Now that the 2021 MLB regular season has come to an exciting conclusion, it’s time to reflect on the outstanding performances that defined this year in baseball. We just broke down the top-15 hitting catchers, and now it’s time for the second article of this ten-part series in which we break down the top hitters at each position during the 2021 season. First base is up next, a position that has historically been the prime spot for teams to place their biggest sluggers. This year, the case has been no different. Some of the top offensive players in the game reside at first base and every player on this list had a case for being the best hitter on their respective teams. Many first basemen nearly joined the list but, because of the position’s depth, were forced off by more impressive seasons. That depth pushed up the bar for what it meant to be a top offensive first baseman in 2021.
We’ll use a combination of counting stats, rate stats, and advanced stats to break down each player’s case to be included amongst the best hitters at their position. All stats via Fangraphs.
15. Brandon Belt – San Francisco Giants
97 G, 381 PA, .274/.378/.597, 65 R, 29 HR, 59 RBI, 3 SB, 12.6%/27.0% BB/K, 158 wRC+
Belt eeked out a spot on this list because his otherworldly performance at the dish made up for the significant amount of time he missed throughout the year. He dealt with nagging injuries all year and was platooned so that he could face mostly right-handed pitchers. The injuries held him back from accruing more playing time and placing him much higher on this list, while the platooning helped Belt reach his highest level of performance.
Despite his lack of playing time, the 2016 All-Star still had one of the best offensive seasons by a Giant in the last decade. Belt crossed the 20-homer threshold for the first time in his career and came one long ball shy of becoming the first Giant to hit 30 home runs in a season since the legendary Barry Bonds hit 45 in 2004.
Among his peers, his 158 wRC+ and .975 OPS were second among all first basemen. He did the majority of his damage against righties, facing opposite-handed pitchers more than three-quarters of the time. His splits against righties earned him his spot among the top-hitting first baseman. In 306 PA versus righties, Belt batted .280/.379/.629 with 25 HR and a 165 wRC+, marks that put him in elite territory among righty killers. The 33-year-old had his best season at the perfect time, as he’s scheduled to become a free agent after the conclusion of the World Series and it will be interesting to see which teams are interested in his services.
14. Ryan Mountcastle – Baltimore Orioles
144 G, 586 PA, .255/.309/.487, 77 R, 33 HR, 89 RBI, 4 SB, 7.0%/27.5% BB/K, 111 wRC+
The only rookie on this list, Mountcastle showed that his 2020 mini-breakout was no fluke by tapping into the raw power generated by his 6’4” frame. The righty broke the Orioles single-season record for home runs by a rookie, surpassing Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr.’s record of 28 — set nearly 40 years ago.
Camden Yards is one of the best offensive ballparks in the Majors, and Mountcastle was able to take full advantage of the kind dimensions in his home stadium. He performed like an All-Star in Baltimore, posting a .274/.316/.527 slash line with two-thirds of his homers. That was good for a 127 wRC+, outpacing his mark on the road by more than 30 points.
The skill that Mountcastle could improve most would be his plate discipline. His BB/K ratio of 0.25 was the worst of any player on this list and was the second-lowest by any first baseman with at least 400 PA. At 24-years old, Mountcastle has plenty of time to improve multiple aspects of his game as the Orioles begin to emerge from their lengthy rebuild.
13. Josh Bell – Washington Nationals
144 G, 568 PA, .261/.347/.476, 75 R, 27 HR, 88 RBI, 11.4%/17.8% BB/K, 118 wRC+
The hulking, 6’4” first baseman staked his claim to the title of the best offensive switch-hitting first baseman in the game with his valuable contributions in 2021 on the back of a disappointing 2020 campaign. As a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Bell broke out in the first half of 2019 but was unable to repeat those efforts the following season. Bell bounced back from a lackluster shortened season, in which he posted a measly 77 wRC+, to retake his place as one of the better hitters at his position.
A preseason trade to the Nationals set him up to recapture the form that earned him his first and only All-Star selection in 2019. Bell was able to revert his plate discipline metrics back to his career norms, ultimately helping him to record a top-ten BB/K rate among first basemen with at least 300 PA. Just four other first basemen matched Bell’s BB/K rate and paired that with at least 25 bombs. On top of that, he tapped into his massive frame to surpass the elite 115 mph max exit velocity threshold and hit the ball hard with consistency, posting a 52% hard-hit rate (93rd percentile) — fourth by a first baseman with at least 350 PA, according to Baseball Savant. Bell will be in DC for one more year before testing the waters of free agency.
