2020 MLB Top Ten: First Basemen

After projecting who the top ten catchers would be next season, it’s time to continue on with our next position- first base. To no one’s surprise, this is a position stacked with sluggers, and unlike with the catcher list, nine of the ten players on this list were easy choices for this list, although the last spot came down to 5-6 qualifying players. So, who will be mashing in 2020? Let’s rank the top ten first basemen heading into next season!

Stats Used (Via Fangraphs and Baseball Savant):

wrc+= Weighted Runs Created Plus; 100 is league-average (Ex: A player with a 111 wrc+ is 11% better than league average offensively, while a player with a 93 wrc+ is 7% worse)

xwOBA= Expected Weighted On Base Average

drs= Defensive Runs Saved

ISO= Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average)

UZR= Ultimate Zone Rating

OAA= Outs Above Average

Before we start, let’s take a look at some of the notable omissions.

  • Luke Voit (NYY) has hit at a very high level during his 1 1/2 year major-league stint, but he hasn’t stayed healthy, so we’re going off of a small sample size, and his defense is well below-average.
  • Jose Abreu (CHW) is consistent, but by that, I mean consistently average.
  • Ji-Man Choi (TB) has quietly produced at a high level, but he only had 81 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season.
  • CJ Cron (DET), Brandon Belt (SF), and Justin Smoak (MIL) all were unlucky last season and should fare much better this go around, but their upside wasn’t enough for them to earn a spot in the top ten.
  • Yuli Gurriel (HOU) drastically outperformed his expected statistics last season.
  • Joey Votto (CIN) saw his plate discipline dip last season, and now at 35-years-old, appears to be on the decline.

#10: Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks

Photo Cred: Beyond The Box Score

Age: 28

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (37 Games): .163/.266/.388 62 wrc+ 0 drs 0.1 UZR -0.1 WAR

2019 Stats (152 Games): .259/.348/.476 112 wrc+ 9 drs 2 UZR 2.2 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .262/.351/.508 124 wrc+ 7 drs 1.7 UZR 2.4 WAR

Heading into last season, you would’ve been forgiven if you had never heard of Christian Walker. After all, in various stints with the Orioles and Diamondbacks, the 28-year-old had compiled a -0.1 WAR, and he wasn’t even expected to be on the major-league team. Yet, he got a chance when Jake Lamb went down with a quadriceps injury, and after posting a 152 wrc+ through April, he never relinquished his role as the starting first basemen. Overall, Walker’s 112 wrc+ doesn’t seem very impressive, but when you dig deeper, it’s clear that not only is he not a one-year wonder, but he’ll be even better next season. With his elite 48.4% hard-hit rate (94th percentile), Walker’s .362 xwOBA and .516 expected slugging percentage were below his surface-level statistics. Plus, for whatever reason, his plate discipline was much better in the second half, which would make sense for a player who still had to get fully acclimated with big-league pitching. Oh, and his 9 drs were the best in the National League; not only does he have a knack for hard contact, but he also contributes defensively. As mentioned, there is always the concern that Walker could regress in his second season, as we saw with players like Joey Wendle and Jesus Aguillar this past season. Yet, Walker’s underlying statistics show a player that should actually produce at a higher level, and because of that, he edges his way onto this list.

#9: Rhys Hoskins, Philadelphia Phillies

Photo Cred: NBC Sports

Age: 26

2019 Rank: 7

2018 Stats (153 Games): .246/.354/.496 128 wrc+ -2 drs 0.6 UZR 2.8 WAR

2019 Stats (160 Games): .226/.364/.454 113 wrc+ -2 drs 2.4 UZR 2.2 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .229/.367/.450 114 wrc+ -1 drs 1.9 UZR 2.3 WAR

After smashing 18 home runs in 50 games in 2017, and then posting a 128 wrc+ in 2018, Rhys Hoskins looked like a future star heading into 2019- he was moving back to first base and was going to be complemented in the lineup by Bryce Harper. Indeed, the 26-year-old made good on that hype initially, posting a 140 wrc+ in the first half. However, in shocking fashion, Hoskins proceeded to be amongst the league’s worst producers (78 wrc+). Notably, his hard contact rate remained nearly the same, but his power (.180) declined, and his low BABIP (.218) destroyed his on-base percentage. Now, for the season, Hoskins’ expected statistics were worse than his actual statistics, so he didn’t actually deal with poor luck. With a high launch angle (24 degrees), a 46.4% hard contact rate, and tremendous walk rates, Hoskins has all the makings of an offensive superstar. Yet, he hasn’t been able to put it together, due to lackluster power numbers and poor pure hitting ability; it wouldn’t surprise me if he suddenly has an MVP-caliber season, but at the same time, it’s hard for me to project him to be much more than a mid 2.0s WAR player at the moment.

