Hello, and welcome back to Hitter List, Pitcher List’s younger, stranger, not-nearly-as-handsome brother. I obviously couldn’t bear the thought of taking this offseason to, you know, not think about baseball for more than three consecutive days, so I’m popping in to share my way-too-early hitter rankings for 2022. As a reminder, these rankings are geared toward standard, daily, 12-team H2H leagues, as that is typically the most popular fantasy baseball format. They will only factor in the five standard categories: Runs, RBI, Home Runs, Batting Average, and Stolen Bases.
First, let’s get some basics out of the way in terms of how to interpret these rankings:
- I would recommend not paying super close attention to the specific ranks of each player, and honing in more on the respective tiers that they’re in. Each tier represents a grouping of players that I think could arguably perform at a similar level, and/or carry similar levels of risk in terms of injury concerns or playing time obstacles. If Player X is ranked at #55 and Player Y is ranked at #65, but they’re in the same tier, it means that I personally like Player X a lot better, but think there’s a valid argument to be made for Player Y performing just as well.
- Though I’m not typically opposed to including players who haven’t debuted yet, for the sake of these rankings I’ve only included players who I think will be starters on Opening Day. That means no Adley Rutschman or Julio Rodríguez or any of the other top prospects who could conceivably make an impact at some point next season.
- Compiling rankings for next year before this season’s playoffs have even ended is a fool’s errand. So much could change between now and Spring Training, and so much remains up in the air regarding where free agents will land, what trades will happen, and what playing time will look like for dozens of players. I’m making my own prognostications, which I’ll outline in more detail in the player notes, but player values are subject to wild fluctuations over the coming months.
- Hopefully it goes without saying, but these rankings aren’t an exact science. Every person’s rankings are influenced by their own biases, strategic philosophies, determinations of risk, and projections. It’s why no two rankings are ever exactly alike. My way of evaluating and ranking players has worked out well for me over the years, but it might not be a great fit for you. There’s more than one way to skin a cat, and that is what makes the game so fun. Please keep that in mind before eviscerating my fragile mental health in the comments.
And now a couple of notes on how I generally evaluate hitters before we dive in:
- I’ve gotten more level-headed over the years when it comes to weighing stolen bases, but I still think they’re incredibly valuable given how rare they’re becoming. Consider this: in 2021 there were 2,213 stolen bases. That’s the lowest full-season total since 1973, and the number of stolen bases has been gradually declining for years now. If you can get secure an elite speedster who can reliably rack up 30+ stolen bases, or you manage to draft a power bat who can also chip in 10+ stolen bases, that’s worth its weight in gold.
- Batted ball quality is huge for me (as I’m sure it is for most people). Every year the industry takes further strides in how it evaluates contact quality and its relationship with launch angle. Looking at quality of contact in conjunction with a hitter’s plate discipline, contact ability, spray charts, and batted ball tendencies is really where the meat of my player analysis tends to take place.
- Considering the format that these rankings cater towards (standard 12-team H2H), I generally think streaming catchers is a viable strategy, and as a result, I’m not interested in drafting mid-tier catchers, especially given how volatile production at the position is year-to-year.
- I’m usually down on younger players. As exciting as it is to own a young prospect right as he’s breaking out, I’ve found that trying to pinpoint which prospect will take off and when is a complete crapshoot, and can oftentimes result in spending a lot of draft capital on young players who don’t return much value. As a result, I tend to lean towards veteran hitters with longer track records. One caveat here is that, in looking back at heralded prospects from previous years, I’ve noticed that lots of young players tend to perform much better during their second extended taste of major league action. For that reason, I’m a little more bullish on unproven players if they’ve shown some encouraging signs in their rookie season and have a good prospect pedigree.
- If you’d like input on a player or have any feedback, your best bet is to reach out to me on Twitter (@JonMetzelaar). I try my best to respond to comments here, but Twitter is much more accessible for me, and the best place to get in touch for time-sensitive questions.
