Joe Mauer the Magadan, and Other First Base Images

Joe Mauer may be the last of a dying breed of first basemen. (via Keith Allison and Michelle Jay)

Some say images have no feeling, I think there’s a deeper meaning
Mechanical precision or so it’s seeming instigates a cooler feeling
I love multiplicity of screenings, things born anew display new meanings
I think images are worth repeating and repeating and repeating.”

—Lou Reed/John Cale, “Images,” 1990

In September, 1986, the World Series-bound New York Mets debuted a rookie third baseman named Dave Magadan. A left-handed hitter, the 23-year-old was a cousin of then-Yankees manager Lou Piniella. He had spent the season at Triple-A Tidewater, where he had hit .311/.411/.412 with just one home run in 571 plate appearances.

The Mets weren’t sure what to do with him. Magadan had been drafted as a first baseman and was just adequate at the hot corner. As of 1987 he was blocked at both his positions, with a player arguably of Hall of Fame-quality in Keith Hernandez at first and Howard Johnson, a power-speed threat at third. HoJo was also a threat on defense—to his own team—but Magadan wasn’t such a good glove that he could push the more veteran player from that direction. The Mets also had strikeout pitchers like Dwight Gooden and David Cone, and extreme fly-ballers like Sid Fernandez (Fernandez would occasionally go whole games without allowing a grounder), which permitted manager Davey Johnson to deemphasize infield defense without paying too high a cost.

Johnson’s calculated defensive indifference got Magadan playing time at third when HoJo slid over to short for those games when it was safe to assume the infield wasn’t going to get too many chances (starting shortstop Rafael Santana was about as mobile as an unabridged dictionary to begin with, so the drop-off from him to HoJo wasn’t too great). Hernandez’s increasing infirmity also got him time at first base. Magadan was functionally the starting first baseman from 1989 through 1991, at which point the Mets signed future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, 36, to a two-year contract.

Though Magadan’s career rates at that moment were .294/.391/.393, the Mets had no qualms about making him a platoon third baseman and pinch-hitter: He had hit just 18 home runs in 2,104 major-league plate appearances, and singles hitters at first base, no matter how good they are at getting on base, are always marked for extinction.

As a low-power/high-selectivity first baseman, Magadan was among the last members of a dying fraternity. Now, by chance rather than by choice, Minnesota Twins first baseman Joe Mauer has picked up the banner of a family of players which was always an outlier. In 2017, Mauer had a Magadan season, hitting .305/.384/.417 with seven home runs and 66 walks. It was a good, productive campaign, Mauer’s best since repeat concussions forced him to move out from behind the plate after the 2013 season.

Yet, think of iconic Twins first basemen, and power hitters like Harmon Killebrew, Kent Hrbek, and Justin Morneau likely come to mind before relatively light-hitting glovemen like Vic Power and Doug Mientkiewicz, or even Rod Carew after 1975, a two-time batting-title winner and an MVP award-winner at the position though he was. Whoever your household first base god, whether he played as long ago as Lou Gehrig, as recently as Albert Pujols in his prime, or is still on the rise like Cody Bellinger, chances are his offensive output looks nothing like that of Mauer, Magadan, or, for that matter, Matt Carpenter, even if they can hold their own as run producers. As with so many things in life, that the shape of their contributions is different doesn’t necessarily make them inferior.

Nevertheless, going back to the game’s beginnings, first base has been the place a team stashes sluggish sluggers, and in the post-1920 live ball era any hitter who doesn’t put the ball over the fence with regularity is only a transient awaiting his replacement. In this, it can be viewed as a certainty that if Mauer had not been in the midst of an eight-year, $184 million contract when he had to change positions, the Twins would likely have pursued a more traditional first sacker.

Last year, the average major league first baseman hit .265/.347/.487 with 32 home runs on a 162-game basis, so Mauer was far from typical. Now that Yonder Alonso has, at least theoretically, learned to hit for power (his slugging was largely confined to the first eight weeks of the 2017 season), Mauer is a Magadan. Mauer is the last of his kind, the northern white rhino of baseball—at least for now.

In 1934, the Boston Braves called up a teenaged first baseman named Elbie Fletcher. It took about five years for him to get his skills organized, or about the span of time required for him to grow from an 18-year-old to the age of a more typical rookie. Not long after he finally got going, Fascism intervened to prevent him from putting together a long run of good seasons. Still, for the five years of mature, peacetime baseball allowed to him he was a monster at the plate—an atypical monster, but a monster nonetheless.

