TDG’S 2024 RISERS AND FALLERS: FIRST BASEMEN
Every year, we at the TDG office identify Risers and Fallers from our consensus rankings. But how did we get here!? And what’s real and what’s noise? Well, the Gurus are here to help. In each “Risers and Fallers” article, the Gurus will take you on an explanatory journey as to why these players have seen a fortunate rise, or an unfortunate turn toward their demise. Thanks for reading!
RISING: CHRISTIAN ENCARNACION-STRAND, CINCINNATI REDS (AGE: 24, CURRENT RANK: 11, PREVIOUS RANK: 20)
Lovingly referred to as CES, Christian Encarnacion-Strand exploded onto the major-league scene during Spring Training 2023, went on to absolutely destroy Triple-A, and then more than held his own in Cincinnati, resulting in a significant jump in our rankings up to Number 11. With further development, Encarnacion-Strand will likely enter the hallowed Top 10 going into 2025, but let’s not get too far ahead of ourselves.
After leading Oklahoma State in all three Triple Crown categories, and earning first-team All-American, Encarnacion-Strand was drafted by the Twins in the fourth round. He was sent to Single-A and put up a 175 wRC+ over 22 games. The dominance continued through the trade deadline in 2022, where he hit 25 homers in 87 games (and chipped in 8 steals!) before being shipped along with Spencer Steer and Steve Hajjar to the Reds in exchange for Tyler Mahle. After the trade deadline, he only mustered another seven homers and put up a 125 wRC+, a relative struggle for CES up to that point in his career.
But then the real fun began. Going into the 2023 season, Encarnacion-Strand outright broke Spring Training. Over 12 games, he batted .593 with four homers. Of course, he was rewarded with a trip to Louisville. He spat on that assignment–he triple-slashed .331/.405/.637 with 20 homers and 62 RBIs over 67 games. He also responded with both the best walk rate (10.4%) and strikeout rate (21.8%) of his career. And on July 17, 2023, he became the player with the longest name in Major League history.
While he did not light the world on fire during his first 63 games, he did score 29 runs, hit 13 homers, knock in 37 runs, and produce a 112 wRC+. On the concerning side, Encarnacion-Strand struggled to reach his plus power against lefties. But on the plus side, he ended the season on a very strong note, triple-slashing .301/.348/.614 in September and October. To me, it seems like he was pressing during his first taste in the bigs, similar to the 35 games following his trade to the Reds, in both cases experiencing a collapse in his walk rate and a spike in his strikeout rate.
At 24 years old, there is so much to like in Encarnacion-Strand. He has elite power (70-grade Raw Power), a fantastic home ballpark (3rd highest Park Factor), and strong lineup support (Have you seen the talent on this Reds team?). In my estimation, this is his last appearance outside of this site’s Top 10 for a while.
FALLING: TY FRANCE, SEATTLE MARINERS (AGE: 29, CURRENT RANK: 36, PREVIOUS RANK: 22)
After hitting .337 over his career at San Diego State, Ty France did not stop hitting once he was drafted by San Diego in the 34th round. In 2019, he really announced his arrival by batting .399 over 76 games in El Paso, earning an all-star nod and winning PCL Player of the Week twice. He made his way to San Diego that season and was traded to Seattle the following year. Compared to Taylor Trammell and Andres Muñoz, France came with little fanfare.
In 2021, his first full season in Seattle, he hit 18 homers, scored 85 runs, knocked in 73, and showed strong bat-to-ball skills while consistently hitting in the top four spots in the batting order. The strong performance continued as he became in All-Star in 2022. Going into the All-Star Weekend, he was a top-ranking first baseman for the AL in almost all major statistics (i.e., RBI, on-base percentage, WAR) and led the group in batting average. France had not been such a force since the Napoleonic era. But like a dictator advancing through the Russian winter, France’s march toward stardom сошёл с рельсов (translation: derailed) in June 2022 when he collided with Sheldon Neuse at first base. From that point on, he triple-slashed .230/.283/.392 with only a 93 wRC+.
Going into 2023, France worked to “get [his] old swing back,” but it did not fully return as he put up his worst offensive season in a Mariner uniform. While it was never his strong suit, in 2023 his power stroke was really lacking, putting up only 12 home runs over 158 games, resulting in a .116 ISO. What stands out is that France spent two full seasons with the Mariners crushing fastballs and then in 2023, he had a negative value against them. Similarly, he stopped hitting sliders as well. Looking at his Batted Ball Profile, France’s efforts to pull for more power did not yield good results.
