Best of the Decade: First Base

Click here to read Best of the Decade: Catcher

In Monday’s article, I went over the best catchers from 2010-2019. For more information on the series and methodology, click above to read the catcher article.

Now, for the first basemen:

Fangraphs Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

Baseball Reference Top 30 by WAR (2010-2019)

If you want an explanation of any of the more advanced metrics in the tables, click here or navigate to the top of the page and click on the post titled “Best of the Decade: Catchers.”

Best of the Best

An evaluation of a first baseman’s performance starts and ends with offensive production; first basemen do not get high marks for defense and their defense rarely ever makes enough of a difference to matter to the team, so this is solely a bat-first position. With that in mind, I’ll be running through the rest of the article looking solely at offensive production.

The two top first basemen over the past decade were unquestionably Joey Votto and Miguel Cabrera. I’ll start with Votto, who topped both the Fangraphs and Baseball Reference WAR charts for first basemen by a healthy margin.

Votto has been nothing short of stellar this decade, triple-slashing .306/.428/.516 with almost as many walks (1046) as strikeouts (1088). Here is the full list of players to triple-slash at least .300/.400/.500 over the past decade:

  1. Joey Votto
  2. Mike Trout

That’s the list. There are only 120 players in history that have even walked 1000+ times, let alone people that did it in a 10-season span. He didn’t quite hit for as much power as any of the other first basemen on the list but he is a master of safely reaching base, which he did more frequently than any other player in the last decade. At the end of the day, avoiding an out is probably the best outcome a player can have and Votto did that best in the 2010s.

Votto, in my opinion, is a surefire Hall of Famer. He’s in the twilight of his career but most of his career marks measure up to the average Hall of Fame first baseman. He is one of five active players to hit .400 in a 60-game span during a season, so it’s not out of the question that he might do that this year in an abbreviated slate. On top of all that, his .421 OBP is tied for 17th all-time (among players with 3000+ PA, which is roughly five fully-healthy seasons) with some guy named Mickey Mantle. Cincinnati has not seen much success with Votto on the roster and Votto isn’t exactly known for hitting moonshots, so I don’t think it’s a stretch to call the Canadian one of the most underrated players of the decade. His sub-2000 hit total may leave him short of the Hall of Fame for now in the eyes of some voters, but he still has a few seasons to push that hit total past the 2000 mark.

Miguel Cabrera is one of the first names that comes to mind when talking about the most dominant players of the past 20 years. Unfortunately, Cabrera has missed a lot of time since the start of the 2015 season due to injuries of his calf, back, and biceps. Still, though, Cabrera compiled more WAR than any other player on Earth in the first five years of the decade, even picking up two MVP awards (2012 and 2013) and, in 2012, winning the Triple Crown for the first time since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.

Whereas Votto was an on-base machine over the past ten years, Cabrera was the best at racking up hits; his .317 BA since 2010 paces all qualified MLB players. He also hit for more power than any other first baseman in that time frame; his .544 slugging percentage was sixth in all of baseball behind Trout, David Ortiz, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Nolan Arenado. Cabrera will likely reach the 3000-hit plateau at some time during the 2021 season and, at this point, any more production from him will just be padding what has been a monstrous career.

Not Far Behind

Oh how the mighty have fallen. If this article was reviewing first basemen from 2000-2009, Albert Pujols would have walked over the competition. Pujols, though, hasn’t won an MVP award since 2009 (he had three in the previous decade) and has only made two all-star appearances in the 2010s after being selected eight times from 2000-2009 (he didn’t play in 2000). The current Angel hasn’t been a complete bust in the past 10 years but after slashing .334/.427/.628 from 2000-2009 slashed .268/.331/.475 in the 2010s. He did have 290 home runs in the decade, more than any other first baseman, but didn’t lead the league in any major statistical category except for double plays grounded into in any season during the 2010s. He’s a surefire first-ballot Hall of Famer, but that’s mostly a result of his play during the 2000s and not the 2010s.

The following three first basemen have not fallen from grace quite like Pujols has (yet). Paul Goldschmidt, who has now assumed Pujols’ former post as the first baseman in St. Louis after eight seasons in Arizona, had an excellent decade. He led all first basemen in steals and was in the top five in most other major statistical categories. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference both agree that he was the third-most valuable first baseman of the 2010s thanks to his .292/.391/.524 triple-slash and 243 home runs. First basemen get knocked defensively by WAR due to their position but Goldschmidt was actually a solid defender at the position. All-in-all, nothing terribly flashy but consistently being very good is a surefire way to end up toward the top of the WAR leaderboards.

