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The Big Question: What if we’re completely wrong?

It’s no secret that major-league second basemen recorded a truly historic season at the plate last year. USA TODAY reporter Ted Berg highlighted the phenomenon in September, and Craig Edwards expertly recapped it over at FanGraphs this offseason. While offensive production increased virtually across the board, the most dramatic shift, a significant uptick in home runs, corresponds with the unattributed league-wide power surge, which begun in the second half of the 2015 campaign. Here’s an over-simplification: Second base has evolved from a pedestrian offensive position, to one of the deepest in fantasy baseball, in the blink of an eye.

In addition to hitting 585 home runs, second basemen posted a .771 OPS last year. That’s a higher mark than nearly every other position, with the exception of first base, third base and designated hitter. Seriously, the sheer volume of talent is incredible. For example, Ben Zobrist hit .272 with 18 home runs, 94 runs scored, 76 RBI and six stolen bases, and finished outside the top-10 at the position in 2016. Per Mike Gianella’s retrospective player valuations, an incredible 24 second base-eligible hitters earned $10 or more last season.

To put into broader context, how dramatically the second base landscape has shifted; we can use Baseball-Reference major-league positional splits data to compare production on a per-season basis over the last five years.

Major-league second basemen positional splits, 2012-2016

(Source: Baseball-Reference)

Year

PA

R

HR

RBI

SB

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

2016

20,855

2,646

585

2,220

375

.277

.334

.436

.771

2015

20,405

2,312

392

1,977

355

.264

.318

.393

.711

2014

20,470

2,263

340

1,878

390

.256

.313

.373

.686

2013

20,641

2,285

396

1,984

342

.263

.323

.387

.710

2012

20,567

2,372

390

1,931

432

.257

.318

.383

.701

Determining whether this newfound level of offensive production (most notably in the home run department) will continue unabated is a more difficult challenge than figuring out what’s really going on in Westworld. My colleague Jeff Quinton will tackle this specific by outlining a strategic approach geared towards 2017 fantasy drafts in his trademark “The Quinton” column this week. I’ve elected to go in a much darker direction by asking, what if we’re wrong? What if offensive production at the keystone begins to trend in the opposite direction? What if the 2016 campaign was a historical anomaly? What if it was an outlier season that cannot be replicated?

Brian Dozier went on an absolute tear for the ages in Minnesota, hitting 28 of his career-high 42 home runs in just 332 plate appearances after the All-Star break. Jose Altuve is clearly a cut above the rest at the position, but he nearly doubled his home run to fly ball ratio for the second consecutive season. At 31-years-old, Daniel Muprhy was bitten by a radioactive spider crushed 25 home runs while recording the second-highest True Average (.347 TAv) in the major leagues. He had never eclipsed 14 home runs or a .285 TAv in any of his first six seasons before evolving into one of the best pure hitters in the game. Finally, after dealing with lingering health issues the previous year, Robinson Cano rebounded, hitting .298/.350/.533 with a career-high 39 home runs.

There’s no question Altuve, Dozier, Murphy and Cano are legitimate fantasy studs squarely in the prime of their respective careers. Even if they regress slightly towards their previous levels of production, their fantasy owners will not be disappointed in 2017. Still, they all overachieved even the most optimistic preseason projections in rather dramatic fashion. What if we look at little further down at the talent pool at the position? Wait, you guessed it, more extreme outlier performances.

D.J. LeMahieu rode a preposterously-high .388 BABIP to a .348/.416/.495 line and the National League batting title last year. After hitting 15 home runs in 270 games from 2014-2015, Jason Kipnis smoked a career-high 23. Dustin Pedroia hit 318/.376/.449 and played 150 games for the first time in four years. Not only did Ian Kinsler hit .288 while scoring 117 runs, he also cleared the 20-home run barrier (28) for the first time in five years in his age 34-season.

