As I’m writing this, the fantasy baseball draft season is in full swing! Razzslam and TGBFI leagues are in full effect, while we can still engage in fantasy baseball drafts, even during so much uncertainty about when the baseball season will take place. I think that’s what makes the fantasy sports community so special: even during times of negativity, we’re all able to come together to keep the fun going!
Unlike some MLB owners, fantasy baseball managers are committed to winning at all costs. We’re all looking to finish in first place, which takes quite the responsibility. However, the foundation of the team is created from a strong draft. Getting a strong return on investments for your picks (aka surplus value) is precisely how you build a team that can take you to the promised land.
With that in mind, it’s time to analyze how players are going to produce from a fantasy perspective. Usually, to do this, we would rank players based on our intuition and confidence in each player. However, there’s another way to go about this. Personally, my mind works better when working with specific numbers, rather than just looking at one whole big picture.
What do I mean by this? Essentially, there might be less margin for error if we focus more on how a player is going to contribute to each main category, as opposed to what their overall value is there. To help with that, I have created my own projections to help list players in order of expected production. By no means is this an objective projection system, but that is sort of point. Being able to incorporate the context that goes into rankings allows the projection to take into account several important factors, but the overall rating is objectively created based on the value they provide in each category.
What is a Roto Score?
To come up with this, we will be looking at each player’s “roto score”. Essentially, I’ll be taking their 20-80 scale rating of their contributions of the five major hitting categories (average, home runs, RBIs, runs, stolen bases), average them out, and then adjust for position. For batting average, the grade is based on the number of at-bats the player will have. The better the batting average, the more at-bats you’ll want to have, while the reverse is true for someone with a poor batting average. Thus, we can accurately reflect on how much a hitter’s batting average truly is going to affect your fantasy team.
In simple terms, these are manual projections that combine a subjective touch with some needed objectiveness. Rather than predict their straight-up production in these categories, I projected how they would rate in peripheral categories to come up with the final result:
- Batting Average: Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), Strikeout Rate, Balls in Play
- Home Runs: Fly Ball%, Home/Run Fly Ball Rate
- Stolen Bases: Success Rate, Overall Attempts
Projecting playing time, meanwhile, is the impossible task that we, as fantasy baseball managers, need to do. Personally, I took into account previous durability, current status with their team (lineup spot, team success), as well as Fangraphs’ roster resource playing time projections, to come with an accurate plate appearance number. Since we don’t know how many games are going to be played this year, this projection is under the assumption that there is going to be a 162-game season, even if that possibility is highly unlikely.
Without further ado, let us get to the projections! Today, we’ll be focusing on the first base position. As per usual, this is a strong offensive position, leading to many believing they can wait on a first baseman. Add in the fact that they don’t add speed, and many are wary of taking one in the early rounds, though the merits of that are unclear.
Who stands out as a potential value, and who should you be targeting? Let us find out!
2022 Fantasy Baseball First Base Projections & Tiers
|Vladimir Guerrero Jr.||TOR||1B||70.31||677||.301||.393||.572||43||107||108||3|
As the consensus #1 prospect and one of the most hyped-up young sluggers in some time, expectations were extraordinary for Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Thus, in spite of posting a perfectly reasonable 107 weighted-runs-created-plus (wRC+) and .269/336/.442 slash line between his first two seasons in the MLB, there was a sense that he had disappointed.
That being said, there was still hope Guerrero Jr. would take a step forward in 2021. Per rotoholic.com, Guerrero Jr. was the fourth-highest drafted first baseman in the NFBC Main Event, with a top-40 average draft position (ADP). After all, he was just heading into his age-22 season, and wasn’t long removed from being considered one of the best minor-league hitters ever.
Well, I think it’s safe he took a leap forward. Guerrero Jr. posted a 166 wRC+ and a .311/.401/.601 slash line. Per Fangraphs’ 5×5 dollar values for the 2021 season, he was the second-most valuable hitter, which is what you’d expect for someone who tied for the league-lead with home runs (48) while hitting over .300 with 123 runs and 111 RBI.
