All Phillies…All the Time — Who’s on First?
The Phillies have had several outstanding first basemen over the years… it’s just that very few of them, for various reasons, bothered to hang around for very long. Most notable among this group are Jim Thome (three years), Dolph Camilli (four years), Dick Allen (three years at first), Von Hayes (ditto, three years primarily at first), Deron Johnson (the same), Bill White (also three yearsâ€¦ are we seeing a pattern here?) and Willie Montanez (ditto again… you were expecting maybe Rico Brogna or Travis Lee?) And, they had a couple more noted names at first, except these guys weren’t really that good in Philadelphia.
We’re speaking of Pete Rose (despite his big years in 1979 and 1981, his OPS+ in Philadelphia was just 101) and Eddie Waitkus (despite his notoriety, and playing first for the Whiz Kids, his OPS+ was 91). Going further back in time, Kitty Bransfield and Sid Farrar really werenâ€™t very good (although Sid had a daughter who was really something), and Roger Connor and Dan Brouthers, though superstars, each played only one year in Philadelphia.
So, herein under consideration for the title the Greatest First Baseman in Phillies History, there are just four candidates… two pretty good hitters, and two outstanding hitters. Not to give the good hitters the brush off, but, Fred Luderus (115 OPS+), the first baseman on the 1915 World Series Phillies, and Don Hurst (119 OPS+), the first baseman on some of the best-hitting, worst-pitching teams in NL history, just don’t stand up to John Kruk and Ryan Howard. Does that sound like a mismatch? Well, it’s not. In fact, it’s not even a particularly easy decision, mainly because they’re much different players. Their numbers with the Phillies…
So what do these figures tell us? That Kruk was a high average, plate discipline, on-base monster, and Howard is one of the foremost power hitters of his era. Considering that first base is a power position, it seems remarkable after the fact that Kruk played 504 games at first for the Phillies (along with 246 games in the outfield). Still, while he may not have been the classic slugger at first, Kruk was a very valuable offensive player (he was just about league average as a fielder), in that it seemed as if he was on base almost constantly. This was never more true than in 1993, when his OBP peaked at .430 (second in the NL) and he was part of a quartet of on-base machines (Kruk, Dykstra, Daulton and Hollins) that drove the Phillies offense to the National League title.
Kruk played parts of six seasons with the Phillies. However, due to his mid-season 1989 trade from the Padres, plus illness and the strike in 1994, he only played the equivalent of about five full seasons in Philadelphia. His stats show that he wasn’t that much of power guy (he averaged less than 50 extra base hits a year, even if you go on the basis of five years instead of six), but he was a major factor as an on-base, run scoring machine. Now, while an average of 80 runs scored and 80 walks per season may not seem that great (he also averaged 80 RBIs on a five-season basis, and 80 in all three of those stats was pretty good), he was playing largely before the Steroid Era, and his yearly OPS+ figures for the Phillies were; 146, 126, 139, 150, 144, 114. The final piece of Kruk’s resume is his performance in the 1993 postseason, a .298/.431/.468 slash line in 12 games that included 14 hits, 11 walks, nine RBIs and eight runs scored.
Ryan Howard though, is a different type of player, not just the classic first base slugger but, thus far over the course of his Phillies career, the epitome of the first base slugger. The Big Piece, as Charlie Manuel calls him, has led the National League in home runs twice, in RBIs three times, and in total bases once. He has, in fact, hit almost as many home runs in one year (58) as Kruk did in his entire Phillies career. He may strike out too much, but he’s a force to be feared at the plate. Still, the difference in the offensive eras does bring them quite close together in terms of their offensive impact, although Howard does have a slight lead in both OPS+ (140 – 138) and WAR (20.9 – 19.7). And, in a “how about that” coincidence, their slash lines in the post season total out exactly the same; an outstanding .899 OPS. Don’t believe it? Howard’s post season slash line for four seasons and 41 games is .278/.382/.517 (which means Kruk’s line is a little more valuable, again because offense was harder to come by in 1993).
The final piece of the statistical puzzle is fielding. While Kruk was generally considered to be a pretty good first baseman, and Howard is generally considered to be a poor first baseman (largely due to throwing difficulties), the numbers say otherwise. Kruk was essentially a league-neutral, replacement-level first baseman. Howard, on the other hand, has, at this moment, a defensive WAR of 1.4, in effect meaning he’s a better fielder at first than Kruk was! It’s not much of a difference, but, as in hitting, there’s a slight advantage to Howard.
In terms of the stats, including his longer career with the Phillies and his additional experience in the post season, Howard has a slight advantage across the board. It’s still a tough call, until you take one other factor into consideration. It’s the factor that leads Manuel to call him The Big Piece. Ryan Howard is indeed a Big Piece of the Phillies offense, as recognized by his five consecutive finishes in the top 10 of the National League MVP voting. Kruk was a fine hitter, but he was a complimentary piece to the Phillies offense in the early 90s. Howard is The Big Piece, and the Greatest First Baseman in Phillies History.