All-Time All-Mariner Roster: First Base

DMZ · June 23, 2008 at 8:00 am · Filed Under Mariners 

Ah, John Olerud. I find his 2002 season to be the finest by a first baseman in all Mariner-dom.
Frist, the stats — playing in Safeco, he hit .300/.400/.490 that year (fun side fact: that’s worth about 23 runs more than Raul Ibanez at first in KC and 12 runs more than Richie Sexson in Milwaukee). That’s not all that impressive for a first baseman, but among Mariner first baseman it’s really between him and Alvin Davis.

Davis’ best offensive season might match or even get a little ahead of Olerud’s, but he was never the defender that Olerud was. Davis was average or below average, and Olerud was good. That broke the tie for me, much in the same way it pushed Wilson ahead of Johjima.

My problem here is making a convincing argument about this. Olerud’s fielding percentages were better than league average, and range factor isn’t good enough for me to do much with it. But where we can apply rough defensive metrics across years — and I know you’re going to blanch at this — by using something like Davenport’s fielding runs, there’s a huge gap, on the order of ten runs a year between the two.

I think this is going to be a problem we encounter frequently, that comparing defense way back is tough. But what evidence I can find suggests that Olerud was the better defender by a significant margin in 2002, and that’s enough for me to put that season above the best of Alvin Davis’ years.

It’s a little sad that the best all-time all-Mariner season wasn’t near Olerud’s best season, or in that year nearly the best season by a first-baseman. Yet there it is.

Time has a nasty habit of making people forget the degree of things that occurred but weren’t monumental. Alvin Davis was never the best player in baseball, and he played on some truly horrible Mariners teams in the 1980s, but we can’t let time deceive us into not realizing just how good he was in 1989. It was a remarkable season – the best the organization has ever gotten from a first baseman.

Davis hit .305/.424/.496 with 21 home runs and 101 walks against just 49 strikeouts, and his raw numbers are actually very similar to John Olerud’s in 2002 that you’ve noted above. On a per at-bat basis, they were practically the same hitter – good average, great plate discipline, gap power and the occasional long ball. So what was different? The run scoring environment of the day, and through that, the relative value of that same performance.

In 2002, the league average OPS for a player who spent half his time in Safeco Field was .747. In 1989, the league average OPS for a player who spent half his time in the Kingdome was .718. AD’s .920 OPS was good for second best in the American League that year, .004 points behind Fred McGriff. They were the only two guys in the AL to post an OPS over .900. In 2002, Jim Thome led the AL with a 1.122 OPS, there were three other players over 1.000, and six more with an OPS between .900 and .999. Olerud’s .893 OPS ranked 11th in the AL that year, and more importantly, it ranked behind Jim Thome, Jason Giambi, Mike Sweeney, Rafael Palmeiro, and Carlos Delgado.

Offensively, the 2002 John Olerud was the 7th best hitting first baseman in the league that year. His defense moves him past Palmeiro, Delgado, and Sweeney, but even with that adjustment, he’s still not among the three best at his own position that year.

Alvin Davis, however, was as good as any other hitter in the league in 1989. If he was on a better team, he’d have finished in the top 7 in MVP voting. It’s hard to make a case that Olerud even belonged in the top 20 in 2002.

Yes, John Olerud was a good defender and an underrated player during his time in Seattle, but Alvin Davis was as good as anyone else who stepped to the plate in 1989. In an era where teams weren’t scoring more than 4.00 runs per game with regularity, Davis’ offensive contributions were simply more valuable than a comparable performance from Olerud in ’02, and we simply don’t have enough evidence that Olerud’s defensive value made up for that difference at the plate. And no, Davenport Fielding Runs don’t count as evidence – they’re beyond useless.

