Who's on first? Well, besides a person who goes by the name "Who", the man on first is usually a big, burly home run hitter who puts men of lesser power to shame. While many athletes have manned first base in their careers, only nine have been voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Baseball Writers Association of America with the required 75% of votes needed. Technically, the list only includes eight men, because the BBWAA waived the waiting period for Lou Gehrig when he was forced to retire due to illness, instead just electing him to the Hall of Fame without a vote. It is hard to argue that Gehrig is not the greatest first baseman of all time though, so it would be a bit stupid to not assume he would've received far more than the required 75% of votes if history had played out that way.
A look back at the careers of these nine Hall of Fame first basemen reveals some amazing seasons and overall numbers. Over the course of nine careers and 143 seasons of baseball, the men averaged a 5.12 WAR season. These numbers come to rest at 5.12, buoyed up by the group of Gehrig, Jimmy Foxx, and Hank Greenberg; while dragged down some by the career numbers of Bill Terry, Harmon Killebrew, Tony Perez, Eddie Murray, George Sisler, and Willie McCovey.
The first group of men averaged a staggering 7.47 WAR a season during their combined forty one years in the majors. The other six Hall of Fame first basemen averaged a low in comparison 4.16 WAR season during their one hundred and two seasons combined. The high end of the spectrum is Gehrig, who averaged 8.99 WAR a season during his fourteen year career. A truly remarkable career for the Iron Horse. Sitting at the low end of the spectrum is Tony Perez, who averaged just 3.57 WAR over his nineteen seasons. It seems the voters had it right the first eight times they failed to vote Perez a Hall of Famer, but for some reason the voters decided he was a Hall of Famer the ninth time around. Funny how that works. Perez's induction can only help the cases of future Hall of Fame hopefuls at first base.
Aside from WAR, the nine men combined to hit 299/384/492 with the average wOBA being 408. Same as with WAR, Gehrig tops the list when it comes to wOBA at 474, while Perez is at the bottom with a 356 lifetime wOBA. Four of the men (Foxx, Murray, Killebrew, McCovey) hit 500 home runs, and Gehrig, at 493, likely would have if health had not ended his career prematurely. Only one of the nine, Murray, reached the 3000 hit club.
So that gives a basic rundown of what a Hall of Fame career for a first baseman looks like, what recently retired or current players have a shot at Cooperstown. Are there any dark horse candidates?
Frank Thomas- The resume of Thomas makes this pretty much a no brainer. Possibly the most feared hitter of the 1990s, The Big Hurt was a 301/419/555 (416 wOBA) hitter for his career and became a member of the 500 home run club late in his career. During the 90s, Thomas averaged 7.44 WAR for every 162 games played. In the strike shortened 1994 season alone, Thomas amassed 7.3 WAR in just 113 games. For his career, Thomas averaged 4.48 WAR season, well in the range for a Hall of Famer at the position. Thomas declined sharply after his 2000 season, but his peak is enough to carry him into Cooperstown.
Chances: Will not be first ballot, but he should get in, and it would be the right decision.
Jeff Bagwell- Larry Andersen was really worth it, wasn't he Boston? The prospect once traded for a middle reliever during a pennant race, Bagwell put together a career in Houston that could land him in Cooperstown. A very durable player throughout his career, and a good fielder to boot, Bagwell averaged a 5.99 WAR season during his fourteen year career. That alone puts him in the upper echelon of first basemen, as that number only trails Gehrig, Foxx, and Greenberg. Over a nine year stretch from 1993-2001, Bagwell averaged 6.78 WAR. Unfortunately, Bagwell only received 41.7% of the vote on his first knock at Cooperstown, so there is some resistance to his entry. Hopefully this is just more stubborness from the same BBWAA that has never given a single player 100% of the vote.
Chances: Seems obvious, but that first try is disheartening.
