January 19, 2016
Now that the dirty work of slogging through the catchers is behind us, we can tear into some real fantasy red meat with a look at first basemen. As a reminder, we’ll be running an Adjuster article each week as a subsidiary to our positional rankings as a space to specifically highlight players who see their values rise or fall relative to our tiered rankings. For hitters we’ll focus on value adjustments in OBP and points formats, though suggestions for additional formats are always welcome in the comments, and if enough of a consensus forms to include additional formats we can adjust (Eh? Eh?) as we go. Even assuming you’re here because you play in an alternate format, I’d strongly suggest you check out J.P.’s tiered rankings for first basemen before you dive in, as my notes on valuation are all based off of those rankings as a starting point. And with that, let’s get to it.
Where catchers were a collective lump of dead tundra in February, first basemen are beachfront property in August, and the contrast is particularly sharp as it relates to OBP formats. The cold corner produced a cumulative OBP 11 points higher than any other positional grouping, and the 77-point gap between on-base percentage and batting average ranked first by 12. Walk rate was the obvious driving force here, as first basemen took free passes at a 9.7 percent clip, nearly two percentage points higher than the next-best outfielders. A full 18 qualifying hitters who logged at least 250 at-bats registered an OBP more than 80 points higher than their batting averages—for context, just nine backstops did, and once we hit the middle infield, those guys will be rarer still. First base is a critically important position to set a firm baseline in standard leagues, and it is all the more important in OBP formats. I’ll try to spend as little time as possible on the elite candidates here in favor of some more interesting names of relevance to OBP-leaguers.
Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, and Miguel Cabrera – They have nowhere to go, as they’re already five-star players. But to emphasize my above point, they posted three of the four largest gains at the position between AVG to OBP, underscoring just how massively valuable they are in these formats. Standard: Five Stars, OBP: Five Stars
Joey Votto, CIN – If you play in an OBP format, chances are you’re aware of this already, but Joey Votto is really good at getting on base. He is singular in the successful pursuit of that goal, in fact, as his $12.85 in additional value topped every other hitter in baseball last year and turned him into a $45 monster that ranked third overall in OBP formats. Standard: Four Stars, OBP: Five Stars
Carlos Santana, CLE – Santana is the position’s king* (*non-Joey Votto division), as for a second straight year he cleared $26 in OBP-league earnings thanks to an additional $9 (give or take) created by his elite walk rate. There isn’t another player whose value migrates as far between the formats, as he’s currently off the board 15th among standard league first baseman while making for an easy top-10 selection in OBP leagues. Standard: Two Stars, OBP: Three Stars
Lucas Duda, NYM – Duda’s batting average is another that bumps into a low ceiling on account of a fly ball profile, ample whiffs, and a sizeable platoon split (at least usually, he bucked that last trend with significant good fortune last year). In OBP leagues his stellar walk rate undoes a lot of the damage that batting average does to his bottom line, however, and he cleared an extra five bucks in earnings last year to eclipse $20 for a second consecutive year. He’s still not an elite target, but he creeps onto the fringes of the solid second-division starters in mid-depth leagues. Standard: Two Stars, OBP: Three Stars
Chris Carter, HOU – If loving Chris Carter is wrong, I don’t want to be right. There are certain players you just can’t quit, even after they hit .217 in over 2,000 career plate appearances. Where Carter was downright unrosterable in most standard (and certainly the overwhelming majority of points) leagues last year, he returned a perfectly-adequate-for-a-corner $14 of OBP league value thanks to a 108-point spread between his average and OBP that was fifth-best at the position. I wouldn’t go crazy here on account of playing time concerns, but in AL-onlies and deep mixed formats he’s worth significantly more than his current NFBC ADP of 417th overall. Standard: One Star, OBP: Two Stars
Others: Edwin Encarnacion’s monster year last season has already pushed him comfortably into the Four Star tier, and his elite walk rate puts him on the precipice of the Fives in OBP leagues… Freddie Freeman is seeing some ADP backlash after a down power year and in anticipation of a terrible supporting cast this season, but he consistently earns a few extra bucks in OBP formats to solidify himself as a Three Star guy… That Alex Rodriguez still retains mixed league value is impressive enough, and he makes for a downright appealing target in OBP formats, where last year’s walk rate would’ve rank fifth among qualified first basemen… Mike Napoli glanced into the abyss during the first half of 2015, but he rebounded in Texas and I like him in Cleveland. He’s been one of the better corner men in OBP formats for a while, and he’s at least a Half-Star guy of note this year.
Jose Abreu, CHW – For a second consecutive year Abreu’s walk rate spiked notably in the second half, but he grew more aggressive overall in Year Two, and his walk rate shrunk discouragingly to well below-average territory. He’s a solid masher to be sure, but the pressure ramps up in OBP leagues for him to hit north of .300 in order to justify his price tag, and he’s passed over by the likes of Votto, Davis, and Encarnacion. Standard: Four Stars, OBP: Three Stars.
Albert Pujols, LAA – Pujols’ value is already deflated some heading into things on account of what is anticipated to be a delayed start as he recovers from foot surgery, and the OBP league sting is that much greater. The Machine (version 2.0) has been a much more aggressive hitter than we saw in his halcyon days of yore, and a below-average walk rate has been the new normal for most of his career in Orange County. The combination downgrades him here. Standard: Three Stars, OBP: Two Stars.
