Leandre: Top 10 First Basemen Ahead of 2022by Jordan Leandre February 28, 2022 2 comments
Ranking the top 10 first basemen is nearly as difficult as ranking the catchers. Not for the same reasons, as first base has been a position notorious for being offense-first, with defense being little more than gravy. What makes ranking the position difficult is balancing one’s projections versus another’s track record.
Is someone like Brandon Belt a top tier first baseman because he has been a solid player for nearly a decade? Does Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s unstoppable 2021 make him better than a player like Freddie Freeman, despite his 107 wRC+ in his first 183 big-league games? Joey Votto posted a 140 wRC+ at 37 years old. Should we buy that the power stroke is going to stay? Should Kyle Schwarber even be considered a first baseman? After all, he became Boston’s everyday guy at the position in the postseason. For the sake of these rankings, Schwarber is a left fielder.
Who are the top 10 first basemen in the majors?
Be sure to check out the top 10 catchers right here.
10. José Abreu – Chicago White Sox
Kicking off the top 10 first basemen is perhaps a controversial take, considering Abreu won the AL MVP in the 60-game 2020 season. However, he regressed to what he has always been for the White Sox. Abreu is still a productive hitter, just not the 165 wRC+ guy we saw two seasons ago. In fact, the Cuban native was outside the top 10 in wRC+ for first basemen (12th) and though 10th, his .348 xwOBA was as close to 15th (Carlos Santana, .334) as it was to ninth (C.J. Cron, .362). To make matters worse, his xwOBA was closer to 26th (Jonathan Schoop, .311) than it was to fifth (Paul Goldschmidt, .396).
Defensively, Abreu is only average. There’s not much substance to him being ranked any higher than No. 10, which is mostly based on the fact he is a proverbial lock for 25 homers and 100 runs batted in.
9. Jared Walsh – Los Angeles Angels
I like Jared Walsh a lot, and getting rid of Albert Pujols to open up playing time was a genius move by the Angels last season. The two main drawbacks for the 2021 All-Star are simple: he cannot hit lefties and his hard-hit rate doesn’t measure up to other first basemen –– 20th out of 26 qualifiers last season. Overall, it was a productive first full season with the Halos for Walsh, who slashed .277/.340/.509 with 29 home runs and a 127 wRC+. He also was a secondary source of run production for the Angels (98 RBI) behind Shohei Ohtani, posting a 2.8 fWAR (and rWAR) and had a brilliant first half (138 wRC+).
Moving forward, Walsh needs to just put it all together for the full 162. I’m very high on Walsh, so I believe it will come with time. But he can’t be a 48 wRC+ hitter against southpaws; it nearly negates the 166 wRC+ he had against righties. He already ranked 11th in home runs, tied for 10th in wRC+ and 10th in FanGraphs’ offensive value despite poor splits against lefties. If he can become an average bat against lefties, or maybe even an 80-85 wRC+ bat, he can ascend into one of the game’s most-feared bats –– not just sneaking into the top 10 first basemen.
8. Joey Votto – Cincinnati Reds
If there was any sliver of a doubt that Votto is a Hall of Famer, he cemented himself by reaching the 60-fWAR plateau in 2021.
Given the state of the position, it is hard to hedge my bets on a 38-year-old Votto maintaining the same level of power production he saw in 2021. After all, it was just the third 30-homer season of his career, and only his second season with a .275 or better isolated power (ISO). The career-long Reds first baseman began to sell out for power in the final month of 2020, but who knows if that’s here to stay. Still, the Toronto native deserves to be on this list, especially after slashing .266/.375/.563 and tying for sixth in all of baseball with a .406 xwOBA. Despite a couple of down years in a row he has the track record to earn some leeway.
7. Ty France – Seattle Mariners
The first (full) season of France’s tenure in Seattle was productive to the Nth degree. In 152 games, the 27-year-old slashed .291/.368/.445 with 18 home runs, 32 doubles and a wRC+ of 129. He also contributed 4.3 rWAR (3.5 fWAR) and five defensive runs saved (DRS). France is not the flashiest name on this list, but he was a major reason for Seattle’s near-postseason push down the stretch. After the All-Star Break, he had a 147 wRC+ and was third on the team with 30 hits combined in September and October.
As far as how he measured up to his peers at the position in 2021, he finished ninth in wRC+, in a seventh-place tie for on-base percentage, seventh in fWAR and tied for fourth in DRS. The sample size for France is one full season, but it makes up 57.6% of his career. Perhaps he fades as the sample grows, but, for now, he’s safely seventh in my first base rankings.
