First base requires perhaps the closest attention when you play in a non-standard league, as the relative importance of production from the position along with some of the most extreme value swings among any of the positional groupings can team up to cause rankings chaos. There’s a preponderance of “three true outcome” hitters in the ranks of first basemen, and they also unsurprisingly tend to be among the slower and less athletic baserunners. So you’ll see a few names in this article multiple times: guys who get on base a whole bunch but also tend to strike out at higher rates and also have a bit more trouble legging out doubles and triples.
First basemen unsurprisingly led all of the positional groupings again last year in OBP-AVG differential with 74 points of separation, and they posted a collective slugging percentage a full 20 points higher than the second-best outfielders. Power and patience is the name of the game, and in OBP leagues, the importance of securing that combination from your first baseman becomes even greater. Fortunately the reserves are deep and there is a long list of guys that outperform their standard league rankings. On the flipside, the guys who lose relative standing in OBP formats are that much poorer of an investment.
Joey Votto, CIN
One of the more obvious candidates, Votto deserves some attention on account of taking a decent tumble down our rankings from last year’s five-star rating—a fate I suspect will be quite common in rankings far and wide this offseason. But in OBP leagues he’s still well worth the injury gamble despite additional questions about his power output. Those concerns are legitimate enough to keep Votto on the border of the top two tiers, but his long track record of elite on-base ability makes him an outstanding investment regardless.
Standard: Low-Four Stars, OBP: High-Four Stars
Adam LaRoche, CHW
The veteran version of Adam LaRoche has dramatically improved his approach since his younger days in the league, and it has paid off to the tune of four straight years with a double-digit walk rate, including a positively elite 14 percent mark last season. For a guy with a middling-at-best batting average history that’s a big deal, and it earned him almost five extra bucks in OBP formats last year relative to his standard league production. Despite his advancing age he’s likely to be anointed a sleeper far and wide already with the move to one of the friendliest ballparks around for left-handed power, and he should be targeted even more aggressively in on-base formats, albeit with fingers crossed that he’s got another season of 2014 production left in the tank.
Standard: Three Stars, OBP: High-Three Stars
Brandon Moss, CLE
After a monstrous first half, Moss’ season was torpedoed by a torn labrum muscle that killed his second-half production and left him just 16th among first basemen in adjusted value. Yet he continued a steady improvement to his approach by lopping three and a half percent off his chase rate en route to posting his first double-digit walk rate since a 29 plate appearance cup of coffee in 2007. His 100-point spread of AVG and OBP was the ninth-highest mark among first basemen, and he represents a strong bounceback candidate in OBP formats assuming a return to good health.
Standard: Two Stars, OBP: Three Stars
Mike Napoli, BOS
Napoli saw the biggest rise of any full-time first baseman last season with the switch to an OBP league, returning an extra six dollars of value in those formats, and he makes for a prime target this spring given a likely deflated price tag off a down year overall. His .371 OBP over the last four seasons ranks sixth among first basemen, while his 94 homers in that span are tied for ninth. There are moderate to severe durability concerns, as he’s only reached (exactly) 140 games once in his entire career. He’s also 33 and not exactly a prime physical specimen. Still, there’s a whole bunch of potential for him to generate surplus value if he can log a third straight 500-plus plate appearance season and catch a bit of positive homerun rate regression. He’s a legitimate candidate to be one of the last starters off the board in 18-team mixed OBP leagues, and he makes for a strong CI target.
Standard: Low-One Star, OBP: High-Two Stars
Ike Davis, OAK
Ike Davis cannot hit left-handed pitching, and he’s not a starting fantasy first baseman even in the deepest and darkest of leagues. And yet…he’s kind of an interesting upside play for OBP leaguers. Going back to the second half of 2012 Davis has now posted a 14.2 percent walk rate over his last nigh on 1,100 Major League plate appearances. And while Oakland’s home park isn’t the best place for him to play, the organization is one of the better ones in town at maximizing value from its entire 25-man roster. That means Davis should see ample time as the everyday guy against righties, and through all his trials and tribulations over the past of couple seasons, he’s got a .357 OBP and an ISO over .200 in his career against non-southpaws.
Standard: Zero Stars, OBP: High-One Star
Adrian Gonzalez, LAD
Gonzalez had himself a welcome bounce-back year in 2014, fueled by a strong rebound of his HR:FB rate and a MLB-best 116 RBI. But he posted the lowest full-season OBP of his career for a second consecutive season, and while he’s seventh in AVG among first basemen over the past three years he checks in just 19th in OBP. He’s still a top-10 option, but he’s should be rounding out the bottom of that list instead of parked in the middle of it.