Freddie Freeman is another perennially underrated first baseman. It’s actually very easy to make the case for him as the best first baseman in the game right now using both conventional and advanced stats:

The only knock on Freeman is that he is 7th in games played but even still, he ranks at or near the top of every counting stat category, which is even more impressive considering that he has played fewer games than guys like Joey Votto and Paul Goldschmidt. Though Freeman has likely been the best first baseman in baseball over the past four years, BR and Fangraphs agree that he was fourth-best over the past decade.

Anthony Rizzo was one of the most integral parts of the Cubs’ World Series team in 2016. Since his breakout year in 2014, he has triple-slashed .284/.388/.513 with 194 home runs. He also has a penchant for getting hit by a pitch, leading all MLB players in HBP thrice during that span. Rizzo didn’t really burst onto the scene until halfway through the decade, so the fact that he is in the top five in both fWAR and rWAR among first basemen since 2010 speaks volumes to his production over the past 6 seasons.

Remember us?

Prince Fielder seemed like he was on a Hall of Fame trajectory before neck and back injuries derailed his career in 2014. In the first four seasons of the decade, he started 647 of 648 games for the Brewers and Tigers. To that point, he had hit 285 career home runs, triple-slashed .286/.389/.527 and was entering the back end of his prime. After getting traded to Texas and sustaining a herniated disc in 2014, he never quite returned to form. Fielder, though was undoubtedly one of the best first basemen of the first four years of the decade and still checks in just outside the top-ten by both fWAR and rWAR for first basemen in the 2010s despite playing only 289 games in the final six years of the decade.

Mark Teixeira, like Pujols was a great first basemen in the 2000s whose play dipped in the new decade. He hit just .239 in the 2010s albeit with 167 home runs and 142 doubles. In the present, Teixeira contributes for ESPN and has most recently been in the news for telling players to take pennies on the dollar from the owners to play the season (he has since changed his stance).

The well-traveled Adrian Gonzalez spent most of the decade with the Dodgers, triple-slashing .291/.355/.473 with 190 home runs. I can’t bring myself to sing Gonzalez’s praises over the last decade considering some of the ac/tions he has taken and the comments he has made in the face of not making the postseason (2011 with the Red Sox) and being left off the playoff roster by the Dodgers (2017). Here’s more on that if you care to read more.

Mike Napoli, who boasted a rather lackluster .243 batting average in the 2010s was notable for one thing: hitting bombs. He hit 201 home runs in the last decade despite playing only 1026 games, considerably less than most of the guys ahead of him with more long balls. The Red Sox won the World Series in 2013 with Napoli but that was more in spite of him than because of him, Napoli went 2-13 with six strikeouts in that series against the Cardinals. Still, he checks in just outside the top ten of both the fWAR and rWAR leaderboards, so I figure it’s only fair to give him a shoutout in the “Remember Us?” section considering he hasn’t played a game since 2017.

Quick Hits

Carlos Santana will unfortunately never be the most notable person on Earth with that name—that designation goes to Hall of Fame guitarist Carlos Santana who hails from Mexico—but the Indians slugger has made quite a name for himself over the past ten seasons. Firstly, the Dominican Santana is a master of the art of walking; only Joey Votto has more walks than him over the past ten seasons. He also has 232 home runs to his name. You can file Santana with Freeman and Votto under “underrated first basemen.”

Chris Davis used to be good but then he stopped being good. He hit 53 homers and drove in 138 in 2013. From 2017-2019, he amassed -5.4 rWAR (yes, it was seriously negative) and triple-slashed .188/.276/.350 with 526 strikeouts. He only had 232 hits in that time frame. Not great.

Oh, and he also has two super cool records: most consecutive at-bats without a hit by a position player (0-54), which he set in 2019, and lowest batting average for a qualified player (.168), which he set in 2018. Did you know that the Orioles signed him to a seven-year, $161 million deal in 2016? Neat!

While we’re talking about bad players, let’s talk about Eric Hosmer. He’s bad. Prior to becoming a free agent after the 2017 season, Hosmer had played seven seasons and accrued just over 10 fWAR. He also, for some reason, won three gold gloves even though he is a bad defender. Since Statcast started keeping track of Outs Above Average in 2017, Hosmer has netted -7 OAA. Bad. Then, the Padres gave him $144 million dollars to come play for them for the next eight years. I know what you’re thinking and my response is that I’m just as perplexed as you as to why they did that.

