Crush or Flush: First Basemen Are a Power Shell Game
Crush or Flush: Beware the Power Shell Game at First Base
We all know that home runs are up, and that first base is a perennial source of top power hitters, and 2018 is no different. However, I’m here to throw cold water on your enthusiasm for power hitting first basemen. I’ll explain in a bit but first, let’s look at the HR output from the position over the last two seasons:
|1B with 30+ HR||13||10|
|1B with 20+ HR||28||21|
In 2015, just seven first basemen managed even 30 HRs, so the longball has increased as you might expect. What about RBI output?
|1B with 90+ RBI||10||13|
|1B with 80+ RBI||13||17|
So, there is a 30-33 percent growth in 20-plus and 30-plus HR hitters, but about a 25 percent decline in first basemen driving in 80 or 90 runs – in the same time period. That not a shocking finding, given that strikeouts continue to grow at a record pace and batters are working to increase launch angles for home run production. That, of course, translates into fewer runners to drive in and less success bringing in the runners on base when they fail to clear the fences.
To have a first baseman last year with 30 HRs and just 50 RBIs (Lucas Duda) is the perfect (if not overly simplistic) illustration of this position in 2018.
So, I sought to find a way to find the true across-the-board Fantasy contributors. I ranked first basemen using their Fantasy ranks over the last two seasons (CBS Sportsline). In 2016, there were 14 first basemen in the Top 100 players (in fact the 14 were within the top 77 with the next 1B at number 101); only six in the next 100; and 13 in the 201-300 rankings. I’ll focus on the Top 14 contributors:
One exercise I conduct every spring is populating spreadsheets with traditional and sabermetric statistics and highlighting the players who were above average in most of those stats (relative to the position). So, I took the first basemen who scored among the Top 300 in both seasons and marked those who were above average – within that group of players – in most of the categories and stats. Because the counting statistics largely reflect playing time and straight results, I’ll focus on batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS. I do realize how closely related these categories are, but I had a hunch. Here’s what I found.
In 2016, of these 14 first basemen among the players in the Top 100, six of them finished in the upper half in each of the four statistics (Goldschmidt, Cabrera, Votto, Freeman, Rizzo and Abreu.) Of those six, five returned to the Top 100 in 2017 (Cabrera from 14 to 278 and Freeman dropped from 21 to 51). All the others improved their rank in 2017. Five players in the Top 100 were above average in one or zero categories: (Wil Myers, zero categories, number 19 to number 66), Ian Desmond (Top 20 in AVG. only, number 28 to 268), Mike Napoli (Top 20 in slugging, 58 to 232), Eric Hosmer (Top 20 in AVG only, improved from 65 to 26) and Chris Davis (zero categories, 77 to 220). Four of the five fell in Fantasy rankings, plummeting in most cases.
Repeating the “Above Average” exercise for this season, using last year's results and (in parentheses, their early 2018 ADP). Here’s the breakdown :
|Above Average in 4 categories||AA in 3 categories||AA in 2 categories||AA in 1 or 0 categories|
|Paul Goldschmidt (4)||Anthony Rizzo (24)||Joey Gallo (74)||Wil Myers (66)|
|Joey Votto (10)||Cody Bellinger (29)||Mark Reynolds (64)|
|Jose Abreu (22)||Edwin Encarnacion (33)||Carlos Santana (92)|
|Ryan Zimmerman (23)||Justin Smoak (46)||Josh Bell (99)|
|Eric Hosmer (26)||Logan Morrison (78)||Trey Mancini (100)|
|Freddie Freeman (51)|
|Marwin Gonzalez (68)|
I would bet on all or most of the first column to return to the Top 100 this season, and only Wil Myers seems safe from the last two columns, though, I wouldn’t jump to enlist him. On the flip side, below are the players who did not rank in the Top 100 but were above average in at least three categories:
- Eric Thames (101)
- Justin Bour (117)
- Buster Posey (122)
- Jose Martinez (242)
- Adam Lind (256)
- Matt Olson (284)
- Rhys Hoskins (297)
We’ll break down each of these players below; obviously they didn’t achieve a high enough number of plate appearances to rank among the top Fantasy scorers, but expectations will be high for most of them over a full 2018 season.