Standard: High-Four Stars, OBP: Low-Four Stars
Albert Pujols, LAA
Five years ago it would’ve seemed laughable to conceive of Prince Albert ever making a list like this, yet here we are. Pujols’ .324 OBP last year ranked him 24th among first basemen, driven by a walk rate that plunged under seven percent. His chase rate topped 30 percent for a third consecutive season, and given his age it’s just not likely that his once-sublime discipline ever returns. He remains a very strong three-category contributor, but these days that production comes at the cost of a significant OBP liability.
Standard: Four Stars, OBP: High-Three Stars
Justin Morneau, COL
Morneau obviously had an excellent season last year high up in the Rockie Mountains, but it wasn’t quite as rosy in OBP leagues. He returned about $2.50 less value on account of a 6.2 percent walk rate that was the third-worst mark in the league. His OBP-AVG was 49th among 55 first base-eligible hitters, and despite leading the position in batting average he checked in just 11th in OBP. The approach leaves him highly dependent on his batted ball results to get on base, and while a repeat of last year’s .319 mark certainly isn’t impossible, it’s an unwise assumption to bank on it. If Morneau hits .280 with 2014’s walk rate next year he’s suddenly posting an OBP ranking somewhere around the mid-twenties. Coupled with middle-of-the-road power even in Coors, that’s a recipe for a significantly lighter return on investment.
Standard: Three Stars, OBP: High-Two Stars
Matt Adams, STL
You can pretty much take everything I said about Morneau, knock the walk rate down a couple more points, and slap on an even-more-extreme platoon split for good measure. Adams lost over four bucks worth of value between standard and on-base leagues last year, as his 4.6 percent walk rate was not only the worst among first basemen, it was tied for the 15th-worst mark in all of baseball. Big City’s minor-league walk rate was under seven percent to begin with, so it’s not like we’re talking about a player whose approach has just failed to translate against big league pitching. The separation between him and Ike Davis in an OBP league isn’t much at all (it was all of $2 last year), and Adams’ significantly higher draft day price makes him a much poorer investment.
Standard: High-Two Stars, OBP: High-One Star
Eric Hosmer, KCR
Just when Hosmer looked doomed to a Heartland James Loney career path he went and put up a .321/.379/.509 mark over the last couple months of the season to claw his way back into breakout/sleeper/superstar-in-waiting range. Managers in OBP leagues will have even more built-in risk if they target Hosmer next year, however, as his aggressive approach held throughout the topline turnaround. His 6.4% walk rate was fourth-worst among first basemen, though it should be noted that unlike the case of Matt Adams above Hosmer actually did show a solid patience profile coming up. As with pretty much everything else, however, his early career success has not carried over, and he makes for an even riskier draft day flier in OBP formats. Standard: Low-Two Stars, OBP: One Star
There’s a robust amount of movement within the first base tiers in points rankings, as a low whiff rate and solid-average power production can both still qualify as strong fantasy skill sets. Moderate-to-absurd whiff rates are an accepted trade-off for plus power in many a first base case, leaving good contact guys swimming in potential value that is otherwise ignored entirely in standard formats. And meanwhile first basemen who don’t create a generous number of souvenirs for the bleacher dwellers can easily fall through the cracks, meaning there’s also value to be had at the position out of guys with strong doubles production. On the flipside, the number of guys who actually see a markedly worse projection in points formats turns out to be quite limited in scope. In the case of everyone in the top two tiers the total base and other counting stat accumulation potential is so strong that any question marks regarding contact rates just aren’t significant enough to measurably dent their projections. The higher-whiff guys tend to be the ones towards or below the bottom of our tiers, without much farther to realistically fall in our useable rankings. Still, there are a couple more notable names who, while they don’t see their value fall entirely off the table, should still be adjusted down a notch or two on your target lists.
Albert Pujols, LAA
For all the decline his overall skillset has suffered over the past few years Pujols is still a points league monster on account of his strong extra base hit production and elite strikeout rate. He whiffed in only 10.2 percent of his plate appearances last year, which was easily tops among first basemen, while checking in sixth in total bases. As much value as he loses in OBP formats he gains in points leagues, where he’s still a legitimate top-five option.
Standard: Four Stars, OBP: High-Four Stars
Justin Morneau, COL
Morneau put up a strikeout rate right on Pujols’ heels last season, checking in second among first basemen with a 10.9 percent mark. Unlike Pujols’ effort, however, Morneau’s performance marked a significant departure from recent precedent and included a bunch of warning sirens wailing in the night air. He’s never been a huge strikeout guy, but he managed to knock over six percent off his whiff rate last year despite chasing more pitches out of the zone and seeing his O-Contact rate spike dramatically. Managers should expect some negative regression here, but even still his historically better-than-average whiff rates and extra-base thump in Coors should offer a modest boost to offset some of the overall risk.
