MLB Fantasy Preview 2013: Older is Better at 1B
After taking a look at the top catchers yesterday, we turn our attention to the first base side. This year's first base crop is Sumo Wrestler style: extremely top heavy. Three of our top five - and six of our top 15 - players on our fantasy list man first base. If you include Miguel Cabrera's dual positions on Yahoo, that makes it seven.
If you don't get one of the top first basemen, though, then may the fantasy gods be with you on your treacherous quest. There are some high-upside plays, such as Paul Goldschmidt, but the value of a replacement at first base is steep cliff from Edwin Encarnacion to, say, Freddie Freeman.
That's why first base is one of the most important positions to hit correctly in this year's draft. Luckily, we're here to help, with help from our MLB Draft Kit and average draft positions taken from FFToolbox.com.
Frequently Asked Questions
Before we get into the meat of the list, I asked Chief Analyst Keith Goldner to break down the rankings and exactly what you should know about these numbers.
1. What type of scoring is this list based on?
The rankings are based on a category 12-team league. Categories are 5x5: SB, HR, Runs, RBI, Avg and W, K, SV, ERA, WHIP.
2. What exactly does the nF score measure, and how does that help my fantasy team?
The numberFire score takes a player's contributions across all categories versus a replacement level player that you could find on free agents. After summing the total contribution, each player's rating is then adjusted for his position eligibility based on the value of each position throughout the league due to position scarcity. For example, a catcher and outfielder with the same numbers will rank the catcher as the higher player due to the fact that it is a weak position.
3. Position scarcity? But the top catcher is at No. 47 and the top shortstop at No. 35! Should I really wait that long to grab those positions?
Simply put, yes.
4. Where do the projections come from, and why should I trust them more than anyone else?
The projections come from the same place that all our projections come from. First, we evaluate all players and teams using our advanced metrics. Then, we find the most comparable players playing on the most comparable teams historically, weighting each comparison according to that similarity. We then take those comparable players' historical stat lines as the building blocks for the projections.
With that out of the way, let's get to the list.
Top Ten First Basemen for 2013
1. Albert Pujols - Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Did the move to Anaheim really hurt him? I do find the home run numbers to be a bit offputting: Pujols finished 2012 with his lowest home run rate (4.5 percent) and rate of fly balls that went for home runs (11.5 percent) of his entire career. Busch Clydesdale Stadium wasn't too much better than the Angels' home park at allowing home runs last season, but the ballpark (or AL pitching) does seem to have hurt him.
What I'm not as worried about, though, is his lower on-base percentage from last season. If there's one thing that you could count on from Pujols in St. Louis, it's that he wouldn't miss; his 11.3 percent strikeout rate from last season was his worst since his 2001 rookie season. The walks weren't much better; his 7.8 percent walk rate was the worst of his career.
Am I expecting a return to peak form? Not at this point. But I am expecting a regression to the mean, which for Pujols, is a very solid mean. Strikeouts and walks historically don't vary as wildly when players switch teams; that has more to do with personal eye. It's much easier to dismiss those numbers as outliers than his power stats.
2. Prince Fielder - Detroit Tigers
Want to learn something, Pujols? There is a way to move from the No. 1 home run park in 2012 to the No. 17 park, and you can do it without giving up too much value. It's called: don't actually swing at everything in the area code of the strike zone. Novel concept, huh?
It might be heresy (and hilarious) to think of Prince Fielder as a singles hitter (beat out that grounder, Prince!), but for the purposes of fantasy last season, his BA and OBP stats were as important as his HR and RBI stats. Fielder's home run metrics took a similar dip as Pujols': his 4.4 percent home run rate and his 11.4 percent of fly balls turning into home runs were his lowest percentages since his rookie year. He countered that, though, with a career-low 12.2 percent strikeout rate and a 12.3 percent walk rate that was in line with his career average. Fielder finished last season with his second straight 0.99 K:BB ratio, his best ever.
That's why, even with "only" 33 home runs, we still have Prince Fielder in the top five instead of falling out of the first round, as others do. Will his power return to Milwaukee form? Probably not. Can he make up for it in other ways? Absolutely.
3. Joey Votto - Cincinnati Reds
Some players can hit home runs. Some players walk a lot. And when a player does both, like Joey Votto has done the past three seasons for the Cincinnati Reds, then there's no reason to prevent them from being the centerpiece of your fantasy team.
Want to know how you have a career year in 114 games, as Votto did last season? First, you start off with an excellent .337 batting average, where the NL average sat at .269. While Votto strikes out a decent amount (17.9 percent), he also is exceptionally good at hitting line drives (29 percent of balls in play last season) that more often go for hits. Second, you raise your walk percentage to a career-high 19.8 percent and have more walks than strikeouts for the first time in your career. Then, you increase your extra-base hits percentage (46 percent of all hits) even as your home run rate goes down (3.0 percent of at-bats). Add all that up, and you have an MLB-lead in both on-base percentage and walk rate.
That solid eye and line-drive ability should serve Votto well this season. We expect to see his power return to form: 30 home runs would be the second-most of his career. That on-base percentage, though, should not go away other; his projected 0.999 OPS is tied with Miguel Cabrera for the top projection among all batters.
4. Edwin Encarnacion - Toronto Blue Jays
I'll be the first to admit it: I didn't see Encarnacion's season coming last year. I still thought of him as that guy who was mediocre in semi-regular playing time in Cincinnati.
What I didn't see, though, was his home run rate of at least 4.6 percent in two of his first three seasons in Toronto, his 2010-2011 seasons of 40+% of his hits going for extra-bases, and his falling strikeout total from 19.8 percent in 2009 to 16.4 in 2010 and 14.5 in 2011. If he could put both the power and the eye together, he was poised for a big year.
