Twelve years ago, giant first basemen walked the earth. They walked because there was no need to run. That year, 2000, Jason Giambi, Carlos Delgado, and Frank Thomas hit 127 home runs, drove in 417, and -- most characteristically -- rumbled down to first on 372 times on free passes.
In those first years of the aughts, advanced hitting statistics reached maturity and ubiquity all at once, and the difference between the best hitters and the worst, the Jason Giambis with perfect pitch recognition and the overrated Rey Ordóñezes, looked insurmountably great. In 2000's Internet Baseball Awards, sabermetrics' highest Usenet-derived honor, Giambi outpolled for the MVP one shortstop with 41 home runs and another who'd hit .372.
The baseball of those years was played by giant first basemen: Giambi, Delgado, Thomas, Mark McGwire. They dictated the pace of the game by going deep into counts and they reset the things fans and coaches valued by striking out heedlessly and windmilling home runs at unfamiliar trajectories into cheaper and cheaper seats.
And 2000 was their last year as baseball's apex predator. The next year Giambi, coming off an even better season, lost the BBWAA's MVP Award to a slap-hitting Gold Glover who stole 56 bases, walked once every 25 times he strutted to the plate, and was listed, dubiously, at a leaping, throwing, diving 170 pounds.
Everything we've learned since has served to chip unassuming little pieces off the giant first basemen's apparent value. We adjusted for position; that's 15 runs off the top of Frank Thomas's big comeback year at DH. We adjusted for defense; that's nine runs gone for converted catcher Carlos Delgado, who'd moved to first base by default. We even calculated what they'd lost stomping over the basepaths -- seven more runs for Delgado, who ran like he'd been crouched behind the plate for 65 million years instead of five MLB innings.
Today, a manic focus on steroids and the thousand tiny leaks they'd sprung has shrunk the giants and brought the home runs they'd been hitting back into the familiar first deck. First basemen look, increasingly, like gimpier versions of their team's corner outfielders.
So why, 12 years after Jason Giambi made not swinging a bat into baseball's iconic image and began his descent into pinch-hitting anachronism, did one of the last and best of these sluggers just get a 12-year contract?
I don't know how much credit I'm willing to give him, but in 2010, when Ruben Amaro signed Ryan Howard to a five-year, $125 million contract two years in the future, he was anticipating a trend. Fewer players who look like Jason Giambi change hands now. The year before, Mark Teixeira, a converted third baseman whose skills around the bag send broadcasters into paeans to throw-scooping, had been the big signing at first base; he would lead the league in 2009 with 39 piddling home runs.
But Ryan Howard was parachuted into 2006 from the mid-'90s. He struck out 200 times a year, he hit doubles only by accident, and he finished his first full season with the Phillies just short of 60 home runs. He played first base because he was shaped like a first baseman.
In this first decade after Jason Giambi, baseball's superstars have fewer holes in their game than Ryan Howard and the megafauna he imitates; like his teammate, Chase Utley, or the reigning MVP, Ryan Braun, they can run the bases and field a position that requires lower-body movement, and they work from a broader base of offensive skills.
But while they were proliferating, Ryan Howard got rich; his long-awaited contract began a few weeks ago, and over the last six months the rest of the surviving sluggers have joined him. Prince Fielder, another throwback, got nine years and $214 million. Albert Pujols got 10 years and $254 million. But the most startling and interesting of these contracts is Joey Votto's, which has him set to earn $251 million over 12 seasons.
Albert Pujols is the best player in baseball, with a fine chance of shuffling out to a 15-minute ovation at the 2055 All-Star Game in Mexico City. Ryan Howard and Prince Fielder are, just 12 years after their moment, novelty stars -- like Ichiro in 2001, they're museum-quality pieces, though no chicks-dig-the-longball contingent has yet begun eulogizing that era like stolen-base fans remember the '80s. They're unlikely to pay for themselves as baseball players, given what we know now, but they perform all the slugger rituals: they drive in runs, strike out often, hit 450-foot home runs.
Votto is something else entirely. He's what would happen if one of those big sluggers had learned the same lessons the rest of baseball had, able to lead baseball in on-base percentage and slugging while running the bases and playing defense like someone who is not aware he could have signed with an American League team. But even he won't be worth what they're paying him by the end, barring wheelbarrows-of-Zimdollars-level hyperinflation, and as much as baseball's changed in the last 12 seasons it's hard to imagine how the position will look when he's 40.
Of course nobody signed one of these first basemen with the idea of efficiently purchasing WAR; what they'll really do is fight, futilely, against change. As we wonder already about another offensive decline, these one-note sluggers and their evolutionary descendants, circling the bases over unfamiliar terrain, are a half-sentimental hedge against it. Fans at Citizens Bank Park will have Ryan Howard to underrate when he strikes out and overrate otherwise, no matter what. Fans in Cincinnati can't know what baseball might look like in 2024, but Joey Votto will be at first base, trying to do what first basemen tried to do back in 2000: wear a pitcher out, hit the one good pitch very hard, and then jog.