Year to Date (5/6/15): Fantasy First Basemen

Just to continue to make up for the lost time during my hectic April, let’s review some first basemen so far this year.  We’ll take a look at some surprises, disappointments, injuries, and players to keep an eye on.

FIRST BASEMEN

Surprises:  Stephen Vogt, Joey Votto, Kendrys Morales, Mark Teixeira, Mark Canha

First, I am going to touch on a player who doesn’t qualify as a surprise, but has an interesting statistic that I want to point out.  The player is Anthony Rizzo of the Cubs.  Now as a mid-late first round pick in fantasy leagues this spring, A to the Rizzo was expected to mash and be a superstar and he is doing just that as he continues to be able to handle left-handed pitching, which was a former weakness of his.  However, what is a surprise is his total of 7 SB.  Here is what I said about him in my pre-season rankings: “The supporting cast around Rizzo consists of players that also are improving and they should be able to provide him a boost.  Then insert Joe Maddon as his new manager and that is also another positive as Maddon managed some Tampa Bay teams that were aggressive on the base paths.”  I cautiously projected Rizzo for 8 SB, but knew that he had 15 SB breakout potential and it seems that he is well on his way to accomplishing that.  Now on to the surprise first basemen…

I already went over Vogt in the catchers update, but he is also eligible at first base in fantasy leagues.

After an abysmal 2014 season that only saw Votto play 62 games, the Reds first baseman has come back with a bit of a vengeance and is torching NL pitching in the first month of the season.  Votto is currently batting .330 with 7 HR, 17 RBI, 15 R, and 4 SB for some definite fantasy goodness.  I wouldn’t expect Votto at all to keep hitting HR at this type of pace as that total is being supported by an unsustainable HR/fly ball rate of 30.4%.  Votto’s career high in that category is 25.0% back in his prime in 2010, and his career mark is 18.6%.  There just aren’t many players in the game who are capable of maintaining a HR/fly ball rate of 20.0% or higher (only 6 players did it last year).  This is what I said about Votto in the pre-season: “So while he should hit for a good average, it is hard to expect anything more than 20 HR and 80 RBI from him.”  I am still going to stand by that and say he will end up around 20 HR and 80 RBI, but if healthy all season long then I think he surpasses those marks by a little bit.  And of course, he is still going to provide a healthy AVG due to his propensity to spray the field with line drives.

Morales has been hacking it for a Royals team that is scoring a lot of runs through just putting the ball in play a lot as they have the lowest strikeout rate (15.0%) in the Majors.  Morales is adapting to that approach himself as he strikeout rate is at 15.8%, which is well down from his career mark of 17.7%.  Putting the ball in play more has had a positive effect on his batting average in the early going as he is hitting .305 with 3 HR and 21 RBI.  But what has been the most surprising part of Morales’ game so far is that he has amassed 21 runs scored in 26 games batting mostly out of the 5-hole, which puts him behind just Adrian Gonzalez in most runs scored (23) for first basemen.  Morales is not on on-base machine as he has never been super walk friendly and he is one of the most painful players to watch on the base paths, so this statistic in the early going is more of a byproduct of some fortunate situations that he has been put into.  However, Morales does seem ready to bounce back from a very awful injury plagued 2014 season.  .280/20/80/70 or a little better is about what can be expected by season’s end if he stays healthy.

Despite the .205 AVG, Teixeira does qualify as a surprise first baseman so far as he is throwing it back to the mid 2000’s by crushing balls out of the park with 10 HR and 22 RBI after a month of play.  Like Votto, Teixeira is sitting on an inflated HR/fly ball rate of 27.8%, so that is going to come down, but it is not out the question to say that Teixeira could reach the 30 HR plateau for the first time since 2011.  In order for him to do that though, he is going to have good health on his side as he hasn’t played a full season since that 2011 season.  And even though his batting average is hovering around that Mendoza line, that can be expected to rise.  Teixeira currently has a .121 BABIP.  Yup, you read that right.  Over the last several years, it has become the norm for Teixeira to have a well below average BABIP in the .230-.250 range due to not being able to solve the recent trend of defensive shifts, but a mark as low as .121 is just outrageous.  Teixeira has cut down on his strikeouts from 21.5% last year to 13.9% so far this year, which just adds to the mystery of the low AVG.  If he can stay off the DL, I would expect Teixeira to finish with a line around .240 AVG, 30 HR, 90 RBI.  The AVG is a killer, but that power without a crazy amount of strikeouts is pretty nice.

Mark Canha was a Rule 5 Draft pick that the A’s acquired from the Marlins, and while he made a great first impression in the first week of the season, he has tailed off and owns a .271 AVG with 4 HR, 14 RBI, 15 R, and 2 SB after a month of play.  That’s not a mind blowing stat line, but given his amazing first week that came out of nowhere, I thought I would give him a mention here as a surprise first baseman.  Canha does have 20 HR pop, as he hit that mark in 2 out of his 4 full seasons in the Minors, but unless more injuries occur to the A’s, Canha is going to run into an issue of playing time eventually as the A’s have a carousel of players that they like to use in all the positions Canha can occupy (1B, 3B, LF, DH).  Canha can continue to be a valuable piece for the A’s, but I cannot envision him holding a good amount of fantasy value.

