Hello and welcome (back) to the 2020 Pitcher List first base rankings. These rankings were originally put together in March, but have been updated to reflect the impact of the new 60-game season and any recent news.
First base is a position that has become a bit deeper this year thanks to breakout seasons from Danny Santana, Josh Bell, and Pete Alonso, and renaissance years from DJ LeMahieu, Edwin Encarnación, and Yuli Gurriel. It wasn’t too long ago that first base was one of the deepest positions in the game, and perhaps we’ve started to swing back in that direction over the past year.
Before we get started, I should make it clear that these rankings are intended for standard category formats that use AVG, R, RBI, SB, and HR. I should also note that these are not my personal rankings, but rather the consensus rankings from some of the Pitcher List managerial staff. Nick Pollack, Ben Palmer, Dave Cherman, Austin Bristow, Rick Graham, Daniel Port, Scott Chu, and myself were all part of the roundtable discussion where these rankings were fiercely debated. Attacks were hurled and friendships were torn asunder, but in the end we managed to settle on rankings we all felt pretty good about. That said, we want to hear your thoughts! If you take issue with any of these rankings — or just want to point out how incredibly smart we are — don’t hesitate to let us know.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in.
What’s not to like about what Cody Bellinger did last season? He continued to showcase his elite power, posting a 13% barrel rate and swatting 47 homers. But he also made tremendous strides in terms of his contact ability. He cut his SwStr% from 12.3% to 9.5%, which helped him drop nearly eight percentage points off his strikeout rate and boost his batting average from .260 in 2018 to .305 last season. Then he threw 15 stolen bases on top of it all for good measure. The elite 26.2% line drive rate supports the uptick in batting average, as does the .323 xBA he posted, so the only thing likely holding Bellinger back from being in the conversation as a top-3 overall pick this year is his second half. In 284 second-half plate appearances, Bellinger hit just. 261 with 17 homers and a .370 wOBA — still impressive, but a far cry from the .448 wOBA he posted in the first half. That said, his barrel rate and contact gains didn’t suffer much in the second half, so while it’s probably fair to expect some regression, many of the changes Bellinger made last season do seem sustainable.
Get this: Since LD% first started being recorded, Freddie Freeman’s career 27.7% rate ranks second all-time among qualified hitters. That’s incredible, and supports what most of us already know — Freeman has one of the safest batting average floors among first basemen. That floor is what makes Freeman such an incredible asset, as it allows owners to take bigger risks on toolsy players later in drafts. The career-high 38 homers last year was a nice surprise, especially since his power seemed to be in free-fall over the two years prior. The 12.5% barrel rate supports that power though, and Freeman actually slightly underperformed his .394 xwOBA last year. Though Freeman did contract COVID-19 prior to the start of the season, if he’s feeling healthy enough once the season starts he should continue to produce across the board this year and be one of the safer picks you can make at first base.
So, you’re skeptical that Pete Alonso can repeat his unbelievable rookie campaign, wherein he bashed 53 homers and posted a .941 OPS. Well, you’re not alone. A few staff members brought up their worries about Alonso’s ability to repeat, and even floated the possibility of his floor being that of a .230 hitter. Those concerns are absolutely valid, especially considering his struggles against breaking and off-speed pitches:
However, there are reasons to think he can continue his reign as one of the most elite power bats in baseball without hurting you in batting average. For one, his swinging strike rate (12.4%) and contact rate (73%) were quite impressive for a hitter whose 15.8% barrel rate was in the top 3% in baseball. There are very few hitters who manage to combine Alonso’s elite quality-of-contact with decent contact ability. Furthermore, his 40.5% ground ball rate was surprisingly high for a hitter with as many barrels as he had. If he can elevate the ball a bit more this year, it should help pad his batting average and home runs totals, and mitigate the impact of any continued struggles against non-fastballs.