The point is, as always, focus on skills rather than output. Last year’s stats hardly matter at the draft table. A player’s skills, tendencies, strengths, weaknesses, and playing time matter a great deal. Here are the players we are crushing on and those we flush (compared to 2017 performance and/or ADP) at first base:
Crush or Flush: First Basemen
Cody Bellinger: Bellinger produced 39 HRs, 97 RBIs, 87 runs, 10 steals and a .299 average in a striking rookie season. His high ADP (around 25) signals widespread excitement for him. Add me to that list. I think he’s going to be better this season. Bellinger owned a 43 percent hard hit rate, just a shade under that of Joey Gallo. He is a 47 percent fly ball hitter and pulls the ball at a 42.4 percent rate, enabling fly balls to find the seats. His BABIP was .299, which is about average but low for a hitter who makes so much hard contact; I think he can hit .310. It’s hard to top 39/97, but Belliinger, at age 22, has a real shot to do just that. If I’m picking early in the third round, I hope he’s still on the board. CRUSH
Eric Hosmer: A lofty .351 BABIP raised his batting average by 52 points to .318. That will obviously fall a bit, but just into the .290 - .300 range. His 25 HRs from a 56 percent GB hitter is about as much as you can ask. Figure instead on 20 HRs. He’ll be a Top 100 hitter again, but closer to 70 than 20. Bid and draft accordingly. Anything before 55 is a FLUSH.
Ryan Zimmerman: We know he won’t be as good in 2018 as he was last season, so where do we draft him and what do we expect? In NFBC leagues, he’s being drafted around 120, so I’ll base my Crush/Flush on that number. Last season, his BABIP soared from a paltry .248 (and .218 average) to .335 (and .303). He owned a high 26.5 percent HR/FB, doubled from the previous season. He did hit the ball hard, but he’s just a 46 percent groundball hitter (33% FB). He’s 33 years old this season. He might hit 20 HRs, he might not, but his average will tumble, and when BABIPs come down, so do runs and RBIs too. I don’t know what to expect from him, and a rank of 120 is probably about right. In that area of the draft I’m drafting pitchers and rounding out my middle infielders. Uncertainty is risk and I’ll take risks elsewhere. FLUSH
Eric Thames: Owners who drafted or signed Thames early in 2017 were thrilled with his explosive start and most (like me) were stubborn and held on a bit too long. Ignoring his 31 HRs for a second, he managed only 63 RBIs and a .247 batting average. He was average at best in the second half, or even after May. I wouldn’t touch him this year unless he fell to after 150 in a draft or I could snag him for a couple of bucks in an auction. FLUSH
Justin Bour: It’s a CRUSH on Bour but let me talk it out. His numbers versus lefties were similar to those against righties except for batting average and a higher strikeout rate. He’s 31 and injury prone. The Marlins lineup is now horrendous, so RBI opportunities won’t be there unless Bour becomes part of the fire sale. IF he stays healthy, IF they hit him against lefties and, perhaps most importantly, IF he escapes Miami, I think he can have a monster season. Something like 25 HRs, 90 RBIs, with a .270 average as a full-time player is possible to likely. His early ADP is just before 190, which I think is a steal, even just as a spare/streaming CI who might be dealt mid-season and tear it up. CRUSH
MLB Network's Top 10 first basemen. Based on last 2 years--offense and defense. Jose Abreu 6th.
1 Votto, Reds
2 Freeman, Braves
3 Goldschmidt, D-backs
4 Rizzo, Cubs
5 Bellinger, Dodgers
6 Abreu, White Sox
7 Encarnacion, Indians
8 Belt, Giants
9 Carpenter, Cards
10 Santana, Phils pic.twitter.com/nSYn93n0Tl
— Daryl Van Schouwen (@CST_soxvan) February 5, 2018
Buster Posey: Obviously you’d play him at C where he is still elite, but we’ll break him down in the catcher column. STAY TUNED
Jose Martinez: Played more games in OF than 1B, so we’ll look closer at him in that column. However, know that several indicators were lofty and subject to come down this season. But if playing time increases he can produce very nice results. STAY TUNED
Adam Lind: Good contact and a nice strikeout rate (15.6 percent) contributed to solid results in 301 plate appearances (14 HRs/59 RBIs). Lind is 34 but greater playing time in 2015 and 2016 yielded 20 HRs in both seasons. He doesn’t have a landing spot just yet; wait for a major injury to strike a star first baseman. He can be a sneaky source of some power, temporarily or streaming depending on where he plays. A free agent CRUSH.
