Opening Day for the 2023 MLB season is right around the corner. This means it is the perfect time for position-by-position rankings. Let’s see how each team stacks up – ranking the best MLB first basemen.
First, let’s lay out some ground rules. A player’s position is based on Fangraphs’ Depth Charts as of March 23. If a player is duplicated (such as Byron Buxton being listed as Minnesota’s primary centerfielder and designated hitter), he will be assigned to his main position in 2022, and the player with the second-most projected plate appearances will be used for the second position. Teams only get one entrant per position (sorry, Alejandro Kirk).
Let’s begin. Make sure to check out the 30-21 and 20-11 rankings of the best MLB first basemen.
Best MLB First Basemen: 10-1
Best MLB First Basemen: No.10 – Vinnie Pasquantino, Kansas City Royals
This ranking may be aggressive, but it’s hard to not love the Italian Nightmare’s profile. Across 72 games as a rookie, Pasquantino walked more than he struck out while clubbing 10 doubles and 10 home runs for the Royals. He slashed .295/.383/.450 for a 135 OPS+. The lefty had even better expected stats, underperforming his batted-ball data by nine points.
He is a largely one-dimensional player, but he was such an excellent hitter with tremendous peripherals that is enticing to have him even higher. He should be a doubles and walks machine for the next decade. His next leap will come with stabilizing his defense and generating a touch more power. Pasquantino’s profile is eerily similar to a young version of the No. 1 first baseman in baseball right now.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.9 – Anthony Rizzo, New York Yankees
Rizzo aged quite gracefully at Yankee Stadium, blasting 32 home runs, his most since 2017. He continued to be a hit-by-pitch magnet, and he will be the most-hit left-handed hitter in MLB history quite soon. With his power and a 10% walk rate, Rizzo should continue to be a consistent threat even into his mid-30s. His swing is tailor-made for Yankee Stadium, and his batted-ball profile projects well.
He may not hit in the .280s or .290s again, but Rizzo will bring reliable power. In 2022, he was in the 80th percentile or better in xwOBA, expected slugging, and max exit velocity. In the Statcast era, Rizzo has been in the 70th percentile in xwOBA in every season. Rizzo is not quite the defender he was when he was younger, but he is more than competent at first base.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.8 – Jose Abreu, Houston Astros
Entering his 10th season, Abreu has one of the best track records of any hitter in baseball. He has received MVP votes in seven seasons, and he has a 117 OPS+ or better in all his seasons. He drove in 100 runs six times and led the AL in RBI twice. His power tapered off in 2022 en route to the worst ISO of his career, but he hit .304 and had a 9.1% walk rate.
The two most important words of the Abreu section are “Houston Astros.” Abreu will now play 81 games per season in a ballpark designed for his home run swing. Last season, Abreu only hit 15 home runs, but he hit 22 balls that would have been out of Minute Maid Park. He should have a massive season with the reigning World Series champs.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.7 – Nathaniel Lowe, Texas Rangers
In his first three seasons, Lowe was an inconspicuous hitter. He had a modest 111 OPS+ with a .164 ISO. In 2022, he improved his launch angle slightly and won a Silver Slugger. He could be due for some BABIP regression, but he has a healthy profile otherwise. He was in the 80th percentile or better in max exit velocity, xwOBA, expected batting average, and expected slugging percentage. He mashed 54 extra-base hits and posted a 141 OPS+.
Lowe’s next quest is to combine his 2021 walk rate (12.5%) with his 2022 production at the plate. In a similar number of plate appearances, Lowe drew 32 extra walks in 2021, ending the season with an on-base percentage just one point below his 2022 mark (despite posting a .264 average compared to a .302 average in 2022). Lowe could threaten a .280/.370/.480 season and compete for another Silver Slugger.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.6 – Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks
Walker put all of his tools together for a majestic 2022 campaign. He racked up 5.1 WAR off the back of 17 DRS, a 10.3% walk rate, a .235 ISO, and a 126 OPS+. He slugged 36 home runs and took home a Gold Glove. Walker was in the 90th percentile or higher in xwOBA, expected slugging percentage, and outs above average.
