Fantasy Baseball Debate: Jose Altuve vs. Javier Baez

A couple of dynamic middle infielders, Jose Altuve and Javier Baez, face off in this fantasy baseball debate.
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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 Shapiro and Michael Beller debate the merits of a couple of top-20 picks: Jose Altuve and Javier Baez.

Michael Shapiro makes the case for Altuve over Baez…

Javier Baez is the shiny new toy for fantasy owners at second base (and shortstop), entering 2019 as part of a great triumvirate on the North Side of Chicago, along with Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo. Baez enjoyed a career year in 2018, hitting .290/.326/.554 with 34 homers, 111 RBI, 101 runs and 21 steals, all while finishing second in NL MVP voting. Don’t let all that shine distract you from the true top option at second base: Jose Altuve.

Altuve was hampered by a knee injury in 2018, missing 26 games across July and August. He wasn’t quite himself when he returned from the injury, either, but the Astros couldn’t afford to have him on the bench in their pursuit of consecutive World Series titles. When Altuve went on the DL on July 25, he was hitting .329/.392/.464 with 24 doubles, nine homers and 14 steals in 16 attempts. After returning in late August, he hit .276/.366/.409 with five doubles, four homers and three steals across 145 plate appearances. The pre-injury Altuve was on track for another 100-run, 200-hit season. It would be foolish to attribute his statistical decline last year to anything other than health.

Let’s not forget who we’re talking about here. Altuve led the MLB in hits each year from 2014 through 2017, and won three batting titles in that time. He found more power in 2016, hitting 24 homers in two straight seasons, helping offset the fantasy value he gave back by running less. And, just to be clear, it’s not like he stopped running. He had 30 swipes in 2016 and 32 more in 2017. He may have reached 30 again last year, if not for the knee injury. Altuve graduated from great to elite at the start of that 2016 season, and was at that level until he was felled by injury last summer. A disappointing final two months doesn’t change that.

BELLER: Fantasy baseball second base primer and rankings

Houston’s lineup should also do wonders for Altuve’s production. Remember, Altuve wasn’t the only Astro who dealt with injury last year. Carlos Correa and George Springer also spent time on the DL and played at less than 100%. Healthy seasons from them, plus the addition of Michael Brantley, should keep Houston on pace with the Yankees and Red Sox as the best offenses in baseball. Altuve, like everyone else in Houston, will reap the benefits.

While we should assume that Altuve will be back in MVP form, can we expect Baez to stay there? There’s significant reason for skepticism.

Baez’s isolated slugging percentage rose from .207 in 2017 to .264 in 2018. In 2016, his ISO was down at .150. Baez slugged better than .500 for the first time in his career in 2018, jumping more than 70 points from the previous season. His offensive growth, specifically as a power hitter, was legitimate, though it’s sustainability at last year’s precise level is questionable. The best-case scenario is a repeat of last year, and the most likely scenario lands him somewhere between his 2017 and 2018 production. Expecting him to find yet another level is naive.

Baez has the look of a top-30 fantasy player for the next half-decade or so, but Altuve has already proven himself a top-15 asset over at least a three-year period. Turns out elite contact, solid pop and plus speed is a lucrative formula for a fantasy baseball player. On top of all that, Altuve is entrenched in a stacked lineup with a favorable ballpark. Another 200-hit, 20-homer, 100-run, 30-steal season is well within reach. Moreover, Altuve is exactly what you want out of your early picks: a sure thing.

BELLER: Fantasy baseball outfield primer and rankings

Michael Beller makes the case for Baez over Altuve…

Well argued, Michael. Well argued, indeed. The foundation of your case for Altuve is one with which I’m typically inclined to agree. After all, look back at our previous debates from the winter. Christian Yelich vs. Ronald Acuña. Xander Bogaerts vs. Gleyber Torres. Paul Goldschmidt vs. Freddie Freeman. In all of those, I’m on the side of the player with the longer track record, and the difference in track record is greater here than it is in any of those. So, this seems a natural fit for me to say, “You know what, Michael? You’re right. Altuve’s got this in the bag. Let’s forget about the debate and go get some sandwiches.”

