Hello there, and welcome to Hitter List, where every week throughout the season I’ll be flawlessly ranking the top 150 hitters in baseball.
This season is going to be very, very weird for a lot of different reasons. Most notable is that just 60 regular season games will be taking place. While that may be a merciful change for fans of the Baltimore Orioles, it’s an unprecedented and confounding one for fantasy managers, who are left to figure out how this might affect player values. After all, fewer games means a smaller sample size, which introduces more randomness into the equation. Compounding this is the fact that the National League will be implementing the DH this year, and the virus could claim a player at any time for at least a quarter of the season. It’s a lot to factor in, and nobody truly knows how any of it will impact how we should approach roster construction. But here are some quick thoughts on how I think these changes might impact things on the hitting end as far as rotisserie leagues are concerned:
- 60-game season
- Stolen bases: Those who followed Hitter List last year know that I love me some stolen bases. My reasoning is pretty straightforward — they’ve been about as scarce over the past three years as they’ve been during any similar time period in the last 40 years. Obviously they’re not the end-all-be-all, but if we’re talking about players in a vacuum, I think it’s always really helpful to grab a guy who can chip in for the category. Now, truth be told, I’ve softened on this stance a good bit over the past year. But I will say this: In a 60-game season, I believe the value of a hitter with elite speed increases. Why? Because I think you’re more likely to luck into some surprise homers than you are some surprise stolen bases. Consider this: Two months into the 2019 season, Joc Pederson, Derek Dietrich, and Eddie Rosario were all in the top 10 in the league for home runs. But among the stolen base leaders, only Kevin Kiermaier registers as a surprising name — and even he always flashed above-average speed. I don’t think you would really blink if someone with middling power like Amed Rosario or Whit Merrifield popped nine homers this year. But I don’t think you’re as likely to back into above-average steals output from low-tier speedsters like Rougned Odor or Marcus Semien. It’s purely a theory, but I think locking down elite speed will be as important as ever this year.
- Batting average: Fewer at-bats means making up ground in the batting average category late in the year will be a lot more feasible in roto leagues, especially if you get lucky with some hot-hitting waiver claims. For this reason, I don’t think you’ll need to focus quite as much on laying a good foundation in the category during the draft.
- Counting stats: I think, in a shortened season, counting stats will be king. If you can draft a talented hitter with a secure spot in the heart of a good lineup, you’re really going to maximize your shares of the limited number of run-scoring and run-producing opportunities that will present themselves this year. I would pay close attention to where hitters are projected to slot into their teams’ lineups as we approach the start of games, because that may be an area where you can find some sneaky values.
- Home runs: As mentioned in the stolen base section, home runs are tough to predict over such a short period of time, because even those with middling power can sometimes put together two months of elite production. Power is still hugely important, but I think in a shortened season you might be able to get away with not being laser-focused on the category.
- National League DH: I think this change provides a nice boost to defensively challenged or injury-prone guys like J.D. Davis, Wil Myers, Ryan Braun and Kyle Schwarber. Whereas I might have dinged these guys slightly in the past due to the potential for them to lose some at-bats to defensive replacements or injury, that’s less of a concern now.
- Strength of Schedule: Teams will be playing 40 games against their division, and the remaining 20 games against their corresponding division in the opposite league. So, for example, the Mets will play the NL East 40 times, and the AL East 20 times. The schedule has dropped, and it’s worth checking out for exploitable hitter matchups throughout the year. Some team’s hitters will benefit more than others. The Padres, for example, are slated to play seven games–over 10% of their season–at Coors Field.
- Coronavirus/IL Stints: Players who test positive for coronavirus during the season or hit the IL for any reason will be removed from the rankings until they return. In a short season, most injuries are going to cost hitters at least 15% of their at-bats. Furthermore, it’s to nobody’s benefit if I attempt to play doctor and presume when a player might return from an injury or a battle with COVID-19.
Now, with the weirdness of the 2020 season mostly addressed, a few quick things before we jump into the actual rankings and notes:
- Though I feel more comfortable going out on a limb with talented prospects this year, in general I tend to lean towards players with proven track records.
- Statcast is love, Statcast is life. I tend to place a premium on a hitter’s quality-of-contact metrics, especially if they pair favorably with their plate discipline and contact rates. I’m less interested in their surface-level numbers and more interested in the underlying skills that Statcast data can shed light on, as I think they are more helpful at predicting future success. That being said, given the short season, I’m going to try and bump up hot hitters more than I customarily would. Churning through hot hitters on waivers is a more realistic strategy this year, and could catapult teams to a championship if they catch lightning in a bottle a few times.
- Tiers represent groupings of players I think could all conceivably produce at a similar level in terms of fantasy output. The actual rankings within the tiers are personal preference, but I think you could make an argument for anyone within each tier to be ranked above anyone else within that tier.