Obviously, I’ve framed these players’ statistics in a way that strips out much-needed context and fits a rather biased, yet compelling narrative. It’s entirely possible that we’ve entered a new era at the position, spearheaded by a plethora of elite talent like Altuve, Dozier, Cano, Murphy, LeMahieu and Dee Gordon. A core group of solid, yet unspectacular, veterans in Pedroia, Kinsler, Kipnis, Matt Carpenter and Ben Zobrist provides additional depth. Meanwhile, dynamic youngsters like Trea Turner, Rougned Odor (and potentially Yoan Moncada very soon) provide an infusion of potential long-term superstars.

I know it’s a bit like comparing apples to oranges, but we just witnessed a similar phenomenon take place in the fantasy football industry. In a recent article for Rotoviz, Ben Gretch wrote about how his data-driven interpretation of the impact league-wide trends would have on the 2016 season ended up being flat-out wrong. For example, the NFL has experienced a shift of its own in recent years: pass attempts have risen significantly while rushing attempts declined. While these trends continued league-wide in 2016, fantasy wide receiver scoring declined across the board, while running backs experienced a bounce-back. The reason: random variance. Running backs ended up scored more touchdowns than they had in a single-season since 2008. Their usage didn’t change. They just found the end-zone more often than wide receivers in the flow of games.

What if the home run increase at second base was a product of random variance as well? Make no mistake. Second base is stuffed to the gills with talent. It’s absurd. But, let’s not overlook the fact that we just witnessed an unprecedented 2016 campaign. Expecting that level of production, especially when it comes to inflated home run totals, to continue might be a mistake. I’m not willing to dismiss the possibility that we’re wrong about the overall state of second base.

Mixed League Strategy

Altuve is the clear headliner at the position. His top billing is well deserved coming off a dominant season in which he hit .338/.396/.531 while establishing career-high’s in runs scored (108), home runs (24) and RBI (96). Currently the fourth player off the board in NFBC average draft position, there’s minimal risk here, and he’s a virtual lock to be a five-category contributor. If there is one minor red flag, it’s the steals long-term. The 26-year-old still managed to swipe 30 bags for the fifth consecutive season, but if he’s hitting in the heart of the Astros order, he may have those opportunities scaled back in order to preserve his long-term health. Still, it’s a very minor concern.

The four-star tier is well stocked with a plethora of veteran options that we’ve covered extensively already in Dozier, Murphy, LeMahieu, Cano. The most intriguing target in this tier, given their current average draft position, is Dee Gordon, who is currently going off the board in the fourth round. Ignoring the inflated value of stolen bases and letting him slide that far is almost as bad as Ricky Bobby refusing to say, “I love crepes.”

The final member of BP’s four-star tier, Trea Turner, is arguably the most polarizing player in fantasy baseball right now. Despite a major-league track record comprised of 100 games over the past two seasons, in which he’s hit .329/.361/.539 with 14 home runs and 35 stolen bases in 368 plate appearances, the 23-year-old is currently going off the board in the first round (11th overall) of early NFBC drafts. The buzz surrounding Turner’s immense potential is justified (and a bit overwhelming). Typically, he’s the risky early-round investment we advise fantasy owners to steer away from. The interesting wrinkle with Turner is that he may end up being worth the lofty investment, given the increased value of stolen bases in the current fantasy landscape. I’ll be writing about this phenomenon, and Turner’s 2017 value, for BP later this week. Trust me, you don’t want to miss it.

Even if you miss out on those four star options, there are several fallback options capable of providing comparable production in Pedroia, Kinsler, Kipnis, Carpenter and burgeoning superstar Rougned Odor. Seriously, think about how crazy it is that we don’t talk about Odor all the time. At 22-years-old, he hit .271 with 33 home runs and 14 steals.

The overarching benefit of the tremendous depth at the position is that you no longer have to reach for a second baseman, just to avoid being stuck with a terrible starter. Even if you wait past the sixth or seventh round of a snake draft, you can still land a quality two star option like Zobrist, Jonathan Schoop, Starlin Castro, Neil Walker, Brandon Phillips, Devon Travis or Logan Forsythe. At the very least, fantasy owners should be able to fall into 15-to-20 home run production at the position.

