Positional depth is a fascinating topic. Preseason, it’s one of the first things returning owners look at when emerging from their offseason hibernation. Thoroughly fattened by chips and Dominos’ pasta dishes – please tell me nobody is actually spending money on those – understanding where “fall offs” occur at positions is essential in constructing overall rankings and providing guidance for where targeting positions might be more appropriate.
A narrative I remember hearing in March was that elite first basemen were hard to come by. We had Goldschmidt, Votto, Freeman, and Encarnacion, followed by some Wil Myers believers (justified!), and a stretch of murky waters. As with any depth estimation, what happens in-season always throws a metaphorical wrench in what we initially thought. Cody Bellinger gets called up after less than one month, Freeman is lost for 10 weeks, Encarnacion once again starts slow, and everything we thought we had ironed out is tossed like that salad you should have eaten instead of that Dominos’ pasta dish! Has Jenny Craig taught you nothing?!
Enter our two darlings of the first base position two months in, Justin Bour and Justin Smoak, single handedly causing disgruntled twitter followers to tweet at the likes of Tristan Cockcroft and complain that he should do his job better. Yeah Cockcroft, we want four LABR titles in a row, three isn’t enough!
Smoak’s season has been duly impressive (.279/.345/.552, 11 HR, 30 RBI). We hear all Spring about new approaches, including this Blue Jays’ choice to ditch the all-or-nothing approach that led to a strikeout rate above 30% and an inefficient, streaky 2016. Because of the sheer quantity of those “best shape of my life” style statements, it often goes under-appreciated when a hitter who has been through the ringer like Smoak, actually implements a significant change like this into his game. It’s tough not to both love and believe in the drop in his swinging strike rate, down 4.1% from 2016, a top five change among all hitters with at least 300 ABs last season. Smoak’s urge to cut down on the wild swinging is legitimate, and his resulting sub 20% strikeout rate, 11 homers, and 43.4% hard-hit rate are currently on pace to make this far and away the best season of his career. On top of that, Smoak’s average against left handed pitching has skyrocketed nearly 200 points, from the doldrums of the Mendoza line, to the BABIP filled mark of .400.
Oddly enough, Justin Bour’s peripherals have gone in the opposite direction of Smoak, yet with slightly more impressive aggregate results (.285/.363/.570, 14 HR, 44 RBI), and just to confuse you even more, Bour is my pick to outproduce Smoak. The Marlins’ lefty has actually dropped his overall contact rate by about 7%, with his swinging strike rate up about 4% in the wrong direction, and a K% that now lingers in the 23% area instead of his sub-20% efforts of years past. When searching for the big change in Bour, the new found ability to hit left handed pitching stands out more than it does for a switch hitter like Smoak. Bour is a pure left handed bat, who has found power like never before. After hitting zero home runs off left handers in his career, he now has four on the season and we’re not even done with May, posting a .324 average against southpaws in the process, 100 points higher than any point in his career. When observing Bour’s splits on pitcher handedness, one could be convinced he’s replicating Smoak’s switch hitting methods.
So where does this leave us for the rest of the season?
In case you can’t tell, I’m usually a bit more optimistic of a predictor than the models we know and love. I think the biggest jump in what I believe is that I’d be surprised to see Smoak’s average back to his career average around the .230 mark. While the changes he made discipline-wise at the plate may not produce as appealing results moving forward, they will still have a positive effect on the overall profile. The issue with Smoak is the overall lack of power, reminding me of a heavier hitting James Loney (in case you’re eager to know how his life is going, the Braves basically opted for Matt Adams at first instead of his talents). There is some value for this profile in our RCL style 12 team roto format, but it’s tough to provide anything more than top 20 first baseman numbers without giving back an ample amount of home runs from a position where dingers are often the sole perk.
Bour is the higher upside play, and my belief in the table above shows that. Expecting a 16HR/50RBI output over the next 90-100 games is basically what we should get from Ryan Zimmerman. If you’re sitting in front of an owner who is less of a believer in Bour than the Nationals’ first baseman, you may be able to swing a package that adds another minor piece along for the ride with Bour and make out like a bandit. Miami now possesses two bats inside the top 40 in terms of average exit velocity and you’d be surprised to know that lefty sits well above Stanton, by about 2.7 mph (93.2 mph, 8th overall in MLB). Around names like Manny Machado and Miguel Cabrera, that alone gives the impression the changes made should beget more production than projection systems might be assuming, especially with his role as an everyday bat now that he has refined his approach against left handed pitching.
The Justins are having there way with their respective leagues, I’m interested to see where they fall in the murky waters of first base rest of season.