On Tuesday night, the National League’s starting All Star third baseman injured himself playing first base. That’s right, Pablo Sandoval did a split stretching for a putout at first on the back end of a spectacular double play started by Ryan Theriot.
Hopefully, the injury is not severe and Sandoval will miss only a couple of games. But what was he doing at first base?
The Giants have been platooning at first lately as they try to figure out what to do about Brandon Belt. In the space of a year and a half Belt has gone from prospect to suspect. If Belt played some other position, the Giants might be willing to look past his anemic .229 average, 4 home runs, and 31 RBI. But conventional wisdom says they have to get more out of first base. Things aren’t much better across the Bay as the Oakland Athletics continue their six-year search for a first baseman who can hit for power.
First base has been a power position since at least the end of the dead ball era. Jimmie Foxx, Lou Gehrig and Willie McCovey played first base. ‘Nuff said. Before the introduction of the designated hitter, first base was also where an aging star would go when he lacked the mobility to continue playing his regular position. I remember watching Mickey Mantle play first base in 1967 and 1968. He and the Yankees extended his career for two years when his knees just weren’t up to playing the outfield any more.
That tradition lives on in the National League where, with the exception of away games during interleague play, there is mercifully no DH. The New York Mets gave Mike Piazza playing time at first base to lengthen his stay in the National League. This year, the San Francisco Giants, worried about the wear and tear of catching, have given Buster Posey 16 starts at first base. These guys – Mantle, Piazza, Posey – could or can hit. The same can be said for the premier first basemen who are regulars around the league: Prince Fielder, Joey Votto, Paul Konerko, Mark Teixeira, Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Ryan Howard – the list is pretty impressive. Teams that don’t have a stalwart at first who can produce the big power numbers are constantly looking for one. They platoon, they trade, they call up their AAA guys, they do what they can. That process has not gone well for either the A’s or the Giants for the past few years.
Since 2006, the A’s have used Dan Johnson, Daric Barton, Tommy Everidge, Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, Conor Jackson, Kila Ka’aihue, and Brandon Moss trying to find someone who fits the bill of first base power hitter. Both Dan Johnson and Daric Barton were given plenty of time to prove themselves at the big league level due to their impressive minor league performances. But for some reason their AAA numbers didn’t carry over when they came up to the bigs. Not even close.
Dan Johnson hit .324 in 2005 over 47 games for the Sacramento Rivercats, Oakland’s AAA team. He was called up and hit a respectable .275 that year in 109 games for the A’s; his future seemed bright. However, in 2006, Johnson hit .234 for the A’s in 91 games. He was sent back down to AAA where he hit .314 in 46 games. Oakland stuck with him for much of the next year, but Johnson hit only .236 in 117 games in 2007. The A’s waived him at the beginning of the 2008 season. After all, they had Daric Barton to replace him at first base. Barton hit .293 for the Rivercats in 2007. He came up to Oakland at the end of that season and hit .347 with 4 home runs and 8 RBI in just 18 games. So, naturally, he was tapped to be the A’s starting first baseman for 2008 when Johnson was waived. But Barton tanked. He hit only .228 in 140 games in 2008. His career big league 162-game average numbers are less than impressive: .249 batting average; 9 home runs, 55 RBI. Barton’s back in Sacramento these days. While Chris Carter has shown some promise after being called up this year – .275 batting average, 5 home runs, 9 RBI in ten games – the search for a bona fide, power hitting first baseman continues in Oakland.
The Giants have experienced similar difficulties. From 2006 to date, Brandon Belt, Brett Pill, Aubrey Huff, Pablo Sandoval, Travis Ishikawa, Ryan Garko, John Bowker, Ryan Klesko, Lance Niekro, and Daniel Ortmeier have all seen significant playing time at first base. In 2010, Belt hit .352 with 23 home runs and 113 RBI in 136 minor league games. That performance, combined with a solid spring training in 2011, earned him a spot on the big league club at the beginning of last year. It looked as if the Giants’ search for the prototype first baseman was over. But in 63 games with the Giants in 2011, Belt hit just .225 with 9 home runs and 18 RBI in 183 at bats. Those numbers landed him back in the minors where he hit .320 with 8 home runs and 37 RBI in 178 at bats for the rest of 2011. Belt made the big league club out of spring training again this year, but his performance so far has been disappointing at best. In 218 at bats over 84 games, he’s hitting just .229 with 4 home runs and 31 RBI. As with Oakland’s prospects, the minor league numbers for Brandon Belt have not translated into success at the big league level.
The A’s continue to give Chris Carter a look at first base, but he’s not a lock by any means. And the Giants seem to be losing patience with Brandon Belt. The fact that they have lost, at least temporarily, their All Star third baseman as they fill in for a struggling Belt can’t sit well with the team or their fans. The search for a legitimate, power hitting first baseman on both sides of the Bay goes on.
Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com