The Braves traded him to the Pittsburgh Pirates during the 1939 season. From then until his departure for military service after the 1943 season, Fletcher averaged .284/.407/.423. In a typical season he hit only 11 home runs, but also took 101 walks per year. Returning in 1946, he still possessed the same patience, drawing 111 walks in 148 games, but his batting average was down 40 points. The Pirates decided, not unreasonably, they’d rather have Hank Greenberg.

Writing about Fletcher in the most recent version of his Historical Baseball Abstract (2003), Bill James referred to Fletcher as a member “of a sort of ‘rump legislature’ of first basemen who didn’t hit for much power, but made an offensive contribution by hitting for a good average with 10-12 home runs and a hundred walks a year. Ferris Fain, Lu Blue, Joe Cunningham, and Fred Tenney were a few other exemplars of the type, which was never common, and which I believe is now extinct.”

There were a few others if you stretch James’ definition a bit; pitchers are less profligate with walks now and home runs are easier to come by, so we have to adjust our expectations slightly. In addition to Mike Hargrove (.290/.396/.391 in 1666 career games from 1974 to 1985), who James included in his list of Fletcher comparables, and the players above, the family could include the three-decade Senators first baseman Joe Judge (perhaps not patient enough and his power was held back by his home park). Bruce Bochte was inconsistent, but played in this style at his Mariners best. Keith Hernandez probably belongs in the extended group. Mark Grace had doubles power but had more in common with this group than not. In a slightly less power-happy era than 1989-2005, John Olerud (.295/.398/.465, 18 home runs and 92 walks per 162 games) would probably have fit comfortably here as well. Daric Barton would have been that kind of player had he been able to repeat his 2010 season. Nick Johnson was more or less that player but lacked consistency and an ability to stay on the field.

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Then there’s Pete Runnels. Runnels jumped around between second, short, and first base (36 percent of his career games were at first), but he was exactly the kind of hitter (.291/.375/.378) that teams go out of their way not to start at first. He’s a great example of how teams regard having a non-slugging first baseman. In 1962, Runnels was the Red Sox’ starting first baseman. He hit .326/.408/.456 and won the American League batting title. It was his fifth consecutive season hitting over .310. That November he was traded to the Houston Colt .45s for Roman Mejias, a nondescript outfielder, and replaced with Dick “Dr. Strangeglove” Stuart, a 40-homer proto-DH who walked 40 times a year.

All these players were Magadans, baseball’s version of the duck billed platypus. They hit like very good middle infielders but, with the exception of Runnels, didn’t have the defensive skills to play anywhere but the position where managers traditionally stash men who have the balletic ability of a garbage truck. They were productive as hell—Magadan finished his career with a .390 on-base percentage. Blue, a switch-hitter, scored 100 or more runs six times while hitting .287/.402/.401. Fain, who is surely the only batting-title winner with a record of post-career arrests for growing marijuana, led the AL in batting in both 1951 and 1952, and walked up to 136 times a season. He hit only 48 career home runs. Cunningham, who played for the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago White Sox beginning in 1954, hit .301/.411/.435 through his age-31 season, at which point he suffered a collarbone injury that ended his career within a couple of years.

Nevertheless, they weren’t exactly appreciated. Hargrove was traded twice in the 1978-1979 period, once for light-hitting utilityman Paul Dade, as a 29-year-old with an on-base percentage just under .400. The A’s traded Fain the offseason after his second batting title. Magadan was allowed to leave New York as a free agent after Murray was signed and spent a year being traded back and forth between the Florida Marlins and Seattle Mariners, after which he played for four teams in the seven years remaining to his career.

The Magadans might have been enjoyed greater appreciation had their proper offensive role been better understood, but in the same way that they didn’t seem like first basemen they also didn’t remind managers of leadoff men. With the exception of late-career Pete Rose, first basemen are not leadoff hitters. They’re left fielders like Rickey Henderson and Lou Brock, center fielders like Brett Butler and Kenny Lofton, or middle infielders like Craig Biggio and Maury Wills. Sometimes you get a third baseman in there, like Ed Yost or Wade Boggs.

First basemen are only leadoff hitters when there is no one on the 25-man roster who more closely resembles a leadoff hitter, which is to say fast. Alfredo Griffin was a speedy shortstop who combined an almost pathological unwillingness to walk with what might have been the worst baserunning instincts in the history of baseball. As a leadoff hitter, he hit .253/.289/.327 and was caught stealing in 65 of 136 attempts. Still, because he was fast, he started 586 games at the top of the order.

