Thursday, January 15, 2004

Since I ended my last post by bringing up the fielding situation, let's begin today by taking a look at how these four compare in that department. I'll start with a non-statistical discussion of their reputations as fielders.

Keith Hernandez is considered by many to be one of the greatest defensive first-baseman of all-time, having won 11 consecutive National League gold gloves from 1978-88. Don Mattingly's reputation is almost as great. In fact, he took over the throne as the most proficient at the position as Hernandez reached the latter part of his career. Mattingly won nine American League gold gloves in the ten year span from 1985-94, only losing out to Mark McGwire in an injury plaqued 1990 season.

Steve Garvey also was considered to be an excellent first-sacker, winning four consecutive NL gold gloves from 1974-77, just prior to Hernandez's run. Garvey is generally considered to be not quite as good as either Hernandez or Mattingly, particularly because he had a sub-par throwing arm and was less proficient at turning the double play. Hernandez and Mattingly have a distinct advantage in that department over Garvey, both being left-handed throwers, but the fact remains that first base, the least important defensive position on the field, was the only position that Garvey was capable of playing, despite not being limited to what positions he could play by his throwing hand. In my original discussion of Steve Garvey, the debate that prompted me to perform this analysis, I stated that I felt that Garvey was overrated defensively as a first-baseman. I am going to retract that statement and evaluate Garvey's defensive merits at face value, those being that he did win four gold gloves, and was probably only prevented from winning additional gold gloves by one of the greatest defensive first-basemen of all time.

Tony Perez is basically considered to have been an average defensive first-baseman. He never won a gold glove, but he certainly wasn't considered to be weak at fielding his position.

Now let's take a look at the defensive statistics that are available. First, I'm going to compare each player's fielding percentage and range factor to the league average at first base for his career. For a full explanation of the fielding statistics used here, see the Fielding Statistics Glossary at

Player                      G    FP    lgFP    RF    lgRF
Steve Garvey         2059  .996  .992   9.65   8.51
Keith Hernandez     2014  .994  .992   9.73   8.51
Don Mattingly         1634  .996  .992   9.33   8.41
Tony Perez            1778  .992  .991   8.67   8.45

What do these limited statistics tell us? Essentially, Garvey and Mattingly rate tremendously in terms of fielding percentage, while Hernandez also rates well, and even Perez is above average. In terms of range, Hernandez rates the highest, but Garvey and Mattingly rate almost as well, and Perez, again, rates just above average. However, I'm not convinced that this method of evaluating a first-baseman's range is very effective, considering that it factors putouts into the numerator of the equation. What do putouts have to do with a first-baseman's range? Very little, in fact, with the possible exception of unassisted putouts, but these are difficult to capture. I'll have to examine this further if I have the time, but right now I'm not sure that it's worth it.

Overall, these statistics show us nothing that helps us distinguish between Garvey, Hernandez, and Mattingly. All three of these first-basemen back up their reputation with outstanding defensive statistics, although the value of one of these statistics is somewhat questionable. They all rate higher than Perez, who rates average to slightly above. I do plan on revisiting this defensive analysis, but right now I'm not convinced that statistics can really be used effectively to evaluate a first-baseman's defensive ability. I need to study Bill James' work on this subject a little further before I can draw any valuable conclusions.

In the meantime, I'm going to stick with the conventional wisdom, and my personal opinion, that Hernandez and Mattingly are two of the greatest defensive first-basemen of all-time, but that the difference between them and Garvey is not very significant considering the relative importance of the position that they play. Obviously, being a brilliant defensive first-baseman falls far short of being a brilliant defensive shortstop. Even the difference between their ability and that of Tony Perez may not be that statistically significant. I hope to shed more light on this subject later in this analysis, but I think it's time to begin a more in-depth look at offensive statistics.

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