The Breakout Candidate: Joe Panik, San Francisco Giants

The former 2011 first-round pick fits more appropriately in the mold of a classic bounce-back selection in re-draft leagues, rather than the breakout candidates fantasy owners have grown accustomed to targeting in recent years. A concussion sidelined him for an entire month last July, and the performance over his final 57 games (.215/.308/.340 with three home runs in 222 plate appearances) upon returning raise a legitimate question regarding whether he was truly healthy. There is still very much we don’t know from a medical standpoint about the immediate and long-term impact of concussions. But, it may have disrupted Panik’s season more than we know.

The 26-year-old’s profile is utterly bland from a fantasy “upside” standpoint. His plate skills are flat-out spectacular though, as evidenced by the fact that he walked more times (50) than he struck out (47) in his 526 plate appearances last season. He’s increased his walk rate in each of the past two seasons, while dropping his strikeout rate into rarified territory. The incremental growth in his ability to put the ball in play and induce free passes make it even more incredible that he hit a meager .239/.315/.379 in 2016.

We talk a lot about regression. The technical term is reversion to the mean. It usually has a negative connotation, but not in this case. After establishing a lofty baseline BABIP (.336 in 719 PA) over his first two years, Panik’s BABIP dropped to a staggering .245 last year. Even a modest regression towards even a league-average BABIP (.300), much less his career mark, will give him a legitimate chance to approach a .300 batting average in 2017. He’s a lock to outperform his current average draft position in the 22nd round (323th overall) of 15-team mixed leagues.

Long-Term Forecast

The future is extremely bright. We’ve covered the veteran depth at the top of the position pretty extensively without discussing upside targets like Jose Peraza and Javier Baez, both of whom will have second-base eligibility this season. With Dansby Swanson firmly entrenched at shortstop, Ozzie Albies will slide over the second base permanently and could arrive in Atlanta by mid-season.

The other big name on the prospect horizon is Yoan Moncada. One of the most physically gifted prospects we’ve seen in recent years, his opportunity to make an impact in Chicago could come as early as June. He’s a potential five-category, switch-hitting fantasy monster. If there is one prospect worth stashing in re-draft leagues, it’s him.

Prospect Pulse

If we exclude shortstops that have yet to convert to the position, it’s pretty bleak. Ian Happ is the other notable prospect (in addition to Albies) on the brink of making an impact. His long-term defensive home remains up in the air. Given the Cubs depth, he could be more of a utility infielder. There aren’t as many questions about the bat after the switch-hitting 22-year-old raked in Double-A.

Prospect Lineouts…

Willie Calhoun is supremely interesting, even if he doesn’t end up sticking at second base defensively long-term. After hitting .254/.318/.469 with 53 extra-base hits (27 home runs) in 132 games at Double-A Tulsa, he needs to be on the fantasy radar…Alen Hanson stole 36 bases, while hitting only .266/.318/.389 with eight home runs in 110 games at Triple-A. With stolen bases at a premium in the major leagues, his speed matters, but the 24-year-old has to find a way to get on base first, which could be problematic…Luis Urias posted a .333 average in 123 games at High-A…Travis Demeritte continued to strike out at an alarming pace, fanning 175 tomes in 455 at-bats at High-A, but the trademark power (28 home runs) is still there…Carlos Asuaje led the PCL in hits (172) and made his major-league debut in September… Bret told me I have to mention Scott Kingery, so there it is…Given Jed Lowrie’s injury history, someone out of the trio of Joe Wendle, Chad Pinder and Max Schrock could play in Oakland this season…Forrest Wall didn’t make our Rockies Top 10 list last week…

The Final Stat

Rougned Odor is the only second baseman in major-league history to hit 30-plus home runs in a single-season before the age of 23…