#8: Josh Bell, Pittsburgh Pirates

Photo Cred: Tribune-Review

Age: 27

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (148 Games): .261/.357/.411 111 wrc+ -9 drs -4.6 UZR 0.9 WAR

2019 Stats (143 Games): .277/.367/.569 135 wrc+ -5 drs -7.5 UZR 2.5 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .273/.363/.534 132 wrc+ -5 drs -6.7 UZR 2.4 WAR

Once a top prospect, Josh Bell found himself heading in the wrong direction after two full seasons in the majors; he had compiled just a 1.5 WAR and appeared to be falling out of favor in Pittsburgh. Instead, he completely resurrected himself, raising his slugging percentage by .158, and because of that, nearly tripled his WAR from 2018. How did the 27-year-old do it? Actually, it’s quite simple; he hit the ball harder (47.1% hard-hit rate) and at a slightly higher launch angle. Plus, with data to support his breakout, Bell should be higher on this list, right? Well, that’s where it gets complicated. After an incredible first half, he regressed significantly with a 101 wrc+ in the second half, as his power (.196 ISO) disappeared as he hit the ball much softer (-11% hard contact rate from the first half). Maybe that’s just a small sample size, but at the same time, we said the same thing about Jesus Aguillar a year ago- it could be either be a gimmick or a sign that opposing teams have found a way to attack Bell. I lean with the former, which is why he’s on this list, but until he proves it for another season, the eighth spot is the highest he should be ranked.

#7: Carlos Santana, Cleveland Indians

Photo Cred: Norwalk Reflector

Age: 33

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats (161 Games): .229/.352/.414 108 wrc+ 0 drs 0.4 UZR 1.8 WAR

2019 Stats (158 Games): .281/.397/.515 135 wrc+ -1 drs -4.4 UZR 4.4 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .260/.376/.464 120 wrc+ -2 drs -3.9 UZR 2.5 WAR

From the moment Carlos Santana signed a three-year deal with the Phillies in the 2017 offseason, it never felt like a proper fit. That turned out to be the case, as after one mediocre season in Philadelphia, the 33-year-old was shipped in a salary dump the Mariners, who proceeded to trade him to the Indians, whom he spent his first seven seasons with. Clearly, this was a positive for Santana, as he proceeded to post a career-best 135 wrc+ and 4.4 WAR, and was the most consistent position player on a 93-win team. Fundamentally,  power and hard contact are the only two areas where he really improved at, but nevertheless, those improvements were enough for him to be an All-Star. On the other hand, he did decrease his launch angle, and his expected slugging percentage was nearly .30 points lower than his actual slugging percentage, so perhaps that breakout isn’t completely sustainable; he’s not as productive of a player as his 2019 WAR would suggest. Still, his plate discipline (identical 15.7% walk and strikeout rates) and newly found ability to hit the ball hard give him a very high floor, and because of that, he should once again be a key contributor for Cleveland before hitting the free-agent market again.

#6: Paul Goldschmidt, St.Louis Cardinals

Photo Cred: Forbes

Age: 32

2019 Rank: 2

2018 Stats (158 Games): .290/.389/.533 146 wrc+ 6 drs 0 UZR 5.2 WAR

2019 Stats (161 Games): .260/.346/.476 116 wrc+ 4 drs 2.5 UZR 2.9 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .267/.353/.514 125 wrc+ 3 drs 1.6 UZR 3.2 WAR

