The Z Files: Early Top 15 Hitters
The Z Files: Early Top 15 Hitters

This article is part of our The Z Files series.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. You can't win a league in the first round. While I'm not a big fan of clichés, the intent is obvious. No matter how well your initial pick performs, you're going to need positive contributions throughout the draft. Some like to set a foundation for a specific plan with their first pick – perhaps wanting a base of power, speed or batting average. Others just want who they perceive to be the best player available and they'll figure the rest out. The latter is the optimal approach, though there's nothing wrong with having a preferred pathway and hoping your top player on the board gets you there.

Admittedly, composing a column reviewing the 15 top fantasy hitters is borderline hackery. Mike Trout is good, thanks a million, Lord Obvious. As such, with each batter, I'll try to dig a little deeper, sharing some hopefully unique analysis.

The list is strictly objective, based on my first-run player expectations. When drafting, factors other than a static projection are integral components. They're part of what I call the sixth sense of drafting. Examples include injury risk, performance risk or categorical contributions. Truth be told, depending on the context, I could easily bypass a higher ranked player for someone lower. It's all part of that sixth sense.

15. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies

There are two key components for Story maintaining 2018's growth. The first is maintaining an improved approach in tandem with a shortened swing. The effects manifested gloriously. The shortened swing resulted in better contact, without sacrificing power. Sure, Story still whiffed at an above-average clip, but it was a vast improvement over his career levels. The main reason for his surge was that the soon-to-be 26-year-old shortstop was more aggressive early in the count, getting to two strikes fewer times than the past couple of seasons. In 2016, Story faced two-strike counts in 61 percent of his trips to the dish. In 2017, it was 62 percent. However, this past season he had two strikes in just 51 percent of his plate appearances. Furthermore, Story hit better with two strikes. In 2016, he slashed .168/.253/.363 in that scenario, followed by .147/.222/.281 the next season. In the just completed campaign, the improved approach yielded a .190/.257/.338 mark. This may seem low, but it's superior to the league's .173/.245/.274 average.

The other factor for Story keeping first-round status is that he should continue to run. He doesn't need to match 2018's 27 bags. If he lands anywhere in the teens, that will suffice. He's always carried a strong success rate, so accomplishing this is certainly plausible.

14. Javier Baez, 2B/2B/SS, Chicago Cubs

Looking under the hood, Baez's skills didn't improve appreciably. His plate skills were in line with previous seasons and while his hard-hit rate rose a bit, the league-wide mark increased a similar amount. His BABIP (batting average on balls in play) fell within the normal range, though his HR/FB (home run per fly ball) rate spiked. Of all the underlying metrics, this is the one that could fall back, resulting in fewer homers.

So, if Baez's skills were on par with the past, why the career year? Funny what almost 150 more plate appearances will do to a stat line. Here's the interesting part. Baez failed to play in only two contests all season, but he only started 145 games. Coming in for defense helped boost his counting stats, yielding top-10 fantasy production on the hitting side of the ledger. My expectation is Baez continues to garner the elevated playing time, so assuming he produces at the same level he has for the past few years, a top-15 ranking is warranted. Baked into the placement is the likely loss of a few long balls with the commensurate drop in production. However, entering his age-26 season, it's plausible Baez enjoys skills growth, so another top-10 finish is well within reach.

13. Paul Goldschmidt, 1B, Arizona Diamondbacks

This is right around where I had Goldschmidt this past season after accounting for the humidor. His performance did nothing to sway me in either direction. Goldschmidt's plight was well documented. He began the season in a big rut before busting out big-time, ending the season with 33 homers, more than expected. The catch is he was still affected by the humidor, tallying just a dozen long balls in the desert. Next season, expect a couple more Chase Field long balls but fewer than the 21 road dingers he swatted this past season.

Something not really talked about is Goldschmidt's tepid total of just seven swipes in 11 attempts. Now on the other side of 30, a drop-off isn't surprising. He'll need to nudge back into double digits in order to be first-round worthy. Running is as much timing, opportunity and effort as it is speed and acumen on the base paths. It's a good sign Goldschmidt was 4-for-6 after the break as opposed to 3-for-7 over the first half. That is, his running picked up when his overall game reverted to normal. A conservative expectation in the low double digits helps maintain first round status.

12. Freddie Freeman, 1B, Atlanta Braves

Somewhat lost in the Braves magical season was a precipitous drop in homers from Freeman. An otherwise solid performance masked the power outage, but in a vacuum, 23 big flies in a season where Freeman didn't miss a single game is disappointing. As discussed a couple weeks ago, SunTrust Park squashed lefty power in its second season. This was a shock, since the venue boosted it considerably in its opening campaign. Freeman was one of the victims. It remains to be seen how SunTrust Park will play in 2019, but I'll take the over on 23 homers, even if Freeman misses some time in the upcoming season.