Of course, you know now that it's exactly what he did. His home run rate jumped to a career-high 6.5 percent, his strikeout rate maintained at 14.5 percent, and perhaps most importantly for proving this was not a one year statistical fluke, his walk rate increased in kind to 13.0 percent. He may not have the career statistics to be completely sure of his numbers like Votto or Fielder, but his season last year makes him worth being the centerpiece of a team.
5. Mark Teixiera - New York Yankees
|#15||47.78||638||90||32||102||3||0.279||0.896||7.36|Oh, how quickly you forget about the top players in the game. Ignore the Yankees haterade, for a second. Ignore his contract as well; that has no bearing in fantasy baseball. All that matters are the sweet, sweet stats, and Teixiera has them in spades.
Update: Sigh. Out eight to ten weeks? That's the downside to Spring Training and having an early fantasy draft. Ignore this section and pass through, please and thank you.
6. Billy Butler - Kansas City Royals
Doesn't play the field? Don't care. Billy Ray Butler (aka "Country Breakfast", one of my favorite nicknames in all of sports) can bash with the best of them.
What's so impressive to me about Butler isn't his power, although his 4.3 percent home run rate could very well be the start of an upward trend for the slugger. No, for me, it's all about his ability to make contact with the ball; his 16.4 percent strikeout rate last season was a career-high, but still lower than the career averages for the three first basemen directly ahead of him on this list. If he indeed regresses to the mean strikeout-wise - his career average is 14.1 percent - while maintaining most of his power (we only have him dropping 3 HR), then he will be a formidable foe.
7. Paul Konerko - Chicago White Sox
Easily the most underrated first basemen of all time, everybody always seems to forget about Paul Konerko. I'm still not quite sure why; don't discount a player because of his age until he statistically gives you a reason to discount him because of his age.
Last season, Konerko gave no indications of slowing down any time soon. His strikeout rate was 0.6 percent better than his career average; his walk rate and home run rate were both within 0.5 percent of his career average. Both his on-base percentage (.371) and batting average (.298) were consistent with his previous two seasons, and he was named to the All-Star game in a crowded AL first base field for the third straight time.
Yeah, that's absolutely a guy who should be going in the seventh round, right? Don't trust the narrative: the stats have Konerko right around a third-round selection. If you can pull the trigger in the fourth or fifth, you'd be foolish not to.
8. Adrian Gonzalez - Los Angeles Dodgers
Everybody remembers what happened to Adrian Gonzalez in 2012: after a season and a half of MVP-caliber play in Boston, he plummeted down the stretch in 2011, never recovered in 2012, and was shipped off to the Dodgers team with unlimited funds. Do the numbers say that he can bounce back in 2013. To be that guy: yes and no.
The case for Adrian Gonzalez is simple: regression to the mean, right? His 2.6 percent home run rate was his worst in a season with at least 200 at-bats; only 6.7 percent of his fly balls carried for home runs, down from his previous low of 9.6 percent. Same deal with his 6.1 percent walk rate: his .297 batting average was right in line with normal, but the lack of walks saw his OBP drop over 60 points.
On the flip side, you could argue that the change from Boston to L.A. didn't seem to help him any at the end last season. His walk rate for the Dodgers only increased to 7.0 percent, and he had 3.5 percent more strikeouts wearing the Blue unis. His home runs were hardest hit: he fell from a 2.9 percent rate in Boston to a 1.9 percent rate in L.A.
For our money, we're expecting somewhere in the middle of 2010 and 2012. He'll never be that good again, but regression to the mean indicates that he won't be that bad again, either. Just know that if you're selecting him in the first three rounds, it's a very risky play that could either win your league or lose it in one fell swoop.
9. Allen Craig - St. Louis Cardinals
I find it interesting that Allen Craig's top comparable player on baseball-reference is Mike Trout. Meanwhile, using our data, his top comparable is 2010 Kevin Youkilis. That may say something about the expectations people have for Craig (Trout-like) against the level he's actually playing at right now (Youkilis-like).
In his first full season in St. Louis, Craig performed admirably enough. A .307 batting average and 22 home runs is nothing to sneeze at, I suppose. But I'd caution against getting too hyped for Craig's ceiling.
With his sad 7.2 percent walk rate, Craig's seventh-place NL batting average finish falls out of the top 15 for on-base percentage. His home run rate actually went down from his limited 2011 time, from 5.2 percent to 4.9 percent. And while his strikeouts also decreased to 17.3 percent, that number is still higher than the previous four players on this list. The scariest number for me, though, may be 11: that's the percentage of his fly balls that don't even make it out of the infield.
10. Paul Goldschmidt - Arizona Diamondbacks
I want to like Paul Goldschmidt. He was born in Wilmington, Delaware, after all; I have to stick with my Delaware boys. But a second or third round selection on the basis of that unknown "potential"? I'll pass with ease, thank you.
Here's the truth about Goldschmidt entering this season. His 3.4 percent home run rate was the lowest of anyone on this top ten other than Adrian Gonzalez last year (who has shown his can hit for power in the MLB). His 22.2 percent strikeout rate is the highest of anyone on this top ten. Even at a 10.2 percent walk rate, his 2.17 K:BB ratio was horrendous. And of his fly balls hit, 9.2 percent went for home runs while eight percent were pop-ups on the infield.
This is who I'm trusting my fantasy team to? Let's say, as we have here, that he improves by 15-20 percent in his power, walk, and at-bat categories this season, while sacrificing a bit of average for power. That's not unreasonable, and in fact, the Diamondbacks would be happy, right? Well, for fantasy purposes, it would still only place him around a sixth or seventh-round selection.
And if you're enamored by potential over the value of statistical analysis, then why are you looking for the stats answer anyway? Just let the owner of "geezers" Teixiera or Konerko walk on by.