LeMahieu’s incredible 2019 season shocked a lot of people, but perhaps it shouldn’t have been all that surprising. LeMahieu always made a ton of hard contact (43.8% career hard-hit rate) and excelled at avoiding strikeouts and hitting line drives, which gave him a safe batting average floor. It seems the move to Yankee Stadium and a slight uptick in his average launch angle were all he needed to tap into his latent power. The hitter-friendly right field confines of Yankee Stadium were tailor-made for LeMahieu, who drives the ball to the opposite field more than he pulls it — a rare trait for a hitter. And the benefit of his new home ballpark really showed, as he hit 19 of his 26 homers at home. It’s probably fair to expect his power to regress some. But the batting average is absolutely legit, the counting stats will be there in spades, and another 20+ homer season isn’t out of the question by any means. Add in the additional eligibility at second base and third base and you might be looking at the rare player who is somehow being undervalued coming off an MVP-caliber season.
No. 5: Jose Abreu (Chicago White Sox)
The 2019 version of Jose Abreu should be the poster boy for why it’s important to take injuries into account when evaluating a poor season from a hitter. Coming off a disappointing and injury-riddled 2018 season, Abreu was largely forgotten about in drafts last year. But he rebounded with a vengeance, posting the best barrel rate (12.8%) and hard-hit rate (48.2%) of his career on the way to a vintage Jose Abreu season. Abreu has a much stronger supporting cast around him this season, as the White Sox have added Yasmani Grandal, Nomar Mazara, and Edwin Encarnación to bolster their lineup, and should be receiving contributions from Luis Robert and Nick Madrigal as well. Considering he managed to drive in 123 runs last year, one can only imagine what Abreu will be able to do this season in terms of counting stats.
Look past the flashiness of the name and Anthony Rizzo’s past few seasons start to look pretty pedestrian. Part of the problem is that his power output hasn’t kept pace with the rest of the league — he’s failed to reach the 30-homer plateau for two straight seasons now. His above-average 82% contact rate and ability to hit a lot of line drives does give him a fairly safe floor in batting average. But if the power isn’t there, he doesn’t contribute double-digit steals, and he once again struggles to reach 100 runs or RBI on a Chicago Cubs team that seems on the verge of rebuilding, he’s not quite the slam-dunk fantasy bat he used to be. The ceiling is there for a five-category difference-maker, but the floor is a bit lower than you might think.
We keep waiting for the day when Olson finally puts it all together and has the Alonso-like power breakout everyone seems to believe he’s destined for. It’s worth mentioning that he did manage to hit 36 home runs last year, despite missing over a month with a hamate injury. And that he’s routinely in the top 10% of the league in both barrel rate and hard-hit percentage. And that he’s upped his line drive rate in each of the last three years. And that he had a career-high pull rate last year. And that he improved substantially against off-speed pitches in 2019, hitting .304 with a .628 SLG against them. All this to say that things seem to be trending in the right direction, and if things do finally break right for Olson this year, he has the ceiling of a top-3 first baseman.
“What have you done for me lately?” It’s a common refrain among fantasy owners, and a big reason why Josh Bell — who struggled mightily in the second half of 2019 — has seen his stock plummet this preseason. The .326 wOBA Bell posted in the second half is certainly concerning, but we shouldn’t let it distract us from just how impressive his first half was. In addition to hitting the ball harder than he ever had (47.1% hard-hit rate), Bell raised his average launch angle up to 13 degrees. This resulted in a 12.7% barrel rate — nearly doubling his previous career-high. And Bell managed to do this without sacrificing much of his contact ability, as his strikeout rate still settled just below 20%. He does still struggle against lefties, posting a .315 wOBA against them last season. And the latter-half struggles are certainly cause for some concern. But a groin injury he suffered later in the year may have played a part in his prolonged slump. And if you feel like rolling the dice, the upside here is immense.
