In a chat last month, I was asked whether third base is the weakest position in baseball. The answer: not by total WARP produced in 2012, by a longshot. Of all the men playing in the field (that is, excluding DHs and pinch-hitters), third basemen produced the second-highest percentage of the league’s positional WARP:

C: 14 percent
1B: 7 percent
2B: 6 percent
3B: 15 percent
SS: 11 percent
LF: 12 percent
CF: 18 percent
RF: 12 percent
DH: 6 percent

Now, WARP includes positional adjustments, and positional adjustments (as I understand them) are debated and contain a bit of art as well as science. But if we trust that the positional adjustments are roughly accurate, we conclude that, as of 2012, third base is a strong position and second base is a weak position and center fielders are crazy good right now. What interests me most, though, is first base.

Because, looking back to 1990, third base has generally been strong and second base has generally been weak and center fielders have generally been crazy good. First base, though, has generally not been nearly as weak as it is now:

Year Percent of league WARP
1990 12.7%
1991 10.9%
1992 12.5%
1993 13.2%
1994 14.6%
1995 14.4%
1996 11.9%
1997 15.8%
1998 13.4%
1999 11.7%
2000 13.1%
2001 11.9%
2002 12.5%
2003 10.9%
2004 10.6%
2005 11.5%
2006 11.6%
2007 10.3%
2008 10.5%
2009 14.4%
2010 12.1%
2011 12.4%
2012 6.9%

First base has never been below 10 percent of league production. And just three years ago it was more than twice as productive, relative to the rest of the league, as it is now. What happened to first base? And does it matter?

Here's what happened to the 30 first basemen who produced so much more, as a group, three years ago:

The incumbents aging out of their primes
Albert Pujols
Ryan Howard
Adrian Gonzalez
Mark Teixeira
Justin Morneau
Adam LaRoche

Pujols was 29 in 2009 and produced 12.0 WARP, his best season. He was 32 in 2012 and produced 3.7 WARP. Players at every position are always going to be aging into and out of the primes, but this is a group of players who were really good at the time, and other than LaRoche all had their worst or second-worst seasons in 2012. As a cohort, they produced nearly six percent of all the positional WARP in baseball in 2009.

Players aging into their primes
Prince Fielder
James Loney
Joey Votto
Casey Kotchman

The flipside of the guys aging out of their primes severely, we see here the four players who moved into or through their 25-29 window and stayed at first base and got slightly worse. In 2009, these four produced 1.7 percent of the league’s WARP, and in 2012 produced 1.5 percent.

The still-post-peak post-peakers
Todd Helton
Carlos Pena
Paul Konerko

And the guys who were already old got older. They were collectively above average in 2009 and collectively replacement level in 2012.

So 13 out of the 30 regular first basemen in 2009 were still around in 2012. Cumulatively, they were roughly half as productive as they had been, producing 4.4 percent of the league’s positional WARP, compared to 8.5 percent in 2009.

That leaves 17 who are gone:

The DHs
Kendrys Morales
Billy Butler
Adam Dunn

Three above-average hitters—one, Morales, an MVP candidate—who were still full- or part-time first basemen in 2009. As a group, they had a .367 OBP and .526 slugging percentage while playing first base that year, and as a group they played just 99 games at the position in 2012.

The position changers
Miguel Cabrera
Victor Martinez
Lance Berkman
Chris Davis
Kevin Youkilis

The old retirees
Derrek Lee

The fades to oblivion
Hank Blalock
Ryan Garko
Nick Johnson
Jorge Cantu
Russell Branyan

The reduced roles
Lyle Overbay
Aubrey Huff
Travis Ishikawa

Those 17 have been replaced by 17 new full-time first basemen: 

Carlos Lee
Corey Hart
Edwin Encarnacion
Garrett Jones
Casey McGehee
Eric Hosmer
Justin Smoak
Mark Reynolds
Freddie Freeman
Yonder Alonso
Paul Goldschmidt
Ike Davis
Brandon Belt
Allen Craig
Anthony Rizzo
Mitch Moreland
Gaby Sanchez

