SSG Baseball – Top 10 1B for the 2020 Season

We’re back this week with another top 10, this time for First basemen. Making this list I ran into the classic “DH Dilemma”, as I like to call it. There are no players technically designated (no pun intended) as a DH. I could determine based on the team’s current lineup settings (though every team doesn’t have their lineups set), or I could look at their recent number of appearances in the field at first base compared to their teammates and project who will be the DH for 2020. It seemed that the easiest solution was to define a “first baseman” as “a player designated as a first baseman by his team”, regardless of whether he will actually play much there. Therefore a player’s lack of innings at first will be considered just like any other’s players defense; if they don’t play defense, it will hurt their overall stock. As a result, on teams with multiple first basemen, whether they be AL teams with a DH or teams with platoons, all first basemen were considered. See the photo above* (Danny Schaefer of the Mets has no facegen picture in my game, so no disrespect was intended) for all of the qualifying first basemen.

For the first base list, there were a lot of great hitters, so the competition was tough, especially at the bottom. OBP is naturally the most important number in my opinion, but knocking the stuffing out of the ball is also obviously a big plus. While defense is important, it ended up being more of a tie-breaker for a lot of the close-calls. And as in all of these rankings, age matters a lot, since I am projecting forward into the new year.

Now, on to the list.

10) Wilmer Flores (28) – Chicago White Sox 2019 – 159 games, .333/.374/.515 (129 OPS+), 25 HR, 4.5 WAR

Flores’s career has been full of ups and downs. In 2016 he was an All-Star and Silver Slugger at age 24, but then he regressed in 2017 to replacement level (0.1 WAR), He then became perfectly adequate in 2018 with a 109 OPS+, and then he exploded in 2019. His batting average led all first basemen and his OBP was 5th. He also plays good defense as he posted a +3.3 ZR last season. 

9) Jonas Lantigua (25) – San Diego Padres 2019 – 147 games, .278/.348/.463 (114 OPS+), 21 HR, 2.5 WAR

After a stellar rookie season in 2018, Lantigua regressed in basically every statistical category except for OBP, which he improved by 25 points. He also struck out less. He may not live up to his absurd 2018 numbers (46 HR, .569 SLG, 142 OPS+) but if he falls somewhere between his last two years going forward he will still be very good. 

8) Christian Walker (29) – Baltimore Orioles 2019 – 161 games, .293/.347/.548 (129 OPS+), 38 HR, 4.3 WAR

Walker is a late bloomer. He didn’t play a full season in the big leagues until he was 26 in 2017. That year he was basically average on offense, and he played poor defense, which equaled out to a WAR below zero. Since then, he’s been on the field more than anyone, playing in all but 3 of the Orioles games in 2018 and 2019 combined. He’s also hit 37 and 38 homers in those two years. His rate stats have also soared, with his slugging percentage being the most impressive; it went from.403 in 2017, to .499 in 2018, and went up to.548 in 2019. Mathematically if he continues on his trajectory he will slug .573 in 2020, and have an OBP of .367. Those numbers may be unrealistic and he may have peaked, but a guy who stays on the field like he does is still very valuable.

7) Clarence Bates (25) – Pittsburgh Pirates 2019 – 153 games, .290/.346/.571 (135 OPS+), 40 HR, 3.7 WAR

At 6’8”, 265 lbs., Bates is the physical embodiment of a power-hitting first baseman, The former top-5 pick broke out in 2019. He actually hit more home runs on the road last season (22) than at home (18) despite having the short-porch in right field at PNC Park. His defensive numbers are not great but the bat more than makes up for it. His slugging percentage and OPS were both 5th among first basemen. If he can lower the strikeout rate (22.5%) and increase the walk rate (7.0%) he could be an MVP candidate someday.

6) Rowdy Tellez (25) – Colorado Rockies 2019 – 134 games, .282/.353/.664 (138 OPS +), 42 HR, 3.6 WAR

The only thing holding Tellez back from being near the top of this list is his smaller sample size; he’s had an average of only 363 PA in the past two years. The power has been apparent though, and he has 69 homers over that time. He also had an absurd .664 slugging percentage last year, and even when adjusted for the Coors Field park effects (138 OPS+) his numbers have held up. A full season at first base for him will boost his stock, but the Rockies also have Justin Smoak who is also good and could continue to take some playing time away. The Rockies have an embarrassment of riches on offense.

5) Miguel Sano (27) – Minnesota Twins 2019 (with TOR and MIN)  – 154 games, .255/.330/.574 (126 OPS+), 51 HR, 3.9 WAR

Sano led AL in homers for two years in a row. He came up with the Twins, was sent to Toronto in 2016, then was welcomed back last year in another trade. He also struck out more than anyone in baseball last year, and doesn’t walk much. Sound familiar? Like Bates in Pittsburgh, if he walks more he can (and probably will) be an MVP candidate.

4) Anthony Rizzo (30) – Washington Nationals 2019 – 160 games, .273/.357/.570 (136 OPS+), 46 HR, 5.7 WAR

The third trade of Rizzo’s career landed him in D.C. before last season, where he returned to form after abysmal 2017 and 2018 years for the Cubs. in 2019, Rizzo set career highs in home runs, hits, doubles, slugging percentage, and OPS at age 29. He still plays good defense as well. In 2020, he should continue to show that 2017 and 2018 were just speed bumps. 

3) Jose Abreu (33) – Cleveland Spiders 2019 – 159 games, .310/.382/.596 (145 OPS+), 49 HR, 5.2 WAR

Cleveland brought in a new first baseman in Conrad Gregor via a trade with the Yankees in December. So Jose will be the first example of the aforementioned DH’s on this list. However, as durable as Jose has been (he’s played at least 132 games in 6 of his 8 years since debuting) having more time on the bench between at bats will ensure he stays as healthy as possible as he gets older. He has not had a bad season when healthy, and last year was his best since he was a rookie. His bat is so good that his defense didn’t matter in previous years anyway, so his move to the DH doesn’t hurt his stock very much.

2) Kennys Vargas (29) – Toronto Blue Jays 2019 (with MIN and TOR) – 157 games, .278/.366/.595 (142 OPS+), 5.1 WAR

Due to the trade involving both of them last summer, Vargas and Miguel Sano’s names will probably be forever intertwined. It seemed to have benefited both of them, because like Sano, Vargas did better after the deal. He has always been good, but not as monstrous as he was down the stretch with the Jays last year. He slotted very well into the DH spot as they already had a defensive wizard in Brandon Belt (who just missed this list). Like with Tellez in Colorado, park effects don’t seem to have made all of the difference as his OPS+ was 44 points better (164 in TOR and 120 in MIN) with his new team. His defense is also just fine, and he would probably be starting at first with most other AL teams. 

1) Miguel Cabrera (37) – Detroit Tigers 2019 – 155 games, .324/.403/.597 (155 OPS+), 41 HR, 5.9 WAR

The king still reigns. Miggy will chase history in 2020 as he sits 49 homers short of 600. After hitting under 30 home runs each season between and including 2014 (age 31) and 2018 (age 35), his power returned with 41 big flies in both 2019 and 2020. Despite his age, he has played in at least 154 games in each of the last 3 seasons. He also led all first basemen in OBP. And he still plays good defense. This was an easy choice.

Thanks for reading. Please let me know what you think, not only of my rankings but of these articles themselves. I’m thinking of mixing things up a bit as far as the format of my next one (wherein I’ll rank the top 10 second basemen). Stay tuned.

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