AD didn’t earn the Mr. Mariner nickname out of pity or a lack of anyone else to carry the franchise. He earned it by being a premier, front line talent who put up some monstrous seasons in which there wasn’t much else to get excited about. There’s a reason I’m sad every time I hear someone else announced as #21 over the Safeco P.A. as time and a lack of diligence by the M’s has eroded the memory of just how tremendous Alvin Davis really was. Let’s not make that same mistake.

All fair points, but I’m still in the Olerud 2002 camp.

First, to the best-at-their-position or best-in-league-argument: I didn’t consider this as a criteria. There are too many external factors at work here. Not to skip ahead too far, but we might never be able to select some positions if that’s a serious consideration. If the M’s tended to have good but not great 1b, and one year the league had a bumper crop of great ones, I don’t see that we can’t say the M’s offering that year wasn’t the best.

I want to return to the defensive argument. Let’s toss Davenport’s Fielding Runs out the door for a second. My larger point there is that it’s really hard to compare fielding across time spans like that, because the tools that can do it – like Clay’s Fielding Runs – necessarily operate at such a high level and with such macro statistics that when they try and work out who was good and bad, they break down.

So let me offer another way to look at this: Olerud played 152 games at first in 2002. Lou only started other players there twelve games all season, and despite Olerud’s station-to-station baserunning which you’d think would get him pinch-runners, other players only appeared at first another 16 times. Olerud played 1,317 innings at first that year, tied with Bret Boone and only one inning behind Mike Cameron. Piniella kept his glove guys in when he could, and for Olerud to get the same respect afforded the 2002 Boone and Cameron, well, that’s something.

The 1989 Alvin Davis didn’t play first base as much. I can’t argue that the best Mariner first-base season came from someone who only played 125 games there in a year without a labor interruption. Lefebvre started Jim Presley 18 times, a 37-year old Darnell Coles 11 times, and Dave Cochrane (!) 6 times. Alvin Davis played 1,077 innings at first — that’s way less than Olerud did.

Davis was the team’s DH 14 times, and didn’t play at all in another 13 games. The M’s brought in defensive subs another 22 times (though unlike in Olerud’s case, we might not be able to presume they all subbed in for AD). We have to admit that Olerud played first base a lot more than AD did, and so we have to concede that even if they were exactly the same defensively, Olerud helped his team more by playing more.

Beyond that, unless there’s an injury-related reason that I’m not remembering as I write this, the judgment of the men who made out their lineup cards should be taken as some evidence of their relative merit with the glove: Lou really had to have an overwhelming reason to not start Olerud or to pull him from a game, where AD was a lot more likely to start at DH, not start, and get subbed for when he did start. That’s a big difference in how their managers viewed their defensive contributions.

Olerud also won a Gold Glove that year, and Davis never did.

Now, how much weight you want to assign to that is up to you, but I’m entirely comfortable putting it at ten runs, which is about what an average 1b to good 1b gets you, defensively.

Is that enough to put him over AD? For that, we have to go back to the offensive arguments. Now, the case for 89 Davis at 1B is pretty compelling, I totally admit: 2nd in the AL in on-base percentage, 5th in slugging percentage… but Olerud in 2002 was 7th in the AL in OBP, and… okay, his slugging wasn’t in the top ten.

And your points about the different contexts and so far are all fine. But when I’m lazy and look them up with a stat that corrects for league and offensive positions and all of that, the difference is not that large at all. In terms of VORP, for instance, Alvin Davis’s 1989 was worth 52 runs, while Olerud’s 2002 is worth 48 (#1, AD 1989, #2, AD 1984, #3, Olerud 2002, $4 Bruce Bochte 2005).

I thought having read your argument that it would be a lot larger, but it’s not. It’s only four runs, and Olerud’s increased playing time at first and his quality defense while out there makes up for that difference and then some.

I have to stick with Olerud. If we were arguing who the best first baseman in M’s history was, I would answer “Alvin Davis” without hesitation. But in the terms we’re discussing, which is who put up the best one-season performance at that position, I’m convinced that Olerud’s 152 games in 2002 were a better year as a first baseman than Davis’s 125 games.