In the new group of 17, only Hart, Encarnacion, Goldschmidt, Craig, Belt, Rizzo, Alonso, and Jones produced at least one win in 2012. So the math overall is fairly simple: Good players got worse or changed position, bad players disappeared, young players didn’t develop and the replacements were lousy. The lost production (compared to the peak 2009 season, and the more typical 2007 season) is mostly at the plate:

Year Baserunning runs Defensive runs Batting runs
2007 -70 8 480
2009 -60 20 697
2012 -84 -8 310

The future doesn't look great for first base. There was only one first baseman on Jason Parks’ top 101 this year, the Astros’ Jonathan Singleton.

Major-league first basemen, of course, are a little bit like major-league closers: Many of them aren't in that role when they’re 20, when there is still optimism that they can stick in a more valuable defensive role. Albert Pujols never appeared on a top 100 as a first baseman; Miguel Cabrera was a shortstop when he was showing up on these lists, Paul Konerko a catcher, Mark Teixeira a 3B. (For that matter, the 1B-turned-DHs Butler, Morales, and Dunn were all ranked as outfielders.) Miguel Sano, as a current example, is a third base prospect, but a big body who made 42 errors in 2012 and might not last at the spot. But even with those disclaimers, there’s no precedent for a one-1B top 100. Going back to 2000:

2012: Four first basemen on the top 100
2011: Six
2010: Seven
2009: Eleven
2008: Six
2007: Three
2006*: Six
2005: Seven
2004: Nine
2003: Eleven
2002: Seven
2001: Eight
2000: Five

These sort of cycles happen all over baseball in rhythms that suggest flukes. In the past decade, for instance, there have been 10 first basemen drafted in the first round, and six of those picks came in the same year, 2008. And what makes the 1B trend hard to explain is also what makes it, probably, insignificant: there’s nothing about standing at first base that is, relatively speaking, hard. It’s almost by definition impossible to have a shortage of first baseman. A more logical (and positive) way of stating it is to say that baseball has a surplus of players who can handle other positions. At best we might say there’s a shortage of impact hitters. Jason Parks' explanation to me for the lack of 1B prospects hits both of these ideas:

Power bats (power in general) have been harder to find in amateur ranks. More players are starting up the middle as well; more balance and less all-or-nothing mashers. Only a handful of prospects in the minors with 30+ HR potential. It's becoming harder to find.

It could also be that defensive strategies—extreme shifts and rising strikeout rates—might disproportionately affect the power-hitting lefties that tend to populate first base. Still, it’s not hard to concoct an alternate scenario where there would have been a respectable number of first basemen in 2012: If Ryan Braun had moved across the diamond as a young player instead of to left field; if the Dodgers had been sold a year earlier, signed Prince Fielder, and Miguel Cabrera had stayed at 1B; if Eric Hosmer had taken a step forward instead of a step back; if Albert Pujols had hit in 2012 like PECOTA expects him to hit in 2013; if Pablo Sandoval hadn’t somehow managed to stick at third base all these years; if a healthy Ryan Howard had hit like he did in 2010-2011; if Mark Trumbo or Kendrys Morales had been traded to a team in need after the Albert Pujols signing; and on and on.  

In the short term, PECOTA isn’t worried. Our depth charts and player projections see first base returning to a better-than-average position in 2013:

Position Average WARP per team
C 2
1B 2.4
2B 2.3
3B 2.2
SS 2.2
LF 2.5
CF 2.6
RF 2.4

*BP prospect rankings from 2007 to 2013. BA rankings in earlier years.

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I wonder how much of the 1B/3B divide is accounted for by just Miguel Cabrera being asked to stand on the other side of the diamond.
It's a 12.2 WARP swing. I don't know what the denominator is, though.
The interesting thing here is how many recent 1B prospects have flopped. Check out how the 11 1B prospects listed in the 2009 Top 100 list are doing - from Lars Anderson and Justin Smoak on down, it's ugly.