Who’s the Best Canadian Born 1st Baseman of All-Time? Updated

Recently, during a random trip to my local library I came across a recent baseball book by Toronto Sun columnist Bob Elliot, titled The Northern Game. I checked it out and gave it a read. The main point of interest, for me at least, was actually in the appendix. Here, Elliot has identified Canadian Baseball experts from all over the nation and asked them to compile lists of the greatest provincial and national baseball players of all-time. Taking the honors at first base was a late 1800’s baseball player named Bill Phillips. Now I can’t tell you all that much about Phillips, other than he was born in St. John, New Brunswick, that he began his professional career at the age of 22 and that he played during some of the early tumultuous years in the history of professional baseball. Like most modern Canadian baseball fans, I quickly scanned my brain to come up with another choice. The most logical of choice would be Justin Morneau. Now, as we all know, Justin has had a very short major league career. But after shifting through the data, I came to the conclusion, that even if Morneau retired today, he should still be considered the number one Canadian first baseman of all-time. Here’s how I came to that conclusion:
First off, when modern day players with gaudy stats are mentioned against players of an earlier era, many will reply that overall batting statistics were far lower during this era. Is this true? Definitely. When this is the case than we need to delve further into the individual players statistics. Today, we are going to compare the two players in three different fashions, Win Shares, Defensive Range Factor, and Individual Performance against that of their peers.

Win Shares

Bill Phillips Career Win Shares

Year Win Share
1879 7
1880 10
1881 8
1882 10
1883 7
1884 8
1885 17
1886 18
1887 12
1888 9
Total 106

To be fair, the win shares system is drastically skewed towards pitching in the 1800’s, with the top ranked pitcher accumulating around 50 win shares per season on average. In today’s baseball climate of pitch counts and bullpen specialization the top pitcher usually ends up with about 25 win shares. That is why we are only using this as one of three decision criteria.
If you look closely Phillip’s top season was in 1886, with 18 win shares. Also note that outside of 1885 & 1886 that Phillips was essentially a 10 WS per season type player.

Justin Morneau Career Win Shares

Year Win Shares
2003 1
2004 10
2005 8
2006 27
Total 46

Morneau, at age 25 currently has 46 career win shares. Taking an extremely conservative approach, let’s assume that Morneau experiences a drastic decline in production and produces at a rate that is slightly above that of Ty Wiggington’s 2006 production (14 win shares), and assign him 15 win shares a season for the next four years. Well, in this drastic example, Morneau will tie Phillips in four seasons and overpass him by the time he’s 30. Now I, like many, do not predict such a drastic decline for Justin. In fact, the accepted baseball prime age begins at 27, so the best years for Morneau may in front of him. But either way, Morneau takes this round.

Defensive Range Factor

Strong defensive play from the first base position was certainly a greater part of 1800’s baseball than it is today, no question. We can’t dispute that. But we can look at range factor to determine how each player performed defensively against their peers. Below is a table that lists each player’s career range factor, the league average range factor during their playing years, and the overall performance against this average.

Player Career Range Factor League Average Range Factor Difference
Phillips 10.43 10.23 + 0.20
Morneau 9.19 7.99 + 1.05

As you can see, during Phillips playing time in the late 1800’s, first baseman had to field considerably more chances than today’s players. While his career number is higher, he only posted a range factor that 2% greater than league average. Conversely, Morneau’s range factor is 15% better than league average! In fact, Morneau’s career range factor differential (1.05) is similar to that of two highly regarded first baseman of the 1980’s, Keith Hernandez (1.22) & Don Mattingly (0.92). Morneau wins this round and goes up 2 0.
Performance Against Peers

Bill Phillips Adjusted Averages

Year Ag Tm  Lg  PA  Outs  RC  RC/27     BA *lgBA   OBP *lgOBP  SLG *lgSLG  OPS *lgOPS*
+--------------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----
1879 22 CLV NL  367  266   34  3.45      | .271  .259| .275  .274| .334  .335| .609  .609|
1880 23 CLV NL  340  249   33  3.58      | .254  .244| .268  .267| .365  .322| .633  .589|
1881 24 CLV NL  362  260   39  4.05      | .272  .259| .282  .289| .387  .339| .669  .628|
1882 25 CLV NL  342  248   36  3.92      | .260  .250| .275  .278| .388  .341| .663  .619|
1883 26 CLV NL  390  288   38  3.56      | .246  .267| .262  .294| .380  .368| .642  .662|
1884 27 CLV NL  482  336   56  4.50      | .276  .254| .303  .294| .401  .351| .704  .646|
1885 28 BRO AA  429  273   57  5.64      | .302  .252| .364  .298| .422  .339| .786  .637|
1886 29 BRO AA  619  425   67  4.26      | .274  .247| .313  .310| .369  .329| .682  .639|
1887 30 BRO AA  584  391   66  4.56      | .266  .281| .330  .345| .383  .379| .713  .725|
1888 31 KCC AA  543  389   45  3.12      | .236  .251| .284  .309| .320  .331| .604  .641|
+--------------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----
10 Seasons     4458 3125  471  4.07      | .266  .257| .299  .300| .374  .344| .673  .644|

Justin Morneau Adjusted Averages

Year Ag Tm  Lg  PA  Outs  RC  RC/27  BA *lgBA   OBP *lgOBP  SLG *lgSLG  OPS *lgOPS*
+--------------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----
2003 22 MIN AL  115   86   11  3.45      | .226  .270| .287  .337| .377  .432| .664  .769|
2004 23 MIN AL  312  210   51  6.56      | .271  .273| .340  .341| .536  .438| .876  .779|
2005 24 MIN AL  543  392   65  4.48      | .239  .269| .304  .332| .437  .427| .741  .759|
2006 25 MIN AL  661  426  125  7.92      | .321  .273| .375  .337| .559  .434| .934  .771|
+--------------+----+----+----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----+-----
4 Seasons      1631 1114  252  6.11      | .277  .271| .338  .336| .501  .432| .839  .769|

Note that league stats (indicated with *) have been adjusted for park and league effects. Below is a table comparing each player’s statistics against league averages during their respective careers.

Player BA OBA SLG OPS
Phillips .09 -.01 .30 .29
Morneau .06 .02 .69 .70

As you can see, Phillips had a career OPS that was 0.29 points greater than the league average. But Morneau’s career average is .70 points greater than league average. Remember, this includes Morneau’s poor 2005 campaign. This season his OPS was a staggering .163 points better than league average! Justin also receives this point, and wins shuts out Bill Phillips 3-0.

Well, Justin wins in every category. Now back to my statement that he show be crowned the number one first baseman of all-time, even if he retires today. I think that this can be proven on this basis. Simply put, Bill Phillips was an above average player during his playing career. Justin Morneau, on the other hand, has proven in two of his three major league season that he isn’t merely above average, he is exemplary! On top of this, Morneau is still two years short of his expected peak. Yes, all things considered, Justin Morneau should be considered the number one Canadian born first baseman of all-time.

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