After starting off the Tale of the Tape series last week with Jonathan Lucroy edging out Travis d’Arnaud, we move on to a couple of star first basemen. We’re going a little more high-profile than the competition behind the plate, with a couple of top-25 players who are currently going back-to-back according to early ADP data. It’s Edwin Encarnacion vs. Jose Abreu.
Both of these players do relatively well here for the power hitters that they are, but Abreu had the advantage, .290-.277, in 2015. The White Sox first baseman has been a high-AVG player in each of his two stateside seasons, finishing his rookie year with a .317 mark. The reason for his success here has more to do with his quality of contact than its frequency, as he’s carried a roughly average K-rate of 21 percent in his short career. Instead, he thrives on an above-average line-drive rate and hard contact in general, leading to high BABIPs in both seasons. He may see some regression here moving forward, but he’s mostly earned his success on balls in play. Encarnacion, meanwhile, is the opposite. He almost never strikes out, but also carries consistently low BABIPs. His propensity for hitting fly balls is the biggest culprit here. Both guys could see a little regression towards the mean in BABIP, but even with that it’s hard to go against what Abreu has done thus far in his career.
Despite Abreu carrying the edge last season in the previous category, Encarnacion finished safely ahead in OBP, besting Abreu’s .347 mark with a .372 output. He’s able to do it by pairing his near-elite K-rate with a firmly elite BB-rate that has been in double digits in each of the last four years. Meanwhile, Abreu didn’t walk that much in either season, and watched his rate crater down to five percent in 2015 after a league-average mark of eight percent the year before. Fortunately for him, there were no glaring plate-discipline issues, and he mostly recovered with a seven percent mark in the second half. This is a toss-up, but given some assumed improvement in Abreu’s walk-rate as well as his advantage in AVG, I’ll give him the slightest of edges.
Advantage: Abreu… slightly
Although both of these players are being drafted so highly for their overall performance, it’s the power that really puts them over the top. Both are big-time sluggers, but Encarnacion won handily in this category last season with 39 dingers to Abreu’s 30. Encarnacion is one of the truly elite power hitters in the league, topping 34 homers in each of the last four seasons with an average of 38 in the span. Of course, Abreu is no slouch here, either, hitting 36 in his first year before his 30 HR season last year. Typically, home parks can play a huge difference here, but both play in elite home parks. Average flyball distance says Abreu wins this matchup, as he displayed the fourth-best average power in the league last year. However, Encarnacion is a consistent bet to hit 35+, and visits better hitting parks in his division. It’s certainly a close call and both figure to be near the top of the overall leaderboard, but Encarnacion gets a slight edge.
Advantage: Encarnacion… slightly
Given the differences in the lineups each of these guys hit in, I was surprised Encarnacion won this by such a relatively slim margin in 2015, knocking in nine more runs than Abreu’s 101. Looking ahead to 2016, Toronto’s lineup will once again be miles ahead of Chicago’s — and the rest of the league’s for that matter. Encarnacion is going to have a bevy of RBI opportunities hitting behind Troy Tulowitzki, Josh Donaldson, and Jose Bautista. Meanwhile, Abreu has a solid hitter in Adam Eaton in front of him in addition to potential bounce-back Melky Cabrera, a duo that doesn’t come close to anything the top of the Blue Jays lineup can boast. With that massive advantage and his slight edge in power, Encarnacion is the better bet here.
While both of these players are solid in the on-base department, they are very-good-but-not-quite-great run-scorers. Last season, Encarnacion came out ahead with 94 to Abreu’s 88. The latter gets a little more help here than he did in the RBI department with some legitimate power in Todd Frazier behind him, and the potential of Brett Lawrie and Adam LaRoche’s power sticks. Encarnacion, on the other hand, marks the end of the insane portion of Toronto’s lineup. Luckily for him, the rest of the group is still pretty solid, headlined by Russell Martin. Given their similar on-base abilities, the edge will go to whoever is in a better lineup and is a better baserunner. Despite Abreu having more power behind him, Encarnacion is in front of more overall depth, and is also slightly superior on the base paths. He gets a very slight edge in yet another category that should be close.
Advantage: Encarnacion… slightly
Just like last week, this is not a position at which you are going to be looking for stolen bases. First base is about power numbers with some AVG/OBP being thrown in elite cases. Still, Encarnacion will at least throw in a couple of steals every year, even reaching double digits in 2012. Abreu has one in his career. Encarnacion gets this largely meaningless victory.
One of the reasons both of these players are being taken in the top 25 is that they are good bets to avoid a DL stint through the entire season. Encarnacion has reached 600 plate appearances in three of the last four years while Abreu has missed a total of 25 games in the last two years, with 622 and 668 plate appearances in 2014 and 2015, respectively. It’s worth mentioning the large age gap here as well, with the White Sox 1B entering his age-29 season while it will be Encarnacion’s age-33 campaign. There is also the fact that the Toronto slugger was banged up at the end of last year, albeit with minor injuries. It’s mostly picking nits, but Abreu does have the age advantage and has yet to suffer from the injury bug in his career.
Advantage: Abreu… slightly
We’ll make this one short. Both of these players are keys to their teams success, and both clubs are in the American League which means they think they can contend this year. Assuming health, neither player will be on the bench save for a token day off here and there. Nobody gets the win.
While dependability is a big reason for each guy’s high ranking, the massive ceiling each possesses is a large part of it as well. It’s hard to imagine we haven’t seen Encarnacion’s yet, as he was an absolute monster in 2012 with a .280/.384 AVG/OBP and 42 home runs. Maybe he could add a couple of points to the AVG, but it’s hard to see that happening without the power suffering a bit. Meanwhile, there is potential for Abreu to have his best year in 2016, even considering how incredible he was in 2014. That year, he hit .317/.383 with 36 home runs. It’s hard to see him pushing that average any higher, but that same AVG/OBP production with a few more homers is within his reach, and would make him one of the truly elite fantasy bats in the game.
Given their proximity in both the rankings and ADP, it was obvious that this one would be close, and it ended up being essentially a dead heat. Both players won four total categories, with each taking two of the very close ones. Still, many will come to a point in drafts when they have to decide which player to take, and making the right choice in such an early round can make or break a season. Honestly, it depends a bit on draft strategy, as Encarnacion is the safe choice and Abreu is the higher-ceiling guy. Personally, if I’m forced to pick between two comparable players, I’ll always take the higher ceiling.
And the winner is… Jose Abreu