6. Pete Alonso – New York Mets
Alonso can hammer the baseball with the best of them. Even after a fairly down first half for the Mets slugger, he turned it on in the second half to finish the season with impressive numbers. Alonso slashed .275/361/.560 with 20 home runs, 15 doubles and a wRC+ of 147 down the stretch. Overall, his numbers settled at .262/.344/.519 with 37 home runs, 27 doubles and a wRC+ of 133. On top of that, he posted a .376 xwOBA and a 47.3% hard-hit rate –– both top 10 among qualifying first basemen. He is also just two years removed from the MLB rookie record for home runs with 53, so we’ve seen he can be a lethal run-producer.
Defensively, Alonso has made great strides as well. In 2019 and 2020, he combined for negative-four DRS, but posted five in 2021. He was also a net-positive in the outs above average department.
5. Paul Goldschmidt – St. Louis Cardinals
Goldschmidt ranking fifth is more a testament to how stacked the top five is for first basemen. Last season, the 34-year-old slashed .294/.365/.514 with 31 home runs and a 138 wRC+. He also posted 6.1 rWAR and a .396 xwOBA.
He’s gotten back to what made him so highly-touted in Arizona: finding the barrel and hitting the cover off the baseball. This shows clearly in his expected stats, where his expected slugging percentage (xSLG) was 60 points higher than his actual –– fifth among first basemen. Defensively, he is top-notch, winning his fourth Gold Glove. His expertise coupled with his knack for hitting the ball hard, makes him someone to watch for when it comes to potential Hall of Fame-caliber careers.
4. Max Muncy – Los Angeles Dodgers
Since becoming a Dodger, Muncy has been one of the game’s most prolific hitters. Last year, he tied for third among first basemen with a .406 xwOBA and fourth with a .581 xSLG. He has become a lethal force in the heart of a potent Dodgers lineup. Last season, he posted a 140 wRC+, a 14.0% walk rate and a .278 ISO, but he’s not one-dimensional, as he tied for second with six DRS at first base as well. The only thing keeping Muncy from being third on this list is volume at the position, as 2021 was only his first season as a primary first baseman.
3. Matt Olson – Oakland Athletics
Olson has the volume at the position to steer clear of Muncy, for now. That is not to say the left-handed hitting first baseman isn’t deserving of top-three recognition. He is one of the premier defensive infielders in the league, as he tied for second at first base in DRS with Muncy last season. On top of that, he had a career year at the plate, posting a 146 wRC+, 39 home runs, 111 RBI, 5.8 rWAR and a .379 wOBA.
There’s no telling what the offensive ceiling is for Olson. He already hits the ball hard, hits for tremendous power in a pitcher-friendly ballpark and has great plate discipline. If he ends up getting traded to the New York Yankees, who have reported interest, there’s no real limit to the kind of power production he can have with the short porch. Intrigue with Olson is high; he will be a fun guy to watch as he continues to develop.
2. Freddie Freeman – Free Agent
Freeman is still the créme of the crop, but the guy ahead of him has ascended. Last season, Freeman slashed .300/.393/.503 with a .416 xwOBA and a 135 wRC+. Across the board, the 2020 NL MVP underperformed his expected stats and still put up an elite offensive season and 4.7 rWAR. His expected slash line was .320/.410/.583. The .320 and .410 numbers ranked first among first basemen with 250 or more plate appearances, the .583 xSLG and .416 xwOBA ranked second behind the next man on this list.
Freeman is still top-tier and he’s going to make whomever signs him very happy. The man ahead of him, however, is nearly 10 years younger and burst onto the scene in a big way in 2021.
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – Toronto Blue Jays
You can’t have everybody, but Vlad Jr. sits atop the list. Guerrero’s 166 wRC+ had as big a lead on second-place Matt Olson (146) as Olson had on 12th-place José Abreu (126). Outside of his impressive leads in wRC+, he also was first in xSLG, xwOBA, home runs, slugging percentage, fWAR and rWAR. All of this, and he is still a couple of weeks away from his 23rd birthday. His father is in the Hall of Fame, and his most potent offensive season saw a lower wRC+ than Guerrero Jr.’s 2021 campaign –– albeit Guerrero Sr.’s came in the steroid era. At his peak, Vlad Jr. might rival some of the most potent offensive seasons we’ve ever seen. Nobody else should round out the top 10 first basemen than this man.
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