- I knew these early rankings were going to be a fun exercise right off the bat because delineating between Tier 1 and Tier 2 hitters was immediately difficult. Does Mike Trout still belong in Tier 1, after getting injured yet again last season? Are Bryce Harper and hitter-only Shohei Ohtani in the same class as Juan Soto after putting together MVP-caliber seasons? Ultimately I think I still view Ohtani and Harper as having enough volatility that I wouldn’t want to bank on them as my first hitter if any of the Tier 1 options were still available. Harper is a pretty safe bet for 35 homers and 15 stolen bases in a given year, but the batting average has typically been very reliant on good batted ball luck, and I didn’t see enough changes in his approach this year to convince me that he can’t go back to hitting .265 next season. While the same could be said for José Ramirez, Ramirez at least has a higher stolen base floor than Harper and is a much more skilled contact hitter. As for hitter-only Ohtani, I think it’s going to be tough to maintain this level of production given his 29.6% strikeout rate, 35% whiff rate, and 73% zone-contact rate. He can (and has) overcome some of those contact issues by absolutely destroying the baseballs he does make contact with. But even with that, I think his offensive production is going to be dictated by whether he can maintain the 10%+ drop in his groundball rate that he experienced this past year, and I’m not sure I would necessarily want to bank on that. All that said, in a league where he’s a pitcher as well, I think there’s a strong case for taking him #1 overall.
- If you know me, you know I’m typically pretty risk-averse in the early rounds when it comes to drafting hitters. But it’s going to be pretty tough to turn down the opportunity to potentially grab Byron Buxton in the third or fourth round of drafts next year. On the one hand, Buxton could be a top-3 hitter if he stays on the field for a full season. On the other hand, Buxton has appeared in more than 100 games just once in his career. I think the “injury-prone” tag is so firmly attached to Buxton’s name at this point that his average draft position is going to take a significant hit. But if lady luck smiles upon Buxton in 2022, there’s a potential 40/20 bat here.
- After disappointing debuts from Jarred Kelenic, Jarren Duran, and Vidal Bruján, getting to watch Wander Franco flourish in his first taste of major league action was a breath of fresh air. Though he did stumble a bit out of the gate, he put together a 43-game on-base streak during the latter months of the season and finished the year with an impressive .288/.347/.463 line with seven homers and two stolen bases. Franco held his own against all pitch types, which is encouraging for a 20-year-old, and posted an insanely impressive 16% whiff rate. The 37.6% Hard Hit rate and 4.9% barrel rate were a bit underwhelming, and there’s a chance the power doesn’t truly develop for another couple of years, which has me reluctant to reach for him in drafts next year. But with 85th-percentile sprint speed and a strong plate approach, the foundation is there for Franco, and a 20/20 season seems within reach.
- Not every injury results in an IL stint, and some players will go through an entire season nursing injuries that they don’t deem significant enough to miss time for, but which still hamper their offensive output. Trevor Story, Wil Myers, Yoán Moncada, Christian Yelich, Cavan Biggio, and Dominic Smith are a few players who I believe played hurt for a significant chunk of the 2021 season, and who I think could provide solid value relative to where they’ll get drafted heading into 2022. Story dealt with a right elbow issue on-and-off throughout the season, Moncada struggled with hand and shoulder injuries, Yelich appeared to be playing through a back injury that sidelined him twice early in the season, Biggio dealt with neck and back issues for most of the year, Myers had ongoing knee issues, and while Smith was never officially diagnosed with an injury, coaches hinted that something wasn’t right with him, and he was benched consistently over the final few weeks of the season once the Mets were out of contention. These are all guys I’ll be keeping close tabs on in Spring Training.
