Fantasy Baseball: Eight who could still be great at first base, from Paul Goldschmidt to Matt Carpenter
First base is better than this, right? Our Scott White looks at eight of the culprits who've contributed to the position's downfall.
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The best hitters play first base, right?
So you've probably heard. But if you're new to this Fantasy Baseball thing -- or you're the overreacting sort who presumes that the way things are now are the way they'll always be -- you probably don't believe it.
Only two of the top 36 hitters in standard CBS points leagues so far are first basemen. That's compared to four second basemen, five third basemen, seven shortstops (that's with me counting Manny Machado and Javier Baez elsewhere, by the way) and 18 outfielders.
Of course, it stands to reason that if the position has underachieved by that much as a whole, there must be an inordinate number of rebound candidates there. And that's undoubtedly true. But chances are they won't all rebound either.
So let's assess eight of the biggest culprits' chances one by one.
Not gonna lie: The numbers don't paint a rosy picture for Paul Goldschmidt, so we'll need to dig pretty deep to find reason to believe in what should be the most obvious bounce-back pick. After all, the guy has been Fantasy royalty since about the time he broke into the league.
So maybe we start there. Yes, his strikeout rate is through the roof, but his swinging-strike and chase rates are about what they were at the start of his career. He's swinging at pitches outside of the zone roughly as often as Michael Brantley is, and their strikeout rates couldn't be more disparate. It's more like Goldschmidt isn't swinging enough, continually putting himself in a defensive position, and sure enough, the number of first pitch strikes against him is far and away the highest of his career.
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His line-drive and hard-contact rates are fairly normal, according to FanGraphs, so if nothing else, you should expect his BABIP to correct to its usual .350 range. It's true the humidor isn't helping, but the splits are overstating the impact for him, as good as he has been away from Chase Field in his career. I think it's more a combination of bad luck and lagging behind the competition, specifically needing to become as aggressive with pitchers as they've been with him. But ultimately, I trust in Goldschmidt's track record and hitting aptitude to win out. He shouldn't be entering his decline phase yet at age 30.
Keep in mind also that he finished April with a .900 OPS. Maybe June will be just as kind to him.
Anthony Rizzo began the year 3 for 31 and then went on the DL with a balky back, so he has been playing catch-up basically all season. And though he's not all the way there, he is batting .261 with an .874 OPS in May. That alone should relieve your concerns.
A look at his batted-ball tendencies on FanGraphs, though, offers even more reason for optimism. The line-drive rate is normal. The fly-ball rate ... normal. The hard-contact rate ... normal. Shoot, the strikeout rate is even better than usual. The one blip for him is the .198 BABIP, which we know corrects itself in time if everything else is normal.
There are no age-related concerns here. No bad habits to monitor. Rizzo is fine, and you should buy from anyone who's selling.
Rhys Hoskins' 18 home runs in 50 games as a rookie was obviously a pace he couldn't sustain, but the assumption was that a correction in his .241 BABIP would make up for losses elsewhere. Sure enough, his BABIP is .341 this year -- and not a .341 that's totally unbelievable either -- but he's still not measuring up, both because the home runs have declined more than anyone anticipated and the strikeout rate has jumped to unsightly territory.
Hoskins' swinging-strike rate, though, ranks in the lower half among qualifiers, behind noted bat-on-ball specialists Odubel Herrera, Yangervis Solarte and Francisco Lindor, so for him, like Goldschmidt, it might be mostly an issue of not swinging enough, which can happen to hitters who walk a lot. The good ones figure out the right balance, though, and I still have hope for Hoskins in that regard.
As for the power, he has the second-lowest ground-ball rate among qualifying hitters. He's launching the ball just fine.
On the spectrum of first base disappointments, Cody Bellinger is about as straightforward as Rizzo. The combination of fly balls, hard contact and pulled pitches made the 22-year-old one of the most fearsome power hitters in the game last year, and those percentages are all about the same this year. He's striking out a little less and has a .298 BABIP vs. last year's .299. He's the same guy. He just hasn't gotten the same results.
