Earlier today, Just Baseball released our ranking of the top 10 first basemen in the game. Of the six senior staff members to cast a ballot, I was the only one to put Matt Olson in first place. Here’s what I was thinking.
Freddie Freeman is a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. He’s a Gold Glove, a Silver Slugger, an MVP, and a World Series Champion. He leads all active first basemen in career FanGraphs WAR.
Like the living legend he is, Freeman only seems to get better with age. The 34-year-old has set new career highs in fWAR each of the past two seasons. He has led all MLB first basemen in fWAR in three of the past four years.
Entering the 2023 campaign, the Dodgers first baseman had already made six All-Star teams. He had earned an All-MLB First or Second Team selection in every year of the award’s existence. He had won honors named for Henry Aaron, Babe Ruth, and Roy Campanella, three of the greatest players the game has ever known.
Yet, at an age when many athletes begin their decline – the dreaded mid-thirties – no one could possibly accuse Freeman of resting on his laurels. Instead, he set new career-highs in plate appearances, runs scored, doubles, extra-base hits, stolen bases, hit-by-pitches, and both FanGraphs and Baseball Reference WAR. He earned his sixth consecutive (and eighth overall) top-ten finish in NL MVP voting.
I mean, come on.
Alright, alright. I need to back up a step. If you read the title of this article, looked at the featured image, or read the introduction, I can understand your confusion. Why am I gushing over Freddie Freeman if I think Matt Olson is the best first baseman in baseball?
Let me answer your question with another question: Did you see Matt Olson last year?
Freeman finished with a .976 OPS and a 163 wRC+. Olson finished with a .993 OPS and a 160 wRC+. For all intents and purposes, that’s equivalent offensive production.
Freeman is one of the greatest hitters in baseball. But last season, Olson proved he’s pretty much just as good.
So, how about on the other side of the baseball? Defense isn’t as consequential at first base as other positions, but a good glove can still make a difference.
Outs Above Average (OAA) will tell you Freeman was significantly better than Olson last year, but Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Deserved Runs Prevented (DRP) came to the exact opposite conclusion. Similarly, over the course of their careers, only OAA prefers Freeman. Even then, on a per-inning basis, even OAA leans in Olson’s favor.
Baserunning is the one area where Freeman clearly outshone Olson in 2023. Freeman stole 23 bases to Olson’s one. He was worth 5.1 BsR (per FanGraphs) to Olson’s 1.5. The Dodger’s superior baserunning is a big part of why he finished ahead of the Brave in MVP voting, despite the latter’s league-leading 54 home runs and 139 RBI.
So, even if we can agree that Freeman and Olson are comparable hitters and defenders, Freeman still comes out on top thanks to his skills on the bases. Why, then, am I making a case for Olson?
Well, there is one more number to consider. A number that gives Olson a huge advantage going forward.
Olson is 29. He won’t turn 30 until the day after Opening Day. Freeman is already 34. He’ll turn 35 in mid-September before the regular season is up. That’s a difference of four years, six months, and 17 days between them.
It’s not an interesting reason to pick Olson over Freeman. I’ll be the first to admit that it’s lame. But when we’re talking about two similarly talented players on the wrong side of 30, I’m going to pick the one who is four and a half years younger almost every single time.
Given everything we know about aging curves, it’s just the safer bet. Freeman hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down yet, but eventually, it’s bound to happen – and it could be this year.
Moreover, the skill that most clearly sets Freeman apart from Olson, baserunning, is often the first one to decline with age.
Freeman has never been a fast runner. He’s a good baserunner despite his mediocre sprint speed because of his genius-level baseball IQ. However, a great mind can only make up for so much. Freeman’s sprint speed has not declined at all since his rookie season. One of these days, he will finally start to slow down.
Freddie Freeman was the best first baseman in baseball last season. He’s been the best for the past decade. Perhaps it’s unfair to take the title away from him at the top of his game.
Similarly, Matt Olson hasn’t done enough to usurp the throne. It almost feels like a hollow victory to call him the best first baseman in baseball.
Ultimately, it comes down to this. Ranking the best players in baseball for 2024 isn’t about past performance. It’s all about projecting the upcoming season. And if you ask me to predict which of Freeman or Olson will be better in 2024, I’m picking Olson.
It’s the same thing with Bryce Harper. Our own Peter Appel makes a convincing case for Harper as the best first baseman in baseball. After all, in his most recent healthy season, Harper was the NL MVP. Once he shook off the rust from his Tommy John surgery this past summer, the two-time NL MVP outhit Freeman and Olson from the trade deadline through the end of the season. At 31 years old, he has little reason to worry about age-related decline.
Yet Harper has become something of an injury risk over the past few years. Some of his injuries have been freak accidents, but his most concerning ailment, a bad back, isn’t the kind of problem that typically gets better when a man enters his thirties.
Harper is a generational talent, but he has played 366 games over the past three years to Olson’s 480. Indeed, since 2020, Olson has played more games than anyone else in baseball. He is the only active player to have played every single game in three of the past four seasons. His durability is an incredible asset, especially when it allows him to do this:
Let me make one thing emphatically clear: I hope I’m wrong about everything. I hope Freddie Freeman is every bit as good in 2024 as he was the year before. I hope his peak lasts as long as humanly possible.
In the same vein, I hope Bryce Harper plays all 162 games. I hope he challenges for his third MVP.
Yet, as much as I’d like all of my favorite superstars to be exceptions, I know that’s not how it works. I can’t ignore Freeman’s age, nor can I overlook Harper’s recent injury history.
Ranking the best players for the upcoming season isn’t about hope. It isn’t about prior accomplishments. It’s an exercise in making careful and cogent projections for the future.
Freddie Freeman and Bryce Harper have had phenomenal careers. They’re phenomenal players.
But Matt Olson is my No. 1 first baseman for the 2024 MLB season.