- Ketel Marte had some elite company last season: he was one of only six hitters to post a strikeout rate below 20% and a Hard% above 40%. He was joined by Corey Seager, Mookie Betts, Vlad Guerrero Jr., Manny Machado, and Justin Turner on that list. That pairing of hard contact and contact ability is pretty rare, and is what makes Marte such an intriguing middle-infield option. For him to get to 30+ home runs again, I think he’ll have to work on keeping his groundball rate in the low-40% range; if it continues to hover around 46%, I think he’ll come up just short. However, he’s one of the safer bets out there for .290+ average, and the power ceiling makes him a guy to reach for in the early rounds.
- There are two types of players that I’ve found to be consistent sources of value in drafts: hitters who were hampered throughout the previous season by an injury (which we addressed earlier), and hitters who struggled overall but performed well over the final few months of the year after a lot of fantasy managers had started tune out. Francisco Lindor is one good example of the latter. While the .230 average, 20 home runs, and 10 stolen bases were pretty disappointing from a guy that most managers spent an early-round pick on, a lot of those numbers are weighed down by an uncharacteristically bad first few months. From June 1 onward, over 79 games and 324 plate appearances, Lindor posted a 124 wRC+ with 16 homers, 51 runs, 52 RBI, and six stolen bases. While this isn’t vintage Lindor, it’s still a very valuable fantasy hitter that I think most people are going to be shying away from early due to the surface numbers.
- I can already tell Tyler O’Neill is going to have a ton of helium in next year’s drafts, and I’m not sure I have the stomach to pay his asking price, as he could realistically be taken inside the first three or four rounds. I certainly understand the appeal; O’Neill’s 17.9% barrel rate was one of the highest in baseball, and he paired that with 98th-percentile sprint speed as well, showing signs of a hitter who could go 40/20. As things stand now though, you’re likely going to be paying for him as if his 2021 season is mostly repeatable, and the amount of swing-and-miss still present in his game introduces a floor that’s a little too low for me, personally. I’m getting 2021 Randy Arozarena vibes from O’Neill next year, in that he’s an extremely talented hitter with big upside that also has enough warts to undermine his overall production.
- There are very few players with 30/30 upside that you might realistically expect to nab outside the first few rounds, but Jazz Chisholm is one of them. Chisholm is definitely a work-in-progress, as his plate approach leaves a lot to be desired. With a 29% whiff rate, a 30% chase rate, awful numbers against non-fastballs, and a penchant for hitting the ball on the ground, there are a lot of holes in his game. But it’s also rare to come across a young leadoff hitter with the intentionality and speed to steal upwards of 30 bags while also posting a barrel rate close to 10%. And that alone makes Chisholm a player worth betting on. Even with the aforementioned issues, Chisholm made some encouraging strides forward in 2021, and there’s no reason to think he can’t continue to grow in the year ahead. If he can learn to hit breaking balls with some consistency, he could become a star.
- I have some degree of hope for Cody Bellinger next year. Bellinger entered 2021 on the heels of a shoulder surgery that, by all accounts, he was still recovering from. It’s pure speculation, but considering he was still rehabbing his shoulder close to the start of the season, I suspect he never had the time to build it back up to full strength. Between that and the litany of injuries he suffered during the season, including a fractured rib and fibula, it’s easy to see how he might have struggled to get into a groove. As much as people may want to paint 2021 as an extension of his disappointing 2020 season, 2020 was actually one of Bellinger’s better seasons in terms of expected stats like xBA (.280) and xwOBA (.369). Ultimately I think last year was a case of an injury-plagued year following an unlucky year, and I do think there’s a solid chance of him bouncing back and being a good value in drafts next season.
- Ty France had a pretty fantastic season, though it’s hard not to wonder what things might have looked like had he not struggled mightily after getting hit on the forearm with a pitch in the first half of the season. Here’s his rolling xwOBA chart, with the dates when he was plunked and when he hit the IL marked:
As you can see, there was a pretty big downturn in his production as he dealt with that injury. But once healed, he was an incredibly productive hitter the rest of the way. The raw power won’t be enough to wow you, but he does a really good job of making contact and squaring up the ball, the latter of which is evidenced by his excellent 35.9% Sweet Spot rate. He should continue to soak up counting stats in the heart of the Mariners’ lineup in 2022, and I think he has a strong foundation in batting average with the potential for 25-homer pop.