After being traded to the Cardinals and then signing a $130 million extension before playing a game for them, expectations were high for Paul Goldschmidt to lead the Cardinals to the playoffs, as they had gone three seasons without making it. The good news? St.Louis made it to the NLCS. The bad news? He regressed significantly, and considering that the Cardinals are paying him $26 million per year for the next five seasons, they better hope this isn’t the start of a heavy decline. Luckily for them, I don’t believe that to be the case. Goldschmidt’s power may have been much worse on the surface, but in reality, he still had an expected slugging percentage in the 83rd percentile, per Baseball Savant, and his hard contact rate (47.5%) was actually higher than in 2018. Rather, what concerns me with the 32-year-old is his plate discipline, as last year was the fourth straight season in which his walk rate (11.4%) was worse than the season before, and his 31.4% chase rate was actually a career worst. Since these were some of the red flags Goldschmidt has upon being acquired, it’s not exactly ideal that they’re only coming to fruition more. However, the 32-year-old was also not the major disappointment many Cardinals fans believed him to be, and even better, his 128 wrc+ in the second half may be a product of him getting comfortable in St.Louis. As he looks to lead his team to a second-straight division title, Goldschmidt, although not the MVP candidate he once was, appears to have at least a couple 3+ WAR seasons left in him, which makes him still one of the better first basemen in the MLB.

#5: Pete Alonso, New York Mets

Photo Cred: thegruelingtruth.com

Age: 25

2019 Rank: N/A

2018 Stats: N/A

2019 Stats (161 Games): .260/.358/.583 143 wrc+ -6 drs 1.8 UZR 4.8 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .258/.356/.554 138 wrc+ -4 drs 1.1 UZR 3.7 WAR

In the previous offseason, Mets general manager Brodie Van Wagenen made several splashy moves that didn’t work out, such as the acquisition of second baseman Robinson Cano and reliever Edwin Diaz. Yet, they had the best record among non-playoff teams in the National League, thanks in large part to the contributions of Pete Alonso. Just a rookie, the 25-year-old led first basemen with a 4.8 WAR (Max Muncy played mostly second base), won the Home Run Derby, and broke the single-season rookie home run record with 53 longballs. Pretty impressive, huh? Sure, this may have been a peak season for the “Polar Bear”, whose expected slugging percentage was .41 points lower than his actual .583 slugging percentage. Nevertheless, even if he goes through natural regression, the University of Florida product will still be amongst the league’s top offensive producers, and that’s without considering that his 2019 numbers may have been hurt by a poor July following that Home Run Derby performance. It’s safe to say that Alonso is currently the best player on a team that is looking to get back into the postseason this year; the Mets have to be ecstatic that they have him under club control throughout his prime.

#4: Anthony Rizzo, Chicago Cubs

Photo Cred: ABC7 Chicago

Age: 30

2019 Rank: 4

2018 Stats (153 Games): .283/.376/.470 126 wrc+ 4 drs 3.3 UZR 2.9 WAR

2019 Stats (146 Games): .293/.405/.520 141 wrc+ 3 drs 3.7 UZR 4 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .294/.406/.490 137 wrc+ 3 drs 3.6 UZR 4 WAR

Oftentimes, all you can really ask from a player is consistency; front offices would prefer to know what to expect from a player. A poor April hurt his numbers last season, but overall, Anthony Rizzo has been as reliable as it gets for the Cubs in his eight-year career with the team. Therefore, it should come to no one’s surprise that the 30-year-old posted a typical 4 WAR season, in which is xwOBA (.390) and wOBA (.390) were identical. Between his excellent plate discipline (11.6% BB, 14% K), and his generally strong power numbers (.497 xSLG, .227 IS0), there aren’t any red flags with Rizzo offensively, and for the most part, he’s regarded as a plus defender at first base. He may not have the upside that Alonso or the players ranked ahead of him share, but at the same time, Chicago’s fan-favorite has the type of unwavering production that teams covet;  with just one more $16.5 million club option left after this year on his current contract, it wouldn’t be shocking if the front office opted to make him a Cub for the rest of his career.

#3: Matt Olson, Oakland A’s

Minnesota Twins v Oakland Athletics
Photo Cred: The Athletic

Age: 25

2019 Rank: 5 

2018 Stats (162 Games): .247/.335/.453 118 wrc+ 14 drs 11.6 UZR 3.5 WAR

2019 Stats (127 Games): .267/.351/.545 134 wrc+ 13 drs 6 UZR 3.9 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .264/.348/.532 130 wrc+ 16 drs 10.3 UZR 4.6 WAR