Fred McGriff- The Crime Dog has a pretty good case, aided by the fact that Tony Perez is in the Hall of Fame. McGriff is equal or better than Perez in every statistic except for career WAR, but Perez played two more seasons than McGriff. For his career, McGriff averaged a 3.58 WAR season and 4.02 WAR for every 162 games. A career line of 284/377/509 (382 wOBA) puts him on equal footing in OPS, and a lifetime 134 wRC+ puts him above three already enshrined and the two most recent additions to Cooperstown (Perez, Murray). What McGriff did not get was 500 home runs, falling just seven short like Gehrig. If history had played out differently, and the Braves won more than one title in the mid 1990s, McGriff would likely be looking towards Cooperstown. Life isn't a fairy tale though.
Chances: A stellar career that likely does not have enough juice.
John Olerud- If only you'd had more power Olerud, you could've been a contender! In his first go round at Cooperstown, Olerud only received four votes, it just won't be happening. The guy had a great career, better than Tony Perez. On a small tangent, the fact that Olerud did not win the 1993 AL MVP is a sad chapter in baseball history. That season, Olerud hit 363/473/599 (453 wOBA, 179 wRC+) and had 8.4 WAR. The man who won, unanimously no less, Frank Thomas hit 317/426/607 (434 wOBA, 171 wRC+) and had 6.7 WAR. I guess it isn't just chicks who dig the long ball. If it is any consolation, I respect you John Olerud.
Chances: I propse a OccupyCooperstown in support of his candidacy, who's coming? Fine, I'll go myself.
Albert Pujols- Have you heard of this guy? Pujols has put together the finest career for a first baseman since Hank Greenberg roamed Briggs Stadium in Detroit. Still just 31, supposedly, he already has 87.8 WAR for his career, averaging 7.98 a season. Pujols also sports a cartoon like career hitting line of 328/420/617 (430 wOBA, 167 wRC+). The only question for Pujols, is what will the numbers look like when he retires?
Chances: Unless something wild happens, he will be a first ballot guy.
Todd Helton- Peyton Manning's backup should make for an interesting case when the time comes. At first glance, you would probably think no way when it comes to Helton, but you have to look closer compared to history. At 4.38 WAR a season, Helton is above the bottom threshold of 4.17 for Hall of Fame first baseman. With a career line of 323/421/550 (411 wOBA, 135 wRC+), Helton again is above the averages for Hall of Famers in all statistics. What will likely hurt Helton is this though: he played half his games in Colorado, he won't reach 500 home runs, and he won't reach 3000 hits.
Chances: Statistics are there, but it is unlikely to happen.
Jim Thome- Honestly, I do not really like Thome as a candidate. He's in the same boat as Willie McCovey, a candidate because of home runs. Their stats are eerily similar, McCovey averaged 3.98 WAR a season, Thome 3.97. They both also belong to the 500 home run club, and in Thome's case, the 600 home run club. All around, Thome's hitting numbers are in line with guys already in the Hall of Fame, but Thome just doesn't seem valuable enough of a player to go to Cooperstown. For his career, Thome has now played 35.8% of the time as a DH, how does that work into the equation? Even his best three year stretch from 1995 to 1997 only resulted in a 6.5 WAR season average. He was consistently dominant in power, not in value. Is that enough?
Chances: 604 will get him in, but he should have to wait awhile.
Miguel Cabrera- While not on par with Pujols, Cabrera is putting together an impressive career. Still just 28, Cabrera already has 277 home runs to go along with 1597 hits. He needs about eight more seasons around 170 to get to the coveted 3000 hit club. For his career, Cabrera has averaged a 4.86 WAR season and hit 317/395/555 (399 wOBA, 146 wRC+), and appears to be entering his peak so the numbers will climb some in the near future. Due to off the field struggles, it seems Cabrera is almost shunned by the media, so he will likely need to make it a slam dunk case.
Chances: Everything looks good, just a matter of consistency during the next decade.