In fantasy baseball, it can be very difficult to project what a player’s statistics will look like. This is particularly true with pitchers, where injuries, volatility, and luck can create a gap between their production and true talent. While this is also true for hitters, it isn’t as much the case.
As a result, a case can be clearly made the hitter are much more valuable draft targets than pitchers. While you can embrace the volatility of pitchers later in the draft, you could look towards the early rounds to establish your foundation of bats to take you over the top. Here’s an analogy using this type of thinking: pitchers can be icing of the cake, but the hitters are the cake.
At the end of the day, though, we want to bake our cake and eat it too! Thus, not only do we want to draft productive hitters, but do so at discounted spots in the draft. The more surplus value we can get for each pick, the better chance we have of hoisting the championship belt at the end of the season. Hey, that’s the goal, right?
Today, we will be looking at my top five favorite hitter targets. This factors in their current average draft position (ADP), as we’re looking to find players who the market appears to be undervaluing. We’ll also be factoring other considerations here, such as positional scarcity and roster construction, which can add extra value to a player. So, which hitters should you be targeting in drafts this year?
ADP data via NFC.shgn.com (Drafts since February 1)
Stats via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs
OF Mookie Betts (LAD)
2021 Stats (550 PA): .264/.367/.487, 23 HR, 93 R, 58 RBI, 10 SB
ADP: 15.84 (OF7)
While I cannot confirm this, I truly believe Mookie Betts has become one of the most underappreciated star players in the MLB. With a career 44 fWAR at just 29 years old, and a career 135 wRC+, he’s surely heading for the Hall of Fame, and rightfully so. Between 2016 and 2021, he’s second in fWAR, third in offensive runs above average, and has been as consistent as they come. Talk about a strong peak performance.
However, this is a fantasy baseball article, and our main concern is how Betts will perform in 2022. That appears to be more of a question mark after he had a “down” 2021 season for his standards. After all, this was a player who was mainly drafted in the top five in most formats.
Betts’ .264 batting average was a career-low, while his .223 ISO was the lowest it had been since 2017. Furthermore, his 550 plate appearances were the lowest for a full season in his career, which led to his counting statistics being worse than normal. Simply put, it wasn’t the season that he, the Dodgers, or his fantasy managers had in mind. Is this a sign of the beginning of decline? In my opinion, we’re not there yet.
In fact, I’m rather confident that we see Betts bounce back in 2022. Let’s start with his batting average. Betts’ .276 BABIP and 23.6% line-drive rate were well below his career norms, and should be expected to revert back to what we expect in 2022. Plus, as he dealt with multiple injuries, his home-to-first time (4.46 seconds) was not up to his usual standards. A healthier Betts should solve these problems.
Now, I’m a little worried about him posting a career-high 45.2% pull rate in 2021, which could hurt the BABIP slightly. At the same time, this affects right-handed hitters much less than left-handed hitters, while it helps his power. A high pull rate and fly ball rate is the precise combination you need to manufacture as much power as possible, which is exactly what Betts did last year:
Remember, Dodger Stadium is the most favorable park for right-handed hitters when it comes to hitting home runs, per Baseball Savant park factors. I don’t see much reason to doubt his ability to hit 30+ home runs next season, which is going to help his runs and RBI totals. So will hitting at the top of the lineup for one of the best offenses in baseball — a factor that doesn’t get enough consideration.
Betts did make less zone contact in 2021, but he made up for it with better swing decisions. His 63.9% zone-swing rate was the highest of his career, while he managed to do that while lowering his chase rate to 18.2%. This helps establish a high floor for Betts. He won’t strikeout much, so when you combine that with a better BABIP, you get around a .280 batting average. Meanwhile, you add in 30 home runs, over 100 runs, and over 80 RBI, and you get a complete player; he should steal more now that he’s healthy again.
Despite a very balanced skillset that can really help you be flexible with how you construct the rest of your team, Betts is currently falling to the second round in both 12-team and 15-team drafts. Personally, I’d prefer him to the likes of Bryce Harper and Kyle Tucker, while I’m much more confident in his accumulating 650+ plate appearances than Mike Trout. It’s easy to build the narrative that he’s on the decline, but there isn’t any reason to believe in that.
If you control your draft position, you may want to look for a later pick. This allows you to secure Betts in the second round, even though he’s still a bona fide first-round pick in my books. All of a sudden, you can start your team with two first-round caliber players, which can be just what you need to ride off to the sunset. So, grab a cookie, and have faith in Mookie!
C/OF Daulton Varsho (ARI)
2021 Stats (315 PA): .246/.318/.437, 11 HR, 41 R, 38 RBI, 6 SB
ADP: 89.37 (C4)
I think it’s safe to say the catcher position is not what you would call deep. Last season, catchers posted the lowest wRC+ (89) of any position, while their .228 batting average was by far the lowest. Add in the limited stolen bases, and it might be the most barren position when it comes to fantasy baseball production.
To better illustrate this, let’s look at the replacement value for each position last season, based on Fangraphs’ 5×5 dollar valuations. To define replacement value, we’ll look at the 16th player — the first non-starter in 15-team leagues: