Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and the 25 Greatest First Basemen in Modern MLB History

Joel ReuterFebruary 3, 2023

Albert Pujols, Frank Thomas and the 25 Greatest First Basemen in Modern MLB History

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    Albert Pujols
    Albert PujolsSetNumber: X71939 TK1

    Welcome once again to Bleacher Report's series of the 25 greatest players at each position in modern MLB history. Up next, the first basemen.

    The first step in this exercise was to decide what "modern" means for the sake of this discussion, and we settled on everything from the 1969 season forward.

    That was the first year of the "divisional era," when each league expanded from 10 to 12 teams and split those clubs into two divisions. That also meant an expanded playoff format, with the ALCS and NLCS played for the first time that year. The postseason had previously consisted of just the World Series.

    That gives us 54 years of players to consider for a spot in our rankings, but we didn't simply ignore what happened prior to 1969. A pair of top-10 lists were also created for the dead-ball era (pre-1920) and the pre-divisional era (1920-68).

    Players were ranked throughout based on a combination of their overall body of work and their peak performance, with postseason success also taken into account.

    Catch up on our other Top 25 All-Time lists: Shortstops, Third Basemen

Top 10 Dead-Ball Era (Pre-1920)

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    Cap Anson
    Cap AnsonBettmann

    Top 10 Dead-Ball Era

    1. Cap Anson
    2. Dan Brouthers
    3. Roger Connor
    4. Jake Beckley
    5. Frank Chance
    6. Ed Konetchy
    7. Fred Tenney
    8. Jake Daubert
    9. Harry Davis
    10. Stuffy McInnis

    One of the true pioneers of baseball, Cap Anson played for 27 seasons in the late 1800s when he won four batting titles as a member of the Chicago White Stockings. He ranks in the top 10 all-time in hits (3,435, seventh) and RBI (2,075, fifth).

    He is joined in the Hall of Fame by fellow turn-of-the-century stars Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, Jake Beckley and Frank Chance.

Top 15 Pre-Divisional Era (1920-68)

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    Lou Gehrig
    Lou GehrigBettmann

    Top 15 Pre-Divisional Era

    1. Lou Gehrig
    2. Jimmie Foxx
    3. Buck Leonard
    4. Johnny Mize
    5. Hank Greenberg
    6. Willie McCovey
    7. Harmon Killebrew
    8. Willie Stargell
    9. Dick Allen
    10. Bill Terry
    11. George Sisler
    12. Norm Cash
    13. Orlando Cepeda
    14. Mule Suttles
    15. Boog Powell

    If we were putting together an all-time list across all of baseball history, Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx would likely be No. 1 and No. 2 in those rankings, while Buck Leonard is one of the truly legendary figures from the Negro Leagues.

    Willie McCovey (1959-80), Harmon Killebrew (1954-1975), Willie Stargell (1962-82) and Dick Allen (1963-77) had careers that straddled the 1969 cutoff for inclusion in our main rankings, but each did the bulk of their career damage prior to that point. Rod Carew played a few more career games as a first baseman, but he was a second baseman in his prime and will be included on that list.

    The final spot came down to Boog Powell (134 OPS+, 339 HR, 1,187 RBI, 39.1 WAR) and Hall of Famer Gil Hodges (120 OPS+, 370 HR, 1,274 RBI, 43.9 WAR), which speaks to the sheer volume of legendary talent that called first base home during this 50-year stretch.

Nos. 25-21

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    John Olerud
    John OlerudSet Number: X44295

    25. Mo Vaughn

    There was a long list of players considered for the final spot in these rankings, including Anthony Rizzo, Adrián González, Kent Hrbek, Andrés Galarraga, Wally Joyner, Paul Konerko, Derrek Lee and John Kruk. In the end, Vaughn got the nod on the strength of his impressive .293/.383/.523 career batting line and 1995 AL MVP win.

    24. Steve Garvey

    The face of the Los Angeles Dodgers during the 1970s, Garvey was a 10-time All-Star who tallied 2,599 hits, 272 home runs and 1,308 RBI over a 19-year career. He won NL MVP honors in 1974, and he hit one of the biggest home runs in San Diego Padres history with a walk-off blast against Hall of Fame closer Lee Smith in Game 4 of the 1984 NLCS.

    23. Mark Grace

    While Grace never possessed prototypical power for a first baseman, he did lead all players with 1,754 hits during the 1990s, edging out Rafael Palmeiro (1,747), Craig Biggio (1,728) and Tony Gwynn (1,713) for the decade crown. The longtime Chicago Cubs star hit .303/.383/.442 for a 119 OPS+ in his career, and he won a ring with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2001.

