Top Ten First Basemen

Continuing with my top ten lists for each position, it’s time to look at the top ten first basemen. This is an interesting list, as the first four are superstars in their own tier, while it’s unclear how the other six will fare this year. I was very close to putting Justin Smoak of the Blue Jays on this list, but his high strikeout rate and decrease in hard contact rate caused him to barely miss the list. I definitely wouldn’t be surprised if he challenged for a spot on this list next year, but I’m confident in the players on my list.

#10 Jose Abreu, Chicago White Sox

jose abreu
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Projected Stats: .283/.338/.500 (.838 OPS) 26 HR -2 drs 3 WAR

At #10 on this list is a familiar name, Jose Abreu. The 32-year-old cuban broke out in his 2014 rookie season, as he posted a .964 OPS, won the rookie of the year, and finished fourth in MVP voting. He followed that season up with three straight seasons with at least an .820 OPS, including a .906 OPS in 2017. Unfortunately, Abreu regressed to a .798 OPS and a 1.7 WAR. Yet, there’s definitely reason to be optimistic heading into this season. For starters, Abreu’s OPS of .922 was .200 points higher than it was in the first half. He also posted a solid 37.9% hard contact rate, yet his batting average balls in play dropped (BABIP) to .294. His line drive rate was also slightly up, as did his walk rate. Offensively, I’m not concerned about Abreu. What keeps him from jumping the next player on my list is his below average defense. Abreu has posted a career negative 18 runs saved (drs), including -4 last year. He’s also already 32-years-old, so it’s also likely he’s already hit his peak, unlike others on this list. Abreu is still a very quality player who will be an excellent contributor to the White Sox this season, but a down season bumps him down to the bottom of this list.

#9 Brandon Belt, San Francisco Giants

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Projected Stats: .249/.351/.450 (.801 OPS) 17 HR 13 drs 2.9 WAR

Ranked number nine is one of the most frustrating players to project in the MLB, Brandon Belt. The 30-year-old seems like a breakout candidate every single season, as his raw power combined with some hot streaks have given him more validation in these types of lists than he may deserve. It was the same story this season. Belt jumped out to a .862 OPS in the first half, but dealt with injuries in the second half and dropped his final OPS all the way down to .756. This was a disappointment after three straight seasons with an OPS over .820, but I believe the Belt we saw in the first half is the real deal. His hard contact rate jumped to 41.5%, while his line drive rate also jumped to 28.8%. Meanwhile, his walk rate decreased but still remained over 10%, while he was able to also decrease his ground ball rate to 24%. What earns Belt a spot on this more than anything else however, is his defense. He posted a defensive runs saved of 13 despite playing in only 104 games at first base, and definitely passes the eye test as the game’s top defender at the position. He seems destined to win a gold glove at some point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he finally becomes the all around player he was meant to be if he says healthy this season. More consistency and better durability would earn him a higher spot on this list, but I still think ranking number nine on this stacked list speaks to the player he already is and the player he can still become.

#8 Jesus Aguilar, Milwaukee Brewers

jesus aguilar
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Projected Stats: .266/.340/.509 (.849 OPS) 30 HR 4 drs 3.1 WAR

Going into the 2018 season, the Brewers seemed set at first base. The platoon of Eric Thames and Ryan Braun looked promising, especially considering that was where their power would be coming from. Well, Milwaukee was set at first base with an extreme power threat, but it wasn’t Thames or Braun, but rather Jesus Aguilar. The 28-year-old broke onto the scene with a .890 OPS with 35 home runs, making the All Star Game and the Home Run Derby. When looking at Aguilar’s other stats, it’s clear to see how he broke out. He posted an elite hard contact rate of 44%, raised his line drive rate to 23.7%, and posted a satisfactory walk rate of 10.2%. Still, there is some concern for Aguilar that prevents him from ranking higher. His second half OPS (.760) was more than .200 points lower than what it was in the first half (.995), and he clearly looked worn down as the season went. Still, that was Aguilar’s first full season in the majors, so he should prevent that regression with more experience handling the wear and tear baseball presents. Aguilar is a premier slugger with sneaky good defense (6 drs), and could definitely rank higher than he does. A limited track record hurts him on this list, but he definitely could surge into the top five with another strong season.