The good news is that over this last offseason, he has been training at Driveline. Perhaps we are looking at the next Mariners/Driveline success story (see J.P. Crawford). However, with the additions of Mitch Garver and Jorge Polanco, he’ll have to right the ship from a lower spot in the batting order, making it harder for dynasty managers to trust the counting stats. Even with France’s fall in our rankings, dynasty managers should keep their eye on the early returns from Driveline because in the event that he does level up his power, the window to buy back in will be brief.
RISING: COBY MAYO, BALTIMORE ORIOLES (AGE: 22, CURRENT RANK: 16th, PREVIOUS RANK: 27th)
At 6 ‘5 and 235 pounds, Coby “Miracle Whip” Mayo’s stature is a lot more comparable to the Skunk Ape that roams his old stomping grounds in the Everglades than a kid three years removed from his senior year at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School. For the last few years, Mayo has become a bit of folklore in the prospect world with the 80-power grade projection bestowed upon him before the 2020 draft. I felt that combination of measurements and raw power alone seemed to be what many fantasy advocates of this young man used to justify his high fantasy value and prospect ranking. Well, with the season Mayo had in 2023, those people were vindicated and proved me wrong. In my mind, he changed a trajectory that I thought would be along the lines of a Chris Davis 2.0 career arc to something more like Rafael Palmeiro 2.0 without the additives. 😉
NO ZiPS ON MIRACLE WHIP
I want to give a heads-up to all you fantasy baseball aficionados who live and die by statistics, analytics, and sabermetrics—or those who need a numerical bombardment that would send Sesame Street’s Count into a frenzy. If that’s what you’re after, head to the search bar in the top right corner, and type in “Phil Barrington” to uncover his meticulously crafted “Top 11-20 First Basemen of 2024” article, complete with a thorough Coby Mayo analysis that will be available on February 14th. I’m one hundred Ah-Ah-Ah percent certain it will be a more informative and well-put-together analysis of Coby Mayo than mine. Shit. Honestly, I’ll probably refer to it more than my work.
Now, for those of you who’ve stuck around, First off, F*ck those guys who left. But in all seriousness, I’ll level with you—I’m all about the eye test, the gut feeling, the intangibles that made me do a 180 Ah-Ah-Ah on him. Okay, I promise that was my last Sesame Street joke.
DON’T BE SO MAYO, HE IS MIRACLE WHIP, AND HE WILL NOT TONE IT DOWN
You don’t need to be a scout to recognize Mayo’s impressive attributes at the plate in his pre-2023 season tape, particularly his power generated from a controlled and compact swing. It evokes the mechanics seen with WhipHit training bats, instilling a textbook swing. In the batter’s box, his “natural” quiet stance, though seemingly relaxed, demonstrates repeatability with ease. Mayo consistently demonstrates the ability to swiftly get his barrel into the zone, showcasing an excellent swing path from his loading phase. He cited modeling his game after Kris Bryant during his Spotlight interview with the MLB Network when he was drafted in 2020, evident in his hitting mechanics.
Transitioning to Double-A in under two years showcases Mayo’s exceptional mechanics and raw power. However, like many prospects, he faced challenges at this level. Upon promotion in the second half of 2022, Mayo struggled with a 34.5% K rate and a .148 ISO in 145 plate appearances, compared to a 21.5% K rate and a .243 ISO in High-A during the first half of 2022. While doubts arose about his ability to adjust, Mayo not only tweaked his hitting mechanics but also embraced a new plate approach, demonstrating both talent and work ethic in one offseason.
SOME THINGS CAN BE COPIED, AND SOME THINGS CAN’T
His adjustment in mechanics, particularly his ability to “tilt” into pitches for a better angle, sets him apart, especially for a young hitter in his third professional season. Coupled with his quick bat speed at contact, Mayo showcased impressive performances against highly regarded pitching prospects.
Regarding his change in approach, Mayo shifted towards a “middle of the field” mindset, avoiding being pull-happy, especially against high velocity. This change allowed him to wait on pitches and drive them to center or opposite field, enhancing his hit and home run potential. He punctuated this shift in his hitting philosphy point in a mid-July interview with “The Call Up” podcast when he said, “I hit the ball where it needs to be hit now.”