    22. John Olerud

    Olerud finished his career with a .398 on-base percentage and more walks (1,275) than strikeouts (1,016) over 17 seasons. A two-way star in college who jumped straight to the big leagues after he was drafted, he won the 1993 AL batting title when he hit .363/.473/.599 for a Toronto Blue Jays team that won a second straight World Series title.

    21. Mark Teixeira

    One of the prolific sluggers of the 2000s, Teixeira hit 30 home runs nine different times on his way to 409 long balls in 14 seasons. He led the AL in home runs (39) and RBI (122) in his first season with the New York Yankees in 2009 to finish runner-up in AL MVP voting, and on top of his impressive power numbers, he was also a five-time Gold Glove winner.

Nos. 20-16

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    Will Clark
    Will ClarkDavid Madison/Getty Images

    20. Will Clark

    "The Thrill" was one of baseball's biggest stars during the late '80s and early '90s, finishing in the top five in NL MVP voting four times in a span of five years with the San Francisco Giants. He hit .303/.384/.497 with 284 home runs and 1,205 RBI in his career, and he never batted under .282 in any of his 14 seasons.

    19. Jason Giambi

    An admitted HGH and steroid user, Giambi posted a 139 OPS+ with 440 home runs and 1,441 RBI while showcasing elite on-base skills with a .399 on-base percentage and 15.3 percent walk rate in his 20-year career. He won AL MVP with the Oakland Athletics in 2000 when he hit .333/.476/.647 with 43 home runs and 137 RBI.

    18. Carlos Delgado
    17. Lance Berkman

    Two players who deserved a much longer look from Hall of Fame voters:

    • Delgado: 138 OPS+, 473 HR, 1,512 RBI, 44.4 WAR
    • Berkman: 144 OPS+, 366 HR, 1,234 RBI, 51.9 WAR

    Despite those stellar numbers, both players received less than 5 percent of the vote and were one-and-dones in their only year on the ballot.

    16. Tony Pérez

    A middle-of-the-order run producer for the "Big Red Machine" in Cincinnati, Pérez ranks in the top 100 all-time in hits (2,732, 60th), doubles (505, 60th), home runs (379, 73rd), RBI (1,652, 32nd) and total bases (4,532, 48th). He played for 23 seasons and was a six-time All-Star and two-time World Series champion.

Nos. 15-11

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    Fred McGriff
    Fred McGriffFocus on Sport/Getty Images

    15. Freddie Freeman
    14. Paul Goldschmidt

    Goldschmidt and Freeman checked in No. 1 and No. 2 on our list of the best first basemen of the 2022 season, and both sluggers are putting together potential Hall of Fame resumes in the prime of their careers.

    • Freeman: 140 OPS+, 292 HR, 1,041 RBI, 49.0 WAR, 6x All-Star, 1x MVP
    • Goldschmidt: 145 OPS+, 315 HR, 1,042 RBI, 58.5 WAR, 7x All-Star, 1x MVP 

    Both players could climb into the top 10 before their careers are over, and Freeman is two years younger, so he could overtake Goldschmidt along the way.

    13. Todd Helton

    Helton had big shoes to fill when he replaced Andrés Galarraga as the starting first baseman in Colorado, and he hit .316/.414/.539 with 592 doubles, 369 home runs, 1,406 RBI and 61.8 WAR in 17 seasons with the Rockies. His numbers were a bit inflated by playing his home games at Coors Field, but he was still a .287/.386/.469 hitter on the road. After receiving 72.2 percent of the vote in 2023, he is likely headed for the Hall of Fame next year.

    12. Keith Hernandez

    Hernandez never hit more than 18 home runs in a season, but he was a .296/.384/.436 career hitter for a 128 OPS+ and is arguably the greatest defensive first baseman in MLB history. The 11-time Gold Glove winner piled up 60.3 WAR in 17 seasons, and he won 1979 NL MVP honors with the St. Louis Cardinals when he hit .344/.417/.513 with 48 doubles, 11 home runs and 105 RBI while also claiming the NL batting title.

    11. Fred McGriff

    McGriff had seven straight 30-homer seasons and 10 total during his 19-year career, tallying 493 long balls in 19 seasons to fall just short of the prestigious 500-HR club. He finished in the top 10 in NL MVP voting six times and won a World Series title with the Atlanta Braves in 1995. The "Crime Dog" earned his long-overdue induction into the Hall of Fame this year by the Contemporary Baseball Era committee.

