Keith Law came out with his top 100 prospects Thursday, and the list lacks impact first basemen (the highest-ranking first baseman is D.J. Peterson of the Mariners at No. 61, and he's actually played mostly third in the minors), continuing a trend of declining offense from a position that is supposed to provide it. Since 2009, the overall wOBA (weighted on-base average) in MLB has declined 20 points to .305 from .325, but the wOBA for first basemen has declined 34 points to .328 from .362.
Luckily, we do have two outstanding young first basemen in the National League to appreciate: Freddie Freeman of the Braves and Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs. We talked briefly about these two in Tuesday's chat, but let's put it to a vote: Who do you like better for 2015? Both are entering their age-25 seasons and coming off excellent seasons. Freeman has a longer track record of success, but Rizzo took a big leap forward in 2014.
Some quick numbers:
2014: .288/.386/.461, 18 HR, 2.9 bWAR, 4.2 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .284/.375/.480, 24 HR, 4.1 WAR
2014: .286/.386/.527, 32 HR, 4.9 bWAR, 5.6 fWAR
2015 Steamer projection: .271/.360/.503, 32 HR, 4.7 WAR
By the advanced metrics, Rizzo had the better season with a 2-win edge in Baseball-Reference WAR and 1.4-win advantage in FanGraphs WAR. Rizzo's power advantage certainly helped there, but he also rated as the much better defensive first baseman. That's particularly interesting because Freeman is viewed as a good first baseman, especially by Braves fans.
Using defensive runs saved, Freeman rated at minus-7 runs and Rizzo at plus-6; that 13-run difference is worth more than a win in Baseball-Reference's version of WAR, which uses defensive runs saved for its defense evaluation. Rizzo has rated well throughout his career via DRS, but 2014 may simply have been an aberration for Freeman, as he was plus-7 in 2013 and plus-3 in 2012.
In looking at the data from Baseball Info Solutions, the two were similar in their ratio of "good fielding plays" and "misplays" with Rizzo at 63 and 20 (plus nine errors) and Freeman at 57 and 20 (plus five errors). The difference comes in the evaluation of range, with Freeman rated particularly poorly going to his left (minus-7 runs). For what it's worth, FanGraphs uses ultimate zone rating, which rated Rizzo six runs better in 2014.
Anyway, first basemen are paid to hit, not for their defense. The big difference between the two at the plate was their power: Rizzo hit 32 home runs in 524 at-bats last season, Freeman 18 in 607 at-bats (Freeman had nearly 100 more plate appearances as Rizzo missed 20 games while Freeman played all 162). Freeman did hit more doubles but that wasn't enough to make up for Rizzo's advantage in knocking the ball over the fence. Both showed excellent walk rates, with Rizzo at 11.9 percent and Freeman at 12.7 percent, both ranking in the top 20 among all qualified hitters.
Braves fans will point out two things: Freeman is young enough to still have a power spike (he hit 23 home runs in both 2012 and 2013) and he hit .319 in 2013. A power spike is certainly possible, but I wonder if Freeman would have to change his swing and start pulling the ball more. Compare his hit chart to Rizzo's: Freeman sprays the ball around the field, while Rizzo has the more classic power hitter's pull approach.
As for that .319 average in 2013, Freeman had a very high .371 average on balls in play. Even though he had a higher rate of line drives in 2014 (31 percent compared to 25 percent), his BABIP dropped to .351. To hit .300, Freeman would have to cut down on his strikeouts (145 in 2014). His strikeout rate was 20.5 percent; 69 regulars struck out at least 18 percent of the time in 2014 and Jose Abreu was the only one to hit .300. It's difficult to hit .300 consistently when you strike out as much as Freeman does, even when you're as adept at moving the ball around the field like he is.
I've made the John Olerud comparison with Freeman before; both are tall first basemen, more line-drive hitters than power guys, couldn't run. Olerud never had that power spike but was able to hit around .300 while drawing a lot of walks. But he struck out less than the league average for his time. If Freeman is going to get better on offense, he's going to have to add power, which could come at the expense of his batting average, or improve his average by striking out less, which probably means we won't see that 30-homer season materialize.
If all this is pointing to me saying I think Rizzo is the better player, you're right. I believe in last year's improvement and wouldn't be shocked if there are a few more home runs to unlock. He has good patience and his strikeout rate was actually lower than Freeman's. If the Cubs are the surprise contenders that many believe they can be, Rizzo could be your sleeper National League MVP candidate for 2015.