The scariest part of Walker’s profile is that he should have been a bit better. His .346 wOBA was firmly good, but his .359 xwOBA was 22nd in baseball and fifth among first basemen. He was the victim of some BABIP misfortune as well, so Walker could have another monster season loading. With one more top-level campaign, he could enter legitimate discussions as one of the best MLB first basemen.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.5 – Pete Alonso, New York Mets
Alonso has undergone an impressive MLB transition. As a rookie, he struck out in 26.4% of his plate appearances and hit groundballs over 40% of the time. He has optimized his contact by striking out less (18.7% in 2022) and hitting the ball in the air (36.4% groundballs). Few in baseball can hit the ball as hard as Alonso does as evidenced by his 98th-percentile max exit velocity. As a hitter, Alonso is closing in on the elusive “complete hitter” tag.
Alonso is not a great fielder, although defensive metrics have been mixed on the Polar Bear’s exploits. He posted -2 DRS last year with a fifth-percentile OAA, but he had a reasonable defensive season in 2021. He may not be a great defender, but he plays enough for the good and bad to balance out, leaving him as a perfectly adequate defender for the 150 to 160 games he plays in.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.4 – Matt Olson, Atlanta Braves
Technically speaking, Olson’s 2022 season was a down year. His 122 OPS+ was lower than his career average, and he had his lowest walk rate since 2019. On the other hand, he was ninth in total bases, second in doubles, eighth in home runs, fourth in RBI, and eighth in walks. The only player in the NL with more extra-base hits was his teammate Austin Riley. Olson’s batted-ball profile was still overwhelmingly red (on Statcast), so it may be a matter of time.
Olson gets a slight nod over Alonso with his superior defense. He has 43 DRS in his career, posting no fewer than +6 in the last five non-COVID seasons. If he can translate any of his playoff success (1.363 OPS) or spring training success (MLB leader in home runs), Olson could be in for a massive season.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.3 – Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Toronto Blue Jays
Guerrero had a normal “good hitter” season in 2022. He slashed .274/.339/.480 for a 132 OPS+. He hit 35 doubles and 32 home runs, and his Statcast page was littered with red once again. However, like Olson, 2022 felt like something of a disappointment. While Olson was adjusting to a new league and ballpark, Guerrero reverted to his groundball-heavy approach from his younger days. He had an absurd 52.3% groundball rate, leaving just 17.1% of his batted balls as flyballs.
If Guerrero continues to oscillate between lifting and not lifting the baseball, he will be stuck in purgatory in the middle of the top five first basemen. If he consistently lifts the ball, he will be the best hitter at the position, and – with his defensive strides in 2021 and 2022 – he will be the best player at the position and one of the best 10 across MLB. Until he figures out that consistency, Guerrero is stuck.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.2 – Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals
After 11 seasons of consistent excellence, Goldschmidt put together his masterpiece – his Hall of Fame cherry on top. Fueled by 41 doubles and 35 home runs, Goldschmidt led the NL in slugging, OPS, and OPS+. Unlike his 2013 season in which he did that, Goldschmidt won NL MVP with a massive 7.8 WAR. He had his best non-COVID walk rate as a Cardinal, and he had an ISO over .250 for the first time since 2017.
So, why is he not No. 1?
The only knock on Goldschmidt’s season is that it is not quite replicable. His wOBA of .419 was as elite as anyone’s production, but his xwOBA was a much more modest .367 – still in the 95th percentile. Goldschmidt hit the ball well and got spectacular results. The next player had the best profile in the National League even if the results did not match.
Best MLB First Basemen: No.1 – Freddie Freeman, Los Angeles Dodgers
Freeman narrowly missed his first batting title, but he made up for it with a host of bold and italicized text on Baseball-Reference. He led the NL in runs and on-base percentage and led the Majors in hits and doubles. He finished fourth in NL MVP with his 10th straight season with a 132 OPS+ or better. He played his usual solid defense at first base and swiped a career-high 13 bases.
Freeman was in the 98th percentile or better in expected slugging, xwOBA, and expected batting average. His .393 wOBA ranked sixth in baseball, but his .403 xwOBA was third to only Aaron Judge and Yordan Alvarez. Freeman is the full package at first base, and he is inching closer and closer to the Hall of Fame with each season. If a few of his 47 doubles are home runs in 2023, he could be the best hitter in baseball.
Main image credit Embed from Getty Images