First base defense doesn’t get a lot of credit. It seems easy enough — stand there and catch the throws from your teammates, and maybe field a grounder and then carry it a few feet to the base. You could never make a throw and still get your job done adequately, and no one would fault you.
Of course, there’s a lot more to any MLB position than that, even though first base is squarely on the easier and less valued end of the defensive spectrum. And even though the threshold is lower for entry, with slugging DH types usually able to at least hold their own there well enough to keep their bats in the lineup, a great defender can truly make an impact.
A’s fans already knew this, from the pickin’ machine of Scott Hatteberg to the quiet effectiveness of Fielding Bible winner Daric Barton. Most recently, we’ve spent parts of the last four seasons watching Matt Olson develop into the best 1B defender in the sport, winning the last two AL Gold Gloves and the last two Fielding Bible awards (including unanimously in 2019).
Oakland got to see the opposite effect on Friday against the last-place Giants. As the A’s tried to piece together four more runs for a miracle 9th-inning comeback, with a runner on first base and one out, they hit a grounder to first baseman Wilmer Flores. He fielded the ball cleanly and took a couple steps toward the bag, but then changed his mind, turned, and threw to second to force out the lead runner.
The indecision cost him. Shortstop Brandon Crawford, by no fault of his own, didn’t understand what had just happened. Thinking Flores had already touched first and eliminated the force, he took his own foot off second and tried to tag the runner. However, his tag was late, and everybody was safe. The next batter was hit by a pitch, and the next batter hit a grand slam to tie it. The A’s won in extras.
This isn’t meant to pick on Flores, who isn’t a regular first baseman. He’s a versatile super-sub, and while he does have over 1,000 career innings at the position, he has even more at each of second, shortstop, and third. This is his fourth-most frequent position, so it’s fair enough that he might make a mental mistake in a rapid moment — and his throw wasn’t even bad, as the runner would have been out if Crawford had stayed put for the force.
Rather, the point is just that a proper play by the first baseman in that situation could well have been the difference in a Giants win. Get an out on that routine chance, and Stephen Piscotty’s homer isn’t a grand slam and isn’t enough to tie it, or at least things would have gone differently than the version we saw that resulted in an A’s victory. Maybe the A’s still win, but the odds were at least 91% in the Giants’ favor even when the bases were loaded with one out.
Indeed, reactions on Twitter wondered why superior defender Brandon Belt hadn’t subbed in for Flores, and manager Gabe Kapler said he was trying to give Belt a rest after returning a bit sore from the team’s recent road trip. From Oakland’s perspective, you can picture how the play might have gone with Olson in there — he very likely would have delivered a 3-6-3 double play and ended the game on the spot.
We don’t have to use our imaginations, though, as Olson showed us how he can change a game on Opening Day this year. In the 10th inning, with the free runner on second base, he got a ground ball and fielded it. However, instead of taking the easy out at first, he threw across the diamond to third and nabbed the lead runner (with the help of a nice dig on the other end by 3B Matt Chapman). The next batter singled, which would have scored anybody from third had that runner not been eliminated already, with what would have been the go-ahead run. The A’s won in the bottom half of the frame (again thanks to Olson, this time with his bat).
That potentially game-saving play by Olson is one that few MLB first basemen would even attempt, and even fewer would successfully make. But it was just Friday for him. And exactly three weeks later, we saw what happens when a first baseman doesn’t make that throw in a clutch moment, or at least causes so much confusion that his good throw goes to waste.
Better first base defense last night could have sealed what seemed like a routine win for the Giants, and worse skills by Olson could have cost Oakland on Opening Day. Every tiny aspect of the sport matters at the major league level, even the easiest position on the field.