If you add together the number of games led off by Cunningham, Fletcher, Hargrove, Grace, Fain, Magadan, and Runnels they total 510. That breaks down to 298 for Hargrove, primarily in three years at the end of the 1970s, 85 for Cunningham, 62 for Runnels, 51 for Fletcher (Casey Stengel was the manager who got what 100 walks were worth at the top of the order), and more or less none for anyone else. Those seven players combined to play 10,999 games in the majors. Joe Mauer has hit leadoff 11 times in the 1738 games he has played as of this writing.

Blue was the one exception to the rule. When he came up with the Detroit Tigers in 1921, it took his manager about half a season to realize that Blue was a better leadoff candidate than light-hitting second baseman Ralph Young. At that point, Ty Cobb elevated Blue to the top of the order and left him there. As for Magadan’s Mets, during his initial run of success the club experienced a leadoff crisis. It never occurred to them to try the non-basestealing Magadan.

In 1989, the team traded both of its leadoff hitters, Lenny Dykstra and Mookie Wilson, the latter because he was struggling and was a low-OBP hitter for a leadoff man to begin with, the former because …well, because five years of knowing Lenny Dykstra is apparently enough for anyone. The Mets received second baseman Juan Samuel in return, moved him to center field, and made him the leadoff hitter despite a career on-base percentage of .310 to that point.

That winter, they traded Samuel for the highly frangible first baseman Mike Marshall (career .321OBP) to block Magadan. Magadan got to play when Marshall inevitably got hurt and hit .328/.417/.457 in 144 games. Simultaneously, two Mets managers, Davey Johnson and Bud Harrelson, used seven different players at the top of the order, none of them Magadan. They combined for a .324 OBP.

One irony here is that Magadan has been consistently employed as a major league hitting coach since his retirement, serving in that capacity for the San Diego Padres (2003-2006), Boston Red Sox (2007-2012), Texas Rangers (2013-2015), and Arizona Diamondbacks (2016-present). His style of hitting might not have been in demand to play then, but teams seem to know that he had the right idea now.

Since Mauer became a full-time first baseman, he’s hit .278/.362/.391. In that same span, Twins leadoff hitters, principally Brian Dozier, Danny Santana, Aaron Hicks, and Eduardo Nunez, have hit .263/.328/.466. This makes for an interesting dichotomy; giving the extra plate appearances to a player with power like Dozier has led to some extra power production at the spot, but at the cost of a few points of on-base percentage. Still, if the main purpose of the batting order is to distribute playing time such that hitters who make the fewest outs are favored, the failure to use Mauer properly has hurt the Twins, however minutely.

In the end, this is all about perception. Consider Matt Carpenter of the Cardinals. One of the most patient hitters in game today, Carpenter has done his share of batting leadoff. He’s also moved around the diamond, playing 458 games at third base, 214 at first base, and 204 games at second base. Somehow, though, he’s done far less leading off when he’s primarily been a first baseman than he has when he’s been the starter at second or third. Same manager, Mike Matheny, same Carpenter, different perception depending on the glove.

We’ve come a long way from the days when hitters like Roy Cullenbine and Ted Williams were savagely criticized for their refusal to swing at bad pitches. Getting on base is celebrated now, and first basemen are no doubt included in the party. Yet, whereas a prospect like Padres second baseman Luis Urias will be cheered all the way to the majors for having selectivity as one of his primary skills, a first baseman with a similar skill set—say, the Yankees’ Mike Ford—will be rated a fringe player. Obviously it would be better to have a Lou Gehrig if a Gehrig is available to you, but when teams have to choose between the powerful half of Gehrig and the selective half will often default to Tommy Joseph.

The reference to Joseph is pointed: Last offseason the Phillies realized that on-base percentage is more valuable than their received image of a first baseman and signed Carlos Santana who, though he hit 34 home runs as recently as 2016, skews closer to Elbie Fletcher than Dick Stuart. In the meantime, Mauer is a Magadan, and he’ll have to do until the next one comes along.

References and Resources

It probably goes without saying at this point, but this piece would have been impossible, or at least incredibly onerous, without the resources provided by Baseball Reference. The author would have had to leave his chair to retrieve numerous dusty old books from the shelf, triggering sneezing attacks and frightening the cat, who is high-strung to begin with. Instead, the author’s extremely sedentary lifestyle was undisturbed because all sorts of statistics were a click away. God bless Sean Forman.


