In 2013, there are only a few everyday first basemen in Major League Baseball that we think of as being "quintessential" first basemen. Fewer than any era in quite some time. I'm not the first person to point this out. People much smarter than me have written on the subject. They've even used things like "stats" and "historical data." Jerks like the supremely talented Sam Miller at Baseball Prospectus and our own Steven Goldman have pointed out the dwindling WAR and power numbers associated with the saddening decline of the first baseman. So read those articles, because they're good.
First of all -- if you're not familiar with the observation in question -- let me take a step back and explain what I'm talking about here. In the 1980s and 1990s -- the era in which, demographically speaking, you likely developed your fascination with baseball, or were first exposed to it -- there was a type of first baseman that nearly every team had. There was a nearly-unanimous idea of what a first baseman DID, what one looked like and what you expected from your team when they fielded someone at the ... well, that's weird. There's no slang term for first base. Third base has "the hot corner." Home plate is "the dish." Second base is "the keystone." Let's get going on some snappy terms for first base, everyone!
Back on track here: if you watched baseball in the 1980s, 1990s and into the 2000s, you expected that a first baseman would be largely limited defensively, would be lacking in speed, but would put up monster offensive numbers. Generally, these offensive numbers were power-based. Mark McGwire, Kent Hrbek, Eddie Murray, Fred McGriff, Andres Galarraga, Steve Garvey, Davises both Glenn and Alvin, Will Clark, Keith Hernandez. The 1980s were lousy with these dudes. Even when someone didn't blow you away with their raw power numbers, they were Wally Joyner. As Goldman points out, the first baseman arms race was so even that the differences came down to the other positions. Well hell, EVERYONE has a horrifying cave troll at first base, so anyone with an above-average shortstop is going to clean up!
And at the tail-end of the 1980s, we got the mother lode of prototypical first basemen. In 1989, the draft contained Jim Thome, Frank Thomas, Jeff Bagwell, Mo Vaughn and John Olerud. All of them. All at once. So the golden age of the dinger-slingin' first baseman continued on for another decade.
As the 2000s commenced, however, monsters like Albert Pujols and Richie Sexson and Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira began to be the exception, rather than the rule. The power moved to the outfield and high-contact, reliable-glove guys like J.T. Snow started to crop up on your favorite team. The phrase "not a typical first baseman" would come up more and more often, while the guys who WERE typical first basemen were ... Carlos Lee.
So you'd watch your favorite team and wonder where the heck all the first basemen went. And every so often, a guy would hove into your field of vision and son of a gun if he didn't look EXACTLY like what your brain conjures up when you think "first baseman." Guys like Damon Minor and Erubiel Durazo. And you'd get all excited and rub your hands together like you're a prospector who just found a silver vein. But then those guys would flame out in short order and you'd once again be stuck wondering where the heck all the first basemen went. Heck, even the most first-baseman-looking players of the last five or 10 years, guys like Jack Cust and Seth Smith and Wily Mo Pena, aren't even first basemen! What is happening?
And now here we are, with fans of teams wringing their hands over Justin Smoak and James Loney and Mike Carp and Yonder Alonso and Brandon Belt and wondering where the heck THEIR Paul Goldschmidt is and combing over scouting reports of prospects that they hear "don't look like typical first baseman."
Heck, even Joey Votto -- the best first baseman in baseball -- doesn't look like a typical first baseman. Dude gets on base too much. Doesn't strike out enough. Is possibly a cyborg pre-loaded with an algorithm that approximates the theoretical ideal of a baseball player.
So where did the typical first baseman go? I offer three potential explanations.
1. The Steroid Era ended
In the 1980s and 1990s, the largest knock on baseball players (at least where VH-1 Stand-up Spotlight was concerned) was that a good number of them didn't look like athletes. A Google image search for "John Kruk" lends a lot of credibility to this jab. McGwire was a literal ogre; Will Clark was a really pissed-off guy with a potbelly. From the 1980s to the 1990s, it was okay to be a big fat guy who could mash some dang taters. Then guys started lifting weights. Ahem.
After the era of Fat Guy Outta Control, you got the era of Look At All Them Muscles. And then that went away, too. Ahem. Now you've got an era of guys of body types and abilities that are all over the place. Some of them sure look like first basemen, but prefer to play third base or outfield or catcher. Some of them hit like shortstops but have the range of a stove, but if you've already got a power-hitting shortstop, go ahead and stick them at first base. What can it hurt?
The irony is that the alleged end of The Steroid Era (ahem) has brought with it a type of on-field parity. Without human-thumb-looking dudes clogging up different areas of the diamond or weighing down first base with the indispensability of their offensive contributions, you can afford to put your contributors where they make sense and where they fit, as opposed to where you can suffer them. Before, if a player could wallop 50 round-trippers a year but his legs didn't bend in the middle, you could hide him at first base. Nowadays, Mike Trout exists. Neat!
2. The first basemen will return
The universe is cyclical. I'm surprised you didn't know that. In the 1920s and 1930s, Lou Gehrig was more exception than rule. In the 1960s and 1970s, when Bob Gibson was throwing a no-hitter every three days, Willie Stargell was literally the only person who could hit a home run. Look it up. In baseball history, sometimes there were no first basemen that could hit, but sometimes ONLY first basemen could hit. It's just one of those things. We're at a lull, but at some point the first basemen we know and love will return. Their last names will probably all be "Kruk."
3. The "prototypical first baseman" never actually existed
My first point, about the necessity of offensive output combined with the need to minimize their defensive liabilities is, I feel, fairly valid. Except in our current era, it goes both ways. Catchers spend time at first base when they need a day of half-rest, sure, but that's more a testament to the potency of those other position players than an indictment of of the first base position. On the other hand, think about Mark Trumbo. That guy is a dyed-in-the-wool first baseman. His nickname is "Longball" for crying out loud.* When Albert Pujols came to town, Trumbo moved to the outfield. It wasn't the end of the world. Now he lives there every day and he rarely falls into a well, if ever.
During interleague games (particularly the past few World Series), managers seem endlessly more comfortable trying to hide their designated hitters in the outfield when they have to find a way to get their bats into the lineup. Late-career Vladimir Guerrero and entire-career Delmon Young probably would have been better served at first base, but that's not the way the game is played any more.
There will always be a few dreamy, power-hitting clankmitts at first base at any given time. There always have been. But with the exception of that nearly two-decade-long mirage in the 1980s and 1990s, it was typically a much more varied and nuanced position, and now it is once again. That's okay. It may be a very, very long time before your favorite team develops or signs or trades for someone who matches up with your mind's-eye image of a first baseman. In the meantime, try to enjoy first basemen for what they're currently bringing to the table, rather than what you feel they aren't. Don't be seduced by a supposed "power bat" lumbering first baseman your team could have for a song. Because odds are he's Carlos Lee. And he's standing behind you right now.
*Note: I may have invented this nickname. But I want it to be real and I think that counts for something.