- I gave up on Josh Bell a few months into the season when his groundball rate was still hovering in the mid-50% range. That decision caused me to get my bell rung, because he went on to have an amazing second half, slashing .277/.381/.506 with 15 homers over 294 plate appearances. Bell has all of the underlying skills of a hitter who could explode in any given season, and that was on full display last year. His 52% Hard Hit rate was one of the highest in baseball, he flashed one of the best full-season strikeout rates of his career (17.8%), and he walked at an incredible 11.4% clip. Literally the only thing holding Bell back is his inability to elevate the ball. His 54% groundball rate was buoyed by a 41% Topped rate (league average is 33%), and that’s a big reason why his 8.8% barrel rate appears so middling within the context of how hard he hits the ball. His 2019 season, wherein he managed to drop his groundball rate to just 44%, gave us a glimpse at the ceiling. And that ceiling implies a potential .280 hitter who could pop 40+ homers. You just have to hope he get back to that again.
- Pitcher List’s own Christopher Weber and Jordan White coined the nickname “Bobby K. Dingers” for Bobby Dalbec, which is honestly the perfect moniker for a man who has both K’ed and dinger’ed at prodigious rates throughout his young career. That said, over the final few months of the 2021 season, it started to look like he was considering dropping the “K” altogether and becoming just Bobby Dingers: the one true King of Swing that the prophecies foretold of. After posting a 39% strikeout rate from May through July, Dalbec purportedly worked on some things with the newly acquired Kyle Schwarber. Then, suddenly, in August, his strikeout rate dropped to just 25%, and he posted one of the best offensive months of the season, with a .490 wOBA and 213 wRC+ that were supported by a .339 average and seven home runs. He gave some of those gains back in September when his strikeout rate rose back up to 31%. But even if he could manage to hold it right around there for a full season, that’d likely be good enough to help him hit close to .250. And the 20% barrel rate speaks to 40+ homer raw power. So there’s big, big upside here that I’d be targeting in drafts.
- I know Brandon Crawford and Buster Posey are fairly low relative to their performance this past season. And I know I claim to love old men. But I’m just not about paying up for renaissance years from soon-to-be 35-year-olds. This reminds me a bit of the seasons Hunter Pence, Carlos González, and Alex Gordon had late in their careers, which came and went just as quickly. I think most people will be fading them a bit in drafts for the same reason, so there’s still potential value there. I just wouldn’t let myself get too entranced by their 2021 numbers.
- I touched on it a bit in the notes at the top, but young players typically have more success in their sophomore seasons than they do in their immediate debuts, and there’s a handful of young players who appeared in 2021 that I’d be looking to take a chance on taking that next step in 2022. I was a big fan of what Alex Kirilloff did last year before being lost to injury, as he posted an obscenely high 12.8% barrel rate while going up the middle and hitting lots of line drives. Kirilloff is a guy who had a history of above-average strikeout rates in the minors, which helped him post a career .318 average before coming to the majors. The potential of him taking another step forward in that area while retaining the elite barrel rate is exciting. Andrew Vaughn’s season was very uneven, but he also showed some exciting raw skills with a 47% Hard Hit rate, 21.5% strikeout rate, and a very well-balanced spray chart. Finally, there’s Jarred Kelenic, whose overall season was brutal, but who looked to be finally getting into a groove towards the end of the year. After looking overmatched for much of the year, Kelenic’s September was much more palatable, as he posted a .242/.321/.537 line with seven home runs and three stolen bases. There’s still some work to do, particularly against lefties, but the putrid surface numbers could drag his draft position down, and I’d be looking to bet on the underlying talent.
