Throughout January and February, MLB Network will rank the top 10 players right now ahead of the 2019 season. Here at M-SABR, we are specifically interested in MLB Network’s most statistically-influenced list, compiled by “the Shredder.” In this series, we will react to the Shredder’s list and offer our own, based on our own statistical analysis. Check back every week for our recaps of the lists, which release at 9:00 PM Eastern every Saturday on MLB Network. Today, we are looking at the Shredder’s top 10 first basemen.
MLB Network’s Top Ten First Basemen Right Now
- Paul Goldschmidt [2018: 3]
- Freddie Freeman [2018: 2]
- Joey Votto [2018: 1]
- Max Muncy [2018: NR]
- Anthony Rizzo [2018: 4]
- Matt Olson [2018: NR]
- Justin Smoak [2018: NR]
- Jesus Aguilar [2018: NR]
- Rhys Hoskins [2018: NR]
- Jose Abreu [2018: 6]
Reaction to the Shredder
At first glance, the top of this list feels right, though overall something seems off, with a major name or two seemingly absent. If you’re looking for the third and fourth best first basemen by fWAR since the start of 2017, this list isn’t for you, as the Shredder counts Matt Carpenter as its sixth best third basemen, and Cody Bellinger as its second best center fielder. Granted, Carpenter has played and will play more third base than first going forward, but leaving Bellinger who played more games and innings at first base than any other position off of this list is a flaw that will be addressed—even if it means having two Dodgers instead of one.
First things first though: Goldschmidt, who ultimately bested the humidor and posted a .330/.420/.602 batting line from June 1 to the end of the season, and Freddie Freeman, who is coming off two tremendous seasons, are models of consistency and represent a clear cut top tier. According to the MLB Network, Joey Votto (who was last year’s #1) belongs into that tier as well, though his meager 12 home runs in 2018 raise some questions that will be answered in M-SABR’s ranking.
Next up are Muncy and Rizzo, one of whom is coming off a 35 home run season with a 1B-leading 162 wRC+, while the other saw his fWAR and wRC+ decline for the fifth consecutive season. The name recognition might suggest Rizzo is the former, but given that his actual production made him the latter, the list is in need of some adjustments.
The rest of the list consists of various younger breakout players in Olson, Aguilar, and Hoskins, whose value and ranking will be discussed ad nauseum not only on this list but in years to come. Jose Abreu and Justin Smoak are much less exciting names, but their consistent power production makes them worthy of consideration in the top 10.
All that being said, let’s take a look at and analyze M-SABR’s take on first base.
M-SABR’s Top Ten First Basemen Right Now
- Paul Goldschmidt
- Freddie Freeman
- Max Muncy
- Joey Votto
- Jesus Aguilar
- Matt Olson
- Rhys Hoskins
- Cody Bellinger
- Anthony Rizzo
- Jose Abreu
Let’s take it from the top: Goldschmidt remains the number one and it shouldn’t even really be a discussion. Since 2013, he has posted only one season in which he was not at least 42% better than league average per wRC+; in that season, 2016, he happened to have a preposterous 32 steals in addition to his 24 HR, 106 R, and 95 RBI. Goldy does it all, and he does it every year. Cardinals fans are in for a treat.
While Freeman does not offer quite the same volume of production over 5+ years as Goldschmidt, the man with the second highest career line drive percentage of all qualified hitters since 1900 (27.7 LD%) is an absolute nightmare for opposing pitchers.
Three and four on the list offer the first discrepancy, and it might be a controversial one. Joey Votto, MLB Network’s 2018 number 1 first baseman, might be a future Hall of Famer and offers probably the best batting eye in the game (after all, he was an O-Swing All-Star), but the power seemingly evaporated in 2018. His walk rate of 17.3% remained elite, but 12 home runs, a 35+ point decline in batting average and on-base percentage, and a slugging percentage that plummeted from .578 in 2017 to .419 in 2018 are daunting signs from our 35-year old third baseman. Meanwhile, our number three Max Muncy exploded onto the scene in emphatic fashion. As a reminder, his wRC+ was tops amongst all first basemen and the aforementioned 35 home runs and 5.2 fWAR were accrued in just 481 plate appearances. If anything, Votto’s overall production falls more in line with the exciting group of youngster’s next up on our list:
Player A: 3.5 fWAR, 131 wRC+, .284/.417/.419, 12 HR
Player B: 3.1 fWAR, 134 wRC+, .274/.352/.539, 35 HR
Player C: 3.4 fWAR, 117 wRC+, .247/.335/.453, 29 HR
Player D: 2.9 fWAR, 129 wRC+, .246/.354/.496, 34 HR
Player E: 3.6 fWAR, 120 wRC+, .260/.343/.470, 25 HR
Now, I’m not trying to fool anybody, the players above are in the exact same order as they appear on our list, so: Votto, Jesus Aguilar, Matt Olson, Rhys Hoskins, and Cody Bellinger, but the list still serves a purpose. You might notice I lead with the fWAR, but that is really just to remind everybody that WAR should be used as a barometer or paint roller for reference, while we should look at other stats for the finer brush strokes as we build ourselves a picture of players’ comparative value. Within this group, the overall WAR value gap is slim enough to group them together and dive deeper.
We already honed in on Votto’s power struggles but elite on-base skills, so let’s focus on the next four sluggers B-E, all 28 or younger. Now, Milwaukee’s Aguilar might be the oldest of the bunch, but the power display he put on throughout 2018, featuring a home run total of 35 and .539 slugging percentage as well as the comparatively impressive .274 batting average make him the leader of this tier for now. That being said, our next three hitters, Olson, Hoskins, and Bellinger, hardly lack power themselves.
Cody Bellinger might have received the most attention in 2017, slugging 39 home runs on his way to Rookie of the Year honors, but on a per-game basis, Olson and Hoskins blew him out of the water. Hoskins’ 18 home runs in only 50 games (58 HR pace) were astounding and received plenty of attention from excited Phillies fans, but the 24-year-old Olson did him one better, blasting 24 long balls in 59 games (66 HR pace). Yet between these three sluggers, we are left picking nits, as the low average, high power, mid-300’s on-base player profile remains consistent across the three, and the specific order comes down to personal preference. No matter what though, following these three names over the coming years should be fascinating for all invested fans of excellent first base production (something I consider myself to be personally).
Rounding out our list is one half of the Cubs’ regressing Bryzzo duo, and another Chicago resident, Jose Abreu. The names are flashy, and the production is there, but both are trending in the wrong direction. Still, when a 125 wRC+ is a five year low, as is the case for Rizzo, you’re still looking at a fantastic player. Abreu’s drop in 2018 was a bit more precipitous, and his walk rate remains sub-par at 6.7%, but if his .294 BABIP in 2018 had been closer to his .329 career average, the conversation about Abreu might be entirely different.
With a mix of youth and experience, first base is amongst the more exciting positions in these rankings, so here’s to checking back in in 2020!