2019 Dynasty Risers and Fallers: First Base
It’s that time of year where we start to analyze the 2018 season and see what players are going to be climbing up or falling down draft boards in 2019. I’ll be going through position by position to find guys I expect to be risers and fallers, or the guys I think you should know about as you gear up for drafts and trades during this non-existent off-season. This week we’re looking at my favorite position, first base.
First base is surprisingly thin and old. There’s also a rather large mix of unknowns. Either players who have yet to prove themselves at the major league level, or veterans who have an uncertain amount of value remaining. First base was once a gluttonous source of fantasy goodness, but that has become less and less true in the past few years. When compiling my rankings, first base actually averaged out to be the oldest per-player position. But have no fear, I’ve got some risers and fallers to help you navigate this shallower than ever position.
Cody Bellinger, 23, MLB, LAD
Yes, the rookie who bashed 39 homers a year ago is a riser for yours truly. I might take some flack for choosing him, but I wasn’t completely sold. While the homers ended up being a smaller total than the previous season, many of Bellinger’s peripherals stayed the same, indicating that he has a very bright future ahead of him. Which is why even though he had a worse season, he’s still climbing up MY rankings.
Bellinger may not have duplicated the outcomes of his 2017 Rookie campaign, but he did maintain a similar approach even after the league had adjusted to him. He continued to walk at a double-digit clip, lowered his strikeout rate by 3%, maintained above league-average exit velocity and launch angle, and stole double-digit bases again. The biggest change was a drop in his ISO from .300+ down to .210, which is still plenty good.
All of this at age 23, and while he’ll see his fair share of time in the outfield, the Dodgers alter their lineup and move players around enough that he should maintain first base eligibility for years to come. In my opinion, Bellinger has proven himself to be a top three first basemen, and if someone is selling him because he showed that he was human in 2019, then buy him immediately.
Jesus Aguilar, 28, MLB, MIL
Perhaps my favorite of the risers, and certainly a favorite of the TDG podcast Dynasty’s Child. It’s just impossible to not root for this big lovable man. As some of you may know, I’ve really got a thing for big, slow, and patient first basemen (See Nate Lowe later in this article), and Aguilar definitely fits the bill. While many saw Aguilar as Eric Thames insurance at the beginning of 2018, he showed in a very BIG way that he was destined for much more than insurance, or even a platoon bat as some had labeled him.
So what happened to this dinosaur-sized man that made him such a force in 2018? Perhaps the biggest change was that he was allowed to face, and mash, right-handed pitching. He raised his wOBA from .338 to .368 against them, and that’s what turned him into an everyday player. While the heavy-set first baseman was hitting the ball hard last year, he managed to increase his launch angle by five degrees, making him a stronger fly ball and line drive hitter with over-the-fence power, now on both sides.
However, it’s not all roses and sunshine for the 28-year-old. There was the 2nd half, wherein this beefy boy lost a significant portion of his power and average in the second half. Where did it go? Looking at Aguilar’s progression through the season it would appear he really only had one terrible month- July, wherein he batted a mere .202 (his lowest average by far of the year). This also happens to be the month where his exit velocity against dipped to its lowest point of the year, and the big man was dealing with a hamstring injury as well. All of this is to say that I am a believer in this particular Jesus.
Luke Voit 27, MLB, NYY
Well, wait a minute, where the heck did this guy come from? Arguably the best hitter of the second half, Voit arrived in the Bronx from the Cardinals in a mid-season deal. He wasted no time after his arrival and started to obliterate baseballs. Voit earned himself the full-time role at first base for the remainder of 2018 and has a “leg up” on the job for 2019.
Luke Voit is a confusing player. He went from Quad-A player to elite first basemen in the span of half a season. Obviously, we need to buy in with cautious optimism, but everything looks pretty legit on the surface. His BABIP was high at .315, but he also hits the ball extremely hard and his xBA was also .300! Voit is still a majority pull hitter, but he distributes the ball across the field enough. He also rarely hit the ball on the ground (just 35% of the time), and owned an elite line-drive rate at 28%.
The majority of Voit’s homers came off fastballs down the middle of the plate. Meanwhile, he whiffed a hefty amount on offspeed pitches, and so I’d expect him to see a healthier dose of offspeed and breaking balls in his “sophomore” campaign. That may mean he won’t be able to maintain that rapid pace of homers he delivered in 2018, but it doesn’t mean failure either. While he whiffed more on offspeed pitches, his knowledge of the strike zone also allowed him to walk. Good plate discipline means he’s more likely to work pitchers into hitters counts. I think Voit’s profile is that of an elite first baseman, and he’ll start the year as the Yankees’. I’ll gladly take a share or two off the hands of those thinking he’s still a Quad-A player.
