a little surprised that Galarraga didn't provide more offense for the Rockies during his five-year tenure with the club. In actuality, the Big Cat had only three above average seasons with Colorado (93, 96, 97)--and those seasons were only about 1 win above league average (3.6, 3.4, 3.0). It is also likely that had the '94 season not been shortened by strike that Galarraga would have had another similar season then too.

This just goes to show you how gaudy traditional stats can sometimes clash with metrics like WAR. Galarraga led the NL in batting in 1993, in both HR and RBI in 1996, and RBI in 1997...and his wOBAs match up, with .426 in 1993, .402 in 1996, and .417 in 1997.

My best guess is that both the insane Coors park factor from those years brought down El Gato's wRAA and that Galarraga was really a butcher on the field. Having been less than ten when Andres played, I remember little except his exploits at the plate.

Even if he doesn't quite measure up the way I thought he would, Galarraga is right where I envisioned him: a long way separating him from third place and much more in between him and first place.

3. Jon Vander Wal

Career WAR: 2.1 (3rd)
Top Three Seasons: 1.8, 1994-1996 (3rd)
Top Season: 1.0, 1998 (3rd)
Average Rank: 3

Jon Vander Wal played several positions over parts of five seasons (1994-1998) for the Rockies (41 games at first base, 42 in left field, 34 in right field, and 2 at DH), but his is rightfully better known as a pinch hitter extraordinaire. In fact, theoldgrizzlybear wrote about Vander Wal in a previous edition of Rockies Retro. I've included Vander Wal here because his 41 games played at 1st base ranks 5th in Rockies history (Garrett Atkins is 3rd with 91--but I'm evaluating him with other 3rd basemen).

Outside of a horrible 1997 (.174/.255/.228), Vander Wal performed more than admirably in his role with the Rockies--particularly in 1995 (.347/.432/.594) and 1998 (.288/.380/.548). If the Rockies had given him more plate appearances--the most he had in a season with the Rockies was 172 in 1996--he could have turned into an above average player by WAR standards, but the Rockies had quite an outfield and first-basemen those years.

Vander Wal is the player that I hope Seth Smith never turns into--someone pigeonholed into a pinch-hitting role who could have performed much better in an everyday role. Indeed, when Vander Wal was in Pittsburgh in 2000 (his one season above 500 PA), he slugged 24 HRs and had a .972 OPS (and 2.9 WAR) when given a full season to play at age 34--not unlike Russell Branyan this year.

4. Jeff Baker

Career WAR: 0.7 (4th)
Top Three Seasons: 0.5, 2006-2008 (4th)
Top Season: 0.6, 2008 (4th)
Average Rank: 4

Finally, we have the player with the fourth-most games played at the position with 44: German-born, American-bred Jeff Baker. Baker has been distinguished in his Rockies career by his streaky hitting and his super-utility role, playing five positions. Baker has actually played more games at second base (52) than first, but like I mentioned, he's got the fourth-most games played at first. Jeff also has played multiple games at third (24), his natural position, right field (26), left field (8), and DH (2).

Drafted in the fourth round of 2002, Baker has always been a potent (but hugely streaky) bat, even garnering NL Player of the Week honors last June when he hit .435 with 4 HRs and 7 RBIs. Last year he had an above average .340 wOBA, but in 2007 Baker had a horrible .285 wOBA. Unfortunately, Jeff has never been good enough with the glove (or consistent enough with the bat) to justify an everyday position...and he will never earn one with the Rockies, as he was traded today to the Chicago Cubs.

That's it for first base...next week I look at second basemen--a position where several players have over 100 games played for the Rockies.

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