I’m not going to do that, though, for multiple reasons, not the least of which being that I assigned us this debate. But this isn’t merely about honoring my responsibilities and getting the work done. Far from it. Rather, it’s about acknowledging when a transformation has taken place. Rarely can you identify history as you’re seeing it, but it’s awfully easy to point out in hindsight. “History” may seem too heavy, too serious a word to describe the season Baez had last year, but make no mistake that we witnessed a transformation. It’s time to for our forward-looking expectations of Baez to match the player he proved himself to be 2018.

Past is not always prologue, and previous results do not guarantee future performance. Those phrases have become axiomatic for a reason. That’s why we often have to go beyond the surface numbers to find a substantive, approach-based change in a player to fully believe in his breakout. The numbers are obviously what matter at the end of the day in fantasy leagues, but they don't materialize out of thin air. They come from somewhere. If we find evidence that a dramatic change in output has the backing of a meaningful change in approach, then we do have reason to believe that, at least in the instance in question, past is prologue.

We’re going to leave behind the realm of traditional numbers now. “But wait,” you’re probably saying, “are you really going to ignore Baez’s 2018 slash line of .290/.326/.554, his 34 homers, his 111 RBI, his 101 runs and his 21 steals? That’s madness. How will you ever win this debate?” Well, no, I’m not going to ignore those numbers, per se. I mean, Baez was one of three players with 30 homers, 100 RBI, 100 runs and 20 steals last year. The other two were Christian Yelich and Jose Ramirez. You think I’m taking that cudgel out of my hand? Not likely. What I am going to do, though, is show why there’s reason to believe last year was not an anomaly, but Baez’s new normal.

Baez has always been a free-swinging guy who strikes out a lot and walks a very little. That is not changing. Even last year when he broke out, he had a 25.9% strikeout rate, 4.5% walk rate and 17.9% whiff rate. This is who he is. Embrace it.

Here’s the thing. Despite being one of the league’s freest swingers, Baez was not thoughtfully aggressive before last year. Going into 2018, his career high in z-swing rate, the frequency with which a hitter swings at pitches in the strike zone, was 69.8%. League-wide stats vary from year to year, but a z-swing rate just shy of 70% will typically rank 25th to 30th in the league. That’s above-average, to be sure, but not remarkably so. And that was his career high. In his first full MLB season in 2016, he had a z-swing rate of 65.7%.

What’s more, Baez took the first pitch of a plate appearance before last year far more often than you’d expect for a player with his reputation. In 2016 and 2017 combined, Baez swung at the first pitch in 30.2% of his plate appearances. To give that number some context, Joey Votto has swung at the first pitch in 32.8% of his career plate appearances. Joey Votto! He’s famously the most patient hitter of his era, and even he was more aggressive on first pitches than Baez. Pitchers regularly took advantage of that tendency, and that resulted in Baez taking a first-pitch strike on 29.5% of his plate appearances over his first two full MLB seasons. It was only when he fell behind that he got aggressive, and then pitchers got him too chase all too easily. Clearly, something had to change.

BELLER: Fantasy baseball shortstop primer and rankings

For Baez, that meant getting more aggressive on strikes and first pitches. Last year, Baez’s z-swing rate rocketed to 76.5%, second-highest in the league behind Freddie Freeman, another player who a few years ago realized the virtues of being hyper-aggressive on pitches in the zone. Baez also swung at a whopping 48.2% of first pitches, falling behind 0-1 on a called strike in just 18.1% of his plate appearances. Eight of Baez’s 34 homers came on the first pitch of an at-bat, good for ninth-most in the league. He had four first-pitch homers in 2016 and 2017 combined.

There is your substantive, approach-based change, my friends. Pitchers are going to adjust to that this season, and Baez is going to have to adjust back, but once a player with his pedigree proves himself capable of making a change this significant—effectively revamping on the fly the type of hitter he is—we should be comfortable with his ability to do it again. Last season marked a transformation in Baez. I’d hate to miss out on what’s to come this year because I was afraid of being proactive rather than reactive.