12. C.J. Cron – Colorado Rockies
142 G, 547 PA, .281/.375/.530, 70 R, 28 HR, 92 RBI, 1 SB, 11.0%/21.4% BB/K, 127 wRC+
An eight-year MLB veteran, Cron has jumped around from team-to-team since his trade from the Los Angeles Angels to the Tampa Bay Rays during the 2017-18 offseason. He has played for three different teams after being designated for assignment by the Rays following the 2018 season. His 30-homer pop has been underappreciated in his time in the big leagues, considering that Minnesota Twins didn’t tender him a contract following the 2019 season after having claimed him off waivers from the Rays the year prior. Even the lowly Detroit Tigers didn’t want to re-sign him after his short stint with the team in 2020.
The Rockies were able to swoop Cron up from the free-agent pool at a reduced price and inserted him into the best hitter’s park in the Majors. The 17th overall pick in the 2011 Draft, Cron capitalized on his opportunity to play in Denver where he hit .326/.412/.661 (155 wRC+) with 19 HR in 274 PA, while performing slightly below league-average on the road. The Rockies enjoyed Cron’s presence in the lineup so much that they extended his contract through the next two seasons, guaranteeing the first baseman $14.5 million over that time on top of the $1 million contract he signed last offseason. Another couple of years in Coors will surely be a massive boon to Cron’s statistics going forward.
11. Jared Walsh – Los Angeles Angels
144 G, 585 PA, .277/.340/.509, 70 R, 29 HR, 98 RBI, 2 SB, 8.2%/26.0% BB/K, 127 wRC+
Walsh was the man who forced inner-circle Hall of Famer Albert Pujols out of town with his scintillating start to the 2021 season. The Angels wanted to free up an everyday role for the lefty, but couldn’t do so without displacing one of the greatest right-handed hitters of all time. In the end, the move paid off as Walsh became one of the best offensive first basemen in the American League.
In the first month of the season in which Walsh catapulted himself to the top of LA’s first base depth chart, he set the world on fire. He posted a 155 wRC+ in 93 March/April plate appearances and, once he took hold of the everyday job at first, put up an elite .932 OPS in 113 May plate appearances. Although Walsh started to fall off from there and struggled when facing lefties throughout the season, his end-of-season statistics were quite impressive.
His 34 doubles were the third most racked up by a player at his position. Additionally, among first basemen with at least 400 PA, Walsh maintained top-ten wRC+ and OPS marks while his RBI total was the sixth-highest at the position. His position on the leaderboards of these offensive metrics suggests that Walsh deserved a spot on this list based on his 2021 breakout. He will be a key cog in the Angels’ lineup for years to come because of his brutally powerful left-handed hack.
10. Ty France – Seattle Mariners
152 G, 650 PA, .291/.368/.445, 85 R, 18 HR, 73 RBI, 7.1%/16.3% BB/K, 129 wRC+
The young, right-handed-hitting France put up some incredible minor league campaigns for the San Diego Padres prior to being traded to the Mariners at the 2020 deadline. 2021 finally afforded France the opportunity to record those numbers at the Major League level, with extended playing time at first base. He used that extra time on the field to display his excellent bat-to-ball skills and his sharp eye at the plate. His .291 AVG was a top-five mark among first basemen that had at least 300 PA and he posted a top-ten K% among the same group of players.
France combined his ability to spray the ball to all fields and avoid striking with above-average power, a blend that slotted him among the top ten on this list. He was one of only three first baseman to pair at least 30 doubles with a strikeout rate below 20%, joining Matt Olson and Yuli Gurriel in that select group. On top of that, he played almost every day, helping him record the sixth-most hits and seventh-most runs by a primary first baseman. If France could tap into the power he showed at Triple-A in 2019 (27 HR in 76 G, 196 wRC+), he would be one of the premier hitters in all of baseball. Even still, he was good enough to earn a spot on this list and could be a mainstay for a while.
