With the MLB season less than two weeks away, it’s time to rank first basemen. See rankings for Starters, Relievers and Catchers here. This list shows an entire position in decline. While shortstop and third base display gobs of young talent (with more on the way), first base prepares for the gradual decline of guys heading into their 30s.
Matt Olson and Pete Alonso are steps in a bright direction, it seems unlikely that they’ll be the next Fielder and Pujols. So the question becomes: Where does it go from here? Only four of the top 100 prospects according to MLB.com are primary first basemen.
(Triple Slash and FanGraphs dWAR)
1. Matt Olson (.267/.351/.545 / -0.3)
Olson meets all the criteria of the ideal first baseman: A smooth lefty swing that produces towering homers, a slick picking machine at the bag, and a big smile to boot. Hampered a bit by injury last year, he still put up 5.4 rWAR in 127 games – leading the position. That kind of pace is sustainable for Matt, whose Gold Glove defense and easy power give him opportunities to improve at age 26. If he can raise his 9.3 percent walk rate just a few points, regular .950 OPS seasons are in reach.
2. Anthony Rizzo (.293/.405/.520 / -0.7)
Consistency is the name of the game for Rizzo, who has averaged 30 home runs and a .901 OPS over the past six seasons. But consistency is boring! Fans want flashy bat flips and 103 on the radar gun. Baseball culture craves the breakout like Alonso’s, or the collapse like Chris Davis‘s. Perhaps this COVID-19 pandemic has reminded us of the value of consistency – and how much we miss it. We didn’t know how good we had it until it was gone. Hopefully, the same fate isn’t awaiting Rizzo.
3. Pete Alonso (.260/.358/.583 / -1.0)
One of the greatest rookie seasons in MLB history, Alonso’s 2019 captured attention like the 1998 homerun chase. By September, it was obvious that he was gunning for Aaron Judge‘s rookie record of 52 homers. He needed 10 to tie and but smacked 11, a huge month capping off a huge(er) season.
Looking ahead, there’s little precedent to project his future alongside. Other monster rookie years from Judge, McGwire, Bellinger, and Frank Robinson resulted in illustrious or soon to be illustrious careers. And it doesn’t look like The Polar Bear will regress much – his .280 BABIP suggests he was unlucky.
4. Carlos Santana (.281/.397/.515 / -1.1)
A deserving All-Star for the first time in his career (Really? Really.), Santana combined excellent plate discipline and powerful swing to have his best season. He blasted 34 homers with a .911 OPS, winning the Silver Slugger. Plus, his peripherals indicate he could keep up those kinds of numbers into his late 30s. “Slamtana” finished 17th in the majors with an average exit velocity of 91.8, better than the likes of Bryce Harper and Juan Soto.
5. Max Muncy (.251/.374/.515 / -0.1)
“Wait! Max Muncy isn’t a first baseman.”
That may be right. Muncy only had 195 PAs at the position in 2019. But Gavin Lux will get all the chances at 2B, it’s an insult to Cody Bellinger‘s athleticism to put him at first, and the Dodgers don’t have anybody else to play there… so Max is the choice. A fantastic choice. Muncy has clubbed 35 dingers in back to back seasons, with a .927 OPS. On a team with a dozen superstars that won 106 games last year, he ranked second in rWAR with 5.7. Perhaps if he hits three homers in the NLDS (like he did in 2019), the Dodgers will move on.
6. Freddie Freeman (.295/.389/.549 / -1.6)
Note: Freddie Freeman has been diagnosed with COVID-19. Normally he would rank #1, but it’s unlikely that he’ll be ready for the first part of the season. The Game Haus wishes him a quick recovery.
Freeman isn’t declining just yet. His career almost looks like it’s on the upswing, not simply because of improved baseballs. In terms of counting stats, he had his best year yet with 38 homers and 121 RBIs. But under the surface he also shined. He matched a career-high walk rate (12.6 percent) and set a career-low K-rate (18.4 percent). He also posted a 46.8 percent hard contact rate, by far his best. Those stats indicate that Freeman is getting more out of his bat speed and approach at age 30.
Talking About Defense
Why do all these players have a negative Fangraphs dWAR? Why use this metric if just says everyone is bad? To answer the second question, FanGraphs dWAR is accurate and comprehensive. It combines a player’s defensive performance (measured by UZR) and a positional adjustment, based on the difficulty of a given position.
For example, FanGraphs adds 1.25 dWAR to all catchers, because it’s a difficult defensive position. For 1B, 1.25 dWAR is subtracted, because it’s easier. So Gold Glovers like Matt Olson and Anthony Rizzo aren’t below average for their position, they’re just below average across all MLB players, because they play first base.
Best of the Rest
Paul Goldschmidt still has a lot to prove in St.Louis.
Yuli Gurriel‘s amazing 2019 got lost on the Astros.
Christian Walker played very well as a 28-year-old rookie.
Get Ready for Second Basemen Rankings!
Featured Image Courtesy of USA Today Sports
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