10. Don Mattingly

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    CHICAGO - 1988:  Don Mattingly of the New York Yankees bats during an MLB game versus the Chicago White Sox during the 1988 season at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. (Photo by Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
    Ron Vesely/MLB Photos via Getty Images

    Stats: 1,785 G, 127 OPS+, 2,153 H, 222 H, 1,099 RBI, 1,007 R, 14 SB, 42.4 WAR

    Accolades: 6x All-Star, 9x Gold Glove, 3x Silver Slugger, 1985 AL MVP

    Based on career numbers, Don Mattingly should be significantly lower on the list, but since peak performance is also a significant factor in these rankings, he sneaks into the top 10 as one of the best players in the game during the 1980s.

    During the six-year stretch from 1984 through 1989, he hit .327/.372/.530 for a 147 OPS+ while averaging 43 doubles, 27 home runs, 114 RBI and 5.5 WAR. He was an All-Star every year during that span and won AL MVP in 1985 with a 35-homer, 145-RBI campaign.

    Nagging back issues ultimately limited him to just 770 games and 9.0 WAR after his age-28 season, and he fell off the Hall of Fame ballot without receiving more than 28.2 percent of the votes in 15 years.

    Despite that, he claims the No. 10 spot over Fred McGriff, who was more of a compiler and never the clear-cut best first baseman in the game at any point the way Mattingly was in his prime.

9. Joey Votto

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    CINCINNATI, OH - AUGUST 10:  Joey Votto #19 of the Cincinnati Reds bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks at Great American Ball Park on August 10, 2018 in Cincinnati, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
    Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

    Stats: 1,991 G, 145 OPS+, 2,093 H, 342 HR, 1,106 RBI, 1,145 R, 80 SB, 64.3 WAR

    Accolades: 6x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 2010 NL MVP

    Joey Votto has been an on-base machine throughout his career, leading the NL in that category seven times while logging a .412 on-base percentage that ranks 31st all-time among qualified hitters.

    Despite his willingness to walk, he has quietly tallied 342 home runs and 1,106 RBI in 16 seasons, and his 145 OPS+ is the same mark that Albert Pujols recorded over his legendary career.

    Votto has one more guaranteed season on his 10-year, $225 million contract, and after a down year in 2022, he might be nearing the end of the line on a career that should end in Cooperstown.

8. Rafael Palmeiro

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    1993:  Infielder Rafael Palmeiro #25 of the Texas Rangers plays defense during a 1993 game.  Palmeiro was a Ranger from 1989-93 and from 1999-2003.  (Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images)
    Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

    Stats: 2,831 G, 132 OPS+, 3,020 H, 569 HR, 1,835 RBI, 1,663 R, 97 SB, 71.9 WAR

    Accolades: 4x All-Star, 3x Gold Glove, 2x Silver Slugger

    "I have never used steroids. Period."

    Rafael Palmeiro's adamant refusal in front of Congress was followed a few months later by a positive PED test and subsequent suspension, and just like that, his legacy was forever tarnished.

    However, based solely on his on-field accomplishments, he's a no-brainer for a spot inside the top 10 on this list. He stands as one of only seven players who is a member of both the 3,000-hit and 500-HR clubs.

    Palmeiro hit 30 home runs 10 different times, including four 40-homer seasons, and he was a .288/.371/.515 hitter across 20 seasons with the Chicago Cubs, Texas Rangers and Baltimore Orioles.

7. Mark McGwire

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    23 Sep 1998: (FILE PHOTO)  Mark McGwire #25 of the St. Louis Cardinals hits the ball during the game against the Houston Astros at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri. According to reports January 11, 2010, McGwire has admitted to steroid use during while playing Major League baseball and when he broke the home run record.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Stats: 1,874 G, 163 OPS+, 1,626 H, 583 HR, 1,414 RBI, 1,167 R, 12 SB, 62.1 WAR

    Accolades: 12x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 3x Silver Slugger

    Unlike many of the other prominent names from the steroid era, slugger Mark McGwire ultimately owned up to his PED use.

    The hulking first baseman captured the national spotlight when he launched 70 home runs during the 1998 season, outdueling Chicago Cubs rival Sammy Sosa in the chase to break Roger Maris' longstanding single-season home run record.

    He also held the record for most home runs by a rookie with 49 in 1987 until Aaron Judge and Pete Alonso surpassed that total in recent years. McGwire made an immediate splash on some great Oakland Athletics teams in the late '80s and early '90s.