Matt Olson: Twenty four HRs in 185 ABs will get anyone’s attention, especially in Oakland. His .259 batting average was due, in part, to his paltry .238 BABIP, so I would expect his average to increase a bit, but a 27 percent K rate will keep that in check. In the minors, he became a fly ball hitter and he pulls almost half of his batted balls, so I think the power will stay. The early 117 ADP is about the right mix of excitement and caution. I’m eager to see Olson’s 2018 output and anything after 105 or so is a CRUSH.
Rhys Hoskins: He’s perhaps the most interesting name in Fantasy Baseball this spring, and subject of the forthcoming children’s book “Rhys Buys a Vowel.” Yes, it was only 212 plate appearances. However, you can hardly do any better in 212. Things I love: 17.5 BB%, 21.7% K%, 49.2 percent of his batted balls were pulled, 46 percent were hard hit, 45.2 percent fly ball rate, 7.1 swinging strike percentage, low swing percentages (choosy hitter), very good contact numbers. A 31.6 percent HR/FB rate is unsustainable, but Matt Olson was at 41 percent. Here’s my favorite number though: .241. That was his BABIP, yielding a .259 average. Anyone who hits the ball hard should have a MUCH higher BABIP (like 100 points higher). Could he actually be a .300 hitter? I’m usually a “prove it before I buy” Fantasy owner, but his 55 ADP to me is just right. I’d take him at 40 and hope the Hoskins Hype Machine doesn’t cause another owner to be even more excited about the Vowel-less Wonder than me. CRUSH
Wil Myers: Every winter I get “the itch.” Not just the baseball/Fantasy Baseball itch. Duh. But I get antsy to tell all of you that Wil Myers ain’t all that. He’s a nice little player. He’s no superstar. And it’s not even close. He was 28 HRs/28 SBs in 2016 and was a .259 hitter. Any 20/20 first baseman is notable, but the truth is he’s working to correct his groundball tendency and hits the ball hard (42.9 FB% in 2017, up from 33.9% in 2016), so the steals will continue to swoon (20 last year down from 28). He does hit the ball hard and this is his age 28 season. A .243 batting average in the Top 100 will drag you down, even if he steals 15-plus bases. Power could increase, and steals decrease this season, but unless he’s on the board around 100-120, there are other places to piece together his counting stats without sacrificing batting average. FLUSH
Miguel Cabrera: 2017 was the season many had been waiting for – back injuries sapped some lightning from his bat; exit velocities fell (though he was still 11th overall). Health is the key for this season, but if he has a healthy spring, I think he can return to 25 HRs/85 RBIs. His early ADP is in the low 90s, which is still a risk. I love a Miggy rebound if he shows up in spring fit and healthy, but as long as there is lingering doubt about that back, he has to be a FLUSH.
Joey Gallo: Nope. Don’t do it. If you think he’s legit for 40 HRs, weigh his 80 RBIs and terrible .209 batting average. If you’re in an on-base-percentage league, he has greater appeal due to a 14 percent walk rate, but he’s still terrible. Home runs are easy to get; don’t grab an extra 10 HRs to figure out how and where to gain at least 50 points in batting average. It’s not worth it. FLUSH
Brandon Belt: I had a major crush on Belt last spring, and I was right. He was on track for a record HR season before sustaining a concussion to derail his season. A .284 BABIP after .346 and .363 in the previous two seasons dragged his average down to .241 from the .275 range. Along with average, a batter’s runs and RBIs are also affected by a low BABIP. Belt has a nice fly ball tendency, and good plate patience, but not the contact rates you’d hope for. I’d like to see him work on pulling the ball a bit more and working on launch angle. Multiple concussions are a clear worry, but his early ADP is 302. That’s a clear CRUSH.
Greg Bird: It’s easy to forget about Bird when thinking about the Yankee sluggers. Obviously, he comes with health risks, but after his late season return he was a Top 15 hitter in exit velocity. He can be a huge source of power in the middle of the draft. Expect about a .260 average but with an ADP around 150, I’ve developed a huge CRUSH.
Trey Mancini: It took Mancini 586 plate appearances to accumulate 24 HRs, 78 RBIs and 65 runs. He has a very high 51 percent groundball percentage and a very low 29.7 percent fly ball mark. His BABIP was .352, and he didn’t hit the ball particularly hard very often, so his .293 average is primed to plummet. His ADP is in the 160s, which is about right, but would you draft 18 HRs, 70 RBIs, 60 runs and a .265 average there? I’m afraid his 2018 will be closer to those numbers unless he changes his approach at the plate. FLUSH
Cody Bellinger Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip
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