11. Giancarlo Stanton, OF, New York Yankees

Imagine being chastised for hitting "only" 38 homers. If you were told last winter Stanton would play in 158 games, garnering 705 plate appearances, 50 homers would have seemed like a lock. Yes, it's aggressive to consider that many a sure thing, but given he pounded 59 the previous season in Marlins Park, the upgrade in venues absolutely supported such a bold claim.

One of the nuances of park factors is the short right-field porch in Yankee Stadium benefits right-handers as much as, if not more than, lefty swingers. Further, Stanton has excellent opposite field power, hitting the ball the other way frequently. The point is, if he were primarily a pull hitter, Stanton may not realize the full advantage of his new home park, having to launch his homers to the more spacious left field. But, that's not the case. Expect Stanton to knock closer to 50 than 38 out of the park in 2019.

Remember when Stanton was a health risk? Well, he's only missed seven games total over the last two seasons. This isn't to say he's in the clear with respect to injury concerns, but it's no longer fair to significantly downgrade him.

10. Charlie Blackmon, OF, Colorado Rockies

Based on early market observations, this pick may be the most controversial. That's fine, if I can nab Blackmon with the 25th pick like Derek VanRiper and I did in our recent NFBC draft, I'll take that every time. Like Stanton, Blackmon is perceived to have had a bad season. Granted, not everyone has their number inflated by Coors Field, but a .291-29-70 year with 119 runs and 12 bags would be a career year for most of the league. Aided by the altitude, Blackmon's bar is higher. The question is whether 2018 was just a down year, or the beginning of a decline?

Maybe I'm wrong, but 32 seems too young for Blackmon to incur a serious skills decline. Not to mention, he slashed .349/.410/.624 in September. There was no news of him playing through injury, so I'm banking on a rebound from a season where Blackmon posted a lower than normal BABIP and hit fewer balls in the air than usual.

9. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals

Is there a 25 homer, .300 season in Turner's bat? Yeah, probably. It's just not fair to consider this his baseline, as many did after he announced his presence with authority during the second half of 2016. On the other hand, a 10-homer, .250 campaign is also possible. Turner's fantasy floor emanates from the stolen base, a diminishing asset in today's game. It's safe to assume Turner will continue to run, perhaps leading the league in pilfers. It's just this is a risky way to set a foundation. He's a huge contributor to the steals category and solid in runs, but you'll be playing catchup in homers and RBI and perhaps batting average, considering the expectations for the next eight players. Starting your squad with Turner is perfectly viable. My issue is doing so locks you into chasing power without necessarily getting the batting average buffer to absorb some of the later-round drains needed to accrue enough pop.

8. Nolan Arenado, 3B, Colorado Rockies

There's really not much to say here. Arenado is the player he's always been. Over the past few years, he's been ranked a few spots higher. The reason he drops a bit is the emergence of some five-category contributors while Arenado doesn't run much. There's one exception, as J.D. Martinez has a similar skill set, also sans the stolen bases. Other than that, Arenado is competing with some younger players that run, in an era where steals are down.

7. Jose Altuve, 2B, Houston Astros

Raise your hand if you were surprised Altuve had surgery on his knee soon after the Astros were eliminated from the playoffs? Yeah, me neither. It turns out Altuve had an avulsion fracture which was repaired, with the expectation he'll be fully recovered by the spring. The mystery is how much the lingering ailment affected him over the course of the season. Chances are, a lot. Sometimes, injuries mask a true skill decline but in this case, there's a great chance Altuve's woes were almost all health-related. This puts us back to where we were coming into the season, when I personally had Altuve as the top overall fantasy player. Dropping him down a few notches bakes in some playing time hedge along with the possibility he runs a little less. Altuve is similar to Turner in that you're forced into chasing counting stats, but at least you hopefully have a better batting average foundation to chip away at later.

6. Francisco Lindor, SS, Cleveland Indians

Lindor will make many top-5 lists, but for me he's just outside, at least for now. My concern may be unfounded, but my research on playing time indicates it's incredibly rare to maintain the level Lindor has amassed the past few years, totaling 684, 723 and an eye-popping 745 plate appearances in 2018. The counter-argument is he's increased his playing time the past two seasons, so while a third straight year of more plate appearances is hard, a significant drop shouldn't be assumed either. While I'm not saying he'll fall a ton, so much must go right to maintain a total over 700. As such, he narrowly misses my top five, at least until I take a longer look at the next hitter.

5. Christian Yelich, OF, Milwaukee Brewers

Confession time, I didn't expect Yelich to land his high. Maybe he'd be a wheel pick, but not top five. While I have looked at his expected numbers, I couldn't find anything obviously out of line. Though, having been born and bred in a suburb of Boston, I've been a little distracted lately.

This is the one projection I'll share, maybe you can tell me where to reexamine the numbers: .311-27-103-17-109.

Coming off a .326 campaign, .311 doesn't seem out of line, especially in Miller Park, a better hitting venue than Marlins Park where Yelich hit a respectable .290 in his tenure there. Where his new venue really excels is in boosting lefty power, so while Yelich will be hard pressed to match his 36-homer output in his first season with the Brewers, 27 is a reasonable drop, even with his perennially low HR/FB rate. The Brewers lineup should remain strong, supporting triple-digit runs and RBI production. Yelich sports an outstanding 81 percent stolen base success rate, so 17 following a season where he snagged 22 is fair, if not conservative.

