After trading away Adrian Gonzalez last August and losing James Loney through free agency over the winter, the Boston Red Sox now find themselves set to start the 2013 season with uncertainty at the first base position.
Slugger Mike Napoli was signed during the off-season to help the offense as a part-time catcher, but a hip injury has forced the Red Sox to instead make him their full-time first baseman. Napoli’s career OPS of 1.107 at Fenway Park makes him a perfect fit in Boston, but the talk of the town right now seems to be whether or not Napoli can make a smooth transition to a new position. But really, all this talk is, as they say, just a bunch of nonsense to sell newspapers.
Recently I’ve seen entire columns dedicated to Napoli’s position change. It’s silly. I’ve seen editorials that document the veteran’s every move as he learns the intricacies of playing first. Every ground ball fielded is under the proverbial microscope, and every route Napoli takes to cover the bag is under close observation. All I can think when I see these things is “what the heck is the big deal?”
Red Sox fans and writers seem to have short memories—or maybe just selective memories. Remember the 1986 World Series? Of course you do. There’s no need to rehash the entire Bill Buckner debacle in game six, but the lesson to take away from that series is an invaluable one. Buckner was playing first base late in the game when he made that infamous error that we’ve all seen time and time again replayed on highlight films. Manager John McNamara would later say that he went against his better judgment and left the aging veteran in the game rather than put Dave Stapleton in as a defensive replacement because he wanted Buckner on the field when the team won the World Series. We all know how that turned out. Stapleton had been used as a late-inning replacement all season long for Buckner, who had two bad knees, very little speed, and a 37-year-old arm. Buckner was not a great defensive first baseman (he made 14 errors in ’86), but it was a non-issue for a team that won 95 regular season games.
When the Sox won the World Series 18 years later, they took the same approach. Kevin Millar and David McCarty were the regular first basemen, and they combined for nine errors and a whole lot of bad footwork around the bag. Doug Mientkiewicz was brought on late in the year to provide the team with a strong defensive replacement. He was the one on the field for the final out when the Red Sox beat the St. Louis Cardinals in that 2004 Fall Classic.
In 2007, the Red Sox again won the World Series. This time, the philosophy used at the first base position came from the complete opposite end of the spectrum. Converted third baseman Kevin Youkilis won a Gold Glove at the not-so-hot corner that year and set a MLB record for most consecutive games without an error, ending the season with a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage at first.
Former Red Sox first baseman Mo Vaughn led the league in errors at the position in seven different seasons during his career. He also had six seasons with 30 or more home runs and eight seasons with an OPS better than 0.850. It was the latter two stats, in spite of his defense, that convinced his managers to keep sending him out there.
The evidence continues to pile up even outside the confines of Fenway Park. The last American League team to win the World Series was the New York Yankees in 2009. Mark Teixeira manned first for the Yankees, and he was one of the better defensive first baseman in the league at the time, committing just four errors all year. Last season, though, the Detroit Tigers went to the Series with very mediocre defense at first—Prince Fielder (11 errors). And by the way, Napoli himself played 35 games at first for the 2011 Texas Rangers—a team that won 96 games and also made it to the World Series. So in the larger scheme of things, does first base defense really matter all that much?
Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane has made millions of dollars implementing the idea that defense is secondary when it comes to the first base position. The entire Scott Hatteberg situation in “Money Ball” is actually very similar to what the Red Sox are currently experiencing with Napoli. Hatteberg, too, was a former catcher being made to play first in an effort to get his bat into the lineup. The result in Oakland was two playoff appearances in the four years that Hatteberg, a supposed poor defender, was the first baseman.
Napoli’s played 133 games in his career at first base. To me, this is a very telling statistic. Panic promoters are quick to point out that these games are almost irrelevant experience-wise because Napoli was just thrown into the mix at first and given very little instruction. But that fact just further emphasizes my argument. Napoli’s former teams obviously felt that first base was easy—or insignificant—enough to be played by anyone. It wasn’t like they were asking Napoli to play shortstop or second base.
These are professional athletes we’re talking about here. Guys like Napoli have been playing baseball since they were five years old. They know how to play the field. They know how to scoop up a ground ball and catch a throw from across the diamond. All this talk about Napoli’s transition to first base is silly and the implied impact that it might have on the team has been exaggerated beyond belief. He’ll do fine. And if he makes a dozen errors along the way, it won’t matter. History proves that. Late in games, the Red Sox will use a defensive replacement—either Mike Carp or Lyle Overbay.
The big question that everyone should be asking about Napoli is whether or not he can endure a full season with that injured hip and whether or not he can continue the offensive success he’s had in the past at Fenway Park. That’s my only concern. When it comes to first base, offense is what really matters. For first basemen, offense is everything. Just ask Mo Vaughn.
(JM Catellier is the author of the book Fixing Baseball, a guide to restructuring the Hall of Fame. Follow him on Twitter: @FixingBaseball and Facebook, and check out his site: www.fixingbaseball.com)