9. Jose Abreu – Chicago White Sox
152 G, 659 PA, .261/.351/.481, 86 R, 30 HR, 117 RBI, 1 SB, 9.3%/21.7% BB/K, 126 wRC+
It would have been hard for Abreu to repeat his efforts from 2020, considering he won the AL MVP Award, but the 34-year-old first baseman still had an elite offensive season despite falling well short of his production from last year. The three-time All-Star earned his MVP award by leading the AL in a number of categories (hits, RBI, SLG, total bases) and helping his team reach the postseason. This year, Abreu didn’t lead his league in any metric, but he did lead his team to the postseason with his bat.
A former Rookie of the Year Award winner, Abreu registered the fifth 30-homer, 100-RBI season of his eight-year career. He joined Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Matt Olson as the only first basemen to reach that feat. Abreu narrowly missed out on becoming the first player since Cecil Fielder to lead his league in RBI for three straight seasons but, nonetheless, his 117 RBI were the most by any first baseman this season. Abreu did most of his damage in August, batting .330 (180 wRC+) with a third of his dingers coming in that month alone.
Since defecting from Cuba and debuting with the White Sox in 2014, Abreu has been one of the most consistently elite hitters at his position. Moving into his late thirties, the free-agent market might not be too kind to him if he begins to regress. Next season is the final year of the three-year, $50 million extension Abreu signed prior to the 2020 season, so he will hope to carry over his successes from last season into his walk year before free agency.
8. Pete Alonso – New York Mets
152 G, 637 PA, .262/.344/.519, 81 R, 37 HR, 94 RBI, 3 SB, 9.4%/19.9% BB/K, 133 wRC+
In just three years, the young, right-handed slugger has placed himself among the premier power threats in all of baseball. Alonso, 26, followed up his Rookie of the Year Award-winning campaign in 2019 — a season in which he mashed a rookie record 53 homers — with a solid, if not underwhelming, 2020 performance. Coming into this season, evaluators were unsure if Alonso was a special power bat or if he was just a run-of-the-mill home run hitter with a high strikeout rate.
He proved that he was the former by continuing to hit the long ball while cutting his K% by more than five percent. His 37 homers were the third most by a primary first baseman and he was one of four first baseman to pair at least 30 home runs with a strikeout rate below 20%. Making more contact allowed Alonso to keep his batting average above the league average rate.
What’s even more encouraging for Alonso’s development is the continued support his statistics receive from Statcast metrics. Not only was Alonso’s .260 batting average supported by a .267 xBA, but his power metrics were even more impressive. His 118.4 mph max exit velocity (99th percentile) was the top mark reached by a first baseman, while his barrel rate (14.8%, 89th percentile), hard-hit rate (47.3%, 81st percentile), and xSLG (.529, 92nd percentile) were all top-ten marks. Alonso will remain one of the top power hitters at first base if he can maintain his strikeout rate gains from this past season. No matter how he performs next year, it won’t change the fact that he was a top-ten offensive first baseman this past season.
7. Yuli Gurriel – Houston Astros
143 G, 605 PA, .319/.383/.462, 83 R, 15 HR, 81 RBI, 1 SB, 9.8%/11.2% BB/K, 134 wRC+
One of the most unique skill sets on this list, the elder Gurriel brother was one of the most complete hitters in the league by combining his elite bat-to-ball skills with the ability to avoid striking out. Gurriel earned his rightful spot in the top ten on this list by leading not just all first baseman in batting average, but also the entire American League. In addition to winning the batting title, Gurriel also set the watermark among first basemen with his minuscule 11.2% strikeout rate.
Houston’s first baseman has always shown the capacity to steer clear of strikeouts, but he has been one of the most aggressive hitters in the league since his 2016 debut. What was most impressive about Gurriel’s plate discipline in 2021 was the fact that he was able to improve his walk rate without affecting his strikeout rate. The 37-year old veteran bumped his walk rate by more than four percent from the previous season, giving him a BB/K rate that was one of the most elite in all of baseball — he trailed only Juan Soto among players with at least 500 plate appearances.
