2020 Positional Power Rankings: First Base

Earlier today, Meg Rowley introduced this year’s positional power rankings. As a quick refresher, all 30 teams are ranked based on the projected WAR from our Depth Charts. Our staff then endeavors to provide you with some illuminating commentary to put those rankings in context. We begin this year’s series with first base.

First base just ain’t what it used to be. For the first time in the span covered by our strict position splits (i.e., including only the time actually spent at the position), which means as far back as 2002, not a single first baseman produced a season worth at least 5.0 WAR. Even Pete Alonso, who set a rookie record with 53 homers while posting a 143 wRC+ and playing better-than-advertised defense, topped out at 4.8, with Freddie Freeman and Anthony Rizzo the only other ones to reach 4.0, though Carlos Santana and Max Muncy surpassed that latter pair if you include their time at other positions. Alonso and Freeman were the only ones who cracked the top 10 in MVP voting, placing seventh and eighth in the NL. The highest-ranked AL first baseman in the voting, José Abreu, placed 19th.

On the offensive side, first basemen collectively hit for a 108 wRC+ for the second year in a row, matching their lowest mark of the aforementioned period. In other words, they almost perfectly kept pace with the majors’ rising tide of offense, gaining five points of on-base percentage relative to 2018 (from .333 to .338) and 24 points of slugging percentage (.from 438 to .462); the league as a whole gained five points of the former and 26 of the latter. Collectively, the 47.2 WAR produced by first basemen was just 0.3 ahead of last year for the lowest mark in that period.

What’s going on? It’s probably just cyclical turnover. Of the top 10 first basemen in value from 2015-18, all but Freeman, Rizzo, and Santana have fallen on hard times, while Cody Bellinger, who arrived in 2017, showed he was athletic enough to play the outfield regularly, and now only spots at first. Meanwhile, Joey Votto, Paul Goldschmidt, Brandon Belt, Miguel Cabrera, Abreu and Eric Hosmer, who collectively averaged 3.5 WAR per player-season over that four-year span, combined for just 5.3 WAR in 2019, with Goldschmidt (2.9) and Abreu (1.9) the only ones escaping the gravitational pull of replacement level. There just isn’t a lot of young talent filtering into the position, either. Alonso and Matt Olson were the only first basemen 25 or younger who produced at least 2.0 WAR in 2019, with Olson and Bellinger the only ones doing so in ’18, though a strong sophomore showing from Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who was recently moved across the diamond, could help arrest the trend some.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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3 years ago

It’s going to take me a while to adjust to the shortened season statlines. I saw 1.5 WAR as the leader and had to do a double take.

3 years ago
Reply to  68FC

Assuming we still get a season (Lately I have my doubts) It is going to be an interesting one to contextualize some 20 years down the road.

3 years ago
Reply to  v2micca

I’m wondering if it will be viewed more like the ’94 strike-shortened season or (perhaps depending on how many people end up opting out) if it’ll be closer to the “fake baseball” WWII-era seasons.

3 years ago
Reply to  D-Wiz

Hal Newhouser hates your “fake baseball” comment. Or, he would, if he were alive.

3 years ago
Reply to  68FC

Gosh, same here.

3 years ago
Reply to  68FC

Going to be fun explaining Trout’s 3-4 WAR season down the road.