- These rankings apply only to leagues using standard scoring (R, RBI, HR, SB, AVG) and lean more toward rotisserie. I understand that hitter values can vary widely based on league format, but the only way to come up with a consistent way of ranking hitters is to hone in on one league type. Adjust accordingly for other formats.
- A player’s movement up or down in the rankings can sometimes be a byproduct of other players rising above or dropping below them. For example, if Kyle Schwarber lands on the IL and is dropped off the list, everyone ranked below him will automatically receive a +1 bump in the rankings. Conversely, if a player rises from one week to another, everyone he leapfrogs will take a -1 hit. Just something to keep in mind if you see a ranking change that doesn’t immediately make sense in the context of that particular player.
Hitter List Notes
- Injuries/Illnesses: Well, I knew this season would be weird. But I didn’t think it’d get this weird, this quickly. The Marlins’ season has been “paused” until early next week after half their team (and counting) tested positive for COVID. No word on exactly which players tested positive, so it leaves fantasy managers in a pretty tough spot when it comes to rostering Miami Marlins. For the time being, I’m dropping all Marlins (i.e. Jonathan Villar) off the list. I’m not endorsing dropping Villar entirely if he’s on your fantasy team–after all, we won’t know until next week whether he has even tested positive. But his value takes a big hit if he ends up losing more than 10% of his potential at-bats. Juan Soto, Hunter Dozier, and Mike Moustakas also hit the COVID IL. Moustakas has not technically tested positive apparently, but was exhibiting symptoms. Nick Senzel has also been held out recently with an undisclosed illness. Yordan Alvarez and Austin Meadows seem poised to return soon, though their ETA is still unknown. Anthony Rendon and Byron Buxton both returned yesterday after missing the beginning of the year due to injury. Willie Calhoun and Christian Walker are also back in their respective lineups after missing some time.
- This is the perfect season for overreacting, so let’s overreact. Dansby Swanson has been on fire to start the year, smacking two home runs already. He’s already accumulated three barrels this season on just nine batted balls, and seems to be carrying the power uptick he displayed in early 2019 over into 2020. I’ve mentioned it before, but I think an injury derailed a potential breakout season for Swanson last year. I believe he’s a guy who could hit 25 home runs, steal 15 bases, and hit .275 over the course of a full season, making him an incredibly useful fantasy player and someone that a lot of people are still sleeping on.
- Speaking of overreacting, Eric Hosmer is hitting flyballs! This is exciting stuff, because putting the bat on the ball and making quality contact were never issues for Hosmer. His problem to this point has been his penchant for driving the ball into the ground, something that caused his power output and batting averages to fluctuate year-to-year, and left him at the mercy of the BABIP gods. If he’s truly learned to lift the ball more, Hosmer has the ceiling of a .290 hitter who could threaten 30 homers over a full season with great counting stats. He’s definitely worth monitoring over the coming weeks.
- I’ve spilled a lot of ink over last week’s poster boy, Josh Bell, and I’m still onboard the hype train. However, watching a few of his at-bats this season, I’ve noticed his batting stance is a bit noisier than it was last season. This is concerning, as a big part of his breakout last year stemmed from him finding and sticking to a consistent stance that featured fewer moving parts. I might be reading too much into this, but it is something I’ll be keeping an eye on, especially if his struggles over the first few games carry into the next couple of weeks.
- I mentioned Jose Peraza as an interesting middle infield option last week, as he’s gotten off to a good start with the Red Sox, albeit without any power or speed to this point. One nice development is that Peraza has been used in the leadoff spot a few times already, and if he holds onto that lineup spot this year hitting ahead of Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers, and J.D. Martinez he could rack up a ton of runs in addition to whatever he can chip in in batting average and stolen bases.
- This early in the season, when so many stats aren’t even close to stabilizing, one fun way of finding some potential hidden gems is skimming the maximum exit velocity leaderboards. Two names that stand out are Luis Robert, who currently has the third-hardest hit ball of the season at 115.8 mph, and Kyle Lewis, who has the tenth-hardest hit ball of the season at 110.9 mph. I’m still not quite sold that Lewis’s strikeout issues won’t undermine his potential this year, but he makes an appearance on the list this week on account of his hot start and power upside. Luis Robert, on the other hand, is Luis Robert, and I think this more or less confirms that there’s a lot of latent talent in his bat.
- Kyle Tucker has inexplicably failed to secure regular at-bats while Yordan Alvarez has been on the shelf. He’s got a ton of upside, but with Alvarez potentially returning in the near future, it’s hard to see where he fits into their long-term plans this season. I’d still probably rather roll the dice on him than most of the guys ranked below him, but it hasn’t been an auspicious start to the year for Tucker’s value.
Graphic by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter)