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  • There isn't a consensus first-round first baseman this year, but there's still plenty of value out there. There are also some huge risks that should be avoided.
By Michael Beller
February 20, 2019

First base has long been one of the most bankable fantasy baseball positions. It usually features star power, depth, and palatable starting options at every price point. This year, only about 10 first basemen appear to be solid starters at the beginning of draft season. What’s more, for the first time in recent memory the first round of most fantasy drafts will be devoid of first basemen.

The top two players at the position by average draft position, Paul Goldschmidt and Freddie Freeman (check out our debate on which one deserves top billing at the position), are coming off the board just outside the top 20 in a standard draft. No matter the format, that’s into the second round in all fantasy leagues. Anthony Rizzo, Rhys Hoskins and Cody Bellinger are the only other first basemen being selected inside the top 50 in a typical draft, with ADPs of 35.39, 41.4 and 42.99, respectively. That’s quite the depature from the last 15 years, when players such as Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Joey Votto were perennial first-round selections while others such as Goldschmidt, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira, Anhony Rizzo, Ryan Howard and Justin Morneau, among others, routinely appeared in the first round.

This remains, however, a position with a high ceiling. It won’t be a surprise if Goldschmidt, Freeman and Rizzo, let alone just one, end the season as top-15 hitters. Hoskins and Bellinger have that potential, as well, while the next tier includes Matt Carpenter, Joey Votto, Jesus Aguilar, Jose Abreu and Matt Olson. As a whole, the position may not have the ceiling it once did, but it still won’t be a challenge for every fantasy owner to be happy with his or her first baseman on draft day.

Three Burning Questions

1. Beyond the sure things, who’s the best buy at the position?

Jose Abreu is a good answer to this question, but we’ve already discussed how his boring value goes overlooked all too regularly in fantasy leagues. Rather than beat that dead horse, how about we look at one of this season’s prime bounceback candidates? Joey Votto is shaping up to be one of this season’s best value bets, regardless of position.

First, let’s acknowledge why Votto is going outside the first 60 picks in a typical draft. The Cincinnati first baseman hit just 12 homers last year in what was his age-34 season. There’s legitimate reason to worry that 2018 was a cliff year, and that the power will never return. Even with his impressive rate stats, a first baseman with a 20-homer ceiling isn’t an attractive fantasy option. Just ask anyone who former Eric Hosmer owner.

Still, fantasy owners would be wise to remember that this is still Joey Votto. We only have to go back to 2017 to find his last 30-homer, 100-RBI season. He slugged .578 and had a 167 OPS+ that season, his third straight year surpassing .540 and .160 thresholds in those two metrics. Votto was  great overall hitter last year, with a .417 OBP, 125 OPS+, .370 wOBA and more walks than strikeouts. He just wasn’t a great fantasy hitter, because of the lack of power.

Given everything we know about Votto, we have to acknowledge the possibility that a change in approach diminished his power. He’s arguably the most cerebral hitter in the league and one most capable of designing a change in approach, putting it into practice, and sticking with it over the long haul. Here, we do find something on which we can seize. Votto’s ground-ball and fly-ball rates were both more than two percentage points down from his career average last year. His line-drive rate, meanwhile, was nearly six percentage points higher than his career mark. Line drives are the most likely batted balls to turn into hits, but they don’t often stay in the air long enough to sail over fences.

Fantasy owners should also put stock in the fact that Votto had a 9.1% soft-hit rate, second-lowest in the majors behind teammate Eugenio Suarez. He hit the ball plenty hard last year, but didn’t get the same lift with regularlity that he had in previous seasons. Taking into account who he is and his track record, both over his entire career and in the recent term (three straight 29-homer seasons before 2018), I am more than happy to bet on Votto at an ADP of 68.93, which has him coming off the board behind J.T. Realmuto, Lorenzo Cain and Blake Treinen.

2. What’s the realistic expectation for Cody Bellinger’s power?

Votto wasn’t the only big-name first baseman to experience a significant dip in power numbers last year. Cody Bellinger went from belting 39 jacks in his rookie season to just 25 last year, a fall that made him a mild disappointment in fantasy leagues last year. Sure, 25 homers are nothing to dismiss, and he still hit .260/.343/.470 with 76 RBI, 84 runs and 14 steals, but the power was supposed to be a sure thing for him. With that in question, fantasy owners would be wise to look into his power dip before placing a value on him this season.

Bellinger’s fly-ball rate took a precipitous fall last year, dropping all the way to 40.2% from 47.1% in the previous season. His HR/FB ratio, meanwhile, was nearly cut in half, sliding to 15.2% from 25.2%. For a hitter like Bellinger, these are terrible developments. He’s an adherent to launch angle maximization, so when he’s at his best he should be hitting something like 45% of his balls in play in the air. Fly balls are great for power, but they turn into outs more often than line drives or grounders. That’s why the most successful fly-ball hitters often have HR/FB ratios that exceed 20%. When 85% of your fly balls stay in the yard, and 40% of your balls in play are fly balls, you’re going to get into trouble.

So why the drop in those two metrics? After digging through Bellinger’s full profile, the answer seems to be regression to the mean with the lefty landing on the extreme low end of his realistic range of outcomes. He had the right approach to get lift on his balls in play, swinging at 71.8% of the pitches he saw across the bottom two-thirds of the strike zone, according to Baseball Savant. That number was at 74.2% in 2017. Add in the lower fringes of the strike zone, and his swing rates sat at 59.9% and 60%, respectively. In other words, Bellinger attacked the sorts of pitches a hitter with his swing path should be able to lift. In 2017, 28 of his 39 homers came on pitches in these zones. Last year, 16 of his 25 homers were on pitches in such locations. His overall swing, contact and whiff rates were flat. Without a full breakdown of Bellinger’s plate appearances with video, it’s impossible to point to any one thing in his numbers suggesting of such a dramatic power dip.

Bellinger’s pedigree and power profile in the minors always suggested he’d perennially hit 30 to 35 homers. His rookie year seemed to confirm that before he fell off last season. Without anything concrete that indicates he earned the loss in his power numbers, though, the bet here is that his 25-homer season ends up looking an anomaly. He may not push 40 homers this year, but it’d be a shock to see him come up short of 30 again.

3. Based on ADP, who’s one player you’re reluctant to trust?

Joey Gallo is going just after pick No. 100 in typical drafts, sandwiched between Matt Olson and Max Muncy among first basemen. Gallo’s power is real, but so are all the obvious glaring holes in his game. He’s a one-trick pony, and yet I’m supposed to take him ahead of Muncy, a multi-faceted hitter with significant upside, or safer players like Edwin Encarnacion and Carlos Santana? I don’t think so.

Gallo may be in just his age-25 season, but we know exactly what he is. Last year, he hit 40 bombs with a .206 batting average and .312 OBP. In 2017, he left the yard 41 times. The price he paid for it was a .209 batting average and .333 OBP. His rates will be a major problem for his owners, and he doesn’t run at all. He’ll be an above-average contributor in both runs and RBI, and while power is easier to find than ever these days, a hitter who’s a near-lock for 40 homers is a rare commodity.

All that admittedly makes Gallo palatable at his draft-day price. Still, the problem with Gallo isn’t his price in a vacuum, but his price relative to other first basemen. Power is all he offers. If he slips even slightly there, he can’t make up for it elsewhere, similar to the way Bellinger did last season by stealing 14 bases. His entirely dependent on his power, and that’s a dangerous spot to be in, even for a guy who’s coming off consecutive 40-homer seasons. I’d rather find my power elsewhere and target a more complete player at first base.

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