My little black box places Yelich fifth among fantasy hitters. The interesting thing is I may be short-changing him on playing time, projecting a tad less that he's achieved the past few seasons. Equaling what he played in 2018 jumps him to fourth. Fortunately it's still early, so I can really look at the numbers. I just have a hard time justifying Yelich over any of the Final Four.

4. Jose Ramirez, 3B, Cleveland Indians

Looking at 2018 as a whole, it's easy to justify such a lofty rank. Ramirez slugged 39 homers while swiping 34 bases. He eclipsed the century mark in both runs and RBI. Even so, I've seen him mentioned as the leading contender to be 2019's fantasy bust due to how he ended the 2018 season, including the playoffs.

After the first 17 games of the season, Ramirez was sporting a .188/.316/.375 line, albeit it with four homers and two steals. The early slump was a result of a meek 22 percent hard-hit rate, along with a meager 10 percent line drive rate. Ramirez closed equally poor, slashing .170/.311/.281 from August 18 through the end of the season. His underlying metrics again supported the swoon, spurred by a 26 percent hard-hit rate and a better but still low 19 percent line drive clip. In between, Ramirez recorded a Troutian .323/.430/.685 triple slash, buoyed by a 43 percent hard hit rate and 24 percent line drive mark.

Perhaps because Ramirez was 0-for-12 in the ALDS, many are focusing on the wafer ends as opposed to the sweet creamy filling. I prefer to look at Ramirez's total body of work, which history has taught us is more indicative than individual components. For those worried Ramirez will carry over the bad stuff, I counter with: what if he replaces it with the good stuff? Skills-wise, Ramirez's 2018 was close to a mirror image of his 2017, with a lower BABIP and higher fly ball rate. An overall 36 percent hard-hit rate suggests his .254 BABIP was unlucky. Since we already showed his early and late slumps were warranted based on batted ball data, this means despite how well he played in the middle, he was also unlucky during those spells. If you want to drop Ramirez out of the top five due to inconsistency, OK, I can buy that. But to preemptively label him a 2019 fantasy bust is a misinterpretation of a small slice of data.

3. J.D. Martinez, OF, Boston Red Sox

Martinez was mentioned in Arenado's blurb, as both are run-producing sluggers who hit for a high average but aren't threats on the base path, though Martinez did chip in with a tidy half dozen pilfers. The reason Martinez ranks so high despite a marginal contribution in steals is the likelihood of a high batting average. Remember, Martinez was in Triple Crown contention. No one was surprised he was among the leaders in homers and RBI, but his batting average likely caught some off guard.

At least one analyst in the playoffs claimed Martinez' success was from catering his swing to Fenway Park, suggesting he pulled the ball more since his natural opposite-field power wouldn't play as well in his new digs. Maybe he did, but the numbers are inconclusive, as his 2018 pull rate was the same home and away. Martinez did go oppo less at home, hitting the ball to center more at Fenway, but straightaway center is quite deep, reaching 420 feet in the Triangle.

The reason Martinez is so productive is he doesn't give away at bats. His 11 percent soft contact rate was sixth lowest among qualified hitters. As has been on display in the playoffs, despite massive power, he doesn't swing for the fences in an RBI scenario, instead opting to put the ball in play, usually hard.

It's reasonable to intuit Martinez's high average was due to Fenway Park inflating his hit rate, largely due to the Green Monster. The truth is, while his .375 BABIP was well above league norm, he sported marks of .389 and .378 with the Tigers, so it isn't all park-induced. The added points on his average emanate from better contact and more homers. After all, homers are hits too.

The only downfall with drafting Martinez is being down in the steals department, especially compared to others drafting a hitter early. That said, it's much easier to add stolen bases than make up for lost power, especially since Martinez provides a solid batting average cushion to buffer players drafted later. I used to say this with Arenado too, but Martinez has usurped this distinction. If you take stolen bases out of the equation, Martinez is, by far, the top fantasy hitter. It's fairly easy to game plan around that, and make up steals as the draft progresses.

2. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles Angels

Mike Trout is good.

1. Mookie Betts, OF, Boston Red Sox

So is Mookie. Here's the deal. The parallels between Trout and Betts are startling. Both are five-category contributors coming off a season where each missed a chunk of time. Think about that, Betts played in only 136 games while Trout totaled just four more. Honestly, the best way to approach having the first overall pick is considering the two to be a wash in terms of rate of production, breaking the tie with who you expect to play more. Even that is speculation, especially with both missing at least 20 games. So, I'm essentially calling this a push, but giving Betts the edge because he's the leadoff hitter for a higher run-scoring team that will organically provide more opportunities.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Zola
Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He won NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR in 2016 as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was named the 2017 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year.
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