The Real First Round
Each spring, I tell you to draft like it’s October. By that I mean, think about where players will be ranked at the end of the season, not in March. If you think Jacob deGrom will have a huge bounce back year, then call his name. Think A.J. Pollock will return to the Top 10 Fantasy rankings, as he was in 2015? Draft him. Predicting Wade Davis is going to lead the National League in saves? Make him the first closer off the board.
Of course, that’s the classic “draft value” argument, but the need to find those overachievers is necessary because of your very first pick.
As I’ve told you for years now, only about four picks out of the Top 14 actually return first round value for the entire season. Injuries, regression, bad luck, and overconfidence in last season all play a factor. That’s less than 30 percent (.286 if you’re counting), but it’s Fantasy Baseball. That kind of average can get you into the Hall of Fame, but hitting on 28.6 percent of your picks won’t get you a Fantasy baseball crown.
So I’m here to pick The Real First Round. It’s a fearless set of projections in which I project which 14 players will finish in the first round of value in October. In both of the last two seasons, guess how many I guessed correctly.
That’s right. Four.
Last season I nailed Mike Trout, Josh Donaldson, Mookie Betts, and Noah Syndergaard. I missed on: Anthony Rizzo, Joey Votto, JD Martinez, Gerrit Cole, Michael Brantley, Giancarlo Stanton, Chris Davis, and Kyle Hendricks. But which other expert even had Kyle Hendricks even close to the first round, huh?
So let’s get on with 2017’s Real First Round. First, here are the Top 14 players by (early) ADP:
I only keep four to six players in the first round, because historically that’s how many typically return first round performances. So I’ll keep: Betts, Altuve, Goldschmidt, Arenado, Machado and Donaldson.
Notice I didn’t take Mike Trout, which would be the easy, safe pick. I’m going out on a limb to predict a slightly down year, either because of injury or just plain humanity. I think Bryant and Rizzo slip just out of the Top 14 without Dexter Fowler atop the lineup and because of a possible World Series hangover.
I have eight slots to fill. Here we go:
- Freddie Freeman: He was 11th in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) in 2016, according to FanGraphs, so essentially I’m banking on a repeat. The Braves were atrocious last season and look to be a little better this season. He owned a 43.5 hard contact rate, second only to David Ortiz. He took a more aggressive approach at the plate, reducing his ground ball rate and increasing his fly balls. He’s just pure offense and I think he’s a safe bet for the first round.
- Francisco Lindor: Last season, I said Bryant and Machado needed to show me they could return to first round value from the previous season before I picked them to repeat, and they did just that. I said Jose Altuve scared me because of his speed. When you have five tools, they all need to perform to that level (well, except defense) to return to even the same level. So I’m going full Costanza on this one – predicting what I normally would not predict. Lindor showed nice improvement at the plate last year, and I see his average staying above .300. Let’s hope he develops more power, as young players often do, and we’ll put him in the October first round.
- Xander Bogaerts: His average fell to .294 from .320 because his BABIP plunged to .335 from .372 – all excellent numbers. I’ll split the difference, and noticing his increase in fly balls (25.8 percent in 2015, 34.9 percent last season) leads me to believe 21 HRs and 89 RBIs is at least his norm, if not his floor. Repeating 115 runs and 13 steals might be difficult, but I’ll take the package deal to finish in the Top 14 for sure.
- Corey Seager: So. Many. Shortstops. 26 HRs, 72 RBIs, 105 runs. He will swap runs for RBIs this season. That kind of power needs to have baserunners in front of him. He could walk more, and he needs a bit more plate discipline, but 26 HRs out of the shortstop position can’t be ignored. I’m going to regret leaving Carlos Correa out of the Real First Round, but I just have a hunch.
- Rougned Odor: Speaking of too many HRs to ignore. He jacked 33 HRs and collected 88 RBIs with 89 runs and 13 steals. He’ll move away from steals (he was caught eight times) as he’s transitioning to more of a fly ball hitter. He’ll still be just 23 on Opening Day, and he’s becoming more of a free swinger at the plate. But that’s what power hitters look like. Watch his ADP but take him ahead of Cano, Story, Pollock and that group. He’ll make the leap ahead this year.
- Jonathan Villar: If he can find his way to 20 HRs and steals 60 again (he will, with ease) he can easily return first round value. He’s becoming a more patient hitter, which I think gives him the potential to hit .290 plus.
- Noah Syndergaard: No two ways about it; he’s simply a beast. My only worry is his arm. Bone spurs last year, and hardly any starting pitcher in the game has consistently thrown as hard as he does. For now, I’m all in.
- Aaron Nola: Yes, he was 6-9 with a 4.71 ERA, but he is this year’s Kyle Hendricks. His xFIP was 3.08, more than 1.6 runs better than his ERA. His strand rate (LOB%) was a silly 60 percent (silly in that league average was 72.9, so that number will improve dramatically). His BABIP was .334 (.298 league average) Nola owned a 55.2 GB rate and a 24.8 FB rate, both in the top 20 percent of the league. Good things happen to ground ball pitchers and he’s due for an awful lot of luck. He’s young, so anything more than over last year’s 111 IP could tax him, but he was developing nice stuff, missing more bats, and fooling hitters a little more often. Even if he doesn’t quite reach first-round status, he’ll be a very good #2 starter.
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