The Best Fielding First Basemen

Today, we’re looking at the best three-year peaks of defensive play by Giants at first base, as measured by’s rfield stat.  I explained my methodology here, and looked at the list of best catching peaks here.

The first base list is a two-man affair, as one Giant defensive star is succeeded by another in the 1920s:


Player Years 3-year Defensive Runs/150 3 Year Defensive Runs
Bill Terry 1933-35 9.8 27
Bill Terry 1932-34 9.2 26
Bill Terry 1930-32 8.5 26
Bill Terry 1934-36 10.2 24
Bill Terry 1931-33 8.5 24
Bill Terry 1929-31 7.6 23
George Kelly 1920-22 6.9 21
George Kelly 1921-23 5.4 16
George Kelly 1922-24 5.0 14
Bill Terry 1928-30 4.3 13


“High Pockets” Kelly (a native San Franciscan) had a reputation during his time as a fine defensive first baseman, with soft hands and a strong arm, and rfield bears this out.  In fact, his defense was his greatest asset as a player.  He led the National League in RBI twice and home runs another year, but hit only 148 home runs in his career.  His best average, .328, is hardly an impressive mark in the National League of the 1920s.  He never had 200 hits in a season.  He never drew 50 walks in a season, and he struck out quite a bit, once leading the league.  He was a good player, but to the stacked Giants of the twenties, he was never anything but one of the guys.  He was to them what Tony Perez was to the 1970s Reds or what Carl Furillo was to the Dodgers of the 1950s.

Bill Terry, widely known now for his hitting — he was the last National Leaguer to hit .400, with a .401 average in 1930 — also had a stellar defensive reputation amongst his peers and fans. Terry was quick, graceful, and had a much longer-than-average stretch. Fred Stein, in his book, Under Coogan’s Bluff, called Terry “a gazelle around the bag.” The New York Times, in a 1929 profile of Terry, noted that “few, if any, are as adept as he in playing [first base].” He was also a team leader, the man who would succeed McGraw in 1932 and lead the Giants to three pennants in his ten years as manager.

For a modern Giant fan, the absence of J.T. Snow from the list must seem striking.  Snow’s reputation for exceptional defensive play was a commonplace during his time with the Giants (after all, he won the Gold Glove at first each of his first four years in San Francisco) , but the rfield numbers don’t agree. J.T. Jordan does a very good job here of describing how the more modern defensive metrics rate Snow, and that none really see him as a plus defender. (Despite his ability to scoop bad throws, Snow’s big problem appears to have been his limited range.) So we are left with a bit of a quandry. Might it be that, despite a lot of improvement, the newer defensive metrics aren’t reliable? Or, as Jordan writes:

perhaps our perceptions of Snow have been clouded by the fact that he was so smooth in the field. Call it the “Derek Jeter Effect.” A player makes a bunch of diving plays not because he’s a tremendous fielder, but because he lacks the range to make a play that an otherwise average fielder would. They make it look much harder than it really is; but damn, they sure do it with style.


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