After 2016 HR Surge, BA is Important for 1B

Everyone talks about the boon in home runs from 2016. There was an unprecedented level of homers, and fantasy owners are happy to have more 25-HR hitters to choose from as they draft their rosters. When it comes to first base, we always expect power from the position. In the few years before 2016, it was harder to find big bats, but now we have less to worry about.

First Basemen: 10 game eligibility
HR 2016 2015 2014
30+ 12 7 5
25-29 7 4 7
20-24 6 6 6

Given that the increase was across all of baseball despite a “golden age” of pitching, it stands to reason the numbers won’t crash in 2017. Power should be a plentiful resource at first base in the near future. But if more 30+ HR bats are available, making it less valuable because it’s less scarce, then what should fantasy owners target in their first basemen?

The answer is batting average. The scarcest 5×5 roto category for hitters is SB, but it’s closely followed by high BA. As pitchers increase their strikeout rates, and as more hitters embrace swinging for the fences and lower contact rates, there are fewer hitters who can manage an above-average (let alone elite) BA. Let’s take a look at the decrease in average during the last three years.

First Basemen: 10 game eligibility with 400+ AB
BA 2016 2015 2014
.300+  4 4  4
.290s  3  4  2
.280s  4  2  5
.270s  4  7  8
.260s  5  4  4

It’s not a huge slide, but each year the total hitters above .260 decreases when going from 2014 to 2016: 23, 21, 20. If you raise the bar to .270+, the decline is more steep: 19, 17, 15. Every year it seems there will always be a handful of first basemen who can hit for high average, but the supporting cast in the second and third tiers is thinning out. If that’s the case, then batting average should be a priority when picking your next first baseman. At the least, it should be used as a tie breaker if you’re deciding between two players.

Even in leagues with OBP instead of AVG, you should still consider AVG in your calculations. Home runs certainly boost a player’s RBI total, but the ability to get hits that don’t go over the fence will increase chances for RBI as well. A low-AVG, high-OBP player like Carlos Santana may help a bit more in runs, creating an all-around profile, but I’ll take a high-AVG slugger who has a chance to be top-5 at the position in RBI.

There are the truly elite first basemen who provide everything: Cabrera, Goldschmidt, Votto, and Rizzo. They provide power and high average, so it goes without saying that I value them as the top four 1B in 2017. You can add Freeman to the list after a breakout 2016, but I’m still skeptical until he repeats. With that said, I will highlight some of my favorite first basemen who have a chance for a batting average boost compared to last season.

Edwin Encarnacion

It’s hard to imagine Encarnacion’s value going even higher, but it’s possible. Consider this: among the top five first basemen last year in 5×5 rankings, he was the only one with an average below .295. He’s certainly established a history of .260 hitting, but he has four season in the .270s, and two season in the .280. He has three years of improving his LD% and his BABIP. Though he’ll never be above average in BABIP due to his slow speed, he still profiles as someone who can improve on his 2016 average. It doesn’t seem like a huge increase, but even if he reaches the low .270s, his value would go even higher. It means more chances for RBI (where he led the position in 2016) and runs (where he was in the top five).

Jose Abreu

On one hand, Abreu’s already established himself as a strong batting average guy. So why am I including him here? First, it’s to emphasize the point of this article: average is valuable. Second, for his three seasons, he’s maintained a BABIP above league average and a good LD%. He’s been above average in hard hit rate, though he dropped some in 2016. The improved contact rate last season bodes well for his ability to stay above .290, and one more year of .300 isn’t out of the question.

The red flag with Abreu has to do with his power production. Three years of dropping home runs and HR/FB mean he’s unlikely to repeat 30 homers in a season. I still think he can maintain 25, and though that may seem more pedestrian after the MLB’s power surge, he makes up for the hit in power with his strong BA potential. There are very few hitters whom you can easily project a .290 average as his floor — I’d say fewer than 25. Abreu is one of them, and that reliability in a somewhat scarce category more than makes up for his power drop.

Justin Bour

The issue with Bour is that he’s still being used in a mostly platoon role. However, he’s young enough that he should get chances to play full-time in the near future. As for his batted ball profile, he does have a bit of a ground ball tilt. That may cap his home runs a little, but he sports a strong HR/FB, so if he starts lofting the ball even a little more, he could see an increase in power and reach that 25 HR tier.

Currently, his batting average is only league average, in the .260s. He improved his LD% in 2016, his hard hit rate was above the league’s norm, but his BABIP was below average. If he can repeat the hard hit and the line drive rate, he could be in line for a .275 average. It’s not elite, but given how late you can likely acquire him in redraft formats, it leaves the door open for a large profit.

Jedd Gyorko

Gyorko isn’t a full-time first baseman, but he qualifies by the 10-game eligibility we use for rankings. He’s in the process of learning how to hit righties, with a three-year improvement in average against them (despite a lower BABIP in 2016 than in 2015). His power is mostly legit, because even if you take his cooler first half metrics in FB% and HR/FB, he’d put up 28 home runs over 550 AB.

When it comes to batting average, he’s currently below average. However, like Bour, he has the potential to increase his average by maybe ten points, which is enough to increase his value in 5×5 rankings. Though his hard hit rate was above league average, he’s not fast, and his LD% isn’t very good. Therefore he’s a bigger longshot than anyone on the list to improve, but again, the cost versus the reward is high enough that it’s worth the risk. If he manages .250+ and hits 30 HR again, that’s a great pick for the endgame of a draft.

Brad Miller

Miller has been a shortstop until recently, but it seems the Rays will start with him at first. His value may still lie in the SS/MI slot, but he should be available late enough in the draft that you could use him at either CI or MI. Although he hit 30 homers (adding to the breakout number in that category), it’s hard to expect a full repeat due to the huge jump in HR/FB, doubling his career average. That said, I’d be willing to pencil in 25 HR as a reasonable projection.

As for his average, it’s a bigger risk, but it’s still possible to improve. His primary issue is his lack of success against lefties, which may lead the Rays to platoon him, like Bour. By my search criteria, he qualifies as a potential improver: his hard hit rate was a little above average, and his BABIP was a bit low. However, he doesn’t seem to have a strong chance to improve in either LD%, hard hit rate, or BABIP. The improvement would be small, like Gyorko’s. I could see him reaching .250 with an outside shot at .255, but that simply brings him up to fantasy average. Even so, he’d stop hurting you in the category, which is better than nothing. You could do worse than a .250, 25 HR guy at corner infield — and that’s certainly valuable in the middle infield.


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Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.