Tyler White, 28, MLB, HOU
What can I say, the beefy boys of first base are proving they belong. Tyler White is a post-hype sleeper who completely outperformed anyone’s expectations in 2019. The myriad of injuries the Astros suffered over the course of the season provided ample opportunity for White to prove himself, and he did. Similar to Voit, White put up tremendous power numbers in a small number of at-bats. Evan Gattis is unlikely to be re-signed by the Astros, and that opens up a spot for White either at DH or first base.
Beyond the similarities in small sample size between White and Voit, they are also similar hitters. White too is a slight power pull hitter but distributes the ball evenly enough that he should avoid becoming a victim of the shift (his right-handedness should help there as well). White managed to post a .276 average in 2018, but he has 580 plate appearances at the Major League level and a .248 lifetime average. That lines up well with his xBA of .246 in 2019, and so we can probably write-off White’s average as a fluke.
The power and patience, though, appear to be very real. He’s demonstrated both throughout his career, but I actually feel more skeptical about White’s overall approach at the plate, which was quite impressive in comparison to his career norms. He made much more contact, decreased his swinging-strike rate significantly, and actually swung the bat late, committing to make more contact in the zone. Still, he hit the ball with less authority than Voit and swung the bat less at pitches in the strike zone not just out of the zone. I’m skeptical about the staying power of White- while he’s still a riser, I’d rather take a chance on Voit.
Nathaniel Lowe, 23, AAA, TBR
Lowe had arguably the second-best hitting season behind the growing legend of Vlad Jr. I was so intrigued with Lowe, that I actually wrote an entire article on the young man’s potential. That great season did take a hit, however, when he reached Triple-A. In particular, Lowe showed much less patience at the plate, but the power remained. His strikeout-rate did spike to its highest but was still below 25%. Meanwhile, he’s only had one other time in the minors where the K-rate has been above 20%. Power without all the Ks? Sounds good to me.
Last year Lowe managed to banish 27 baseballs out of the ballpark across three different levels. That’s right- the 22-year-old big-stick swinging first basemen managed to find his way from High-A to Triple-A. All this while maintaining his newfound power, distributing the ball to all parts of the field, and stealing exactly one base. Fangraphs has his speed ranked at a 35, so I won’t be expecting him to climb up the Statcast Sprint Leaderboard when he reaches the majors.
Tampa has a history of slow roasting their players in the minors (particularly pitchers). Most of the time dynasty players (and sometimes the actual players) are frustrated with this approach. However, in Lowe’s case, I’d like to see him spend a large portion of next year at Triple-A. The difference in approach between his previous levels suggests that he still has some adjusting to do before he’s ready. Still, a strong performance in Spring Training might result in a Major League Roster spot, and that could be a whole lot of fun to watch.
Joey Votto, 35, MLB, CIN
One of my all-time favorite players has started to show his age. I wrote in the preseason that I thought the old man could hit .300 with a cane. He fell short of hitting .300, but that wasn’t the major concern. Votto’s ISO dropping from .250+ in 2017 to .135 is the concerning part of Votto’s season. The results were a meager 12 home runs from a position where we expect much more power.
The majority of home runs from Votto throughout the Statcast era have come from fastballs, but my beloved first baseman is having trouble catching up to the heat as he’s gotten older. Let me show you a little visual courtesy of Baseball Savant.
As you can see, old-man Votto’s exit velocity on fastballs has been declining since 2016. Oh, and Votto’s exit velo on breaking balls–whence the second most homers come for him–was also on the decline. The increase in exit velocity in offspeed pitches seems to have kept his overall exit velocity within career norms, but there’s a disturbing trend here. The future Hall of Famer looks like he’ll continue to provide strong ratios, but I fear the power isn’t coming back. I don’t own any shares, but if I did I would sell.
Josh Bell, 26, MLB, PIT
Why is Bell on my list as faller? Because he managed to hit only 12 home runs in comparison to the 26 he hit the previous year. However, by almost every other stat (excluding RBI) Bell was better in 2018 than he was in 2017. That’s a bit of information we’ll come back to, but for now let’s try to figure out what happened to Bell’s power.
