Home Featured Best MLB Players of the 2010s: First Base

Best MLB Players of the 2010s: First Base

by Chris Brown

With the 2010s in the rearview mirror, 110 Sports is taking a look back at the best players of the last decade at each position. There’s no one perfect way to evaluate baseball players. For these rankings, we weigh statistics such as OPS (on-base + slugging percentage) and WAR (wins above replacement), which, while imperfect, are good at assessing hitting contributions and overall value, along with various other factors like the player’s best years in the decade, length of high-level production, speed, defense, reputation, playoff experience and awards. 

A general note about eligibility for this exercise: Players are being considered for the top 10 only at the position they played most in the decade. If a player made a significant contribution at another position in the 2010s, they may receive an honorable mention there as well. Let’s get to it.

After naming Buster Posey the top catcher of the 2010s, we’ll shift from the worst non-pitcher position for offense to the best, first base. Among qualifiers in terms of games played, Posey led all catchers with a 0.828 OPS. In comparison, the 10th-best OPS at first base is three points higher. 

There’s a solid group of top contenders for the best first baseman of the decade, but let’s start with some others who had notable contributions in the 2010s.

Honorable Mentions

Joe Mauer | MIN 2010-18

Mauer finds himself in the unique position of being an honorable mention at both catcher and first base. One of the best-hitting backstops of all time, Mauer was limited to 314 games behind the plate in the 2010s, shifting primarily to first base in the final years of his career. With his time at first corresponding with a decline at the plate, Mauer’s numbers as a first basemen, while solid, were not worthy of a spot in the top 10 at a loaded position. In 593 games at first, all in the 2010s, Mauer hit .279/.357/.394, compared to a .328/.408/.481 batting line as a catcher in his career.

Edwin Encarnacion | TOR 2010-16, CLE 2017-18, SEA 2019, NYY 2019

Encarnacion played 489 games at first base in the 2010s, so it seemed worth mentioning him here, but also 723 games in the DH spot, so per the rules of this exercise, that’s the position he’ll receive consideration for the top spots. For what it’s worth, among players who handled first for at least 400 games in the decade, Encarnacion ranks first in home runs, second in RBI, fifth in OPS, and sixth in WAR. Despite those numbers, few would consider him amongst the top first basemen of the decade given his significant time as a DH. But Encarnacion did play 50+ games at first in three of the past five seasons.

Eric Hosmer | KC 2011-17, SD 2018-19

Hosmer has never been an elite hitter, reaching 25 homers just twice in nine big league seasons with an average that’s fluctuated wildly year to year. But he gets points for durability and reliability as a solid, if not spectacular, hitter for most of the 2010s. The longtime Kansas City Royal has played in 150+ games in seven of the last eight seasons and hit between 17 and 25 homers in all but two years since his debut in 2011. Hosmer has also been one of the better defenders at first, winning four Gold Gloves in the decade. Aside from the batting average, the consistency is there with Hosmer, but not the high peak.

Brandon Belt | SF 2011-19

Belt is similar to Hosmer in that he’s been a steady, but not spectacular, option at first base for the majority of the last decade. The lifelong Giant has played in 100+ games in all but one season since first receiving regular playing time in 2012. Belt hit between 12 and 18 homers each season from 2013-19, but after hitting around .280 relatively regularly early in his career, he’s posted batting averages between .234 and .253 the last three seasons. With the 11th-highest WAR among players with at least 400 games at first in the 2010s, Belt deserves more recognition than he typically receives, but his other cumulative stats and ceiling just don’t match up with the others.

Chris Davis | TEX 2010-11, BAL 2011-19

Davis was a non-entity for the first few years of the decade. Then, after a .270, 53-homer, 85-RBI season in 2012, he exploded in 2013, smashing an MLB-leading 53 homers with 103 runs and 138 RBI while slashing .286/.370/.634. Those 53 long balls are tied with Pete Alonso in 2019 for the most hits by a first baseman in the 2010s. 

Davis averaged 34 homers over the next four seasons, including a league-leading 47 in 2015, but his batting average plummeted to .225 during that stretch. The last two years he was perhaps the worst player in baseball, and that’s not an exaggeration. He’s hit .172/.256/.308 in 233 games from 2018-19. The peak was incredible for Davis in the decade, but so was the valley.

Mark Teixeira | NYY 2010-16

Teixeira’s best days were behind him when the 2010s began, but he still had something left in the tank in his 30s. From 2010-12, the then-Yankee averaged 32 home runs, 90 runs, and 101 RBI per season while batting .252/.347/.484. Teixeira also won two Gold Gloves in those three years. He surpassed 20 homers two more times before his final season in 2016, but his batting average fell greatly. There just weren’t enough peak years in the decade for Teixeira.

