If at first you must succeed
Defensive play at first base may be underrated by some, but not by managers
LOS ANGELES -- Bruce Bochy didn't just lose a left-handed hitter in his lineup when Brandon Belt fractured his left thumb Friday night on a Paul Maholm pitch at Dodger Stadium.
The Giants manager also lost one of the game's elite defenders at first base, a position viewed by some members of Bochy's fraternity as the most underrated on the diamond in terms of overall impact.
"Belt could be a Gold Glover," Bochy said Sunday as Joaquin Arias took over at first in what shapes up, in Belt's absence, as a tag-team arrangement with Michael Morse, Buster Posey and Hector Sanchez. "We think we have coverage there between Morse, Buster and Arias. We think we're going to be OK."
Bochy managed for 12 years in San Diego and is in his eighth season in San Francisco. A World Series champion with the Giants in 2010 and 2012, he has seen how a superior first baseman can elevate the play of an entire infield along with the mood of a pitching staff.
"I saw when we got Wally Joyner [with the 1996 Padres] what a difference a great first baseman can make," Bochy said, recalling how that team went from 70-74 to 91-71, winning the NL West. "Guys are comfortable getting rid of the ball, knowing he's going to handle it over there.
"There are so many things a first baseman is involved with defensively. He's working with pitchers on [timing] plays at the bag, handling pickoffs, bunts, making quick throws across the diamond.
"Physically, it's a demanding position, too. People don't realize you're getting up and down with every pitch, always moving around."
Dodgers manager Don Mattingly claimed nine American League Gold Glove Awards in 10 years as a Yankees superstar from 1985-94. His streak was interrupted in 1990 by the selection of Oakland's Mark McGwire, Mattingly's current hitting coach.
As great as Mattingly was with the glove, the consensus was he wasn't even the best in New York during his prime. That distinction belonged to Keith Hernandez, an 11-time National League Gold Glove Award winner with the Cardinals and Mets.
"I always kept an eye on Keith," Mattingly said. "I shouldn't say I measured myself against him, but I watched him. The National League obviously was different. They still bunted in the American League in those days, but not like in the National League. I'd see him make plays [on bunts] on the other side of the mound."
Hernandez became the model at the position, a commanding presence exerting an influence on the pitching staff with his vocal leadership in addition to the magic he performed with his glove. He played wide of the bag, stealing hits in the hole, and he charged bunts and unleashed perfect strikes to second and third to get lead runners.
Mattingly also was an aggressive first baseman, much like Hernandez. New York fans in the 1980s knew they were watching a pair of masters at the position.
"You have to want to throw, have confidence in your arm," Mattingly said. "You want to come in and make that throw to second or third. When you watched Mex, he really got after it."
In Adrian Gonzalez, a three-time Gold Glove Award winner, Mattingly has a first baseman with an aggressive, take-charge mentality reminiscent of his own.
Gonzalez is the latest in a long line of superb defensive first basemen employed by the Dodgers, following Gold Glove winners Gil Hodges, Wes Parker and Steve Garvey.
Among active players, only one first baseman -- Mark Teixeira of the Yankees -- has earned more Gold Glove Awards than Gonzalez.
While he's known primarily for the thunder in his bat from both sides of the plate, Teixeira has been a defender with few peers at first base from Texas to Atlanta to Anaheim to the Bronx.
Teixeira owns more Gold Gloves (five) than Silver Slugger Awards (three), saving perhaps as many runs as he has produced in generating 347 homers and collecting 1,128 RBIs over 12 seasons.
"I have five Gold Gloves, and I'm very proud of my defense in my career," Teixeira said. "Those Gold Gloves are really special, very cool to look at. I've got a lot of trophies, but when people come into my office at home, they're always struck by the Gold Gloves. I've kept three and given two away."
All-time leaders in Gold Gloves at first, behind Hernandez and Mattingly, are George Scott (eight), Vic Power and Bill White (seven each) and Parker and J.T. Snow (six apiece).
The Angels' Albert Pujols won two Gold Glove Awards with the Cardinals and is back in fine form after recovering from several inhibiting injuries. The reigning Gold Glovers at the position are Paul Goldschmidt of the D-backs and the Royals' Eric Hosmer.
Teixeira won consecutive Gold Gloves in 2005-06 with the Rangers and earned matching golden beauties in 2009, 2010 and 2012 with the Yankees.
"Two things about first base," Teixeira said. "Anyone can play it -- but it's a lot tougher to play it well. If you're going to play it well, you have to throw yourself into it. My knees took a little beating. You're always hopping back and forth in abrupt movements -- it's not a smooth position to play.
"It's much less demanding than catcher, shortstop or center field. If you go through the motions, you can play first base and not tax your body. But to do it well, there's more stress on your body than people realize."
During his Padres tenure, Bochy tried to make that point to media and fans late in the career of a future Hall of Famer.
"I went through that when I had Tony Gwynn," Bochy said. "Because of his [ailing] knees, they were saying, `Put him at first base.' They didn't realize you put a lot of stress on your knees there."
Bochy repeatedly has heard the refrain over the years about how first base is the logical refuge of the big-bodied slugger who can't move all that well.
"I think it goes back to Little League, really," Bochy said. "Just put the fat kid at first. I've been through that a lot."
The best first basemen aren't necessarily swift afoot. Neither Hernandez nor Mattingly was winning any sprints in the '80s, and Teixeira and Gonzalez never have been known for their speed. What they all have in common are instincts for the game, a feel for the position, exceptionally soft hands and an assertive makeup.
"Teams that win," Mattingly said, "almost always have a good first baseman."