I’m not saying that best-in-the-league has to be the ultimate deciding factor, but it needs to be in the conversation. Even if the offensive difference due to run environments is only half a dozen runs, there’s added value in having the best or second best hitter in the league on the roster. As we’ve talked about in roster construction posts, it’s much easier to make marginal upgrades than it is to go from good to great, and relative to the years they played, John Olerud was a good hitter while Alvin Davis was a great hitter.

Defensively, certainly, Olerud has Davis beat, but I’m not comfortable using managerial decisions to attempt to quantify the difference. If we did that, we’d have to conclude that Raul Ibanez is a superior defender since he plays everyday and John McLaren never takes him out for defensive purposes. Olerud was better with the glove? Was it enough to cancel out the fact that Alvin Davis was the second best hitter in the league that year, while Olerud wasn’t even able to crack the top ten? I don’t think so.

I’m unswayed. I don’t think there’s so much added value in being the #1 or #2 bat that it outweighs the difference in overall contribution here. It’s like — if you can have a prime Carlos Beltran season, you get a top-tier bat and a good defender. His overall contribution might be the best in the league while his offense isn’t the #1, and his defense might not even be #1.

Olerud played a whole season at first, hit really well, and played good defense. Davis played 75% of a season at first, hit better, and played significantly worse defense. In terms of total value, I have to hand it to Olerud.


136 Responses to “All-Time All-Mariner Roster: First Base”

  1. Grizz on June 23rd, 2008 12:56 pm

    While he may have outperformed him in rate statistics, counting stats do matter.

    No one said that counting stats do not matter. This what is called a strawman.

    Your hypothetical is also irrelevant because we have actual park and era-adjusted data for both and the actual difference in playing time was 12 games, not 28. Despite playing less, counting stats like VORP and BtRuns still put Davis ahead.

    Grizz, where do you draw the line? How about a guy who played 120 games at a higher level? How about 100?

    Again, here the difference is 12 games (154 to 142). Davis still finishes ahead of Olerud, which makes Davis’ performance more impressive. Wherever the line is, Davis is above it.

  2. moocow on June 23rd, 2008 1:07 pm

    I remember reading an ESPN article a while back (while he was still playing, of course) that noted how the number of errors by the infields that Olerud played with was significantly lower while he was there, and went back up after he left (specifically citing the Met’s and the M’s, I think). There’s one measure that’s not captured by any other fielding metric, as far as I’m aware.

    His range fielding balls hit to him may not have been eye popping, but he saved his teams runs by being one of the best at fielding errant throws by other infielders.

  3. zeke5123 on June 23rd, 2008 1:09 pm

    I still think you are missing the point. The fact of the matter is that those other at-bats go to much worse players. So there is value in a good player simply playing. The team was hurt by AD’s absence. Same with Olerud’s however his didn’t last as long. So who added more value to the team? Olerud.

  4. scraps on June 23rd, 2008 1:14 pm

    No one said that counting stats do not matter. This what is called a strawman.

    You said “The injury to Davis should not be held against him as it was not his fault.” You can’t really blame someone for coming to the conclusion that you’re saying the missed time (and the counting stats lost with it) don’t matter.

    Again, here the difference is 12 games (154 to 142).

    Again, you’re counting games he played at DH. He played 125 games at first base. Not playing the field makes a difference in his contribution, too.

    No one is saying, as you seem to think, that the difference in games played makes the difference. As you say, if Davis’s total value is still higher, then he was the best. All we’re saying is that the rate contribution isn’t the point, the total contribution is, and Davis doesn’t get a break for missing games.

  5. docmarsh on June 23rd, 2008 1:17 pm

    The best part about both of those guys?

    Ask Olerud who was better…he’ll say AD

    Ask AD who was better…he’ll say Olerud.

