First Base: Guys I just cannot quit

We’ve all been there. A player displays a trait, or several of them, leading us to believe that there is more tome come. The following season, things do not play at as planned, yet we handpick a number of promising signs in an effort to continue believing. This becomes a trend for a number of years — even when the writing is on the wall that this may be as good as it gets, we still hold out hope going against the masses.

Sometimes being a “homer” pays off, and said player eventually breaks out. We beat are chest, point the “I told you so” finger at the doubters, and bask in the knowledge that we were right. Unfortunately, for every player you call, there are a handful that will never be what we thought. Take Brandon Belt. Here’s a guy that has never hit 20 home runs or scored 80 runs in any major league season, and he has just one RBI season over 80 (82 in 2016). Yet every year, we look at the plate discipline, fly ball rate, and increasing hard hit rate, and we say, “This will be the year.”

I did not rank Brandon Belt this year, and finally the masses (for the most part) are in agreement: he has dropped out of the top-20. There may yet be a career year in him, but overall, at age 30 (in April) we can finally say he is what he is and move on. It took me years to finally give up on Belt. There have been times I’ve written him off, only to be taken in by some underlying metric the next year, giving him a bump in my rankings.

Belt is just one example; we each have a handful of players we continue to believe in, sometimes more than the masses, and continue to tout as someone to target. Today, I am going to look at a few such players at the first base position.

Justin Bour

Much of my fascination with Bour comes from the fact he has put up pretty good numbers playing just against righties. In 2015 he hit 23 home runs over 446 at bats. That was an improvement over the 18 he had in 2014 at Triple-A (in similar at bats), setting up future hope. In 2016 he managed just 15 in a 90-game, injury-shortened season. Had he gotten another 40 games, I’m sure he would have tied or exceeded his 2015 total. Then came 2017, what should have been his breakout season. The Marlins were giving him the opportunity to hit lefties, and Bour responded with 25 home runs over 429 at bats. Another injury prevented Bour from fulfilling his potential, but he showed me just enough to get me to come back for another year.

In addition to power, Bour has done a good job driving in runsm with 73 and 83 RBI in 2015 and 2017m respectively, in similar at bat totals. Even in his injury-shortened 2016, we saw 51 RBI, which when extrapolated over 130 games would reach the 80 plateau. Had he not been limited to 108 games in 2017, that 83 could very well be 100 — we would be talking about Bour in a whole new light had that happened. Another thing that happened in 2017 was an increase in batting average. Previously he had been a .260 hitter, but last year that jumped to .289. The rise was due to an increase primarily against righties (.300), but he did hold his own against lefties (.253) in limited at bats, and he did launch six homers against lefties in fewer than 100 at bats.

A minimum of 25 home runs is expected given his approximate 35% fly ball and hard hit rate combined with his track record. The average probably will not stick given the slightly elevated BABIP and decline in contact. And given the recent house cleaning, I’m not sure there is enough talent left in Miami for Bour to total 80 or more RBIs. Even so, he will get full-time at bats, he has power, and he has produced in the past — when Stanton was injured and before Ozuna and Yellich were the players we know them as today. Call me crazy, but I still see a scenario where Bour goes .280/30/100. It will not cost much for me to find out if this is the year.

Albert Pujols

Pujols has gone from a .300 hitter to someone you hope will get you .250. He has gone from a dependable 40 home run threat to someone you hope will get you 30. The days of 100 runs scored are gone; now if he gets you 70, it’s a good year. And those 100 RBI seasons… well, they’re still here; he hasn’t lost all of his game. At age 37 (38 next Tuesday), most have lost faith and abandoned ship — actually, the rats starting jumping ship several years ago. But I’ve stayed faithful, almost to a fault. Something tells me there is still one good year left in him.

