Monday, January 14, 2008

Noble First Basemen?

What could be more noble than sacrificing a chance on offense to move a runner over (and generally lowering your chances of scoring)? Well, it doesn't really impact your batting line so I guess it's not very noble after all. In any case, it's become more and more rare to see first basemen square around to bunt a runner over. Most of this is because first base has become the defensive position of an awkwardly-mobile slugging type on almost every team. I would guess the drop in sacrifices from the early twentieth century through today plays a role, too, though that drop isn't so dramatic if you look only after World War II.

For some initial visual fun, let's take a look at a chart of the number of full-time first basemen with one or more sacrifices during each season. Full-time in this case is defined to be players who appeared in 50 or more games during the season and who played first base in 80% or more of them. I hope to avoid the scrappy, utility player types by setting such stringent requirements. On to the picture!

(click to enlarge in a new window)

I think the spike in 1978 is pretty interesting, but overall there's a general downward trend as time goes on. In 2002, only two full-time first basemen had a sacrifice hit: Scott Spiezio (3 SH) of the Angels and Tino Martinez (1) of the Cardinals.

That's kind of a segue to look at sacrifice hits by first basemen as a whole. Prior to 1931, every full-time first baseman had at least one sacrifice hit each season: Dale Alexander in 1931 was the first one to go an entire season without sac bunting (successfully, at least). Consider that it took Lou Gehrig until 1934 to do the same thing.

A decent way to look at the amount of sacrifice hits by first basemen is to look at the sum of all the plate appearances by full-time first basemen divided by the sacrifice hits by all of them. The higher the rate, the less sacrifice hitting by first basemen in MLB. Here's the chart from 1901 to 2007:

(click to enlarge in a new window)

Obviously, sacrifice hitting has gone way down in recent years. The 1998 season especially stands out: in 16414 plate appearances, full-time first basemen had all of three sacrifice hits for a rate of 5471.3 PA/SH. The lowest rate since 1901 was 1909's 27.7 PA/SH when first basemen had 297 SH in 8217 PA.

Just so it's possible to see the variations in the early part of the 20th century a little better, I've shortened the chart to show only 1901-1997.

(click to enlarge in a new window)

That shows the variations in years prior to 1998 a lot better. Even considering the lack of home runs in the deadball era, it's interesting how it took ten years for managers to stop giving their first basemen the bunt sign (at least as often as before).

EDIT (1/15): Fixed a few grammatical errors and made sure clicking on the images actually opened them in a new window rather than the current one. Also, a thank you goes out to Midwest Diamond Report for linking!

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