By pairing his newfound batting eye with a league-leading batting average, Gurriel was one of the best hitters at his position. He was the only primary first baseman to pair 30 doubles with a batting average over .300, was top five in hits among first basemen, and was top ten in OPS and wRC+ among first basemen with at least 500 times at the plate. What Gurriel lacked in power, he made up for with every other aspect of his game. Entering his age-38 season in 2022, Gurriel will most likely retain his everyday first base job and his newfound discipline, but it may be difficult for him to remain the premier contact hitter at his position as he gets up there in age.
6. Max Muncy – Los Angeles Dodgers
144 G, 592 PA, .249/.368/.527, 95 R, 36 HR, 94 RBI, 2 SB, 14.0%/20.3% BB/K, 140 wRC+
Since joining the Dodgers in 2018, Muncy has morphed into one of the most consistently elite bats on the right side of the infield. After previously spending most of his time at second base, Muncy appeared in 122 games at first base compared to just 39 at second in 2021. The position change didn’t have much of an effect on his performance. The left-handed hitter recorded his third 35+ HR season in the last four years, joining four other first basemen as the only players at their position to cross that threshold this year. Muncy’s top-notch offensive efforts are obvious in his rate stats as well. The two-time All-Star placed inside the top-five in both SLG and wRC+ among first basemen with more than 400 PA, and he had top-ten marks in both OBP and OPS in that same group.
His best attribute at the plate has always been his discipline. Muncy trailed only Joey Votto in walk rate by first basemen with at least 350 PA this year and, because of his volume, Muncy also racked up the fifth-most total walks (83) in 2021. Muncy’s combination of power and discipline is common at first base, but Muncy does it better than almost anyone. According to Baseball Savant, that notion remains true. LA’s first baseman was third among his peers in expected slugging percentage (.574, 97th percentile) and xwOBA (.406, 97th percentile), revealing that he is one of the best hitters compared to his contemporaries. He just missed out on the top-five in this edition because his rate stats lag just slightly behind the select few ahead of him.
5. Joey Votto – Cincinnati Reds
129 G, 533 PA, .266/.375/.563, 73 R, 36 HR, 99 RBI, 1 SB, 14.4%/23.8% BB/K, 140 wRC+
The renaissance of Joey Votto has begun. The 15-year MLB veteran had looked like his career was coming to an end as his abilities dwindled. Over the past three seasons, Votto maintained the elite plate discipline that has come to define his Hall of Fame-worthy career, but his power was diminished compared to the days of his 2010 MVP season (37 HR, .600 SLG) and even his 2017 All-Star season (36 HR, .578 SLG). Across the 2018-20 seasons, Votto combined for just 38 HR in 341 games, leading to a .420 SLG that was almost 100 points worse than his career rate coming into this season.
Votto reworked his swing and approach heading into 2021, but didn’t get off to a hot start and landed on the IL in May. Upon his return, it took him a while to get going, but once he did, he looked like an MVP candidate once again. After the All-Star break, Votto slashed .274/.400/.657 with 25 homers across just 285 plate appearances, good for a sensational 165 wRC+ (2nd among 1B, 4th in MLB). That incredible second-half performance is the reason Votto lands in the top five on this list. It helped Votto lead all first basemen with 400 plate appearances or more in BB rate and isolated power. Also, Vladimir Guerrero Jr. was the only player to record OPS and SLG rates higher than Votto’s among players with at least 400 PA.
What stood out most from Votto’s comeback were some of the metrics he posted that were tracked by Statcast. The six-time All-Star set career highs (since Statcast began tracking data in 2015) in max exit velocity (114.1 mph, 92nd percentile), average exit velocity (92.9 mph, 93rd percentile), barrel rate (17.2%, 95th percentile), xSLG (.582, 98th percentile), and hard-hit rate (53.2%, 96th percentile) thanks to his newfound approach of being more aggressive and trying to hit more home runs. His xSLG led all first basemen while his average EV, barrel rate, and hard-hit rate were all top three marks among first basemen with at least 400 PA. His K% took a hit because of that approach, but ultimately, it paid off big time for the lifetime Red. Votto had his best season in years, and in turn, secured his place among the top-five offensive first baseman from 2021.