Fantasy owners seem pretty quick to dismiss the dip in Goldschmidt’s batting average in 2019, and there are certainly valid arguments for doing so. His .303 BABIP was well below his .348 career mark, and his contact and strikeout rates remained fairly steady. However, could that dip in BABIP be the result of the continued decline in his sprint speed (44th percentile last season)? Or the fact that he started chasing significantly more pitches out of the zone, as seen in his career-worst 31.4% chase rate? What about his struggles against fastballs, which he hit just .256 against with a higher whiff rate than ever before? The power still appears to be there, and the red flags aren’t glaring enough to completely write off his ability to hit above .290 again. But there are a few questions marks here that are worth keeping on your radar.
Rumors of Muncy’s inevitable demise when facing lefties were greatly exaggerated. Though a convenient excuse for the Dodgers to sit Muncy on occasion, he proved he’s more than capable of handling southpaws last year, posting a .374 wOBA and 135 wRC+ against them. This, paired with the National League DH and the fact that Alex Verdugo is no longer creating a logjam in the Dodgers’ outfield, means we may finally get to see what Muncy can do with full-time at-bats. The career 12.1% barrel rate and 41.3% hard-hit rate point to the 35-homer power being sustainable, and a bump in plate appearances might even help him get to 13+ home runs in a shortened season, though you probably can’t count on a batting average that reaches even .270.
No. 11: Carlos Santana (Cleveland Indians)
One of the main criticisms of Carlos Santana over the years was that he hit far too many grounders, resulting in poor BABIPs, low home run totals, and underwhelming batting averages. In 2019, he seemed to make a conscious decision to elevate the ball more, especially as the season went on:
While his season-long average launch angle ended up being one of the lowest of his career, it was likely dragged down by the exceptionally low mark he posted in April. The gradual rise in launch angle paired nicely with one of the best hard-hit rates of his career, helping him tie his career-high in home runs with 34. If he can continue to work on keeping the ball off the ground, there’s no reason he can’t repeat that pace in 2019. However, even with the changes he made last year, ground balls remained an issue, so there is some reason for caution.
How much longer can we continue to let Hoskins rest on the laurels of the 18-homer barrage he unleashed over his first 50 games in 2017? Over the past two years, he’s failed to really establish himself as a consistent power threat, and while the counting stats have been there largely due to his favorable lineup placement, they’ve come at the cost of his batting average. Generally, half his batted balls are pulled in the air, which is usually a good recipe for home runs. However, if your quality of contact isn’t great — and Hoskins’ 39.8% career hard-hit rate is hardly astounding — those pulled fly balls are more likely to result in easy outs than homers. If Hoskins can either start hitting the ball harder, or focus less on lifting every pitch he swings at, he could start to show some of the promise he flashed in his rookie season. But, until then, it’s probably best to temper your expectations.
Danny Santana is an interesting case, because the upside is clearly there for a 25/25 season, which is not something you can say about any of the other first basemen on this list. The problem is figuring out whether last year was even moderately repeatable for Santana. In 2019, he posted a dreadful 41.9% chase rate, 15.7% SwStr%, and 71.6% contact rate that paint the picture of a guy who will struggle to hit even .240. However, perhaps he can mitigate some of these flaws by continuing to hit an above-average amount of line drives while crushing the ball to the tune of a 43.6% hard-hit rate. Santana’s .275 xBA from 2019 certainly hints at the possibility of him overcoming his contact and plate discipline issues. However, the floor here is of a guy who won’t hit enough to remain in the starting lineup full-time.
Considering the beauty of Christian Walker’s Statcast profile, it’s a shame his overall numbers didn’t quite reach the peaks that they likely could have with a bit more batted-ball luck:
Despite a barrel rate in the 90th percentile and a hard-hit rate in the 94th percentile, Walker fell short of the 30-homer plateau. His 20.1% HR/FB rate seems a bit low considering his quality-of-contact metrics, and he underperformed both his .516 xSLG and .362 xwOBA. If he can continue to crush the ball in 2020, 12 homers is within reach, with a batting average that won’t hurt you. And with the National League DH freeing up an additional avenue to at-bats, Walker is a nice sleeper target.
