The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Michael Beller and Kaelen Jones look at a couple of elite outfielders and likely top-10 picks: Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuña.
Michael Beller makes the case for Yelich over Acuña…
I’m guessing that I’m 10 or 12 years older than Kaelen. Hey, Kaelen, how old are you?
[Kaelen answers from across the room/aka, on Slack]: 22
Yep, that makes me 12 years older. Kaelen, let me tell you something that I’ve learned with these additional 12 years I’ve spent on the planet. Newer isn’t always better. Sure, it might be more fun. Yes, it has a special allure. There’s something strangely intoxicating about the unknown. But alluring and intoxicating doesn’t always work out for you, in more contexts than one, fantasy baseball included. And such is the case with buying into the new, fun, alluring, intoxicating Ronald Acuña over the known, steady, rock-solid Christian Yelich.
This is not going to be a takedown of Acuña, whom I love and believe is going to be a superstar until Kaelen is the age that I am today. The problem with taking him over Yelich, though, is that you’re betting that he will be this year what Yelich already is. Could that happen? Sure. But why should you lay odds that Acuña will become that player today when Yelich already became him yesterday?
What’s so interesting about this debate is not necessarily where these two players are now, but where they began their respective careers. Acuña played his first season of professional baseball at age 17, was the consensus No. 1 prospect last year, and won the NL Rookie of the Year. It was more of a slow burn for Yelich, who was two years older than Acuña when he played his first full season, and was never ranked higher than 15th on a Baseball America or Baseball Prospectus top-prospects list. Just how slow was Yelich’s burn? Despite going into last season a career .290/.369/.432 hitter over four and a half seasons, he never made an All-Star Team. And then, in seemingly the blink of an eye, he not only played in the league’s midsummer showcase for its best players, but won the NL MVP Award and carried the Brewers to within one win of the World Series.
During Yelich’s time with the Marlins, he proved himself a smart, disciplined, intentional hitter with a refined approach that he could put into practice. Giancarlo Stanton and Marcell Ozuna had bigger seasons during their shared tenure in Miami, but the best plate appearances on the team routinely came from Yelich. And yet, there was always a nagging feeling that he could find another gear in his game if he’d just open up his approach a bit and deliberately hunt for more power. Sure, Marlins Park was a horrible home for a lithe, left-handed hitter whose homers don’t make anyone think of Stanton or Aaron Judge, but the natural fluidity of his swing combined with his high-contact ways suggested that there was latent power in his bat. All it took was a change in homes and a slight tweak in his approach to turn Yelich into an MVP with a 36-homer, .598-slugging season to his name.
First, let’s quickly touch on the move to Miller Park from Marlins Park. Baseball Prospectus has this handy tool where it measures park factors by handedness, which gives us 60 different inputs (righty/lefty for all 60 parks). Lefties at Miller Park ranked seventh in home run factor last year. Lefties at Marlins Park ranked 53rd. Yelich took full advantage of his change in home park, hitting .324/.406/.655 with 22 homers in Milwaukee.
Now, let’s move on to the change in approach that brought it all together. Yelich has always been a famously patient hitter, with a 42.8% swing rate the highest mark in his career going into last season. He got more aggressive and broke that mark last year with a swing rate of 44%. What’s more, his swing plane clearly changed, and that’s where he found his power stroke. Yelich had always been an extreme ground-ball hitter in his career, with a ground-ball rate of 57.7% going into last season. Covering his time in the majors, the only players with a higher ground-ball rate were Nori Aoki, Ben Revere in Dee Gordon. In other words, it was a minor miracle that Yelich hit 21 homers in 2016, and 18 more in 2017.
Last year, Yelich put a majority of his balls in play on the ground, but his ground-ball rate plummeted to 51.8%. His average launch angle of 4.7 degrees was the highest of his career. He hit 224 balls with an exit velocity of 95 mph or greater, fifth-most in the majors. According to Baseball Savant, he had a 50.8% hard-hit rate, eighth-best in the league. The dude has always hit the ball hard. Now he’s hitting it hard and in the air. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that he finally found all that pop.
So yes, Kaelen, I know those of you who were born in the 90s love all things new. Sometimes, you need to have an appreciation for something that’s a little older. Something that’s a little more of a sure thing. And that’s why, in this debate, Yelich is your man.
BELLER: Third base primer and rankings
Kaelen Jones makes the case for Acuña over Yelich…
Beller, it’s 2019. If you’re not going to invest in the new, then you’ll get swept up with the old. Or are you still using a flip phone?
The principle of changing with the times is as true in fantasy sports as it is in life. Yes, Christian Yelich is a known commodity and is as steady as they come. But when lighting strikes you better bottle it—you don’t know when you’ll get another chance. And that’s what we have here with Ronald Acuña.
Acuña struck like a lightning bolt last year, proving that he was worth all the hype. Not only was he one of the most exciting new faces in baseball, but he was among the most productive fantasy players in the league, too. He hit .293/.366/.552 with 26 homers and 16 steals, ending the season ranked 61st overall and 21st among outfielders in standard 5x5 leagues. And he did that despite missing a month because of a knee injury.
BELLER/SHAPIRO: Is Xander Bogaerts or Gleyber Torres the better fantasy option?
While 5x5 is the industry standard, points leagues are better for apples-to-apples comparisons. Acuña totaled 395 points in 435 at-bats. I ran some numbers and came up with a list of outfielders who scored that many points in that few at-bats since 2014. Here are the results.
2018—Juan Soto: 398 points, 414 AB; Ronald Acuña: 395 points, 433 AB
2017—J.D. Martinez: 484 points, 432 AB; Mike Trout: 513 points, 402 AB; Bryce Harper: 457 points, 420 AB
2014—None (Corey Dickerson came close, though: 393 points in 436 AB)
Beller, are you sure you want to pass on a player capable of producing at a rate that only guys named Trout, Harper and Martinez (J.D., not Victor or Jose) have managed to achieve in the past five years?
Remember, last year was Acuña’s age-21 season. Let’s say he had been healthy in June, and produced at the same rate he had in May. Add four homers, nine RBI and a stolen base. That runs him up to 30 home runs, 73 RBI and 17 steals as a 21-year-old rookie.
Yes, I admit that Yelich was Acuña’s superior in every advanced hitting metric—his 2018 season was even more absurd the more you look back at it—but that shouldn’t diminish what you’re getting out of Acuña. That does not in the least diminish Acuña’s advanced-stats profile. The most encouraging stat? His hard-hit rate was 44.4%. He didn’t make the most of all those barrels with a fly-ball rate of 39.4%, but it’s worth trusting that with another year of MLB experience, the amount of harmless fly balls he hits this season will decrease. What I’m saying here is that we should bet on the come with respect to Acuña’s power.
Beller, you old men like to preach about safety and security and what it was like in your day. Fantasy sports, however, are about hitting on high-reward, high-potential players. The old days were all well and good, but this is the dawning of a new era, and Acuña is one of its leaders. He’s going to show why all season long.