- Dealing with injuries may just be something you have to factor in when drafting Luke Voit. Even in the shortened 2020 season, when he led baseball in home runs, he played through a foot injury that made even jogging difficult. Last year it was an oblique strain and knee injury that sidelined him. In 2019 he had core muscle issues. All that said, when he’s on the field, his offensive potential is immense. He’s the owner of a career 14% barrel rate, and his 52% Hard Hit rate last year would’ve been top-15 in baseball if he qualified. With Anthony Rizzo likely out of the picture next year, there’s an opening for Voit again at first base. If the Yankees decide to grant him the opportunity, I think fantasy managers should too, as there’s top-50 hitter talent in there.
- DJ LeMahieu was walking a fine line during his first two MVP-caliber seasons in a Yankee uniform. Nothing was remarkably different about his Hard Hit or groundball rates, which both remained customarily high in those two seasons. What seemed to spur his newfound power outburst was his new home ballpark. LeMahieu was able to take advantage of the right field confines of Yankee Stadium to turn a lot of his opposite-field flyballs into home runs, as evidenced by his 19% and 27% HR/FB rates during his first two seasons in New York, respectively (his previous career-high in HR/FB rate was 11%). In total, 19 of his 26 homers in 2019 were hit at home, and eight of his 10 homers in 2020 were hit there. So what happened last year? Well, for starters, his Hard Hit rate dropped a bit, and he went to the opposite field 36% of the time compared to 43% the year prior. When you’re milking opposite-field flyballs for all they’re worth in the power department, even small setbacks can send the whole house of cards tumbling down. LeMahieu’s HR/FB tumbled to just 7.7% last season, and to make matters worse he posted one of the lowest BABIPs of his career (.301), which made maintaining a high average difficult. LeMahieu’s fantasy upside will continue to rely heavily on his batted ball profile. If he can get back to hitting opposite-field flyballs, there’s no reason he couldn’t manage to reach 20 homers, even with his prohibitively high groundball rates. That said, the reliance on luck means the range of outcomes is wide, so you’re taking the risk that he ends up with fantasy production akin to someone like David Fletcher if all goes wrong.
- It’ll be interesting to see how the White Sox navigate their offseason, but the way things currently stand, Gavin Sheets may have a shot to reap regular at-bats either in right field or at DH. If there’s one thing to know about me, it’s that I love guys who marry above-average Hard Hit rates with good contact ability, and Sheets showed the potential for that. It’s not super common to see a hitter post a 44%+ Hard Hit rate while whiffing less than 20% of the time, but that was something Sheets accomplished last year. With a bit more seasoning I could see Sheets eclipsing 30 home runs with an average that won’t kill you (think .260-ish), and that plays in a lot of leagues.
- Daulton Varsho is going to be a really nice sleeper option at catcher heading into next season. He’ll have dual eligibility at catcher and outfield, but should pick up most of his at-bats at the latter position next season as long as Carson Kelly is healthy. That bodes well for racking up playing time (and, consequently, counting stats), as he’ll be benched a lot less if he’s a regular in Arizona’s outfield. That’s not the only reason to be excited though: Varsho was very quietly one of the better hitters out there in the second half of 2021. Over 200 plate appearances, he hit .290 with 10 homers, five stolen bases, and just a 19.6% strikeout rate. You’re not only getting an edge in at-bats from your catcher position if you draft Varsho, but you’re potentially also getting a Realmuto-like 20+ homer/10+ stolen base season if things break right. He’s absolutely somebody worth actively targeting next season.
- Dylan Moore? More like Dylan Less, amirite? After rostering Moore in every league I played in last year and having that decision blow up in my face in a major way, you’d think I’d be shying away next year. And I am for the most part. But there is still an intriguing power/speed mix present there. Even in a season where everything went wrong, he popped 12 homers and stole 21 bases over just 371 plate appearances. That was good enough to surpass guys like Mark Canha, Jorge Soler, and Isaiah Kiner-Falefa in Razzball Player Rater value on a per-game basis. If he can salvage things even a little bit next year and stay on the field, there’s a very good chance at a 20/20 season from a guy with good positional eligibility, and that’s worth a flier in the late rounds.
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