So, what led to Guerrero Jr.’s breakout? Clearly, a swing change played a great role in this:
VLADIMIR GUERRERO JR. GROUND BALL RATES + BARREL RATE (BY YEAR)
- 2019: 50.4% Ground Ball Rate, 7.7% Barrel
- 2020: 54.6% Ground Ball Rate, 8.7% Barrel
- 2021: 45.6% Ground Ball Rate, 15.7% Barrel
Guerrero Jr. has always possessed 80-grade raw power, but the slight tweak to elevate the ball more helped turn that into actual game power. Yes, his production was boosted by playing in Dunedin to start the year. No, this is not a reason to not draft him. All of his underlying numbers point to another 40+ home run season with over 100 runs and RBIs each. Even without speed, that’s true first-round value.
We currently don’t know where Freddie Freeman will end up, as there are some rumors that he won’t re-sign with the Braves. Regardless, you can count on him for very strong production. I’m banking on his line-drive rate (25.1%) to go back to closer to his career norms, which will help his power and batting average. That being said, I think it’s pretty safe to expect closet to 100 runs and RBIs each, 30-35 home runs, and a very strong batting average. He’s a safer pick that I may not make due to some of the potential values at this position elsewhere, but there’s little reason not to expect Freeman to be a fringe top-ten hitter this year.
This tier of four is as tight as it gets- they are extremely interchangeable.
Paul Goldschmidt is the oldest (34) of this group, which may explain why he’s being drafted the latest. Still, there are nos signs of him slowing down. After multiple seasons of a strikeout rate over 24% in 2018 and 2019, which is concerning, he lowered his swinging-strike rate to 9.9% (his lowest in a full season since 2016) and a 20% strikeout rate (lowest in his career). This, combined with a 13.6% barrel rate, indicate a strong batting average + power combination, while he also got back to stealing bases (12) last season. The batting average gives him a slight edge over the other two in this tier, with age really being his only main concern.
Fun story: I was in person for each of Pete Alonso‘s back-to-back victories in the Home Run Derby. Perhaps I’m his lucky charm. Not to imply anything, but, if you reading this Pete, Los Angeles sounds awfully nice next July! His 11.4% swinging-strike rate and 24.9% whiff rate each were career-best numbers for him, while he maintained plenty of power with a .257 ISO and 14.8% barrel rate. Extra aggression within the zone (71% zone-swing) and more contact led to him decreasing his strikeout rate to 19.9%, allowing him to post an adequate batting average on balls in play (BABIP). Add in 35-40 home runs and a lot of RBI, and there’s plenty of reason to be intrigued about him this year.
Matt Olson may rank lower here that his ADP as the third first baseman, but the margin between #3 and #5 are extremely slim. With more aggressiveness in the zone (72.2% zone-swing), more contact (23% whiff), and a lower swinging-strike rate (9.9%), he was able to lower his strikeout rate significantly:
I’m not sure he’ll be able to replicate a 16.8% strikeout rate, but it should be low enough to support a .260 batting average, which works with the power he brings to the table. A trade from Oakland, preferably to the Yankees, Braves, or Padres, would also boost his stock significantly- the extra power production, as well as the runs and RBI, might be enough to move him to the #3 spot. Thus, consider his situation fluid.
There are some concerned about Jose Abreu‘s decline in batting average (.261) last season. However, that was mainly due to a decrease in line-drive rate (21.7%), and with how unstable line-drive rate is from year-to-year, I wouldn’t bank on that happening two years in a row. He is 35, so a decline could come at any moment, but he’s a strong bet to lead the league in RBIs, and his profile is pretty balanced. He’s someone not overlook in drafts next year.
|Ryan Mountcastle||BAL||1B, OF||54.92||630||.255||.319||.467||30||79||94||3|
|Jake Cronenworth||SD||1B, 2B, SS||53.63||630||.279||.356||.459||19||89||68||6|
|DJ LeMahieu||NYY||1B, 2B, 3B||51.97||667||.286||.363||.408||13||92||66||4|
The major difference between these projections and ADP appears to be Joey Votto. Since the start of February, he’s the 15th first baseman going off the board in NFBC drafts, yet I have him projected to rank comfortably in the top 10. After posting a 98 wRC+ in 2019, it appeared that the former MVP was heading towards a steep decline. However, Votto had different plans.