    Olerud had the prettier swing, Davis was a much more iconic player on a team that needed it. AD…in a statistical wash (which this just may be.)…was the only true offensive guy on that team…he didn’t have a Buhner/Boone/Martinez triumvirate to make sure he got fastballs in fastball counts.

    Both, though, deserve to be remembered.

  6. ASUBoyd on June 23rd, 2008 1:21 pm

    This segment is a lot of fun. Really good debate between these two guys.

    I think I might have to go with Olerud though.

  7. Grizz on June 23rd, 2008 1:28 pm

    I still think you are missing the point. The fact of the matter is that those other at-bats go to much worse players. . . . So who added more value to the team? Olerud.

    If only there was a metric that measured a player’s value over a replacement player. You could call it VORP for short.

  8. Ruminations on June 23rd, 2008 1:30 pm

    I feared Alvin Davis when he came to play in Oakland. He was a real difference maker as a hitter. As much as I admired John Olerud in his time here, I never saw him in the same light. Earlier in his career, yes.

    But when it came to defense, Olerud was the master and I can easily believe that his defense was worth more than 10 runs per season. As far as I’m aware defensive metrics for first baseman do not measure errors saved on throws from other infielders. Olerud was the best I’ve seen at scooping throws from the dirt. He made it look so effortless that it was easy to overlook how difficult some of the plays were. I believe that Olerud was a large reason that the Mariners defenses of 2000-2003 were so highly regarded. And was it the 2002 team that set the record for fewest errors in a season? How much of that was Olerud responsible for? He was also an outstanding thrower for 1B. I don’t think that he scored so well on range and that is probably the reason that he doesn’t come out better overall in fielding metrics.
    Safe to say, I would be quite happy with either Davis ’89 or Olerud ’02 playing 1B for the Mariners ’08!

  9. The Dreeze on June 23rd, 2008 1:39 pm

    Who was the all-time most booed Mariner first baseman?
    -Pete O’brien 1990 : The only million dollar Mariner.
    -Richie Sexson 2008 : The worst Mariner of all time, adjusted for contract.

    Who was the all-time Brett Boone all frosted tips team first baseman?
    -David Segui 1998
    -Richie Sexson 2006ish

  10. dbratz on June 23rd, 2008 1:40 pm

    Re: 19 – Spanky, I guess there’s been back and forth already on this, but I wanted to add that my instinct is to think something nearly opposite to you – that it’s harder to have the mental toughness to excel on a lously team, putting up an excellent season performance in the misery of a losing clubhouse with lousy teammates in front of mostly empty bleachers. Both your instinct, and mine, are unsupported by data.

    The AD memory this all jogs is not of AD himself, but rather J Michael Kenyon on his sports talk show of the time, advocating that since neither playing in Seattle nor being a Mariner was going to engender any great respect, the team should be renamed the New York Alvins.

  11. Ruminations on June 23rd, 2008 1:41 pm

    Correction to my comment in 108.
    It was actually the 2003 season when the Mariners set was is still the record for fewest team errors in a season, 65. Olerud manning 1B in either case.

  12. Daniel Carroll on June 23rd, 2008 1:50 pm

    Interesting post, as always.

    It strikes me that the team of greatest Mariner seasons would be required to have an Edgar Martinez at DH, and so the games that you would be getting out of ’89 Davis would be pretty exclusively at 1B. Does the discussion of 1B defense factor this in, or is the idea of a team not really considered in that way?

  13. the other benno on June 23rd, 2008 1:52 pm

    moocow – I recall talk like that and looked it up on Baseball-Reference this morning. The 1999 Mets had 60 fewer infield errors (not counting the catcher) than the 2000 Mets, which seems significant. However the 2000 Ms only had 20 fewer infield errors than the 1999 Ms. So I assumed the difference is too variable by player and luck to be of real significance.