Standard: Low-Three Stars, Points: High-Three Stars
Adam Laroche, CHW
LaRoche is quite the popular dude around here all of a sudden. Last season he checked in 14th among first basemen in total bases, while he cut his strikeout rate to its lowest total since his second year in the league in 2005. He got himself into hitters’ counts much more frequently and his contact rates responded accordingly. While some slight negative regression in his strikeout rate should likely be built in to our draft day valuation he legitimately appears to have morphed into a hitter capable of producing stubborn whiff rates. He hasn’t shown himself to be a great doubles hitter in recent years, but the homerun power and move to a park highly conducive to ensuring that power plays helps make up for some of that.
Standard: Three Stars, Points: High-Three Stars
Eric Hosmer, KCR
For all the negative ink likely to be spilled about him this offseason, including his OBP blurb above, he still makes for a sneaky strong upside play in points formats. He hit the seventh most doubles among first basemen last season while posting a solid if unspectacular 14th–best whiff rate. While his line-drive and fly-ball rates still remain far too low to predict an out and out power breakout, it’s nonetheless unlikely he puts up another sub-seven percent HR/FB rate next season, meaning there’s some room for extra-base hit growth already built into his current profile. Add in that he’s still just 25 and ostensibly has room for further developments in his approach and execution, and the buy-low opportunity that’s likely to exist in standard leagues is magnified further in points formats.
Standard: Low-Two Stars, Points: High-Two Stars
James Loney, TAM – As a curmudgeonly Dodgers fan I generally dislike writing positive things about James Loney, but in points formats he’s…he’s earned it. These formats are the one and only place Loney can shine as a legitimate fantasy asset. He’s posted back-to-back seasons in Tampa Bay with a strikeout rate under 13 percent and more than 225 total bases, and during that run he’s third overall among first basemen in strikeout rate and tenth in doubles. Middling Run and RBI totals hold him back from leaping tall buildings in a single bound, but he still receives a nice boost into the top 20.
Standard: High-One Star, Points: Two Stars
Lucas Duda, NYM
While Duda made some commendable overall strides in cutting his whiff rate last season relative to 2013, his gains retreated as the season wore on. He finished with the highest strikeout rate of any first baseman in the top fifteen for total bases, and while his over-the-fence power was some of the best at the position it was driven by a career-high HR:FB rate that may or may not be sustainable moving forward. His doubles rate checked in a much more pedestrian 27th, mitigating some of that homerun pop in points formats.
Standard: High-Three Stars, Points: Low-Three Stars
Chris Carter, HOU
Carter’s on the opposite end of the Loney Spectrum as a guy I’ve gone to great lengths in the past to say nice things about even when he didn’t necessarily merit the praise. His monster second half confirmed his standing as one of the better raw power hitters in the game last season. Unfortunately a not insignificant amount of that production gets offset right quick in points formats, where one out of every three of his career plate appearances has ended in negative value for his managers. He’s also been oddly terrible at hitting doubles in his career, leaving him that much more singularly dependent on the long ball to prop up the entirety of his fantasy value. He remains a nice piece if you can offset some of his warts with a couple high-contact guys, but he’s a borderline starter even in 20-team mixed points leagues.
Standard: Low-Three Stars, Points: Two Stars
Mark Trumbo, ARI
It was obviously an injury-shortened campaign for Trumbo in 2014, but when he was in the batter’s box he was hacking as usual. He posted an ISO under .200 for the first time in his career while producing a doubles rate that ranked just 34th among first basemen. Given he now has a matching set of foot stress fractures on his resume it’s fair to assume a rebound in his future speed scores is less than likely. He remains a perfectly reasonable flier to rediscover his 30 home run power, but that production should be drafted as an assumption and downside risk is significant.
Standard: Two Stars, Points: High-One Star
Brandon Moss, CLE
Moss has cut his whiff rate in each of the past two seasons, but it remained the highest of any first baseman not named Ryan Howard to crack the top 20 in total bases. He’s been a relatively poor doubles hitter in his career, and while the move to Cleveland is a decidedly good one for his long-ball prospects it’s unlikely he’ll see much of a corresponding park-aided boost to his extra base hit totals on balls that stay in the yard. The injury uncertainties that pushed him down our standard list are magnified in points leagues, where the strikeout drag quickly emerges front and center if he’s not producing top-tier home run numbers.
Standard: Two Stars, Points: High-One Star
Thank you for reading
This is a free article. If you enjoyed it, consider subscribing to Baseball Prospectus. Subscriptions support ongoing public baseball research and analysis in an increasingly proprietary environment.Subscribe now