Anthony Rizzo drops down a peg, Chris Carter rises, and more changes in the revised ordering of the first sackers.
Welcome, to Baseball Prospectus’ first (or at least first time in a long time) in-season rankings update to our preseason positional tiers article. As we did during the preseason, players at each position will be divided into five tiers, represented by a “star” rating. In addition, unlike with the preseason “star” ratings, these lists can also be viewed as a straight ranking.
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The Outcomes rank the first basemen for Scoresheet formats and discuss on the podcast.
If you’ve missed this reminder during the past few years, “first base week” means something different to Scoresheet players than to our fantasy brethren. In Scoresheet, qualifying for the position is something of the equivalent of a participation trophy. Are you an infielder of good or ill repute? Great news! You can stand around at first and be essentially average. Are you an outfielder? You can probably step in as well. Are you a first baseman? Great! Join in, your defensive contributions are noted and devalued accordingly. Are you David Ortiz? Oh, okay. Well, first, thanks for reading—we’re pretty surprised, too. Second, we’re sorry that you’re the only player in the game who is essentially incapable of playing the position. We hope you enjoy spending the season shaking hands with team presidents and enjoying gifts of souvenir cowboy boots and surfboards and whatever other nonsense as a consolation prize.
Examining the junior-circuit options at this position.
Last year’s AL first basemen were one of the most predictable groups at the position in years. The good news for AL-only fantasy owners is that of the eight first basemen who earned $24-29 at the position, six of them will be back in 2016, with Prince Fielder and Kendrys Morales moving to DH-only (assuming a 20-game positional eligibility requirement). This stability makes it relatively easy to sink $25-30 on any of the top five players, and you might even be willing to go into the low $30s to lock in 30+ home runs and 100+ RBI for a premium option. In my early (unpublished) AL-only bid limits, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Abreu, and Edwin Encarnacion all have a bid limit of $30 or higher, with Eric Hosmer sitting in the $25-29 range. None of these players are quite the studs that their National League counterparts are, primarily because none of them offer a significant base stealing component in their respective games. The danger last year came not with the elite first basemen but with the next tier down. Seven first basemen cost between $16-25 in the expert leagues and Hosmer was the only one to turn a profit. Four of these players not only lost their fantasy managers money, but lost $10 or more on their average salary. While Abreu and Cabrera also lost their fantasy owners money, getting $27 worth of stats back on a $37 investment is much better than getting back seven dollars on a $17 investment.
While the temptation is to simply pay the big dogs, first base is dominated by a number of past-their-prime performers who are entering into or firmly entrenched in their decline phase. Ten of the 15 projected starters at the position will be 30 years of age or older in 2016, with only three projected starters younger than 29. On the surface, the age curve at first base seems to lend itself to stability but there is a false sense of security baked into this assumption. While PECOTA can and does predict gradual decline, it fails to account for players simply falling off of the map. Victor Martinez (now DH only for 2016) and Adam LaRoche were the graybeards who died on the vine last year, but it is entirely possible that Mark Teixeira (age 36), Albert Pujols (36), Mike Napoli (34), or even Edwin Encarnacion (33) will be this year’s victims. One thing that helps a great deal in the American League is the glut of DHs who are also eligible at first base. In addition to the 15 starters at first, there are seven players who are projected to DH but will also have their first base eligibility carryover from 2015. We often look at the position with a glass is half empty mentality and lament players like Fielder and Morales who aren’t first base eligible, but the reality is that there are over 20 first-base-eligible players in the AL who will have the opportunity to produce a full season of fantasy value.
You might want to let someone else draft or buy these players in your leagues this spring.
Last week, we kicked off our Players to Target/Avoid series with a look at fantasy backstops. This week, we march on by taking a deep dive on first basemen who could either make or break your auctions and drafts. Today: six hitters who members of our staff think could be overvalued this year, relative where they will be selected in drafts later this spring.
Justin Bour, Marlins
Beware of overemphasizing September stats. This is particularly true where non-contenders are concerned, as a number of teams are often running for the bus (if you’ll pardon an old cliché). After a dismal stretch from June through August where Bour slashed 225/301/394, it seemed that he had turned a corner in September, mashing nine home runs in 120 plate appearances and appearing that he “figured it out.” In reality, Bour had the benefit of feasting off of a number of weak Braves and Phillies pitching, hitting some of those home runs off of the likes of Ryan Kelly, Ryan Weber, David Buchanan, and Daniel Winkler. Granted, Bour does get the advantage of an imbalanced, NL East schedule again in 2016, but given a full year of Noah Syndergaard, Steven Matz, and Aaron Nola, that isn’t necessarily a blessing. I have a healthy skepticism when it comes to late bloomers, and while Bour will probably survive in the Marlins lineup, it is better to bet conservatively than to simply extrapolate last year’s numbers expecting a repeat performance. There is also the very real danger that pitchers continue to pound him with offspeed stuff until he shows he can either hit breaking balls or lay off of them entirely. Bour’s 38 percent swing-and-miss rate makes the formula for opposing pitchers fairly evident in the early going next year. —Mike Gianella
A look at prospects who just missed the top 50, along with some likely 2016 draftees to file away.