  14. zeke5123 on June 23rd, 2008 2:01 pm

    VORP takes into account the amount of runs created above what a replacement-level player would given the same number of plate appearances. I could be mistaken but it still takes into account games played. So those extra games that AD didn’t play that Olerud did does come into play.

  15. NBarnes on June 23rd, 2008 2:03 pm

    Re: Era adjustments….

    In 2002, Olerud had a 403/490 line for a 140 OPS+. In 1989, Davis had a 424/496 line for a 152 OPS+. I looked for some comparables in both years….

    In 2002, Magglio Ordonez had a 153 OPS+ from a line of 381/597.

    In 1989, Julio Franco had a 137 OPS+ from a line of 386/462.

    In either comparison, I’m pretty sure I like Davis enough to overcome the defensive inferiority.

  16. Jeff Nye on June 23rd, 2008 2:11 pm

    As far as I’m aware defensive metrics for first baseman do not measure errors saved on throws from other infielders.

    As much as I’m in the Olerud camp on this particular discussion, I think this particular factor gets overstated a lot since we can’t really effectively measure it.

    Olerud made a lot of nice plays going to his right, though.

  17. _David_ on June 23rd, 2008 2:12 pm

    I hope this isn’t too off-topic, but I’m interested to know the answer and am too young to have followed his career: What happened to Alvin Davis? Why did he hit a wall at 30 and have to retire?

  18. Mike Snow on June 23rd, 2008 2:27 pm

    Except that Chone Smith and Mitchel Lichtman have effectively measured it, it would seem, from tangotiger’s comment earlier in the thread. I grant that a lot of people have overstated its importance, though.

  19. sealclubber253 on June 23rd, 2008 2:32 pm

    I would have to vote for Alvin Davis in 89′ because of how he ranked against the rest of the league that year. Not to take anything away from John Olerud, but Davis was the team that year. He did what he did surrounded by mediocrity, while JO had a pretty good team around him. As good as JO was, he never stood out as “the star” of that team. Alvin Davis was “the star” of the team, no question about it.

    Tino’s 95 should have been further discused though. He was pretty darn good too.

  20. Grizz on June 23rd, 2008 2:33 pm

    All we’re saying is that the rate contribution isn’t the point, the total contribution is, and Davis doesn’t get a break for missing games.

    Again, this is a counterargument to an argument that I did not make. Here is what I said:

    The injury to Davis should not be held against him as it was not his fault. Even with the missed time, Davis still outperformed Olerud at the plate. The mere happenstance of the injury makes them appear closer than the actual level at which they hit that year.

    In other words, Davis outperformed Olerud in the counting stats (or to use your term, “total contribution”), but what made Davis’ season more impressive is the higher rate at which he produced (which the injury – something over which Davis had no control – obscures). In determining “greatest season,” the rate of contribution should be a factor. No one said it should be the determinative factor.

  21. Jeff Nye on June 23rd, 2008 2:35 pm

    Except that Chone Smith and Mitchel Lichtman have effectively measured it, it would seem, from tangotiger’s comment earlier in the thread. I grant that a lot of people have overstated its importance, though.

    Mea culpa! I meant to follow the link and got sidetracked.

    Still, though, the range from best to worst is about 12 net errors (if I’m reading the data right), so that seems to jive with my idea of the overall effect being pretty small.

  22. DMZ on June 23rd, 2008 2:36 pm

    A player having to be “the star” of a particular team is a horrible criteria that potentially would keep us from nominating anyone from teams that had outstanding contributions from more than one player… like 1995, when you want Tino.

    Why should we have discussed Tino’s 1995? The two seasons we talked about are the contenders.

    Plus, we’ll talk about what we want to talk about.

  23. DMZ on June 23rd, 2008 2:41 pm


  24. Jeff Nye on June 23rd, 2008 2:43 pm


  25. JJD on June 23rd, 2008 3:06 pm

    I’m intrigued by this comment from Dave.

    I’m not saying that best-in-the-league has to be the ultimate deciding factor, but it needs to be in the conversation.