4. Paul Goldschmidt – St. Louis Cardinals
158 G, 679 PA, .294/.365/.514, 102 R, 31 HR, 99 RBI, 12 SB, 9.9%/20.0% BB/K, 138 wRC+
Goldschmidt probably had one of the most underrated seasons on this list, most likely a product of the majority of his production coming in the second half. In 306 PA after the break, Goldschmidt hit .330/.402/.618 with 18 homers and the highest wRC+ (170) put up by a first baseman in that time. His torrid second-half pace combined with his above-average first-half effort (111 wRC+) led the Cardinal to post one of the best overall lines by a first baseman this season. The six-time All-Star joined Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Freddie Freeman as the only first baseman to pair a .290 batting average or better with at least 30 homers. On top of that feat, among first basemen, he tallied the most doubles (36), the third-most hits (177) and runs, and the fourth-most RBI.
What set Goldschmidt apart from other players at his position this past season was his success on the basepaths. Not only was the fleet-footed first baseman a perfect twelve for twelve in stolen base attempts, but that total paced all first basemen (no other primary first baseman reached double-digits).
If Goldschmidt’s counting stats and rate stats weren’t enough to convince you of his spot in the top-five, just take a look at his Statcast metrics. The eleven-year MLB veteran posted average exit velocity, hard-hit rate, xwOBA, xBA, and xSLG marks all in the top ten percent of the league. With 50.7 career WAR after his 2021 contributions, Goldschmidt has an outside shot of being elected to the Hall of Fame at the conclusion of his career if he can keep this level of production up for just a few more years.
3. Freddie Freeman – Atlanta Braves
159 G, 695 PA, .300/.393/.503, 120 R, 31 HR, 83 RBI, 8 SB, 12.4%/15.4% BB/K, 135 wRC+
Much like the aforementioned Jose Abreu, Freeman had a lot to live up to in 2021 on the back of his NL MVP Award-winning campaign the year before. Freeman played every game that season, putting up an MVP-worthy 186 wRC+ that would’ve been tough to match in a season with 100 more games. Although not quite as impressive as that 2020 season, Freeman continued to be the model of consistency at the first base position. Since turning 26, the lifetime Brave has now put up six consecutive seasons in which he has either batted .300 or better or mashed 30 or more homers. What has always been amazing about Freeman’s success is that he combines his above-average power and his ability to hit for average with one of the most perceptive eyes at the plate. He has posted a sub-20% K rate beside double-digit BB rates for the last five consecutive seasons.
Freeman’s abilities in the box didn’t dissipate in 2021 either. He got off to a slow start, struggling to hit above .240 for the season’s first two months. From there though, Freeman really got going. He didn’t bat below .300 in any of the following months, and ultimately, batted .332 with a wRC+ 44 percent better than league average in 307 second-half plate appearances. That four-month run helped Freeman place second in hits, runs, walks, and OBP among first basemen. He and “Vlad Jr.” were the only first baseman to strike out less than 16% of the time and hit more than 30 dingers. Similar to Goldschmidt, Freeman paired his efforts at the plate with modest speed, tallying the second-most steals by a first baseman this year. A five-time All-Star, Freeman’s 2021 is most likely not enough to win him a second consecutive MVP Award, but it was enough to secure him a top-three spot on this list.
2. Matt Olson – Oakland Athletics
156 G, 673 PA, .271/.371/.540, 101 R, 39 HR, 111 RBI, 4 SB, 13.1%/16.8% BB/K, 146 wRC+
Oakland’s Gold Glove-winning first baseman was a really good hitter with obvious flaws heading into 2021. He could clearly hit for power, was one of the best fielders at his position, and did a great job of taking the free pass. The one attribute that held Olson back was his tendency to strike out a lot. Across his first four full seasons before 2021, Olson posted a 26.3% combined strikeout rate, a mark that held him back from reaching higher levels of performance. All of those strikeouts prevented Olson from batting over .270 in any season and had him pegged as just another three true outcome slugger. That all changed in 2021.
Olson took a massive step forward at the plate, cutting his strikeout rate from 2020 by nearly 15 percent. That drop in strikeouts helped him put the ball in play a lot more and gave him some of the most impressive plate discipline in the MLB. His career-high BB/K rate put him in Freeman and Guerrero Jr. territory, sixth among all first basemen. Olson’s newfound plate discipline transformed him into the second most dangerous first baseman to face in 2021 because his power metrics didn’t fall off one bit. On a rate basis, Olson was second in wRC+ and third in BB%, SLG, and OPS among first basemen with 400 PA. Missing only six games all year helped him also tally the most walks (88) and the second-most doubles (35), homers, and RBI by any first baseman.