Bell is another player I wrote about earlier this year, but now that the season is over we can get a better understanding of what exactly happened. I am incredibly perplexed by what happened to Josh Bell’s power. Right now I have only two theories, the first is that Bell was much less aggressive than he had been the previous season. While he did receive 38 more at-bats in 2017, that’s not enough to explain a .20 increase in his OBP, a 3% increase in walk rate, and a .061 drop in ISO. Bell didn’t even pull the ball as much in 2018, and pulling the ball is often what aggressive hitters do. No, Bell was a much more patient player in 2018 in comparison to his 2017 season.
The results of a more patient approach at the plate, combined with an uptick in shifts, and more breaking balls? Fewer homers, fewer doubles, and a lower slugging percentage. However, his new approach generated a higher WAR and wRC+ than 2017 when he hit his 26 bombs. Most of us are looking for our first basemen to bring the thunder, but Bell hits the ball on the ground too much to provide substantial power. He’s not for me, but if you play in an OBP league he could be useful.
Greg Bird 25, MLB, NYY
Oh, poor Greg Bird and his fans. Things just didn’t go to plan for the TDG favorite. Right out the gate, he was dealing with the same injury that caused him to miss time the prior year. Bird’s foot appears to be a “ticking time bomb” according to TDG’s resident injury expert Dr. Mike Tanner. In fact, I would encourage you to read Dr. Tanner’s piece from earlier this year going into detail about Bird’s injury.
So, injury fatigue has set in, several years of underperformance, and teases of talent. I’ve got to say, I might actually be interested in testing the waters on acquiring the first baseman. The talent and pedigree are still there and he’s still only 25 years old. This sounds like a buying opportunity to me, although you would definitely need to be rebuilding. There’s a chance that Bird will actually need another surgery on his foot and could miss more time. Still, if you can be patient there’s a potential power-hitting lefty first basemen in Yankee stadium available on the cheap. Faller on the surface, but still waters run deep.
Eric Hosmer, 29, MLB, SD
The Padres’ 2018 season saw them signing the All-Star first baseman for eight years. Unfortunately, the first year of that deal Hosmer wasn’t a repeat of the former All-Star’s glory. No, it was much more like an old-timey plane nose-diving into the ground. Like most of the baseballs he hit (60% ground-ball rate).
Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Hosmer. The power mostly stuck in the move to San Diego, although he failed to repeat a third 25 homer season. He matched his total of 18 from 2016, but the bigger problems came in extra-base hits and contact.
The Baseball Savant image above shows a fairly disturbing trend in Hosmer’s ability to make contact. That’s an awful lot of swing and miss in 2018. I went into this thinking that Hosmer could be a relatively decent buy-low option. However, one of his best qualities is getting on-base, and that appears to be lessening, not from his patience but in his swing. If you own Hosmer, I think all you can do is hold and hope he rebounds to .340-350 OBP and 20 homers, and hopefully a .260 average.
Eric Thames, 31, MLB, MIL
This one hurts. Thames is such a fun player to watch. He’s built like a Greek god, his epic beard adds to his mythos, and his story is one of redemption. Unfortunately, the swing and miss in his game and inability to stay healthy derailed his 2018 season. Not to mention a certain dinosaur-sized player (Aguilar) who was written about earlier in this article outperformed Thames when he was on the field. Still, he’s a lovable player, who is incredibly fun. Just try to not let his Korean chant get stuck in your head.
After returning from Korea, Thames had a breakout 2017 smashing 31 homers and a slash line of .247/.359/.518. The dude just straight up crushed and took Brewers fans by storm. Strikeouts, however, became a problem for the slugger. He managed to keep his K-rate below 30% in 2017. However, in his limited at-bats, he struck out 36% of the time in 2018. The interesting thing is if we extrapolate the small number of at-bats Thames had in 2018 he still wouldn’t have been bad. In fact, he would look remarkably similar to a very polarizing first baseman.
The mystery player above? Joey Gallo. Now the there’s a rather sizable difference in ISO with Gallo’s being closer to .300, but we’ve established that Thames is no slouch at the plate. He hits dingers. Thus, full-time at-bats give us a potential worst-case scenario of Joey Gallo light. Meanwhile, his 2017 was probably the best case scenario for Thames. Now Thames is currently blocked, and right now he’s best suited for a bench piece for your dynasty team- hence the “Fallers” designation. However, if an opportunity opens up in Milwaukee or he’s traded to say an American league team, I’d love to have him on my contending squad.
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