For his career, Pederson has a 131 wRC+ against righties, but just a 57 wRC+ against lefties. So, to absolutely nobody’s surprise, he continues to find himself in platoons. Though the Dodgers’ new DH spot seems like a perfect fit for Pederson, it’d still be surprising if he was given free reign over all the position’s at-bats, especially with Chris Taylor and Enrique Hernandez still in the picture. If you can stomach the fact that you’ll have to manage him constantly in daily leagues, his power makes him an enticing option, especially if you have the roster flexibility to platoon him with another high-upside bat.
It’s easy to write off Gurriel’s 31 homers from 2019 as a fluke, considering he’s 35 years old and had never surpassed 18 homers in any season prior. However, bear in mind that Minute Maid Park is a hitter’s paradise for right-handed pull hitters, and Gurriel’s power outburst came in a year where he upped both his pull rate and fly ball rate significantly. If those changes stick, hitting more than seven homers in this shortened season should be fairly easy for Gurriel, and his elite contact ability gives him a safe batting average floor. The question marks here are really whether his age will catch up with him and exactly how much his power will regress this season.
As a self-proclaimed “Voit Boi,” nobody was more saddened by Voit’s 2019 season than I was. After a promising start to the year, wherein Voit posted an xwOBA over .390, he began slowing down in June, and then suffered an abdominal strain and sports hernia that cost him over a month of playing time. He never really seemed himself after his return from the IL, but if he’s healthy heading into 2020, his elite line drive ability and excellent power could easily help him shoot into the top 10 first basemen in the league.
At 36 years old and coming off a fairly lackluster season by his standards, Encarnación was mostly an afterthought in drafts last year. But by elevating his fly ball rate above 50% for the first time since 2010, and pulling the ball more than he had in the two seasons prior, Encarnación was able to get back to being the offensive powerhouse he had been in his prime. It also helped that his performance against off-speed pitches shot through the roof last year:
A lot has been made about Encarnación’s age over the past few years, but even though his plate discipline and contact skills have eroded a bit, there still seems to be a good bit left in the tank. Expect regression from last year, but if you can stomach an average around .240, there’s a ton of power upside here.
I hate the term “Statcast darling,” but sometimes you gotta call it like you see it. The advanced metrics love what Cron did last season, pegging him for a .277 xBA, .548 xSLG, and .366 xwOBA. His 15% barrel rate was also one of the best in the league, and had he appeared in more than 125 games he likely would have surpassed 30 home runs. If there’s a knock against Cron, it’s that he does most of his damage against lefties — he posted a 160 wRC+ against them last year, but just a 78 wRC+ against righties. Still, he should occupy a premium spot in the Tigers batting order, which should help him earn good value based on where he’s going in drafts.
Murphy’s move to Colorado seemed like a promising development, but an injury to his index finger at the start of the season left him and his owners wondering what could have been. His Statcast profile is just about as ugly as it gets, though there are rumors that his finger never truly healed, which might explain some of his issues with the bat. His ceiling is that of a guy who could compete for a batting title while chipping in some power at a 20-homer pace. The National League DH is perfectly suited for him, so despite his injury history, he could be worth a gamble in a shortened 2020 where he won’t have to take the field.
No. 21: Yandy Diaz (Tampa Bay Rays)
When Diaz was traded from the Indians to the Rays, the hope was that the team would help unlock Diaz’s latent power by having him focus on elevating the ball more. While he did cut down on his ground ball rate a bit, it still sat at a concerning 50.8%, and his average launch angle remained below-average. Diaz crushes the ball, as evidenced by his 44.8% hard-hit rate, but it’s going to be difficult for him to reap the benefits of that power unless he gives more of those batted balls a chance to leave the yard.
I get the appeal with McMahon. I really do. Seeing that he was in the top 10% of all hitters last year in average exit velocity and hard-hit rate is appealing, especially when you know he’ll play half his games in Coors. With Daniel Murphy likely shifting into the DH role this year and Ian Desmond having chosen to sit out the season, McMahon currently projects to be the team’s full-time first baseman. McMahon has some contact issues that become completely exposed when he plays on the road though–he had just a .299 wOBA in 67 away games last year. Maybe it all works itself out and you wind up with a guy who can hit more than 10 homers this year with a middling batting average. Or maybe he becomes pure waiver wire fodder.