#7 Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies

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Projected Stats: .246/.469/.506 (.875 OPS) 36 HR -1 drs 3.2 WAR

Moving back to first base, Rhys Hoskins comes in at #7 and could honestly rank much higher. The 25-year-old had historic numbers once called up late in 2018, posting a 1.014 OPS. Though he regressed in 2018, he still had a very solid .850 OPS and hit 34 home runs. He only posted a 0.5 WAR this past season, but that was due to him playing out of position at left field. Overall, Hoskins has a career .889 OPS and still hasn’t hit his ceiling, which is scary to be quite frank. So why is Hoskins on the bottom half of this list? Part of it is the other elite first basemen on this list, but some of it has to do with Hoskins himself. His hard contact rate of 34.5% was the second lowest on this list, and his line drive percentage was also lower than others. While he’s fine at first base, his small sample size has also shown that he’s nothing more than average, which is fine considering his offensive upside, but prevents him from being in the superstar tier of players at this position. I’m extremely confident in Hoskins’ abilities, and believe that he could even challenge for a top three spot very soon. Based on the player he currently is however, I think #7 is the best spot for him on this list.

#6 Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers

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Projected Stats: .256./.371/.531 (.902 OPS) 29 HR -4 drs 3.9 WAR

With all due respect to Jesus Aguilar, no player had more of a breakout season than Max Muncy a season ago. After posting a career .613 OPS in a small sample size with the A’s in 2015 and 2016, the 28-year-old didn’t even play in a major league game in 2017. After some injuries forced to Dodgers to go searching through the minors for help, Muncy got his chance, and he delivered. He posted a .973 OPS and a 162 wins created plus (wrc+), and slugged 35 home runs. He was a big reason why the Dodgers made the World Series, and even hit the walk off home run in the 18 inning Game 3, the only game Los Angeles would win. Since Muncy pretty much came out of nowhere, it’s difficult to judge how he’ll do this year. Still, his success looks to be legit. His hard contact rate of 47.4% is above elite, and his .299 BABIP doesn’t justify it, meaning he actually had some bad luck. Furthermore, his walk rate was outstanding at 16.4%, and he launched the ball more this season. The main issue with Muncy are his strikeouts (27.2% K rate), but that elite walk rate definitely helps cover up that flaw. His defense is also below average (-4), which prevents him from ranking higher than the next player on this list. Overall, Muncy is an offensive force and should continue to be moving forward. With a more advanced track record, better defense, and a decreased strikeout rate, he could certainly challenge for a spot higher than this in the future.

#5 Matt Olson, Oakland Athletics

Photo Cred: USA Today

Projected Stats: .252/.341/.499 (.840 OPS) 31 HR 14 drs 4.3 WAR

The youngest player on this list at 24-years-old, Matt Olson is able to crack the top five, checking in at #5. Similar to Hoskins, Olson broke out when he was called up in 2017 to the tune of a 1.003 OPS and a 166 OPS+ with 24 home runs in just 189 at bats. Therefore, expectations were high on him heading into the 2018 season. He was unable to meet those expectations, but still posted a respectable .788 OPS and a 4.3 WAR. Despite this “regression”,  Olson was actually a better hitter in 2018 than he was in 2017. His strikeout rate dropped three percent, while his walk rate slightly increased, showing improved plate discipline. Meanwhile, his line drive rate jumped six percent to 21.1%, and his hard contact rate was at a prolific rate of 47.3%. Yet, his BABIP of .292 does not reflect that improvement, and seems to be the major reason why his numbers weren’t higher than they were. With better luck, I am exceptionally buoyant in Olson posting signficantly better numbers this season, and wouldn’t be surprised if his OPS was even north of .900. What seperates Olson from Muncy and Hoskins, however, is his terrific defense. He posted 14 defensive runs saved a season ago, winning a gold glove in just his first full season. This defense combined with his power give him the upside to be the future of this position moving forward, I definitely would not be surprised if he challenegs for the top spot on this list in a couple of years.

#4 Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

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Projected Stats: .282/.380/,482 (.862 OPS) 27 HR 6 drs 3.6 WAR

We have now reached the superstar tier of this list, and despite a down year, Anthony Rizzo should still be considered a star. The 29-year-old has posted a career .853 OPS, is a three-time All Star, and a 2016 World Series champion. Therefore, expectations are higher on him than the average player, and therefore an .846 OPS and a 121 OPS+ is considered a disappointment. However, Rizzo’s season may not be as bad as it seems. April was extremely rough for him; he had an OPS of just .448. After that however, Rizzo’s OPS was .904 for the next five months, meaning he was the same player that he usually was for five of the six months of the season. It’s unclear what caused Rizzo to start slow, but there’s definitely not any reason to believe he won’t continue to hit like his usual self this upcoming season. He still does any excellent job of limiting his strikeouts (12% K rate), while taking his walks (10.5%), and his 3.30 WPA is the third best on this list. Rizzo’s defense also remains above average, as he posted 4 defensive runs saved despite it being his worse defensive season in his career. He’s still an all around threat and a consistent force in a stellar Cubs lineup, and this is the lowest he can be on this list.