Disappointments:  Edwin Encarnacion, Victor Martinez

My boy Encar is certainly not living up to his late first round draft pick appeal as he is hitting just .222 with 4 HR, 14 RBI, and 13 R while striking out 20.3% of the time.  Should we be worried?  Well, I am not going to lie, but I do have some concern here, only because I own him so heavily in my fantasy leagues.  However, I will give you reason to ease any bad thoughts about him.  It was a year ago to the exact day where Encarnacion entered the day hitting .228 with 2 HR, 15 RBI, 13 R and a 17.1% strikeout rate.  Those stats look eerily familiar to Encarnacion so far this year.  The poor start for Encarnacion last year led me to trade him for the what I thought to be a rejuvenated Albert Pujols.  Well, what happened?  Encarnacion ended up hitting 16 HR in the rest of the month of May and Pujols went into a serious slump.  That trade alone cost me the fantasy championship in that league, as I came up just shy in 2nd place.  So don’t fret, Encarnacion has the ability to go on outrageous hot streaks and it could be coming at any moment.

So we all knew that V-Mart’s monstrous 2014 season was a career year and was going to be a major aberration on the back of his baseball card, but to think that he would be hitting just .203 with 0 HR after a month into the 2015 season is just mind boggling.  However, we do know that there is something to blame for it and that is the surgery he underwent to repair a torn meniscus in his knee that he suffered in an off-season workout.  Clearly, coming back from that injury is having a massive effect on his ability to hit the ball with any authority.  This can be evidenced by his soft hit vs. hard hit splits from last year to this year.  Last year, he had a 10.1% soft hit mark vs. a 39.4% hard hit mark.  This year, his soft hit rate is all the way up to 18.1% and his hard hit rate has taken a huge dive to 23.6%, which has left him with just a .222 BABIP.  It is difficult to say when Martinez may begin to regain some of that strength back in his knee so that he can drive the ball.  Right now though, it just seems like you have to bench him if you own him until he starts showing some positive signs, or just abandon ship and try to trade him.

Okay, I am not going to lie, I did like Belt coming into the year as I anointed him as the best candidate to be This Year’s Todd Frazier.  But it looks like the Belt has come off and I’ve been caught with my pants down, so to speak.  Belt is hitting just .242 and is without a HR or SB so far.  Yeah, that is definitely not Frazier-esque.  Besides the fact that he is showing no power or speed, Belt is just getting obliterated by left-handed pitching so far as he has struck out 8 times with just 2 hits in 15 at-bats vs. southpaws.  In his career, Belt has had fairly even splits facing righties and lefties, so this is a new development.  It is a small sample size, but still gives some concern for a slumping player.  There really is no other good explanation for Belt’s poor start besides the opinion that he is just pressing at the plate and it’s just snowballed into something that he is going to have to work his way out of.  While my hopes were high for the Giants first baseman heading into the season, they are at an all-time low at the moment.

Injuries:  Jose Bautista

There have not been any big injuries to any fantasy relevant first basemen this season, but lately Joey Bats has been dealing with a shoulder injury and since he is eligible for first base in Yahoo leagues I will include him here.  This injury is keeping him from playing the outfield this week and it is going to be something to monitor how he progresses and how it affects his hitting game.  He is already off to a slow start hitting just .205 with 5 HR, and actually could have been included in the disappointments section above.  Since coming back from the injury on April 27, Bautista has hit .290 with 1 HR in 9 games, but if the injury lingers on then it could affect his power.  This will just be a situation to monitor.

Keep an eye on:  Lucas Duda, Kyle Blanks

Duda had a breakout 2014 season when he hit .253 with 30 HR and 92 RBI and although he has yet to display that great power potential much this year as he only has 2 longballs so far, the “Dude” is showing other marked improvements that could be indicative of him becoming a more complete hitter.  From 2013 to 2014, en route to his breakout year, Duda dropped his strikeout rate from 26.6% to 22.7%.  Currently this year, his strikeout rate has dropped even further to 18.8%, which has factored into him hitting for a .302 AVG.  Another big improvement that he has made this year is evidenced in his at-bats vs. left-handed pitching.  As a left-handed hitter, Duda has just been horrific when facing southpaws over the course of his career.  Last year he hit just .180 with 2 HR in 111 AB vs. lefties while striking out 32.8% of the time.  With the Mets’ addition of John Mayberry (a LHP killer) in the off-season, there were some rumblings that Duda could end up being platooned at first base if he couldn’t show that he could handle same handed pitching.  However, Duda has been up to the task so far as he is currently hitting .393 with 1 HR in 28 AB while striking out just 12.9% of the time vs. lefties.  He is not going to continue to be a .300 hitter though because there is just no way that he is going to continue to lead the Majors with a 36.8% line drive rate.  However, with these improvements, if he can sustain them, he has a shot at being a .280 hitter with the same type of power output that he had last year.

Due to an injury to Mitch Moreland, Kyle Blanks is being given a chance by the Rangers to play in a full-time role at first base and DH.  Blanks is a former Padres top farmhand and he had a brief stint in the A’s organization last year before catching on with the Rangers for the 2015 season.  Blanks has always had great power potential and was viewed as a right-handed Adam Dunn type of player who could knock a ton of HR and draw a bunch of walks while also striking out a ton.  He was never able to succeed in any opportunities given by the Padres as he was often hampered by lower body injuries, but at just 28 years old he still has a chance to make an impact as a late bloomer, ala Nelson Cruz or Jose Bautista, if he can avoid any more serious leg and foot ailments that have plagued him in his career thus far.  Since being called up and inserted into the starting lineup for the Rangers, Blanks has hit .391 with 3 HR in 6 games.  That’s quite a first impression he has made and is going to earn him a much longer look with the Rangers, meaning the fantasy community is going to have to give him some serious consideration as well as power can be scarce.  The most important thing to watch with Blanks is how he fares vs. right-handed pitching.  Blanks is 5 for 10 vs. lefties with all 3 of his HR coming off them as well, and he has shown in the past that he is much more comfortable vs. lefties.  But with just a .231 career AVG and a mediocre career .171 ISO vs. righties, he could be more of a platoon player than a full-time player.

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