We unveiled this series last week as an opportunity for players in deep dynasty leagues, particularly those whose leagues have no eligibility restrictions. Our look at catchers currently outside the positional top 50 who have a shot at threatening those ranks next year is right here, and today we’re on to first basemen. In general this position has less in the way of interesting present big-leaguers, as the second-division and fringe starters already make Bret Sayre’s Dynasty League Top 50, and the step below is mostly guys who’ve maxed out as platoon options. Our 2015 and 2016 sections for the first basemen will also be on the incomplete and speculative side, as first-base prospects are much more frequently made than they are born—and the ones who are born have astronomical attrition rates. So the 2015 class probably includes a bunch of more interesting names that’ll ultimately transition to the position but haven’t yet, and the 2016 class mostly includes guys that won’t have much relevance at all. So goes the life of a deep-league speculator…
An senior-circuit overview of the position, and some value plays for deeper formats.
Following a 2014 season that did not see a single first baseman crack $30 in earnings in standard NL-Only 5x5 scoring formats, 2015 saw the return of a few elite fantasy performances at the position. Paul Goldschmidt ($41 earned) and Joey Votto ($32) returned to the $30 club, and Anthony Rizzo, who led all NL first basemen with $28 earned in 2014, proved that his breakout season was no fluke as the left-handed slugger launched 31 home runs with 101 RBI and 17 steals on his way to $32 in fantasy earnings. However, heading into 2016 drafts, only three other first-base qualifiers cracked $20 in earnings, and one of those players was Buster Posey, whose 46 games played at first base this past season will qualify the backstop at this position for the fourth consecutive year.
As we look forward to the upcoming baseball season, similar to last year, based on the current NL first-base landscape, you will certainly want to grab yourself a top first baseman. Below is a chart reflecting the top 10 most expensive NL-only first sackers in terms of salary in 2015. Please note the “Price” column is the average cost of that player in the CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars expert leagues, as prepared by our own Mike Gianella:
Examining the future fantasy contributors at this position.
First base used to be a god-awful position for fantasy prospects. I’d say it’s moved all the way up to “just okay” over the past few months. You’re unlikely to find any fantasy superstars among the names listed below, but there are at least quite a few likely solid contributors. Remember, last week we talked about catching prospects, so don’t get greedy.
An overview of the fantasy options available at this position for the coming season.
In fantasy baseball, 2015 saw a revitalization of sorts at first base. After a down year in 2014 where merely five first basemen earned $25 or more in mono formats, 2015 saw eight first basemen crack this barrier. The big categorical jumps at the position came in home runs and batting average. The position picked up nearly 100 home runs from 2014 (or three home runs per every 600 plate appearances) and jumped from a .252 batting average in 2014 to a .259 batting average in 2015. Where in drafts and auctions last year the temptation was to go small at the position to avoid overspending on modest production, last year’s spike in production suggests that it might be better to go big early. Where only two first basemen cracked the Top 25 overall in mixed league rankings in 2014, five first basemen turned the feat in 2015, with a sixth barely missing the cut.
A look at the players at this position who see their values change in OBP or points formats.
Now that the dirty work of slogging through the catchers is behind us, we can tear into some real fantasy red meat with a look at first basemen. As a reminder, we’ll be running an Adjuster article each week as a subsidiary to our positional rankings as a space to specifically highlight players who see their values rise or fall relative to our tiered rankings. For hitters we’ll focus on value adjustments in OBP and points formats, though suggestions for additional formats are always welcome in the comments, and if enough of a consensus forms to include additional formats we can adjust (Eh? Eh?) as we go. Even assuming you’re here because you play in an alternate format, I’d strongly suggest you check out J.P.’s tiered rankings for first basemen before you dive in, as my notes on valuation are all based off of those rankings as a starting point. And with that, let’s get to it.
Where catchers were a collective lump of dead tundra in February, first basemen are beachfront property in August, and the contrast is particularly sharp as it relates to OBP formats. The cold corner produced a cumulative OBP 11 points higher than any other positional grouping, and the 77-point gap between on-base percentage and batting average ranked first by 12. Walk rate was the obvious driving force here, as first basemen took free passes at a 9.7 percent clip, nearly two percentage points higher than the next-best outfielders. A full 18 qualifying hitters who logged at least 250 at-bats registered an OBP more than 80 points higher than their batting averages—for context, just nine backstops did, and once we hit the middle infield, those guys will be rarer still. First base is a critically important position to set a firm baseline in standard leagues, and it is all the more important in OBP formats. I’ll try to spend as little time as possible on the elite candidates here in favor of some more interesting names of relevance to OBP-leaguers.
Breaking down the options at this position into fantasy-value-based bins.
As our fantasy positional series continues at Baseball Prospectus, we move from a position of turpitude (catcher) to one of genuine quality (first base). The positional series is a collaborative effort—with my rankings taking into account the arguments of other Fantasy Team writers—so if your favorite player doesn’t get enough attention in this article, there’s a great chance that he’s been (or will be) featured in another piece this week. Let’s get to the “star” ratings, which will once again be broken down into five tiers.