These adjustments, coupled with enhanced pitch recognition, have transformed Mayo into a complete hitter as shown with all of his statistics becoming substantially better. However, questions linger about his eventual position in the majors. Despite possessing the best arm in the Orioles organization, Mayo may outgrow third base, potentially moving across the diamond. While this may impact his fantasy value, his potent bat remains a worthwhile investment.
(Ryan Felix Fernandes)
FALLING: ANTHONY RIZZO, NEW YORK YANKEES (AGE: 34 , CURRENT RANK: 39th, PREVIOUS RANK: 15th)
Before I delve in, it’s essential to disclose my bias upfront. I’m a fervent supporter of this “faller,” and I vehemently disagree with our current ranking of him. With that said, I approached this analysis with an admitted more than positive outlook, acknowledging that my bias might influence my perspective. I refrained from all the numbers like I did with Coby Mayo but drew upon the insights of esteemed analyst Chris Knock (@notnotknock on X). Even though I am still bitter about his change in allegiance to Cubdom.
RIZZ STILL GOT THE RIZZ?
Now, shifting gears to the other side of the first base rankings spectrum, we encounter a figure close to my heart, Anthony Rizzo, affectionately known as Rizz, a fellow Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School alum and a cherished figure in my life as a lifelong Cubs fan. On a side note, I recently discovered that “rizz” is akin to what my generation would dub as “having game.” Why do these kids have to change everything. Damn! I’m old.
In crafting pieces like this, I often peruse what my fellow analysts have written about the same player to gain diverse perspectives. This time, I was particularly intrigued due to our increased understanding of concussions. Like many, I believe Rizzo’s performance last season was significantly hampered by the concussion he suffered in early May and the lingering effects of post-concussion syndrome until his placement on the injured list in August.
During his press conference following the announcement of his placement on the IL for post-concussion syndrome, Rizzo detailed the symptoms and challenges he faced throughout the season: his frustration with his inability to adjust at the plate, the persistent fogginess and body aches upon waking, and a decline in pitch recognition.
Any one of these symptoms alone could hinder performance in any endeavor, let alone professional baseball. The cumulative effect on a player of Rizzo’s caliber is undoubtedly profound. Therefore, if he receives clearance from his neurologist and enters Spring Training in full health, I anticipate Rizzo surpassing his 2023 statistics and offering significant value compared to our current consensus dynasty ranking. In alignment with this belief, I echo Knock’s sentiments regarding Rizzo pre-2023 season, suggesting potential for even greater returns despite his current lower ranking.
Below, I’ve included an excerpt from Chris Knock’s “First Baseman Targets in 2023” piece along with the corresponding link. Additionally, I believe the other two first basemen he discussed are also viable trade or redraft targets in 2024, given the challenges they faced last season. That’s right! I gave you zero, count ’em ZERO “fallers” in this piece. Ah-Ah-Ah!
(Ryan Felix Fernandes)
All it took was an entire season in Yankee Stadium for Anthony Rizzo to return his near-prime Cubs numbers. As our 15th-ranked first baseman, he provides appropriately discounted fantasy stats to those of Hoskins. Before I get into the why, I want to be fully forthcoming: The left-handed batter is likely selling out for power. Over the last few seasons, Rizzo has steadily raised his Pull Rate, coupled with a similar K% rise and an AVG decrease. This all played a part in him hitting a career-best .256 ISO last season.
While that may appear to be a mixed bag of news, I take it as a positive opportunity. Power is what pays the bills, evident in his freshly signed 2-year contract. This contract will allow Rizzo plenty of opportunities to hit at the infamous right-field porch. In addition to the sustained power, Rizzo continues to get free passes at a low-teens pace. Recent OBP decreases (last year was .338 versus his career .366) are almost entirely due to the power stroke adjustments. Another calling card over his lengthy career is Rizzo’s health. Last year’s 130 games were the fewest games he appeared in (ignoring 2020) as a full-time player since 2013.
All this equates to a player who will likely provide mid-20 homers, 140 R+RBIs, and a .330 OBP for the next several years. Drafting Anthony Rizzo as your first baseman late allows you to take other prime performers early. He is a perfect fantasy segue to your MiLB roster depth. Just like this segue to…