Fantasy Baseball: First Base Primer
This past weekend marked the beginning of drafts for The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational (TGFBI), a massive collection of fantasy analysts big and small going toe-to-toe with each other in 15-team fantasy baseball leagues hosted on the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC). This is the second year of the invitational, which has expanded to 21 leagues and 315 participants, and it includes an overall title across all the leagues like traditional NFBC contests.
These are slow pick drafts taking place over the next week or two, so you can check out where your favorite analysts are picking this season's most divisive players (Adalberto Mondesi), those with recent injury news (Clayton Kershaw), or trendy picks climbing up draft boards (Yasiel Puig). In conjunction with your usual ADP resources, this can provide a nice snapshot of how the industry is valuing players as we get ever closer to March.
You can take a look at those draft boards individually here (including yours truly in League 1) or see the full collection of league picks in a detailed Google spreadsheet created by Smada and Fantasy Benefits.
So, with draft season beginning to pick up, this is a great time to survey the landscape at each position and figure out how we want to attack them this season. With the exception of the notoriously weak catcher group (yuck), position scarcity isn't something to be concerned with at other positions, but that doesn't mean there isn't value to be found by dissecting each one individually.
Today, let's take a look at first base. All ADP numbers are from NFBC drafts since February 1.
The Big Four
Over the years, when we think of first base, we generally picture one of the strongest and deepest fantasy baseball positions.
Instead, it's looking like a little light in 2019 -- at least compared to what we're used to historically. As stated from the outset, this doesn't mean you need to worry about filling the position any earlier -- there are still plenty of intriguing options to go around -- but this is the rare year where there isn't a single first baseman with an ADP in the first round.
Goldschmidt, Freeman, and Rizzo aren't guys who will blow you away with elite power upside, but they should all flirt with around 30 homers and are high-floor pieces who can contribute across the board.
We're used to seeing Goldschmidt as a first-rounder, but after only converted 7-of-11 stolen base attempts (64%) and registering a 50th percentile sprint speed on Statcast in 2018, we can't bank on him being the same running threat he was from 2015-17 when he nabbed at least 18 swiped bags three straight years. Given that prior track record, he still has the best shot at providing double-digit stolen bases of this trio, though, arguably giving him the slight nod over the other two -- but overall there isn't much setting these three apart.
Where the three really shine is in providing a nice foundation in batting average, a stat category that often goes overlooked. Over the past three seasons, Freeman leads the group with a .306 average, followed by Goldschmidt at .295 and Rizzo at .282. In 2018, the league as a whole hit just .248, so getting high average guys early on can give you a nice cushion to help you roster those high-strikeout sluggers with elite power later on.
As for Bellinger, he's unlikely to help in batting average, but he stole 14 bases last year (caught only once) and finished in the 90th percentile in sprint speed -- wheels you almost never see from a fantasy first baseman. The Los Angeles Dodgers aren't the most active team on the bases (they ranked 17th in stolen bases last season), which could potentially limit Bellinger's stealing upside, but the power/speed package is enticing at a position you don't often find it. Still just 23 years old, he should be able to get back to the 30-homer range with stolen bases in the teens -- just don't expect another 39 dingers like his hot start in 2017.
The Best of the Rest
Following those four guys, you could argue the next slew of first baseman are somewhat interchangeable, with reliability and risk being the main factors in their differing ADPs. Who you ultimately opt for may depend on who slips past their ADP and what your team makeup is looking like over the course of your draft.
Old standby Joey Votto (67) is coming off a disappointing 2018 but is a viable bounceback candidate. His strong plate skills didn't waver with a 16.2% strikeout rate and 17.3% walk rate, and it says something when a .284 average is underwhelming. Of course, the lack of power was the real story, but his career-worst 9.5% HR/FB rate was well below his career average (18.3%), suggesting the potential for a rebound -- although a drop in barrels suggests we should probably temper home run expectations to the low 20s. Overall, even at age 35, this is still a potential .300 hitter who plays in Great American Ball Park, and few can boast of a .408 wOBA over their entire career.
Jose Abreu (85) fits a similar mold as Votto, trading in some of that batting average upside for a little more power. Like Votto, his 2018 campaign fell below expectations, but his Statcast numbers remained strong, and the decline in batting average appeared due to a .294 BABIP, a sizable drop from his career mark (.329). Abreu is never a high-ceiling pick, but there isn't any reason to think he can't come close to his prior output, and he looks like a safe investment at his draft price.
If you're not as concerned with batting average and are looking strictly for home run power, then Matt Carpenter (70), Jesus Aguilar (80), Matt Olson (110), and Max Muncy (110) all fit the bill. All four arguably have their share of question marks and project similarly, so you could consider waiting and hoping one drops to you. Olson is the only one in the group who failed to slug at least 35 home runs last year, but we shouldn't doubt his power upside after ranking fifth in Statcast's hard-hit rate (52.0%) and ninth in average exit velocity on line drives and fly balls (97.4 mph).
