All-Time All-Mariner Roster: First Base
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.