No. 23: Renato Nunez (Baltimore Orioles)
Renato Nunez may have had the quietest 30-homer season in the majors last year. The expected stats backed it all up, but things are pretty bleak in that Baltimore lineup, and Nunez’s propensity for chasing pitches outside the strike zone should cap his average around .250.
Hosmer has a career 54.5% ground ball rate, which means in any given season he’s going to be at the mercy of the BABIP gods when it comes to his batting average and home run totals. Catch him during a lucky year and you might get 20+ homers and an average around .290. Catch him in a bad year, and you might as well have drafted the ragged, fleshy shell of Albert Pujols. The range of outcomes is high, and while you might be tempted to roll the dice, there are probably better gambles out there.
Where there’s Smoak, there’s fire — or, oftentimes, just an unpleasant smell. Smoak’s career has been a complete roller coaster, peaking in 2017 with a 38-homer season, and hitting one of its lowest points last year when he struggled to stay above the Mendoza Line. He was exceptionally unlucky last year, as evidenced by his .250 xBA and subpar power output despite a solid 11% barrel rate. He has a clear path to playing time in Milwaukee, especially with the newly implemented National League DH, and considering his up-and-down history, a sudden return to fantasy relevance wouldn’t be all that shocking.
Oh Votto, we wish we know how to quit you. Maybe it’s pure stubbornness that keeps us coming back — an irrational insistence that nobody could fall off as quickly and as gracelessly as Votto did after his absolutely incredible 2017 season. Are there reasons for hope? Sure. He’s still a master at peppering line drives all over the field, and his contact ability is still elite. If he could begin driving the ball with authority again, there’s a glimmer of hope for a renaissance year. But perhaps, at 36 years old, that’s too big of an “if.”
Age is just a number, right? Well, that and a marker of the distance we’ve all traveled in our slow, inexorable march through the barren desert of time. Okay, maybe that’s a bit bleak. But regardless, Howie Kendrick doesn’t seem bothered by it! Though he only accumulated 370 plate appearances as the Nationals’ utilityman, Kendrick posted one of his more impressive seasons to date. He set career marks in batting average (.344), strikeout rate (13.2%), hard-hit rate (48.3%) and barrel rate (11.4%). Though he doesn’t have a starting job heading into 2020, it’s not hard to imagine him soaking up close to full-time at-bats around a very unsettled Washington infield. And he seems like a prime candidate to occupy the Nationals’ DH spot. If he continues to crush the ball the way he did last year, he could be a game-changer that can be had in the very last round of most drafts.
Playing time is half the battle when it comes to fantasy relevance, and Evan White appears to have that in spades. After signing a 6-year, $24M deal this offseason, it looks like White will enter the year as the Mariners’ everyday first baseman. White is coming off an impressive 400 plate appearances in AA where he slashed .293/.350/.488 with 18 homers. He profiles as a guy who could hit 25 homers over a full season with a decent average–though when it comes to rookies, anything can happen.
No. 29: Jesus Aguilar (Miami Marlins)
Well, if you’re gonna throw a hail mary when it comes to your first baseman, who better to do it with than Aguilar? Just 29 years old, Aguilar is only a season removed from a 35-homer campaign that saw him drive in 108 runs in 566 plate appearances. The move to Miami doesn’t bode super well for his power output, but he should be the team’s primary first baseman. If he can sort out the reason why his wOBA against fastballs dropped from .424 in 2018 to .329 last year, he could be an excellent sleeper in deeper leagues.
Chavis got off to a hot start in 2019, smacking 10 homers over his first 157 plate appearances. Then his elevated strikeout rate caught up with him, causing his batting average to plummet. Though Chavis does have a healthy amount of power, and should soak up plenty of at-bats in a strong Boston lineup between first base and second base, there are enough holes in his swing that he may not even be worth the gamble in a short season.
Photo by Brian Rothmuller/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)