Top 10

10. Prince Fielder | MIL 2010-11, DET 2012-13, TEX 2014-16

It feels like longer, but it’s only been four years since Fielder last played in the majors. Had multiple neck surgeries not cut his career short, the six-time All-Star would almost certainly have placed higher on this list. Fielder played in 158 or more games in five seasons in the 2010s, including in all 162 contests three times. He tallied 100 home runs, 94 doubles, 272 runs, and 311 RBI from 2010-12 while hitting .291/.409/.521.

Fielder’s power began to decline after that and injuries started popping up. Even with an expected decline, his cumulative numbers for the decade would likely have compared decently to others in the top five had he been able to play a few more seasons.

9. José Abreu | CHW 2014-19

Abreu has never been considered one of the top two or three players at the position, but he’s been an extremely consistent high-level hitter since defecting from Cuba and playing in his first major league season in 2014. The three-time All-Star has never repeated the 36 homers he hit in his rookie campaign, but he has tallied 25 or more along with at least 100 RBI in five of his six big league seasons. Abreu’s peak just doesn’t measure up to the other players to follow and his mid-decade arrival to MLB means his overall numbers aren’t able to make up for that.

8. Adrián González | SD 2010, BOS 2011-12, LAD 2012-17, NYM 2018

Gonzalez hasn’t been a productive major leaguer since 2016, but the first seven years the decade the former first overall pick hit .295/.361/.484 while averaging 24 home runs and 103 RBI per season. With a prototypical first basemen profile, Gonzalez was a three-time All-Star, two-time Silver Slugger, two-time Gold Glove winner, and finished top 10 in MVP voting three times in the 2010s. 

His lack of games played and productivity in the final four years of the decade and lower peak years in the decade compared to the very top players here limits him to an eighth place ranking, but Gonzalez deserves more credit than he often gets for his production in the 2010s.

7. Carlos Santana | CLE 2010-17, PHI 2018, CLE 2019

Of all the players in this top 10, Santana’s name is maybe the last you think of when considering the stars of the position. Santana’s profile isn’t sexy, particularly at first base, but it’s been undoubtedly productive. The catcher-turned-first baseman and DH hasn’t been an elite run producer like others on this list, only once topping 90 RBI, but his ability to get on base has been truly elite, and his power numbers have been pretty strong, if overshadowed. Santana has hit 18 or more homers every year since 2011, twice reaching as high as 34 long balls, and has finished top four in the league in walks for the last nine seasons as well.

Among players with at least 400 games at first last decade, Santana ranks first in games played, sixth in home runs, seventh in RBI, second in walks and eighth in on-base percentage. The veteran’s best season came just this past year, when he slashed .281/.397/.515 with 30 doubles, 34 homers, 110 runs, and 93 RBI. A one-time All-Star, Santana has rarely been considered amongst the top few players at the position, but his steady, strong production combined with strong defense makes him one of the top 10 first basemen of the 2010s.

6. Albert Pujols | STL 2010-11, LAA 2012-19

Had we been examining the 2000s instead of the 2010s, the clear answer would have been Pujols. The future Hall of Famer, who’s the only player in MLB history to hit 400+ home runs in his first 10 seasons, has trailed off significantly in recent years, but his cumulative numbers for this past decade are in many ways more impressive than you might expect. Pujols is third among first basemen in hits, second in home runs and first in RBIs from 2010 to 2019. In 2010, he led the NL in runs (115), home runs (42) and RBI (118). 

The first three seasons of the decade, Pujols averaged 36 homers, 102 rus, and 107 RBI while batting .298/.375/.550. He then hit 28 or more home runs and drove in 100+ runs three more times in the decade. With batting averages below .250 in four of the past five years, his skills have clearly diminished, but his impact this decade should not be forgotten.

5. Anthony Rizzo | SD 2011, CHC 2012-19

A steady, high-level option at the position over most of the last decade is three-time Gold Glove award winner Anthony Rizzo. The Cubs first baseman smashed 31 or 32 home runs in four straight seasons from 2014-17, hitting between .272 and .292 in each of those campaigns. As homers have increased across baseball the last few years, Rizzo’s power numbers have dropped a bit (25 and 27 homers in 2018 and 2019, respectively). He’s continued to hit for a strong average, posting marks above .280 each year.

Rizzo has been a great defender at first and a great hitter for the majority of the past 10 years, but unlike the players ahead of him, he’s never really been a truly elite, top one or two hitter at the position.

4. Freddie Freeman | ATL 2010-19

At catcher, there was a clear top two that easily stood above the rest and a relatively easy choice for the top pick. At first base, there’s a clear top four, and picking the top candidates doesn’t seem nearly as easy. While they weren’t elite options at the position for the first few years of the decade, Freeman and Paul Goldschmidt remained amongst the top hitters at first — and in baseball — through the end of the 2010s. Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto, however, were in their prime years when the 2010s began but have trailed off significantly in recent years. 

In the decade, all four: scored between roughly 800 and 850 runs, hit between  230 and 270 home runs, and hit for an average between .290 and .320. There’s a case to be made for nearly any ordering of these players in the top four. 