Should you choose to fill first base later, both Edwin Encarnacion (127) and Miguel Cabrera (166) can serve as fallback options. They both may very well provide numbers equal to their counterparts in this section, but with both entering their age-36 seasons, there are obviously no guarantees. Encarnacion fits the mold of the aforementioned low-average, power-hitting foursome, while Cabrera is more like a Votto-lite. As I mentioned a few weeks back, the skills mostly remained intact for Cabrera last season -- the only question is health.
Jurickson Profar (119) doesn't exactly profile as your typical first baseman and is also eligible at third base and shortstop, but seeing as those are two of fantasy's deepest positions in 2019, you could very well slot him at first, too. After failing to live up to expectations for years, Profar finally showed signs of life last year, hitting .254/.335/.458 with 20 home runs and 10 stolen bases. Now with Oakland, maybe the former top prospect can take the next step, which is essentially what you're counting on at this ADP.
Technically, Joey Gallo (98) should provide numbers that belong in the above section, but due to his back-breaking batting average, he's more of a unique case.
Rostering Gallo can be a ton of fun, as few can match his ridiculous power upside to begin with, let alone at his draft price. He's slugged at least 40 dingers in each of the last two seasons, and in 2018 he led the league in both barrels per plate appearance and per batted ball event.
But as we know, all that power comes at a price, as he owns a career .203 batting average and has never hit over .209 in a season. Therefore, if you want to roster Gallo, it's imperative you plan ahead in order to do so and roster high-average bats to counter that sink hole.
This can be a headache to navigate during your draft, but the upside could be immense. After all, even a slight boost in batting average could go a long way for Gallo and creeping up to just the .240-.250 range would lead to a truly monster fantasy season. Just take a look at Chris Davis' outlier 2013 and 2015 seasons for an idea of what you can dream of.
Going down this road certainly requires some extra measures, but it's one that could prove quite profitable. And if you do, don't be afraid to grab Gallo a round or two early, as if you're prepared, he's going far too late in drafts for his ceiling.
Value in the DH
Obviously, these guys aren't first basemen, but designated hitters provide those power stats we typically look for at the position, and drafters are often reluctant to roster such players because of the lack of position flexibility. Don't be that guy.
Davis and Cruz are true powerhouse bats who hover near the top of the Statcast leaderboards with the best of them. Davis is essentially what you hope for Gallo to become, batting .247 and tallying over 40 bombs and 100 RBIs in three straight seasons.
Meanwhile, Cruz may be 38 years old, but he's exceeded 35 home runs and 90 RBIs five years in a row, and last year was the first time he dropped below a .270 average over that span (.256). A .264 BABIP suggests the batting average should work its way back up and there's otherwise little sign of any decline despite the obvious risks that come with his age.
Shohei Ohtani (180) is a little more tricky since he's expected to miss the entire month of April as he works his way back from Tommy John surgery. But there's a chance he's a five-category contributor after hitting .285 and posted 59 runs, 22 home runs, 61 RBIs, and 10 stolen bases over just 367 plate appearances in 2018. There's no doubt he's a talented hitter -- he put up a .390 wOBA after all -- but the initial missed time obviously isn't ideal, and he also struggled against left-handed hitting, slashing just .222/.300/.354 against them.
If Ohtani misses the minimum expected time and performs close to last year's level, then you'll be getting a steal. On the other hand, maybe he takes longer to recover than expected, or his struggles against southpaws prove to be an issue. Ultimately, he's a difficult guy to trust, but your faith could be rewarded.
Five More to Remember
Some quick thoughts on other notable names...
Eric Hosmer (174): In a word: boring. But boring can still have its uses at Hosmer's draft price. The high ground-ball rate will probably always limit his power, but he should still net around 20 homers, and as a career .280 hitter, he should improve upon last year's disappointing .253 batting average.
Luke Voit (180): Following a trade to the Yankees, Voit came out of nowhere and became a home run hitting machine, finishing the year batting .322/.398/.671 with 15 round-trippers in just 161 plate appearances. Those dingers came off a ridiculous 40.5% HR/FB rate, so it's easy to call for regression. And yet, he led the league in barrels per plate appearances among players with at least 100 batted ball events, exceeding even Joey Gallo and Khris Davis. It's difficult to forecast how much of it sticks this year, but you might want to be on board to find out.
Justin Smoak (232): Smoak wasn't able to duplicate his breakout 2017 season, but even in a underwhelming effort he still slugged 25 home runs. With his strikeout rate climbing up to 26.3%, the batting average isn't likely to get better anytime soon. Still, at the end of the day, most projections suggest he could put up similar numbers to guys like Muncy and Encarnacion when it's all said and done -- but at a far cheaper price tag.
Jake Bauers (233): Sort of like a poor man's version of Bellinger with less power, Bauers is another rare fantasy first baseman who can provide double-digit totals in both homers and stolen bases. He might not exceed the teens in either category and won't hit for average, but any power/speed combo at this stage of the draft is a welcome sight.
Tyler White (260): White only logged 237 plate appearances in 2018 but a .377 wOBA and .257 ISO will get our attention. While it's hard to say how he'll perform over a full season, the minor league track record checks out, and the playing time should be there for a potential breakout campaign.