    His career 10.6 at-bats per home run still stands as the all-time record, ahead of Babe Ruth (11.8), Aaron Judge (12.0), Barry Bonds (12.9) and Jim Thome (13.8).

6. Eddie Murray

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    UNSPECIFIED - CIRCA 1981: First baseman Eddie Murray #33 of the Baltimore Orioles bats during an Major League Baseball game circa 1981. Murray played for the Orioles from 1977-88 and 1996. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
    Focus on Sport/Getty Images

    Stats: 3,026 G, 129 OPS+, 3,255 H, 504 HR, 1,917 RBI, 1,627 R, 110 SB, 68.7 WAR

    Accolades: 8x All-Star, 3x Gold Glove, 3x Silver Slugger

    One of the greatest switch-hitters in baseball history, Eddie Murray is also one of seven members of the exclusive 3,000-hit, 500-HR club.

    He ranked in the top five in the majors in hits (1,642, second), home runs (274, third) and RBI (996, first) during the 1980s, and he teamed with Cal Ripken Jr. to help lead the Baltimore Orioles to a World Series title in 1983.

    He remained productive late into his career, hitting .323/.375/.516 with 21 home runs and 82 RBI in 480 plate appearances in 1995 as a key member of a stacked Cleveland lineup that reached the Fall Classic.

    Murray was a first-ballot Hall of Famer in 2003, joining Willie McCovey, Willie Stargell, Frank Thomas and Jim Thome as the only first basemen to earn induction in their first year of eligibility.

5. Jim Thome

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    Cleveland Indians batter Jim Thome watches as his solo home run goes over the right field wall during the second inning against the New York Yankees 19 June at Jacobs Field in Cleveland, OH.  Thome had two home runs as the Indians defeated the Yankees 7-4 . 
AFP PHOTO/Anthony ONCHAK (Photo by ANTHONY ONCHAK / AFP)        (Photo credit should read ANTHONY ONCHAK/AFP via Getty Images)
    Photo credit should read ANTHONY ONCHAK/AFP via Getty Images

    Stats: 2,543 G, 147 OPS+, 2,328 H, 612 HR, 1,699 RBI, 1,583 R, 19 SB, 73.1 WAR

    Accolades: 5x All-Star, 1x Silver Slugger

    Jim Thome made his MLB debut shortly after his 21st birthday, but he didn't become an everyday player until his age-24 season, when he served as the starting third baseman on a Cleveland squad that reached the World Series.

    The following year, he broke out with a 38-homer season and never looked back, eclipsing the 30-homer mark an impressive 12 times in his career, a total that trails only Hank Aaron (15), Alex Rodriguez (15), Barry Bonds (14), Albert Pujols (14), Babe Ruth (13) and Mike Schmidt (13).

    Despite ranking second all-time with 2,548 strikeouts, he was also an on-base machine with 1,747 walks and a .402 on-base percentage to go along with his 612 home runs, putting him eighth on the career list.

    The lefty slugger stayed productive late into his career, posting a 182 OPS+ with 25 home runs in 108 games for a playoff-bound Minnesota Twins team at the age of 39 in 2010.

4. Jeff Bagwell

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    Baseball: Houston Astros Jeff Bagwell (5) in action, at bat vs San Francisco Giants at Candlestick Park.
San Francisco, CA 6/14/1994
CREDIT: V.J. Lovero (Photo by V.J. Lovero /Sports Illustrated via Getty Images)
(Set Number: X46349 )
    Set Number: X46349

    Stats: 2,150 G, 149 OPS+, 2,314 H, 449 HR, 1,529 RBI, 1,517 R, 202 SB, 79.9 WAR

    Accolades: 4x All-Star, 1x Gold Glove, 3x Silver Slugger, 1994 NL MVP

    A right shoulder injury kept Jeff Bagwell from reaching some major career milestones, but his peak production, elite on-base ability and a 149 OPS+ that ranks ahead of countless all-time greats is enough for him to claim the No. 4 spot in these rankings.

    During a decade-long peak from 1993 through the 2002 season, he hit .306/.422/.574 for a 158 OPS+ while averaging 37 doubles, 35 home runs, 114 RBI, 113 runs, 17 steals and 6.2 WAR.

    He won NL MVP during the strike-shortened 1994 season when he batted .368/.451/.750 with 39 home runs and 116 RBI in 110 games, and that came three years after he took the league by storm to win NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1991.

    There have only been three 30/30 seasons in MLB history by someone who played primarily first base defensively, and two of them belong to Bagwell, who did it in 1997 (43 HR, 31 SB) and 1999 (42 HR, 30 SB).