Specifically, he hasn't seen as many of his fly balls land over the fence. He has seen quite a bit more go straight up in the air, landing in the glove of an infielder. But over the course of a season, you wouldn't expect an even distribution for either of those outcomes. Not long after getting called up last season, Bellinger had a 26-game stretch in which he hit .187 with five home runs. He homered 10 times in 10 games after that. Then came a stretch 26 games with just four home runs. Then came 18 with eight. That's just the way it goes.
One four-homer week has Bellinger right back where you expect him to be, and with his power stroke, it's well within the realm of possibility. In fact, I'd expect it sooner than later.
Edwin Encarnacion has historically struggled in April, so he's a staple in these early-season "no reason to panic" pieces. And when he homered three times on May 2, it looked like more of the same. But he has homered just once since, striking out 14 times in 12 games.
Granted, we can chop up a game log to tell whatever story we want, so maybe it's fairer just to point out that for the entirety of May, Encarnacion is batting .304 with a .942 OPS. But so much of it hinges on that one epic game against a couple of Rangers patsies that I'm not sure anyone's mind is at ease.
In fact, I'm more concerned about Encarnacion than anyone else on this list, both because of his 35 years of age and because his strikeout rate is up for a third straight year -- this time drastically so. It's one of those tell-tale signs of age that we'd be wise to heed.
Then again, he was at his worst with the strikeouts over the first two months last year and then was an out-and-out contact hitter over the final four, when he hit .270 with 28 homers and a .937 OPS. He has pulled himself out of so many holes over the years that I'm reluctant to bet against him, especially since his quality-of-contact numbers are fairly normal. Probably safest to hold.
When it comes to Matt Carpenter, I may be too late. With another three hits Monday night, including a homer and a double, he's now 13 for 24 with six doubles and a homer in his past six games. The season numbers are so ugly, though, that it's worth pointing out there's even better times ahead.
Carpenter entered Monday's game with a 28.0 percent line-drive rate, according to FanGraphs, and apart from avoiding strikeouts and hitting the ball over the fence, nothing will help a hitter's batting average more. Daniel Murphy led all the majors with a 27.6 percent line-drive rate last year, and he of course hit .322. Factor in that Carpenter has his highest hard-contact rate ever and his lowest soft-contact rate since 2012, and the bad luck goes beyond just a .253 BABIP. He should be hitting at least 100 points higher than he is.
I know he had some impressive batted-ball data last year, too, and nonetheless disappointed in Fantasy, but he was banged up, playing with a bad shoulder all year. If he's healthy now, this could be the start of a massive correction. You owe it to yourself to see it through.
Believe it or not, Matt Olson's BABIP is up this year -- and in a believable way, judging from the improved line-drive rate. But it's another Hoskins situation. The home run correction has gone much further than we thought, and he's striking out more, too.
I wouldn't say it's a case of him being too patient either. There's plenty of swing-and-miss in his game. But he also hits the ball uncommonly hard, according to FanGraphs, trailing only J.D. Martinez in hard-contact percentage (just ahead of Freddie Freeman) and ranking fifth in soft-contact percentage. The four ahead of him: Martinez, Bryce Harper, Joey Votto and another guy mentioned in this piece, Carpenter.
Throw in a top-40 fly-ball rate, and Olson should have more home runs than he does. The math makes it plain and clear -- as does the track record, if you go and look at some of his minor-league home run totals. He may be more all-or-nothing than some of us hoped coming into the year -- and we'll have to hope the Athletics don't grow wary of him against lefties -- but I still wouldn't put a 40-homer season past him.
Josh Bell talked like a player ready to join the fly-ball revolution this spring, but it didn't manifest over the first month of the season, sticking him with the sort of ISO you'd expect from a slick-fielding shortstop rather than a first baseman. In May, though, it's up over 40 percent, the line-drive rate rising along with it, and sure enough, he's batting .316 (18 for 57) with two homers, nine total extra-base hits and a .991 OPS.
Is it sustainable? Hard to say, but it's certainly encouraging, especially since it was a stated goal of his. Seeing as he homered 26 times with a 31.2 percent fly-ball rate last year, there may be a fair amount of upside here. One thing that hasn't abated amid Bell's early-season struggles is his strikeout and walk rates, both well above average, so his floor as an all-around hitter is fairly high.
Still, his starting value was the lowest of these eight -- and even now, he's pretty fringy in mixed leagues. He looks like someone who may contribute to the turnaround at first base, though.
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