Freeman takes the fourth spot here. The face of the Braves franchise is the best player in this group right now and the only one who doesn’t appear to be trending down. Over the last four seasons, Freeman has the highest batting average (.303) and slugging percentage (.549) of this group while averaging roughly 30 homers and 100 RBI per season.

There are a few different reasons why Freeman falls behind the others in these rankings. He wasn’t a top option at the position at the beginning of the decade. After playing in just 20 games in 2010, he quickly became a solid 20-homer, plus batting average player, but it wasn’t until more recently that a power jump made him a truly elite hitter. Freeman had just two 30-home run seasons in the decade, and his cumulative stats of runs, home runs, RBI and stolen bases are all third or fourth among this group.

3. Joey Votto | CIN 2010-19

Plenty of similar lists have Votto as the top first baseman of the decade, but he’ll wind up third here, albeit by a very small margin. We’ll start with the positives: The lifelong Red was incredibly durable in the decade, playing in 140+ games in eight years and 150+ in six of those years. His on-base skills were also simply incredible. Among all players with at least 100 plate appearances in the 2010s, Votto led MLB in OBP (.428), pacing the National League in the stat seven times in the decade.

So what are the knocks against Votto? He’s never really been an elite power hitter and he posted just two 30-homer seasons in the decade. His RBI total for the decade is the lowest amongst this group. And Votto’s performance the last two seasons of the decade was a major step back. He still led the NL in OBP in 2018, but Votto hit just 12 and 15 home runs in the last two seasons, respectively. He also posted averages of .284 and .261 the last two seasons after marks above .300 the previous three seasons. 

Is this nitpicking? Yes. A judgement call? Absolutely. But when you’re talking about the top few players at the strongest offensive position in baseball, that’s going to be necessary.

2. Paul Goldschmidt | ARI 2011-18, STL 2019

Goldschmidt is not as much of a household name as Votto and Cabrera, but his numbers for the decade line up toe-to-toe in many ways. After breaking out with an NL-leading 36 home runs and 125 RBI in 2013, the longtime Diamondback has been by many measures the best first baseman in baseball. Others have had better individual seasons, but since 2013, Goldschmidt leads these top four in home runs (by 33), RBI (by 65), and OPS (by eight points). 

Goldschmidt is also the only player of this top four with multiple Gold Gloves. And Goldschmidt has done one thing exceptionally well that none of the other three have: steal bases. He stole 127 bags in the 2010s, a mark which leads all first basemen. In fact, among those who’ve logged at least 400 games at first base, “Goldy” leads all players in steals this century. Stolen bases isn’t typically a category you look at in comparing first basemen, but Goldschmidt’s impact there is significantly higher than any of his competition.

So what’s the catch with Goldschmidt? In large part due to the fact that he didn’t begin receiving regular playing time in the majors until 2012, he had by a solid margin the fewest at-bats in the decade of any of these four. Until 2019, he consistently put up batting averages of .290 or better, but unlike Votto and Cabrera, he rarely hit more than a tick over .300 in a season. Golschmidt’s average and OBP for the decade are fourth and third, respectively, among this top four.

1. Miguel Cabrera | DET 2010-19

No player at first base — and perhaps any other position — was as great at their best in the decade as Cabrera. He was a back-to-back MVP winner and captured the Triple Crown in 2012 when he led MLB in home runs (44) and RBI (139) while pacing the American League with a .330 average. In a four-season stretch from 2010-13, Cabrera hit. 337/.425/.612, averaging 39 homers, 40 doubles, 109 runs, 127 RBI, and 155 games played per season. He then hit better than .310 in each of the next three seasons while in his early 30s. Cabrera leads this group in total home runs, RBI, average, and slugging percentage for the decade.

So is there anything not to like about Cabrera? Sure. He saw the least amount of playing time at first base in the decade compared to the other three, partly because of two seasons playing primarily third base (due to the Tigers’ addition of Prince Fielder) and partly because he’s spent more time in the DH spot in the last few years. “Miggy” was and is the worst defender of the group (each of the others have a Gold Glove). And his dropoff in recent years has been pretty steep. Cabrera played in just 38 games in 2018 due to injury, and in 2017 and 2019, he hit a combined 28 homers while batting .249 and .282.

So what set Cabrera apart? (Last rhetorical question, I promise.) All four of these players had roughly seven to eight years of high-level production, so in the end it makes the most sense to side toward the player whose peak was the highest. There’s really no questioning that the Triple Crown winner and two-time MVP is the answer there. At his peak, no first baseman in the 2010s was ever as great as Miguel Cabrera. The 11-time All-Star is the first baseman of the decade.

Photos by Hayden Schiff / Flickr (Goldschmidt), Ian D’Andrea / Flickr (Cabrera), Arturo Pardavila III / Flickr (Freeman) and Hayden Schiff / Flickr (Votto).

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