    Why would that be in the discussion, if OPS+ is a metric that is supposed to be balanced. If a player has an OPS+ of 175 but it is eighth best in the league one season, that is still better than an OPS+ of 140 that leads the league in another. You wouldn’t give the 140 guy extra credit, would you?

    (Note – these numbers may or may not make sense, but work for the point I’m trying to make. Obviously a differential this extreme would be dealt with appropriately. It just seems odd to use other team’s players to evaluate the greatest seasons in MARINER history to me.)

  26. eponymous coward on June 23rd, 2008 3:14 pm

    And the thing is, OPS understates AD’s contribution, because he, like Olerud, was heavy on the OBP side.

    To be honest, they are fairly close- close enough that there really isn’t a clear answer, because we can’t do a rigorous examination of AD’s defense in 1989. They are also fairly similar players- slow LHB 1B with good batting eyes and line-drive power, with AD having more power and walks, Olerud having more betting average and a better reputation for glovework.

  27. dingdangdo on June 23rd, 2008 3:20 pm

    I only heard Al Davis play, radio was my only option for the games back then aside from a rare trip to the park. It’s hard to imagine a prettier back handed pick of a short hop than Olerud had, it was nearly a signature move. And he had such a command of the strike zone, I miss that cool look he’d give an ump when he disagreed with a call, didn’t he get tossed once for looking hard at an ump? Hate to break down such a great numbers discussion with the anecdotal stuff, but I get all misty eyed sometimes for guys like Olerud when I have to watch our current team scuffle.

  28. scraps on June 23rd, 2008 3:24 pm

    They are also fairly similar players

    If we look at their whole careers, though, there are a couple of serious differences: Davis was a model of consistency, while Olerud interspersed great seasons — 1998 and especially 1993, which are peaks well above Davis’s best (but not in Seattle) — with merely good ones; and Olerud made it to 36 as a full-time player, while Davis’s last full-time season was at age 30 (and it was a very bad season).

  29. scraps on June 23rd, 2008 3:25 pm

    Again, if you loved Olerud’s command of the strike zone, you would have loved Davis’s just as much.

  30. sealclubber253 on June 23rd, 2008 4:05 pm

    I didn’t mean any offense by the comment, I just think that a .293/.369/.551 season is pretty solid.

    And my “star” comment about Mr. Mariner was only to point out that Olerud was just another guy in a group of guys that where having great success that year. Alvin Davis was about the only guy in 1989 that was putting up good numbers. I just remeber watching games back then and he was really pitched around. Other than Justin Leonard, there was a bunch of easy outs in that lineup.

  31. Jeff Nye on June 23rd, 2008 4:10 pm

    If he was pitched around, that should be reflected in his OBP, so it’s already accounted for as part of the discussion.

  32. Paul B on June 23rd, 2008 4:18 pm

    i think you mean Jeffrey Leonard, who had an OPS+ of 100 that year.

    M’s with an OPS+ over 100 that year, other than AD:

    Reynolds 104
    Briley 116 (!)
    Griffey 108
    Buhner 129 (only 58 games)

  33. The Ghost of Spike Owen on June 23rd, 2008 5:08 pm

    Great post, guys. Didn’t think I could be talked out of ’02 Olerud, but Dave makes a really compelling case for Alvin.

  34. Crushgroovin on June 24th, 2008 12:09 am

    Excellent Post men! I can’t for the riveting DH discussion with Edgar “the original Turbo” Martinez vs Jose “Turbo II” Vidro.

  35. DAMellen on June 24th, 2008 8:42 pm

    Okay, the big question is by just missing making it as your starting first baseman, is…whichever one of them didn’t make it, now elligible to be a bench player on the 25 man roster you’re putting together or will you be using actual bench players for that?

  36. DAMellen on June 24th, 2008 10:51 pm

    So, next up 01 Boone and 00 A Rod vs 96 A Rod?

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