6 Underrated First Basemen: Boring Old Guys, New Blood, and Whatever Max Muncy Is
As I mentioned in my write-up of this year’s overrated first basemen, the position has changed substantially in the decade since 2009. No longer can you expect to find 100/30/100 hitters outside the top five at the position. But that doesn’t mean you have to draft one of the big three of Paul Goldschmidt, Freddie Freeman, or Anthony Rizzo to feel good about your corner infield. Whether it’s some boring old guys, some high-upside new blood, or Max Muncy, there’s plenty of value to be had. The six underrated hitters below should provide surplus value at their current ADPs.
(Chicago White Sox, ADP: 86)
Jose Abreu has been loyal to us throughout the years, averaging 82/31/103/.300 from 2014-2017. One bad season in 2018, and we suddenly can’t reciprocate. I’m not trying to get you to guilt-draft Abreu — I’m sure he doesn’t talk to his therapist about his lower ADP — but I do think there’s some value in taking a consistent performer after an off-year. Call it the boring old guy effect, but fantasy ballers just aren’t as intrigued by the 32-year-old as they used to be.
Thing is, there’s nothing in Abreu’s profile that points to any sort of decline. His average exit velocity was actually up from 90.5 mph to 91.4 mph, good for 27th in the league. There were no noticeable changes in his Statcast metrics, batted-ball profile, or plate discipline that point to a skills degradation. Only two items stand out: his career-low BABIP of .294, and his career-high infield fly-ball rate of 13.9%.
In regard to BABIP, his Statcast hard-hit rate of 45.2% is right in line with his 2017 rate. Indeed, his expected BABIP of .334 points to some serious bad luck. That combined with his elevated infield-fly rate point to a batter who’s just a hair off mechanically. I expect Abreu to get back on track to the player we’ve always known and loved. Don’t wait too late in your draft to come crawling back.
(Los Angeles Dodgers, ADP: 114)
Confession: I originally came here to put Muncy on my overrated list. Something about the way he just came out of nowhere to ride a crazy-high HR/FB rate on his way to a 35-homer season screamed “Brady Anderson” to me. But after digging deeper into Muncy, there’s a ton to like here.
Let’s start with this — among some of his standout xStats and Statcast metrics (and where they rank for 2018, minimum 400 plate appearances) are: 13.7% value-hit rate (14th), 90.3 mph average exit velocity (69th), 20% high-drive rate (eighth), 18.3% poor-hit rate (second), 16.9% barrels/BBE (second). His average launch angle of 17.7 degrees is within the optimal range. All of this is a jargony way to say: Dude just smokes the ball.
Turns out, his 29% HR/FB rate was pretty strongly supported by the extremely high quality contact he made. While I wouldn’t expect him to clear the fences at quite the same clip next year, he should approach 30 homers again with 600 plate appearances, and his counting stats will get the bump too. I think 80/30/80 is a conservative estimate for what he can do over a full season, and his upside is higher. He should be going a couple of rounds above his 112 ADP. And I didn’t even get into his OBP-league potential (16.4% walk rate). Draft at will.
(Toronto Blue Jays, ADP: 235)
Don’t get me wrong; I love baseball analytics. It’s why you’re reading these words right now. But sometimes it doesn’t take a super deep dive to see where value lies. Justin Smoak disappointed his owners this past year by failing to repeat his career-year line from 2017, when he swatted 38 home runs, drove in 90 runs, and hit .270. Still, he was more than useful in 2018. His wRC+ of 121 was better than other first basemen going higher than him, including Cody Bellinger, Matt Olson, and Ian Desmond.
If you’re insistent on popping the hood on Smoak to get a better look, you’ll find an improved walk rate (14%), an increased strikeout rate (26.3%), and OK-but-not-great exit velocity and barrel rates. It’s not a slam dunk, but he’s shown he can put a stellar season together. Even if all you get is a repeat of last year’s 67/25/77/.242, that’s worth plenty toward the end of the draft. The potential for 30 homers and solid run production come with the low price.
(Minnesota Twins, ADP: 255)
You can copy and paste a lot of what I wrote about Smoak with CJ Cron, who this past season bested Smoak in terms of wRC+ (122), home runs (30), and batting average (.253). He was good at getting the barrel on the ball last year, ranking 32nd in the league in barrels per batted ball. That supports his career-best 21% HR/FB rate.
There’s a little more reason to be skeptical of Cron than there is Smoak. Cron’s 0.26 walk to strikeout ratio is ugly, and he’s got a lot of swing and miss to his bat. His 87.4 mph exit velocity was just a hair above league average. But when he did hit connect, he was more likely to clear the fence. His HROpp% of 20.5% was among the top 25 in the league among batters with more than 500 plate appearances.
Most encouraging, though, is that he’s leaving Tropicana Field. This past season, 19 of the righty’s 30 homers came on the road, and his home/road splits favor the former in just about every offensive category. By moving to the Twins’ Target Field, Cron’s going from a park that diminishes right-handed power (24th in MLB) and overall run production (23rd) to one where his power should play a little better (13th and 16th, respectively). I expect him to repeat and even beat his 2018 line.
(New York Yankees, ADP: 170)
(New York Mets, ADP: 242)
I’ve paired these guys together because they’re both rising up draft boards, and I don’t expect their ADPs to stay where they are. Prior to the start of spring training, Luke Voit was going 15 spots lower and Pete Alonso 18 spots behind his current position in NFBC leagues. If they keep doing things like this — and this — in March, expect to pay a decent premium for these two shiny new toys. But if I’m drafting now, I love both of these values at their current price.
There’s no lack of hype surrounding Voit, and if you haven’t read Nick Gerli’s fantastic unbuttoning of his 2018 season, you should drop what you’re doing and read that now. I won’t recap the batted-ball data laid out in that article, just trust that it’s top-five-in-baseball fantastic. Still his draft-day stock is getting weighed down by questions over playing time, and the projection systems are less than bullish on him with Steamer forecasting a 60/19/56/.263 line. I say forget the naysayers. The Yankees are reportedly deciding between the 28-year-old Voit and 26-year-old Greg Bird to be their everyday first baseman this year, but Bird has a troubling injury history, logging just 659 Major League plate appearances since 2015. His leash is short, and Voit’s quality of contact should help him easily show the projection systems what’s what.
Meanwhile, in Queens, Alonso is locked up in a battle of his own for the Mets’ starting first base job. His competition is Dominic Smith, who’s been a prized prospect for longer but has fizzled in his short times in the majors, slugging an ugly .224/.255/.420 across 149 plate appearances this past year. Alonso, on the other hand, turned heads this past year by cranking 36 dingers across two levels in the minors. Baseball Prospectus grades his raw power at 80 this year, and he’s shown enough patience at the plate in the minors to approach a 10% walk rate and 25% strikeout rate, which is serviceable in today’s game. Rhys Hoskins feels like an appropriate comparison based on their minor league trajectories.
The Mets made some splashy moves this offseason and are showing they want to compete. My guess is we see them break camp with Smith on the corner, with Alonso making his debut a few weeks later. In the 20th round of drafts, he’s a smart upside gamble.
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