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Dave Jordan
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Hal Morris approves this article. Ferris Fain was my go-to when I played SIM baseball back in the day. Always enjoyable, Steven.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

Interesting article Steven. In addition to Mark Grace, young Rafael Palmeiro (who also came up with the Cubs) also fit the bill. From 1986 through 1990 he hit a combined .296/.351/.400 with a high of 14 home runs during the 5 seasons.

Dennis Bedard
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Dennis Bedard

Off the top of my head, I can think of some other members of what I would call the Anti Boog Powell Club: Wes Parker, Danny Cater, and Ed Kranepool.

BobDD
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BobDD

Augie Galan

BobDD
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BobDD

My bad – Galan was the LF – Phil Cavarretta was their 1B and who I was probably thinking of.

Bobby Ayala
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I guess James Loney had too much power to be in this group:)

marlinsfan61
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marlinsfan61

I wouldn’t say he’s the last. Posey hit 12 hr and he’ll probably be manning 1b in a couple years.

halidonhill
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halidonhill

Posey’s career high for walks in a season is 69. Even if you think he gets to 700 ABs by playing 1B full time he isn’t likely to get over the 100 walk a year threshold.

If the Cardinals will leave him at 1B then Matt Carpenter is the standard bearer going forward.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac

Carpenter has too much power to be a true example, though. We’re supposed to be talking about high OPB, low SLG 1B, aren’t we?

For that matter, what does it matter if that high OBP is driven more by walks or singles? Just because some guys don’t walk a ton of times doesn’t mean they don’t make good examples as long as they still drive up that OBP mark to a high level through both hits and the walks they do get.

Las Vegas Wildcards
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Las Vegas Wildcards
We should also remember the nature of the first base position lends itself to players slower afoot, and height is an asset on receiving infield throws. So power is often associated with the position, and that often helps compensate for a lack of that quality in other positions. The name of the game is still hitting the baseball, which is a more difficult skill than drawing a walk. Dave Magadan had a decent career, but drove in only 495 runs in 16 seasons. There is no absolute method to teach hitting, patience is nice, but you also don’t want to… Read more »
John Autin
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John Autin

Actually, the name of the game is scoring runs. The best run-producing players and teams combine power and on-base skills, but the latter is demonstrably more crucial. Just look at last year’s Mets and Pirates — tied for the NL lead in home runs, but below average in both OBP and runs per game.

Angelsjunky
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Angelsjunky

Angels prospect Matt Thaiss seems to be a Magadan and has a shot at the starting 1B gig in 2019 or 2020.

I personally would rather have a Magadan than a Trumbo, or Armas. The great 1B combine both poles (average/discipline and power), but not every first baseman can do that.

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dbminn
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dbminn
In 2017, Joe Mauer returned to form, but was still below his career slash line. For Magadan, a very good hitter in his prime, it would’ve been a peak season. He only cracked an .800 OPS twice in years he had more than 200 PA. For the first 10 years of his career, Mauer put up historically elite offensive numbers as a catcher. From 2005-2013, his first 9 years as full-time C, his slash was .323/.406/.466. He earned a huge contract. It’s only after Mauer had his brain scrambled from concussions that he became Magadan. As you say, the Twins… Read more »
halidonhill
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halidonhill

Great read. Thanks for writing it. Oddball skill sets are one of the things that make baseball so much fun.

Lanidrac
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Lanidrac
Matt Carpenter is just a coincidence. The same season that the Cardinals planned to move him to first base mostly full time just happened to be the same season they signed Dexter Fowler, a legitimate leadoff man in his own right, while Carpenter’s better power is more valuable in the third spot. Carpenter still spent quite a bit of time at both first base and leadoff last season during the times Fowler was either struggling or hurt, though. Anyway, I’m glad that most managers these days have at least finally realized that OBP is more important than stolen bases or… Read more »
Dominikk85
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Dominikk85
I think that breed was dead long before mauer. Mauer only is a 1b because he can’t catch anymore due to health. If Mauer wasn’t an established good hitter he wouldn’t have played first, bat first first basemen have been dead for like 25 years. I think if anything that is rolling back a little. 15 years ago it was corner players supply the homers and up the middle players make contact and run. Nowadays teams care about overall production and are not like “1b must hit 30 hr and 100 rbi” anymore. If mauer could still get to a… Read more »
Nick
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Nick

Kevin Youkilis?