#3 Joey Votto, Cincinatti Reds

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Photo Cred: Sporting News

Projected Stats: .296/.424/.485 (.909 OPS) 22 HR 10 drs 5.4 WAR

Heading into his 12th season, Joey Votto still remains an elite first baseman at 35-years-old. He’s the on base percentage king, as he led the MLB with a .417 OBP for the seventh time in his career. Let’s rephrase that. Votto has led the league in OBP in more than half of the seasons he has played in. That’s simply outrageous, and it’s clear Votto could very well be heading to the Hall of Fame if he continues to produce as he ages. There’s no reason to believe he won’t. Votto’s hard contact rate raised to 41% this past season, while he walked (17.3% BB) more than he struck out (16.2% K). His line drive rate of 31.4% is also still incredible, and if he can do a better job of launching the ball this season, his OPS should once again be north of .900. Even if he doesn’t, Votto’s on base skills are more than enough for him to be considered one of the game’s top hitters. That’s not all he does; he’s posted 20 defensive runs saved in the past two seasons, bring his career total to 37. Overall, Votto is a six-time All Star, the 2010 NL MVP, and is sixth in WAR among active players. There’s no much else for him to prove at this point, yet he can expect him to continue to build a Cooperstown resume as the Reds look to once again become relevant this season.

#2 Paul Goldschmidt, St.Louis Cardinals

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Projected Stats: .284/.392/.531 (.923 OPS) 32 HR 7 drs 5.6 WAR

The only player on this list who is on a new team this upcoming season, Paul Goldschmidt ranks #2 on this list. The Cardinals wanted a superstar in the middle in the lineup, and they couldn’t have picked a better player than Goldschmidt. The 31-year-old is a six-time All Star, has finished top three in the MVP voting three times, and is a four-time silver slugger. Similar to Rizzo, Goldschmidt was elite for five months, but had one bad month in May, where he had a .531 OPS. In the other five months, that OPS rose up to .989. Also working in Goldschmidt’s favor is that he was significantly better on the road (1.053 OPS) than he was at home (.782 OPS), which isn’t surprising considering the Diamondbacks’ new humidor clearly has an effect on hitters and their power. In a new home ballpark with a winning club, we could see Goldschmidt’s OPS (.922 last year) get close to 1.000. Add that in with his terrific defense (49 career drs, 6 drs last year). What keeps him out of the top spot, however, is some concerning regression with his plate discipline. Goldschmidt’s chase rate jumped to 28.8%, while his strikeout rate increased to an alarming 25.1%, and his walk rate decreased to 13%. This regression in plate discipline has been happening over the past couple seasons, and it’s definitely something to watch heading into this season, as any more regression may start to hurt him more than it has in the past. Still, Goldschmidt is an elite player who is definitely an MVP candidate for this season. It wouldn’t be a surprise if he leads the Cardinals deep into the playoffs, and he certainly deserves to be in the top two.

#1 Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

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Projected Stats: .302/.391/.534 (.925 OPS) 25 HR 7 drs 5.4 WAR

When a player is able to stick through a rebuild without any complaining, it’s always great to see him rewarded with eventual winning, similar to Drew Brees with the New Orleans Saints. That’s the case with Freddie Freeman. Despite several losing seasons, the 29-year-old stayed loyal to the Braves, and as a result is part of one of the league’s top young teams in the MLB. He’s been the face of the franchise for a long time, and despite Ronald Acuna’s emergence, he’s still the best player on that team, and for good reason. Freeman has a .941 OPS and a 144 wrc+ over the past two seasons, and despite regressing to a .898 OPS this season, still compiled a 6.1 WAR. Unlike with Goldschmidt’s large strikeout rate, there’s no concern regarding Freeman. His hard contact rate of 41.9% is still well above average, while his 18.7% K rate is significantly better than Goldschmidt’s. His line drive rate is also tremendous at 32.3%, while his defense (12 drs, 7.8 UZR) is outstanding and is even superior to Goldschmidt’s. It’s really a toss up between Freeman and Goldschmidt, but Freeman is the more consistent player who is also two years younger, and he earns the top spot on this as a result.

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