Although players like Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien steal most of the spotlight on an A’s team that was won 97 games in each of the past two seasons, there is a player on the other side of the infield that deserves more recognition- Matt Olson. The 25-year-old first broke onto the scene with a 2.1 WAR in just 59 games, followed it up with a 3.5 WAR in his first full season, and in 2019, took his game to new heights. Despite missing most of April with a broken hand, Olson still had a career-best 3.9 WAR, as he improved in all facets. His 50.3% hard contact rate was simply absurd, and because of that, it’s no surprise that his .386 xwOBA and .576 xSLG ranked in the 93rd and 95th percentile, respectively. Plus, the more he continues to increase his launch angle (18.3 degrees), the more effective he can against the shift; considering he hit 36 home runs in just 127 games, I wouldn’t be shocked if he even led the American League in that category this season. Furthermore, not only is Olson a rising superstar offensively, but no first baseman can match his defensive metrics. Every metric rates him as the best in the MLB, which is incredible on its own, but even more astonishing when you take into account that missed time from the hand injury. Need the icing on the cake? As the season progressed, and Olson’s hand presumably healed, his production continued to get better; if he’s healthy this season, he should have a career year. Honestly, the third spot may be too low for Olson, who could easily lead first basemen in WAR this season; he’s the prototype of the perfect first baseman.

#2: Max Muncy, Los Angeles Dodgers

Photo Cred: Dodger Blue

Age: 29

2019 Rank: 6

2018 Stats (137 Games): .263/.391/.582 162 wrc+ -4 drs -0.2 UZR 5.2 WAR

2019 Stats (141 Games): .251/.374/.515 134 wrc+ 3 drs 2.4 UZR 4.8 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .262/.385/.535 141 wrc+ 6 drs 5 UZR 4.3 WAR

Max Muncy shocked the baseball world in 2018, as he went from a cast-off who almost had to quit baseball to superstar, but heading into 2019, he needed to prove that he wasn’t a one-year wonder. Well, it’s pretty safe to say that he accomplished that. Finally earning a full-time starter role on a team that loves to platoon players, the 29-year-old was a standout performer offensively, posting a 134 wrc+, and maintaining a very high 15.3% walk rate. It’s also not as though he overachieved, as his expected statistics were slightly higher than his actual number, and perhaps most importantly, held his own versus lefties (135 wrc+, .261 ISO). With Gavin Lux ready to contribute, Muncy will move to first base full-time, which is his best position anyways- he was a plus defender there this past season. Although many in the media want the Dodgers to add a third baseman and move Justin Turner to first base, that’d be foolish; Los Angeles isn’t lacking in star talent, and Muncy is near the top of that list.

#1: Freddie Freeman, Atlanta Braves

Photo Cred: Talking Chop

Age: 30

2019 Rank: 1

2018 Stats (162 Games): .309/.388/.505 137 wrc+ 12 drs 7.8 UZR 5.3 WAR

2019 Stats (158 Games): .295/.389/.549 138 wrc+ 5 drs -4.5 UZR 4 WAR

2020 Projected Stats: .295/.390/.550 140 wrc+ 4 drs -2.5 UZR 4.5 WAR

Young players such as Ronald Acuna Jr., Max Fried, Mike Soroka, and Ozzie Albies have been at the center of the Braves’ surge back to playoff contention the past two seasons. However, no matter what, there is one star on Atlanta’s roster that will always steal the heart of their fans- Freddie Freeman, who is already a franchise icon. The 30-year-old was on this team through the pain of the rebuilding process, never voiced frustration, and now has plenty of help on one of the top teams in the MLB. That last point isn’t a slight on Freeman at all. In fact, he remains probably the best hitter on the Braves. As per usual, his xwOBA (.394), xSLG (.571), and expected batting average (.292) all ranked in the 92nd percentile or better; his 46.4% hard contact rate was also a career-best. Similar to Rizzo, you know what you’re getting from Freeman, which is a tremendous wrc+ around 140 and above-average defense, but unlike Rizzo, Freeman also has the ability to put together an MVP-caliber season at any point. Indeed, he wasn’t a top MVP candidate, but he was certainly a candidate to finish top-five in the voting, until an elbow injury slowed him down (95 wrc+ in September/October). Now back healthy, Freeman’s production should only get better than they were a year ago, and to be frank, he was the easy choice to be #1 on this list; his expected statistics are through the roof, and he simply has no weakness. Heck, if he can have a quality end to his career, he could even be a legitimate candidate to make the Hall of Fame once it’s all said and done.

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