Let’s deal with the one good piece of news nobody will argue with. Pujols has knocked in at least 95 runs in every season he has totaled more than 100 games, and he has 100+ in three of the past four seasons (including last year). RBIs are one of the five standard fantasy categories, right? That’s rhetorical; I’m just reminding you there is some value here. Now for the maybe not so good news. Last year was just the second time in his career that he failed to total 30 home runs — the third if you count his 99-game 2013 season. The age and home run decline is the final nail from most, but his batted ball profile was on point. In fact, it was right in line with his career average.

The drop in home runs was accompanied by a drop in contact: down to 81% after hovering around 85% for his entire career. There was also a loss in walks and increase in strikeouts, which resulted in his worst ever batting average. Maybe there was some bad luck (career low .249 BABIP), but bad luck and old age are not a friendly duo. Despite all this, I am not ready to throw in the towel. Older players near the end of their career tend to take on a similar bad habit, and that is swinging more. Given Pujols is a professional hitter, I expect more swings, a return of 30 home runs as a result, and another 100 RBIs. I can’t make any guarantee on the batting average, but I don’t see it being any worse than the .241 we saw last year. He is no longer a starting first base option, but I still think he is a viable, and cheap, end-of-draft corner infielder or utility guy. Here’s to one more year in the sun.

Josh Bell

I’ve always been high on Bell, much higher than most fantasy people. I fell in love with him in the minors (yes, I have a man crush). due to his elite contact skills. Outside of the .278 he hit in A-Ball, he was a .300 hitter every step of the way. That’s .300+ over 1,334 at bats from High-A through Triple-A. During that stretch, his strikeout rate sat near 11%, only increasing a few points to 15% at Triple-A. The walk rate was solid as well, and has remained in the double-digits from his time at Double-A in 2015 to the end of 2017. The reason nobody got on board the Bell train with me is he lacked power. Prior to 2017, he had not hit more than 14 home runs in any season. I get it — first base is a power position, and there is no room for a high contact guy.

In 2017, at age 24, Bell broke out in the power department, launching 26 home runs. His ISO reached above .200 for the first time (.211), but both the fly ball rate (31.2%) and hard hit rate (32.6%) slipped from his 2016 debut, giving little hope he will maintain a 19% HR/FB ratio. On top of that, those elite contact skills got lost in his search for power. I don’t know if it was a legitimate sellout for power or typical rookie struggles, but the strikeout rate went up to 19%, and his contact rate slipped below 80%. A .255 batting average is not what I had in mind. Maybe a line drive rate below league average was a contributing factor in both the average and lower BABIP.

On a positive note, Bell did score 75 runs and drove in 90. Those numbers are easily repeatable with some minor improvements. This may come at a cost of some power, though, because Bell will need to get back to going the other way more and stop pulling the ball. Yes, this will result in a power loss, but the increase in average and counting stats will keep his overall value in tact. Remember when Adrian Gonzalez left San Diego, adjusted his swing to hit for better contact and less power, and turned into a .295/25/100 player? That’s what I envision when I see Bell. Some did not like that version of Gonzalez, but they quickly warmed to the overall value he provided despite a few less homers. I believe Bell will bump his average up this year, giving me hope that my predictions come true, and that he’s not Brandon Belt 2.0.

*****

Every fantasy player has a handful of homer guys that they just can’t quit, for better or worse. We keep going back to the well despite what others may think or believe. Sometimes it pays off; most times you’re left feeling empty but still hold out hope for next year (Mets fans?). I am the last person to tell you to quit on a player. What I will say is, don’t pay up for them — don’t reach. If you do find yourself reaching, weigh all the available options against your guy. If you pass and someone else gets him, then so be it. The object is to win, not to roster your favorite players. And if you do reach, limit the number of “homers” you reach for.

I may like all three of the above players, but I will only make room for one on each team. I’ll let the draft gods decide who that will be.

 

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Jim Finch

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The self proclaimed Grand High Exhausted Mystic Ruler of Fantasy Baseball. While I am not related to Jennie or Sidd Finch, I will attempt to uphold the integrity of the Finch family name as it relates to baseball. You can also find me at FanRagSports.com