3. Miguel Cabrera

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    SAN FRANCISCO, CA - OCTOBER 25: Miguel Cabrera #24 of the Detroit Tigers bats against the San Francisco Giants during Game 2 of the 2012 World Series on October 25, 2012 at AT&T Park in San Francisco, California. The Giants won the series 4-0. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
    Focus on Sport/Getty Images

    Stats: 2,699 G, 142 OPS+, 3,088 H, 507 HR, 1,847 RBI, 1,530 R, 40 SB, 67.7 WAR

    Accolades: 12x All-Star, 7x Silver Slugger, 2x AL MVP

    One of the toughest decisions in these rankings was the battle for the No. 2 spot between Miguel Cabrera and Frank Thomas. There really is no wrong answer when talking about two of the greatest right-handed hitters in MLB history.

    The case for Cabrera is built on one of the greatest primes in recent MLB history, which included a rare Triple Crown win during the 2012 season when he hit .330/.393/.606 with 44 home runs and 139 RBI to win his first of back-to-back AL MVP awards.

    During the four-year stretch from 2010 through the 2013 season, he hit .337/.425/.612 for a 178 OPS+ while averaging 40 doubles, 39 home runs, 127 RBI and 7.2 WAR as arguably the best player in baseball.

    Cabrera has stuck around longer than Thomas did, which helped him join the 3,000-hit and 500-HR clubs, but it has also meant an ugly finish to his career. He's been a minus-2.1 WAR player with a 96 OPS+ over the past six seasons.

2. Frank Thomas

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    CHICAGO, IL - CIRCA 1991: First baseman Frank Thomas #35 of the Chicago White Sox poses for this portrait prior to the start of a Major League Baseball game circa 1991 at Comiskey Park in Chicago, Illinois. Thomas played for the White Sox from 1990 - 05. (Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images)
    Focus on Sport/Getty Images

    Stats: 2,322 G, 156 OPS+, 2,468 H, 521 HR, 1,704 RBI, 1,494 R, 32 SB, 73.8 WAR

    Accolades: 5x All-Star, 4x Silver Slugger, 2x AL MVP

    The No. 7 overall pick in the 1989 draft, Frank Thomas made his MLB debut the following season and then hit .318/.453/.553 with 32 home runs and 109 RBI to finish third in AL MVP voting in 1991.

    Over his first seven full seasons in the big leagues, he hit .330/.452/.604 for a 182 OPS+ while averaging 34 doubles, 36 home runs, 118 RBI and 6.4 WAR to join Seattle Mariners superstar Ken Griffey Jr. as the face of baseball in the 1990s.

    His significant advantage in OPS+ (156 to 142) is the biggest reason he got the nod over Miguel Cabrera for the No. 2 spot, and a strong finish to his career helped solidify those numbers.

    After leaving the Chicago White Sox following 16 seasons with the team, he put together strong late-career performances with the Oakland Athletics in 2006 (140 OPS+, 39 HR, 114 RBI) and Toronto Blue Jays in 2007 (125 OPS+, 26 HR, 95 RBI).

1. Albert Pujols

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    HOUSTON - JULY 13:  National League All-Star Albert Pujols #5 of the St. Louis Cardinals doubles in the fourth inning during the Major League Baseball All-Star Game at Minute Maid Park on July 13, 2004 in Houston, Texas.  The National League defeated the American League 9-4. (Photo by MLB via Getty Images)
    MLB via Getty Images

    Stats: 3,080 G, 145 OPS+, 3,384 H, 703 HR, 2,218 RBI, 1,914 R, 117 SB, 101.7 WAR

    Accolades: 11x All-Star, 2x Gold Glove, 6x Silver Slugger, 3x NL MVP

    Is Albert Pujols the greatest right-handed hitter of all-time?

    Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez, Frank Robinson, Manny Ramirez, Mike Trout and several others all belong in that conversation, but Pujols has a spot at the table after putting the finishing touches on an all-time great career.

    He began his MLB career with one of the greatest rookie seasons ever, hitting .329/.403/.610 with 37 home runs and 130 RBI, and that was the first of 10 straight seasons in which he hit at least .300 with 30 home runs and 100 RBI.

    The future Hall of Famer ranks in the top 10 all-time in hits (3,384, 10th), doubles (686, fifth), home runs (703, fourth), RBI (2,218, second) and total bases (6,211, second), and he is one of only 11 players with three MVP awards on his resume.

    All stats courtesy of Baseball Reference.