Olson accomplished all of this while calling Oakland Coliseum his home, one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in the nation. The fact that Olson was able to post such impressive numbers regardless of his detrimental home park is what boosted him this high. The most breathtaking stat from Olson’s season was how well he hit left-handed pitching for a left-handed hitter. Olson set the record for the most home runs by a lefty off of lefty pitching in a single season. He did so by racking up 22 bombs against same-handed pitching to break the illustrious Barry Bond’s record of 21 set in 2002. That mark also placed him second by any hitter in homers against lefties in a single season, trailing only Cecil Fielder’s 25 HR vs. LHP in 1990. If not for a certain Blue Jay having a historic season, Olson would have been the top offensive first baseman this past season. Nonetheless, he was still the best left-handed hitting first baseman in the MLB.
1. Vladimir Guerrero Jr. – Toronto Blue Jays
161 G, 698 PA, .311/.401/.601, 123 R, 48 HR, 111 RBI, 4 SB, 12.3%/15.8% BB/K, 166 wRC+
The son of a Hall of Famer, Guerrero Jr. failed to live up to the expectations put upon him at a young age. Debuting as a 20-year-old in 2019, Guerrero Jr. not only had the weight of being a Hall of Famer’s son, but he also was burdened with the expectations that come with being the number one prospect in all of baseball. All of this high praise for such a young ballplayer led to a couple of underwhelming seasons to start his career. Many evaluators blamed his lack of success on his inability to get the ball in the air, citing a ground ball rate that held the righty back from reaching the full extent of his power potential. Heading into 2021, Guerrero Jr. made it a point to get in shape and to start taking baseball more seriously as his natural gifts were starting to be overshadowed by Major League pitching. It all paid off as Guerrero had maybe the best offensive season by any player in 2021, reaching the potential everyone had placed upon him as a youngster in the process.
The 22-year-old nearly claimed the Triple Crown, coming oh so close to leading his league in AVG, HR, and RBI. He had to settle for just tying for the league lead in homers, but at his position, Guerrero Jr. finished the season with the second-highest AVG and second-most RBI. He also led all first basemen in OBP, SLG, OPS, and wRC+, revealing the elite level at which Toronto’s first baseman performed this past season. On top of all of these position-leading metrics, Guerrero Jr. recorded the most runs in the MLB and tallied the most hits (188) and second-most walks (86) by a first baseman. He was the only first baseman to post a .300/30-HR/100-RBI season and was one of three players in all of baseball to accomplish that feat. His trio of volume, production, and team context helped him put up one of the greatest seasons ever by a Blue Jay.
Vladdy’s ability to hit for average and power was already unmatched, but he also had some of the best plate discipline at the position, making him the most complete hitter on this list. His BB/K rate was a top-five mark among first basemen and wasn’t weighted more heavily towards a high BB rate or low K rate because both of his rates in those categories were top-ten marks.
The 2021 All-Star had an otherworldly first half in which he earned his spot on that Midsummer Classic roster. He batted .332/.430/.658 with 28 HR and a 187 wRC+ in 374 plate appearances during the first half, setting himself apart from the rest of the league with his unstoppable contributions at the dish. It’s not like his second half was bad either. His 142 wRC+ still put him in elite territory and helped the young first baseman finish as the top batter at his position. Lastly, Guerrero Jr. had some of the best Statcast metrics of any Major Leaguer. His average exit velocity (95.1 mph), max exit velocity (117.4 mph), hard-hit rate (55.2%), xwOBA (.414), xBA (.303), and xSLG (.580) all ranked in the 98th percentile or better in all of baseball. His avg EV and xwOBA led all first basemen, while his max EV, hard-hit%, xBA, and xSLG were all runner-ups at his position. If not for Shohei Ohtani having maybe the greatest baseball season of all time, Guerrero Jr. might have had the best case for the 2021 AL MVP Award. Even though he most likely won’t win that illustrious award, Vladdy can lay claim to being the best offensive first baseman during the 2021 season.
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