Ladies and gentlemen, baseball is back!
With the MLB and MLB Players Association agreeing to a new collective bargaining agreement, the lockout is officially past us, and we are going to have a 162-game season! Suddenly, we have gone from a period of tremendous sadness to a time of extreme excitement. Now, we get to see a free-agent frenzy, while also getting ready for the season; chaos is upon us!
With that in mind, there has never been a better time to completely dive into fantasy baseball prep. Now that the season is set to start on April 7th, fantasy baseball drafts are in full swing, and we’ll have to make last-minute adjustments to the prep that was done during the lockout. With players changing teams and new reports coming in, expect there to be a lot of change in average draft position (ADP) heading up to the season- those who can make adjustments on the fly will be at an advantage.
To assist in preparation, we’ll be going position-by-position, looking for the good, the bad, and the breakout. In other words, one optimal target, a player you should avoid, and a player going past pick #300 in NFBC drafts that can be a true sleeper this year. Today, we’ll be focusing on the first base position. At a position deep with well-regarded sluggers, there is a lot of pressure to pick the right option. Who is that player, and who should you avoid? Let us dive right into it!
Stats via Baseball Savant and Fangraphs
ADP via NFBC Drafts Since February 1st
The “Good”: Joey Votto, CIN
2021 Stats (533 PA): .266/.375/.563, 32 HR, 73 R, 99 RBI, 1 SB
ADP: 193.33 (1B15)
Honorable Mention(s): Brandon Belt (SF)
While we’d have for great players to remain great forever, the fact of the matter is that players eventually declined. Few first basemen have had as strong as a prime as Joey Votto, who may very well end up in the Hall of Fame one day. Yet, between 2018 and 2019, his power (.143 isolated power/ISO) disappeared, while he was actually a below-average hitter in 2019; he posted a 98 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+)
At that point, it seemed like we had seen the end of Votto’s peak performance. He showed somewhat of a power rebound in 2020 with a .220 ISO, powering him to a 112 wRC+, in spite of a .235 batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Clearly, though, the fantasy baseball community did not have faith in him. Coming into the season, he was the 37th first baseman off the board in the NFBC Main Event, according to rotoholic.com. Even at the time, that seemed to be a clear oversight. As it turns out, it was.
2021 was a revelation for Votto. He posted a career-high .297 ISO and rebounded to a 140 wRC+. That’s not what you expect from a 38-year-old. Is this something that we can bank on for next year? In my opinion, it is. See, coming into last season, he made his intentions clear, per the AP News:
“I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place in terms of hitting,” Votto said. “Of course it’s going to come with some more swings and misses and of course strikeouts, but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate, it’ll pay itself off. I have to remind myself that at the core, you know, that’s who I am.”
As you’d expect, Votto’s whiff rate (29.4%) spiked, in addition to his strikeout rate (23.8%). That’s not all that spiked, though- he posted a 17.2% barrel rate and ranked near the top of the league in most batted-ball quality metrics. Plus, he also improved the trajectory of his contact with a career-low 33.2% ground-ball rate; not only was he hitting the ball harder, but he was hitting the ball in the air.
Votto’s adjustments didn’t come right away, though. For instance, here are his fly-ball rates per month:
- April: 31.1%
- June: 26.4%
- July: 44.8%
- August: 43.5%
- September: 41.9%
After missing most of May due to an injury, Votto took some time to get back in sync, and took off starting in July. During the second half of the season, he posted an absurd .383 ISO and 21.2% barrel rate. Here, we don’t even have to guess if his changes were made intentionally- he’s on record predicting what he’d be able to do prior to the season! I get that his age (38) is a concern, but do you suddenly expect a dramatic fall off after what he proved capable of last year? This is a clear top-ten first baseman, yet he’s not being priced close to that. While that’s intact, take advantage!
The “Bad”: Alex Kirilloff, MIN
2021 Stats (231 PA): .251/.299/.563, 8 HR, 23 R, 34 RBI, 1 SB
ADP: 175.26 (1B18)
Trust me, I really hope I’m wrong here. As we’ll get to, there is a lot to like with Alex Kirilloff. However, sometimes, our infatuation with young players grows to the point that we push their ADPs too high, which appears to be the case with Kirilloff here.