Coming into the 2021 season, according to AP News, Votto stated that “he wanted to get back to being dangerous.” He also went on to say some other notable tidbits:
“I’m back to kind of a more comfortable place in terms of hitting,” Votto said. “Of course it’s going to come with some more swings and misses and of course strikeouts, but as long as I’m productive and as long as I’m dangerous at the plate, it’ll pay itself off. I have to remind myself that at the core, you know, that’s who I am.”
Essentially, Votto was willing to exchange quantity of contact for quality of contact. Well, that’s exactly what he did:
Specifically, Votto started to “become dangerous” upon returning from injury late in May. For the rest of the year, he posted a 155 wRC+ and .327 isolated power (ISO). Meanwhile, this coincided with his fly-ball rate being well over 40% from July on, while he posted a 21.2% barrel rate in the second half. There are some reasons to be concerned about his age (38-years-old), but I believe in the career renaissance, as this was an intentional change to his approach. I’m not saying he’s in his prime again, yet I’m willing to bet he can be a top-ten first baseman for at least one more season.
Another target I specifically would want to target in this tier, based on his ADP, is Brandon Belt. Currently, the the 33-year-old is being drafted as the 23rd first baseman, which seems awfully low given his production over the past two seasons. Similarly to Votto, he had a poor 2019 season with a 98 wRC+ and .169 ISO that seemed to be the end of him as a very productive hitter. Since then, though, his numbers have been excellent:
- 560 PA, .285/.393/.595, .310 ISO, 38 HR, 90 R, 89 RBI, 17% Barrel
I don’t expect Belt to keep up that batting average, especially after posting. a 27% strikeout rate last year, while his home-run luck may come down slightly. That being said, he has a lot of room for some decline, and there’s nothing indicating his underlying improvements are legitimate. For me, it’s just about his accumulating enough plate appearances, which is a risk I’d willing to take in the corner infield slot.
Josh Bell, with untapped power and a strong average/power combination, is another strong target in this tier. Simply put, there are a lot of options to choose from. If you don’t get a top-tier first baseman, fret not!
|Ty France||SEA||1B, 2B||50.39||644||.280||.338||.431||19||73||74||0|
|Max Muncy||LAD||1B, 2B||49.86||467||.249||.378||.515||27||73||74||2.5|
|Jonathan Schoop||DET||1B, 2B||49.71||609||.260||.312||.433||22||76||75||1|
|Alex Kiriloff||MIN||1B, OF||48.13||510||.267||.325||.458||20||63||70||3.5|
|Lamonte Wade Jr.||SF||1B, OF||48.08||514||.253||.348||.473||23||73||68||2|
|Tyler Stephenson||CIN||C, 1B||47.33||479||.268||.360||.432||13||62||56||0|
Can we believe in Frank Schwindel? Nobody should expect him to replicate his .326/371/.591 slash line, which was fueled by a .348 BABIP and 17.7% home run/fly ball rate. That being said, I do appreciate his contact skills (87.2% zone-contact rate), while he’s been a strong minor-league performer for some time now. Later on in the draft (227 ADP), there’s plenty of appeal in seeing if he is the latest late bloomer. Consider him more of a target in leagues where you can take more of a risk, though he doesn’t have a lot of competition for playing time with the Cubs.
Two players who made their MLB full-season debuts last season with high expectations were Bobby Dalbec and Nathaniel Lowe. Unfortunately, both didn’t meet those expectations, which is why they’re going past pick #220 in drafts currently. That being said, while neither is likely to be a world-beater, or even a starting-caliber first base option, they do hold some upside that may be enticing, given their prospect pedigree.