Mark Trumbo, BAL – I’ve never quite understood the fantasy infatuation with Trumbo, and I definitely don’t get it in OBP leagues. He’s always been impatient to a fault or three, and he chased even more often last year (while making more contact on bad balls to boot). The power’s alluring, sure, and Baltimore’s a good place to let it play. But OBP league managers shouldn’t go nuts in targeting the 30-year-old as anything more than a second-division CI option. Standard: Two Stars, OBP: One Star
Mitch Moreland, TEX – Moreland showed flashes of a developing approach in his breakthrough 2013 campaign, but he stepped right back into his former role of aggressive fastball hunter last year. His 52 points of OBP and batting average separation was the second-worst among cold corner dwellers to log 500 plate appearances, and at 30 he’s unlikely to suddenly change his approach for the better. Standard: Two Stars, OBP: One Star.
Others: Justin Bour was a solid producer of out-of-nowhere value last year, but his below-average walk rate teamed with an impressive ability to avoid getting plunked to produce a marginal loss of net-value in OBP leagues. It’s worth noting his walk rate fell off precipitously in the second half, as well… 37-year-old Victor Martinez is a tough sell in standard leagues coming of a season in which he hit just .245, and a walk rate that plummeted south of seven percent makes him all the more dodgy of a CI target in OBP formats.
Unlike in OBP leagues, where the value gains are quite one-sided in the non-standard format, points leagues feature slightly more balance with the check to slugger value that is the strikeout. The position finished comfortably first in collective total base rate, which should surprise nobody, but first basemen sell off at least a marginal amount of those gains in the whiffs they peddle. Still, in formats where extra-base-hit production is king, the rewards far outweigh the risks, and both the number and scale of “down” arrows across the board is marginal compared with the other positions.
Albert Pujols, LAA – If not for the foot injury and unknown start date, there’s a very strong case to be made for Pujols to occupy a slot in the Four Star tier, and I’m almost there even with that uncertainty. Pujols’ elite strikeout rate has always been one of the crown jewels of his Hall of Fame career, and he has managed to hang onto a good deal of it through his decline phase, which is all the more remarkable. He led all fantasy first basemen not named James Loney in whiff rate last year, and he paired it with the 12th-best total base rate. There’s enough age- and injury-related reason to build in some decline in the total base production, but the strikeout rate gives him one of the higher floors for first base production, health assuming. Standard: Low-Three Stars, Points: High-Three Stars
David Ortiz, BOS – Papi enters his swan season coming off yet another monstrous points league campaign. If he qualified at first base he'd have the position's fourth-best total base rate to pair with its sixth-best strikeout rate. Pretty, pretty dominant at a position that is awfully tough to dominate for anyone, let alone a 39-year-old. His whiff rate hasn’t migrated north of 16 percent since 2011, and the power… well, you know. Standard: Three Stars, Points: Four Stars
Mark Teixeira, NYY – Sensing a theme here? Something about old men and the fantast players that don’t trust them. I’m not quite sure what to believe about Teixeira heading into this season; the soon-to-be-36-year-old’s 2015 power spike has all the makings of a dead cat bounce, as his batted ball distance declined despite his best slugging effort since his first year in pinstripes. Still, a top-15 whiff rate at the position builds in some cushion in case last year’s fourth-best total base rate regresses. There’s still a lot of pressure on the slugging stick, though. Standard: Two Stars, Points: Low-Three Stars
Others: Eric Hosmer still hasn’t quite gotten there, which is an odd thing to say about a $28 player. His career year wasn’t fueled by an outsized number of extra base hits; his rate checked in 24th at the position, and while his whiff rate is strong it isn’t enough to bump him into a new tier given the modest power… Adam Lind boasted a top-15 strikeout rate and top-25 total base rate last season, though the downgrade from Miller Park to Safeco is potentially terrifying for his extra-base-hit production.
Brandon Belt, SFG – Belt checks the boxes of a steady CI producer in standard formats, but the package is less appealing for points formats. His borderline top-15 total base rate last year came at a steep cost, as his strikeout rate sank into the lowest quartile among first basemen. His in-zone contact rate fell off considerably and grades out quite poorly, and an outsized line drive rate—the most fickle of the batted-ball classifications—shouldn’t be counted on to boost his strong doubles total again. Standard: Three Stars, Points: Two Stars
Chris Carter, HOU – Where Carter becomes a rosterable player in OBP leagues, he is not at all advisable for those in points leagues. This is nothing new, certainly, but the whiff rate bears emphasizing: he has struck out in almost exactly a third of his 2,000 career plate appearances. His in-zone contact rate was the worst in baseball last year, and has been one of the four worst in each of the past three seasons. He also features an extreme fly ball profile that further cripples his hit production; his total-base rate barely cracked the top 30 at the position last year. Over-the-fence power is nice and all, but that combination really leaves him without much room to generate value outside of extremely deep mixed and AL-only points formats. Standard: One Star, Points: Zero Stars
Adam LaRoche, CHW – LaRoche certainly looked like a player whose bat ran out of gas on the side of the road last year, and while managers in deep standard leagues may be tempted to bet on the track record and ballpark for one last hurrah, points leaguers should see a total-base rate worse than James Loney’s and a strikeout rate that would make Ryan Howard blush and say thanks, but no thanks. Standard: One Star, Points: Zero Stars
Others: Miguel Sano is a perfect example of the duality of a points league, as his gargantuan strikeout totals eat into at least some of the value he can create by crushing extra-base hits at an elite rate. The latter potential may ultimately win the day in terms of his relative value, especially given how his walk rate translated to the bigs. But even in a best-case scenario the needle won’t move nearly as far as it should, and the downside risk if his extra-base hit production falls off even minimally in Year Two is extreme enough to knock him down half a peg within the Three-Star tier… Where he bumps up in OBP leagues, Lucas Duda takes a nominal step back in points formats, where his extra base hits are offset by a clunky strikeout rate. He racks up enough total bases to where he keeps his head above water in this format, but any format that penalizes strikeouts hurt his value.