Let’s start off with the positives with Kirilloff. He posted a 12.8% barrel rate in 231 plate appearances, hit the ball hard, and more than held his own at the MLB level. Now, for the negatives. His chase tendencies (34.8% chase) are going to lead to him whiffing more than the average player, and he made contact in the zone (79.9%) at a below-average rate. Even if he continues to be aggressive in the zone, I think we could easily see his strikeout rate (22.5%) spike in the future.
Plus, Kirlloff’s power isn’t a given. Even though he hits the ball hard, he’s consistently had issues when it comes to hitting the ball on the ground, which reared its ugly head with a 48.8% ground-ball rate last year. If that continues, there’s going to be a lot of pressure for him to post an extremely high home run/fly ball rate, which certainly isn’t a given; even with a 16.7% home run/fly ball rate last year, his .172 ISO wasn’t what you’d expect given the quality of contact.
As someone who generally pulled the ball in the minors and hits the ball on the ground often, Kirilloff is also someone likely to be affected by the shift. A .270 batting average with around 20 home runs is well within play, but is that worth his ADP? I don’t anticipate him hitting super high in the batting order, while we don’t know how he’ll perform against lefties. Really, there’s just a lot of unknown here, which isn’t ideal at a position with so many stable producers. I’d much rather take Brandon Belt, for example, who is likely to hit more home runs and have more runs + RBI, over 50 picks later. Kirilloff has all the potential to develop into a very productive player in fantasy baseball, but this might not be the year he justifies a relatively high ADP.
The “Breakout”: LaMonte Wade Jr., SF
2021 Stats (381 PA): .253/.326/.482, 18 HR, 52 R, 56 RBI, 6 SB
ADP: 308.36 (1B32)
Heading into the season, who could have predict the Giants would win 107 games? This is a team who had a win total in the mid-70s, and seemed to be a few years away from being true contenders. Sure, unexpected high-level contributions from their veteran players helped a lot. However, it was the production from unknown players that put them over the edge.
One of the key breakout contributors? None other than “Late Night” LaMonte Wade Jr. Given his nickname for coming through in the clutch multiples, Wade Jr. turned himself into a key fixture of San Francisco’s lineup. With a 117 wRC+, he was comfortably an above-average hitter and impressed with the power (.229 ISO) he brought to the table. By the end of the year, he was hitting at the top of the lineup, and it’s clear the Giants don’t get to where they got without him.
In the minors, Wade Jr. was known as someone with strong plate discipline and contact skills. With just a 22.6% chase rate, an 87.5% zone-contact rate, and an 8.2% swinging-strike rate, he checks the boxes in that regard. What was a surprise, however, was the power he brought to the table. His 10.6% barrel rate is impressive, but he combined a 46.5% pull rate with a 31.5% fly-ball rate, both above league average. In other words, he was getting the most out of all his power; pulled fly balls are the most successful when it comes to hitting for power.
With his underlying plate discipline metrics, I’d be surprised if Wade Jr.’s strikeout rate (23.4%) from last season does not come down, allowing him to sustain his batting average even if the projections are right about a slight dip from his .289 BABIP last year. What I don’t expect to change as much, however, is the power. As long as his approach remains intact, he’s going to be in position to get the most out of every bit of raw power he has, even in San Francisco.
Although he’s a platoon player, Wade’s on the strong-side of a platoon and is likely to hit at the top of the lineup. In total, I believe there’s a strong chance he hits 20+ home runs with six-to-seven steals, provides some value in terms of runs scored, and is a net neutral on batting average. Plus, he’s the ultimate weapon to utilize. If the Giants are about to face a string of righties, then you can comfortably put him in. If not, then perhaps you sit him this week. It’s these tactical edges that help you get the most out of your fantasy baseball team. Just like last year, expect “Late Night LaMonte” to come through in the clutch for you!
Photos by Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Doug Carlin (@Bdougals on Twitter)