What has Hosmer done in San Diego since signing, you ask? He’s been worth -0.5 fWAR over two seasons while slashing .259/.316/.412 and striking out three times as much as he walks. Five more seasons, Padres fans!

Oh, and if you want to read a lot more about how bad Eric Hosmer is, click here.

Now, for some good players: Jose Abreu made a name for himself when he led the league in slugging percentage in 2014 as a 27-year-old rookie from Cuba. He hit 36 home runs that year and has just continued to rake for the White Sox, launching 179 long balls in the past six seasons.

Max Muncy somehow became a god after the Dodgers signed him to a minor league deal in 2017. He spent all of 2017 in the minors and got called up in 2018. Then out of nowhere, he hit 35 home runs. And to make sure that you knew he was serious about being good, he hit 35 more home runs in 2019. Plus, he can pretty much play every position, though he has yet to appear at shortstop in a big league game. I’m sure he could do it if he wanted to because he is good, unlike Eric Hosmer.

Brandon Belt is another incredibly underrated first baseman. He’s quietly amassed about 20 WAR over eight seasons depending on whether you prefer fWAR or rWAR. He’s not flashy but he’ll hit around .260 with about 15 home runs and walk a lot. That plays. Plus, he had the longest at-bat ever in 2018 against Jaime Barria: 21 pitches. Here’s the whole at-bat and here’s the abridged version in case you don’t have 14 minutes to watch Brandon Belt foul off 11 pitches in a row (he fouled off 16 the entire at-bat).

Big Leaguers Entering Their Prime

Matt Olson is 26 years old and averaging a tick under 30 home runs per season. He strikes out a lot but he also walks at a good clip and destroys the ball when he makes contact. Olson also has the most OAA of any first baseman over the past three season (read: great on defense). He’s probably going to end up in the Freddie Freeman category of underrated in the near future because he plays in Oakland and they don’t get a lot of publicity.

Josh Bell finally lived up to his prospect pedigree in 2019 by smacking 37 long balls. He’s old for someone with as little experience as he has thanks to a knee injury in 2017, but fortunately you don’t really need great knees to play first base and hit taters.

Not to say I called it, but Rhys Hoskins has been really good since his debut and I wrote an article about him before his debut that you can find here. I called him “The Next Paul Goldschmidt” which is probably an exaggeration, but the truth doesn’t get clicks. Either way, he’s hit .239/.364/.494 with 81 long balls and 240 walks in 363 games since his debut. That’s good. He also strikes out a lot but we can ignore that for now.

Each of the three guys I just mentioned has to get praise because they are some of the best in the game right now, but they haven’t been around long enough to get a shoutout earlier in the article. It is about the entire decade, after all, and each of these guys played roughly three seasons in the 2010s.

In the Wings

Pete Alonso hit 53 home runs in 2019—a rookie record—and is in the conversation with Matt Olson and some of the guys below for the first baseman that will accrue the most WAR in the 2020s. He also is single-handedly helping make baseball fun again with his social media presence and fan interaction. He also might be the second coming of Jesus, but I’m not 100% sure about that one. I’m like 95% sure, though. At least he’s a Met.

Evan White is likely going to be the Opening Day first baseman for the Mariners this season after the club inked him to a six-year, $24 million deal with three club options. He hit 18 homers in 92 games in AAA last season, so the power is real. We’ll see if it translates to the show.

2019 #1 overall pick Spencer Torkelson (Tigers), and 2018 #3 overall pick Andrew Vaughn (White Sox) are both R/R first basemen with incredible pop. Torkelson put up video game numbers in college: 54 HR with a .337/463/.729 in 129 games at Arizona State and 9 HR with a .340/.484/.745 triple-slash in 30 games over two summers on Cape Cod. Vaughn, after hitting 50 home runs in his college career at Cal Berkeley, hit a modest (by his standards) .278/.384/.449 with 6 homers in 50 games in the minors last year. He likely would have started 2020 in AA but given that teams are permitted a taxi squad, it’s possible that he sees some action in the majors this year.

Click here to continue reading about the best of the decade (Second Basemen).

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Follow Max on Twitter: @metsfanmax

Header Image: Sam Greene/The Enquirer

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