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: Juan Soto, Mike Moustakas, and Austin Meadows returned from the COVID IL. It was also revealed that Jonathan Villar, Jesus Aguilar, and Brian Anderson did not test positive for COVID, so they make their returns to the list this week. Ozzie Albies hit the IL today with a wrist injury. Eric Hosmer hit the IL with gastrointestinal issues, but should return soon. Ryan Braun hit the IL with a finger infection, and Danny Santana hit the IL with a shoulder injury. Tim Anderson also landed on the IL. Yoenis Cespedes and Lorenzo Cain opted out of the season. Amed Rosario, Jeff McNeil, Edwin Encarnacion, Nick Madrigal, and Josh Donaldson are dealing with some injuries that are currently considered day-to-day. They’re all worth monitoring over the next few days to determine their severity. Mike Trout also returned yesterday and promptly homered. Trout swims upstream to the top of the list now that he isn’t going to be missing the rest of the year, as some had anticipated he might.
- Mike Yastremzski, Teoscar Hernandez, and Kyle Lewis have all been hot commodities over the first few weeks, and I’m fully on board with being fair-weather owners of all of them for as long as they continue to crush. Of the trio, I would peg Yastremzski as the most likely to have sustained success. Teoscar is destroying the ball, as he always has, but is also posting the worst chase rate, contact rate, and SwStr% of his career to this point, and oddly enough has been pulling the ball way less than usual. Kyle Lewis has been a complete anomaly, posting a high 48.5% groundball rate and a pedestrian 37.9% Hard Hit rate, but somehow managing to barrel the few pitches he does elevate. He’s also running a .577 BABIP and 36.5% strikeout rate. Yastremszki is at least pairing his hard contact with a palatable strikeout rate and showing solid plate discipline. In a 60-game season, regression may not catch up with some of these guys. But if you’re betting on one of them long-term, say yasss to Yaz.
- Now for a couple of hitters who pitchers have been calling their padres: Wil Myers and Trent Grisham. Is there anything more nourishing than long-deferred, unrequited love eventually coming home to roost? I’ve been jazzed with Wil Myers for years now, and it finally seems he’s returning to being the fantasy stud that I always knew he was. It’s nice to see that he’s made some adjustments to his stance that back up his excellent performance to this point, and I’m still pumping him as a guy who has a 20/20 floor in a full season. Grisham has been a revelation as well, carrying his excellent performance from the minors over into this year. He’s now a fixture in the second spot in the order for the Padres, thanks in large part to his stellar plate discipline (15% walk rate, 14% chase rate). He’s pulling the ball in the air a ton right now, which might help him make up for his mediocre quality-of-contact to this point. And the Padres have been running wild, so expect some stolen bases to be sprinkled in there too. There’s a lot to like about Padres hitters this year.
- Well shucks. I’ll be the first to admit I did not expect this kind of start to the season from Corey Seager. Coming off two major surgeries in 2019, Seager didn’t hit the ball with much authority, and didn’t seem like he would be a game-changing fantasy asset in 2020 barring some changes. Well, the changes seem to have arrived, likely spurred by a fully healthy offseason. Seager is hitting the ball harder than almost anyone so far, accumulating 10 barrels to this point with a 62.5% (!!!) Hard Hit rate. He’s also striking out at just a 10.2% clip, and pulling the ball significantly more than he has in the past. If he can keep hitting the ball this hard and pair that elite contact with his customarily low strikeout numbers, he could be a player who hits .290+ with over 30 homers in a full season, which would likely catapult him into at least the top-50 hitters.
- Nick Castellanos has homered six times in 11 games and is hitting .368 with 13 RBI at the moment. He’s actually been underperforming his xwOBA and xAVG to this point, which tells you everything you need to know about how legit this is. He’s making an early case for NL MVP.
- I was a big fan of Christian Walker entering the year, and he continues to blister the ball this season, though he doesn’t have any homers to show for it yet thanks in part to the fact that he just has not been elevating the baseball. This hasn’t been an issue for him in the past though, and I think this might be a good opportunity to buy low on him as I imagine the power outburst is right around the corner.
- Big downgrades for all Indians outfielders this week, particularly Oscar Mercado and Domingo Santana. I didn’t anticipate Bradley Zimmer being a factor for Cleveland this year, and with Jordan Luplow returning and Delino Deshields entering the fray in the near future, this could be a situation to avoid, as there are just too many mouths to feed. I’m still a big fan of Santana–his plate discipline and quality-of-contact have been elite so far, even if his surface numbers don’t reflect it yet. But for now, he’s worth fading.
- Here’s your weekly Josh Bell batting stance update: it looks better, but is still a little noisey. I mentioned last week how pivotal a consistent stance was to Bell’s breakout last year, so I’m hoping he can iron things out soon and get back to being an elite offensive bat. I’m fading him slightly in the meantime.
- One day, Vlad Guerrero Jr. is going to stop driving the ball into the ground and it’s going to spur an unbelievable offensive breakout for him. I’m just not sure that day is coming anytime soon, as he continues to have his excellent power undermined by the fact that he hits a ton of groundballs. I don’t blame anyone for dreaming on the upside, but keep in mind it took Christian Yelich years to make the swing change he needed to make to become a superstar.
- Jo Adell gets the call this week, which spells bad news for Justin Upton, who Joe Maddon announced will be platooning from here on out. If that’s the case, Upton is unrosterable going forward. Adell is obviously an interesting player that should be added in all formats. Personally I think he may still be a bit raw, so I’m tempering my expectations a bit, but he has the pedigree of a guy who could be a complete game-changer for your fantasy team, and he’s worth grabbing for that fact alone.
- Colin Moran is raking, with five homers over his first 40 plate appearances. His Hard Hit rate is way, way up, and it hasn’t come at the cost of his strikeout rate (yet). He’s also pulling the ball in the air a lot more than he had in prior years, which bodes well for him maximizing that power. I’m still a little concerned that he chases too many pitches and doesn’t make enough contact to really make this work long-term, but you have to buy in now and see how far he can go this year.
Graphic by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter)