Well hello there, and welcome to another year of Hitter List, where every week throughout the season I’ll be flawlessly ranking the top 150 hitters in baseball.
It was looking a little dicey there as to whether we’d be seeing baseball this year, what with the global pandemic, and the murder hornets, and the bottomless chasm of MLB owners’ greed threatening to upend everything we hold dear. But baseball, like life, uh … finds a way.
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: On a grand scale and from the perspective of fantasy drafts, the National League DH maybe devalues offense a bit by supplying an additional 15 full-time hitters to the player pool. However, honing in purely on hitter values, it’s a net positive, as it opens up opportunities for talented guys like J.D. Davis, Christian Walker, and Wil Myers to see regular at-bats, and is a perfect place for teams to use guys like Ryan Braun and Kyle Schwarber, who are talented hitters but not quite as suited for playing the field.
- Strength of Schedule: It was announced that 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 actual schedule just dropped yesterday, 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 restrictions: Players who test positive for coronavirus during the season (or are strongly presumed to have tested positive, since not all positive tests will be disclosed publicly) will be removed from the rankings. The best-case scenario fantasy-wise is at least two weeks of missed time, and there’s no way of telling how the virus will affect individual players or how long they’ll need to recover. There’s still a bit of a cushion between now and when regular season games start, so players that have tested positive recently or test positive over the next week won’t have their rankings affected just yet.
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.
- 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.
- I really struggled with who to slot in at #1. On one hand, I firmly believe Mike Trout’s low stolen base total last year was a byproduct of some lower-body injuries he was playing through (which ultimately cut his season short). And I also really like Trout’s supporting cast this year, especially now that Anthony Rendon and future top 5 catcher Jason Castro have been added to their lineup, a healthy (?) Justin Upton will be returning to the fold, and top prospect Jo Adell could make an appearance. Still, it’s hard to argue that Christian Yelich hasn’t been the more productive player over the past two years, and that he likely edges Trout in both batting average and stolen bases. It’s truly a toss-up, but I decided to embrace the chaos of the shorter season and give Yelich his due.
- J.D. Davis was a player I had talked up quite a bit prior to his breakout last year, so I definitely have a soft spot for him. Considering where he’s been going in drafts this year, I know his ranking here is going to turn some heads. Here’s the thing though: not only was everything he did last year legit, but he actually underperformed a lot of his expected stats. He was in the top 10% of the league in xBA, xSLG, xwOBA and xwOBACON. He was also in the top 10% for average exit velocity and hard-hit rate. In addition to destroying fastballs, he posted a .313 average and .364 wOBA against breaking pitches. All while displaying above-average plate discipline and roughly league-average contact ability. I think Davis is currently being criminally underdrafted, and over the course of a full season I could see him hitting .290 with 35 homers, which would easily catapult him into the top 50 hitters in baseball. He’s also one of the biggest beneficiaries of the National League DH, as a bit of a logjam had been forming in left field between Davis, Yoenis Cespedes, and Dominic Smith.
- Speaking of players who will be benefiting from the National League DH, I present to you: Kyle Schwarber. Over the past three years, Schwarber has gradually improved his strikeout rate, hard-hit rate, wOBA, and batting average — not easy things to do in tandem. Last year, he also posted an absurd 51.7% hard-hit rate, which was in the top 1% among all hitters. The problem to this point has been his atrocious fielding, which at times robbed him of at-bats late in games where he needed to be subbed out for a better defender. No National League hitter is a better fit for the new DH role, and if he continues his incremental improvements this season, he could be a contender for the league lead in home runs while posting a palatable average in the .260 range.
- There are a healthy number of hitters I’m probably higher on than most this year, as I think their subpar 2019 seasons were mostly marred by injuries and weren’t a true reflection of their ability. Khris Davis, Justin Upton, Domingo Santana, Dansby Swanson, and Luke Voit are a few examples. Domingo Santana, in particular, is a guy I’m keeping a very close eye on, as I think he has the upside of a top 50 bat, but saw his 2019 season get derailed by a nagging elbow injury.
- I really struggled with ranking Shohei Ohtani, who for the purposes of these rankings is DH-only (pitcher eligibility wasn’t factored in). On the one hand, he’s an across-the-board contributor when he’s in the lineup. On the other, he’ll likely be rested 1-2 games a week due to his pitching workload. In daily formats, where you can sub a bench player in on days where he sits, I think he still has plenty of value. In weekly formats, he’s a tough guy to justify rostering as a DH-only player.
- If prospects like Dylan Carlson, Jo Adell, or Nick Madrigal were guaranteed a full-time gig on Opening Day, they’d be on this list. As things currently stand, I’m not comfortably speculating when (or if) they end up getting the call this year, so I have no choice but to leave them off.
- Speaking of guaranteed at-bats, here are a couple of guys who were left unranked or who I ranked lower than I would have liked due to questions about their playing time: Kyle Tucker, Sam Hilliard, Franchy Cordero, Miguel Andujar, Nick Solak, Aristedes Aquino, and Nate Lowe.
- I will always love Wil Myers and you can’t change my mind.
Graphic by JR Caines (@JRCainesDesign on Twitter)