Dalbec, for instance, got off to a very poor start last season: he posted a 72 wRC+ and 37.5% strikeout rate through July. However, for the final two months of the season, posting a .174 wRC+ and .396 ISO. Notably, he lowered his strikeout rate to 28.7%, which seems to be partially due to increased aggressiveness in the zone:
The floor for Dalbec is quite low, as he could play his way out of a starting job if he bottoms out, and the batting average won’t be impressive. That being said, if you need power later on, he could be an interesting option if you believe in the improvements to the strikeout rate.
Then, there’s Lowe, who was traded the Rangers from the Rays last offseason. This was supposed to be where he finally got his opportunity, but it didn’t come to fruition. Lowe showcased the raw power he had in the minors, but a 54.5% ground-ball hampered his power production (.151 ISO). Assuming the team doesn’t trade for Matt Olson, he’s still in line to hit in the middle of the order, behind Marcus Semien and Corey Seager, so you should be getting a .260 average with close to 20 home runs and some RBI. That’s a nice floor to have when you also factor in his minor-league production and the upside if new hitting coach Donnie Ecker, formerly of the Giants, can help him exercise a swing change.
Right now, it’s unclear what Max Muncy‘s plate appearances would look like. He stated earlier this offseason that he had torn his UCL, which is a lot more severe injury than had previously been indicated and has sent his stock falling. I currently have him projected to miss the first month of the season, though we’re mainly in a holding pattern as we await further news on his health.
|Yandy Diaz||TB||1B, 3B||45.88||472||.272||.370||.426||13||59||56||1|
|Wilmer Flores||SF||1B, 2B, 3B||45.11||402||.269||.340||.462||17||61||53||1|
|Darin Ruf||SF||1B, OF||40.48||378||.255||.375||.465||16.5||49||50||2|
At this point, here’s hoping that you’re not relying on these players to be in your starting lineup unless you’re in a very deep league. However, that doesn’t mean they aren’t some intriguing bats in this tier.
Yandy Diaz is a player I discussed earlier this offseason as a deep-league hitting target. He’s wowed us for years with his raw power numbers, but it hasn’t translated into game power due to a career 54.2% ground ball rate. However, as the season went on last year, he seemed to make some encouraging adjustments:
As you can see, Diaz made improvements when it comes to hitting the ball in the air more often. From July 1 on, he posted a .203 ISO and a 10.3 % barrel rate. I wouldn’t bank on him replicating those statistics for a full season, but they do add a nice layer of upside with an above-average batting average. Now, we’ll wait and see how much playing time he gets this season in Tampa Bay.
There’s a lot to like with Rowdy Tellez, who should at least be on a strong side of a first base platoon in Milwaukee. After dealing with swing-and-miss issues earlier in his career, he has made major strides in this area:
Combine this with an 11.6% barrel rate last year, and you could easily get a .260 average with 20 home runs. Past pick #300, that sounds quite appealing to me!
I’d love to see Spencer Torkelson get a chance to be on the opening day roster. If so, he’d rise significantly due to an increased playing-time projection. He combined an above-average 9.8% swinging-strike rate with a tremendous .287 ISO. He’s about as safe of a hitting prospect as there is, though at a stacked position, he’s once again probably a prospect you wait till last next season to draft.
|Pavin Smith||ARI||1B, OF||39.90||483||.264||.338||.403||11||55||47||1|
|Jurickson Profar||SD||1B, OF||37.79||457||.237||.337||.379||11||54||46||9.5|
|Yoshi Tsutsugo||PIT||1B, OF||37.10||460||.219||.322||.388||16||53||55||0|
With the universal designated hitter in effect, Juan Yepez could get extra playing time with the Cardinals this season. He posted an absurd .300 ISO with just an 18.9% strikeout rate- he shouldn’t be a liability at all in terms of average and brings serious power to the table. Of this tier, he’s the one that would interest me the most, though we’ll also need to see what St.Louis’ plans at the designated hitter spot are.