2017 Fantasy Baseball Primer: 9 Things to Know

BY John Halpin • January 24, 2017

It’s baseball season! OK, not yet, but January is when many fantasy sports analysts and their website overlords move on from football to baseball. We’ll have positional rankings ready later this month, but to get us started, below is a lineup full of items that you should consider when starting your draft preparation.

(Note: NFBC ADP and FantasyPros.com consensus ranking info are as of January 10.)

Trea Turner’s rookie half-season was at least a bit fluky.

Coming off a fantastic 73-game stint with the Nationals, Turner is tracking toward second-round fantasy status. It’s not typically popular to nitpick a 23-year-old fantasy middle infielder with power and speed, but let’s take a closer look at his spectacular big-league arrival.

Turner slugged 13 homers with Washington after hitting six in 83 Triple-A games, and showing little minor-league power before last season. Maybe he’s maturing, but this much, this fast? Hmm ...

Speedy players tend to have a high Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), but Turner’s .388 mark ranked fourth in MLB among players with 200 or more plate appearances. Over the last three seasons, Paul Goldschmidt owns MLB’s best BABIP at .369. Turner might continue his extreme batted ball luck and hit .342 again, but it’s very unlikely. With a subpar walk rate (14 BB in 324 PA), it seems more likely that Turner will be somewhat exposed and need to adjust.

As for the speed, Turner swiped 33 bases with the Nats, and 58 between the minors and majors. He’s always had top-notch speed, but are we willing to project him for 60-something steals? Hmm, again.

Fortunately, Turner doesn’t need to repeat his 2016 heroics to be very valuable. If we thought he was going to do that, we’d draft him ahead of Mike Trout. The Steamer projections at FanGraphs have Turner at .301 with 14 homers and 35 steals, and they're strong for a second baseman. Still, Turner will be too rich for my blood in the early part of Round 2. Maybe it’s the crotchety 30-year fantasy veteran in me, but young players usually encounter bumps in the road to stardom. Turner hasn’t seen his yet.

Chris Davis is an underrated fantasy power hitter.

Over the last five seasons, Davis leads MLB with 197 home runs. Edwin Encarnacion is second with 193, and the next player (Nelson Cruz) has 178. Davis’ power has literally been second to none.

Sure, Davis has warts. His batting averages from 2014-16 were .196-.262-.221, and he whiffs a ton. However, his NFBC ADP is 77, and his early consensus ranking at FantasyPros.com is 61. Also, he apparently fought an injury to his left hand for most of last season. In Round 5 or 6, I will gladly take the BA risk that come with Davis’ 40 or so homers.

These guys hit the ball HARD.

FanGraphs employs the interesting stat of hard-hit percentage. Here’s a 2015 article on this number, and while it’s not a perfect stat, we can surmise from it that good hitters hit the ball harder than non-good hitter. Duh.

Last year’s top five hard-hit percentage leaders were guys you’d expect: David Ortiz, Freddie Freeman, Matt Carpenter, Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera. But in sixth place stood Kendrys Morales, who doesn’t get a ton of credit for being a good fantasy power hitter.

Morales’ NFBC ADP and FantasyPros.com consensus ranking have him somewhere in the Round 14-15 range, and that’s at least partly because of his limiting positional eligibility issues (he’s a DH only). Over the last two seasons as a Royal, Morales hit 52 home runs - 22 in pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium, and 30 on the road. This season, he moves to Toronto’s more neutral Rogers Centre, and a few more homers should follow. If you need late-round power, Morales is a player to consider.

Gary Sanchez’s 2016 homer pace is obviously unsustainable, but who cares?

Raise your hand if an early August pickup of Sanchez carried you to a fantasy title. Really? Me too! However, understand that nothing - zero, zip, nada - in Sanchez’s minor-league history suggests that anything close to his ridiculous 2016 MLB homer pace (20 HR in 53 games) will continue. He’ll probably be a good power hitter, not a great one. And that’s fine.

Sanchez finished fifth among catchers in BA last season (.299), and T-6 in home runs. He was also first by a lot on a per-game basis in runs and RBI. Sanchez might not be Mike Piazza just yet, but after Buster Posey and maybe Jonathan Lucroy, what fantasy catcher would you rather have? It’ll probably cost you a late Round 4 pick (per NFBC ADP) to get Sanchez, and that price seems fair if he meets the Steamer projections of a .269 BA with 25 home runs. There's always risk with such an inexperienced player - as noted in the Trea Turner item above - but I think he'll get there.

Dee Gordon is still fantasy baseball’s best speedster.

Yeah, I know. Jonathan Villar was one of fantasy’s best stories last season, stealing 62 bases, hitting a bunch of homers and being generally awesome for a guy who wasn’t drafted in most leagues. Billy Hamilton is ridiculously fast, too. Let’s just keep in mind that Gordon was one of just 14 players to reach 30 stolen bases despite playing just 79 games due to a PED suspension. When he came back in July, he didn’t miss a beat.

Gordon swiped 64 bags in 2014, 58 in 2015 and would have been in the same range with a full season in 2016. He’ll score about 90 runs, and won’t contribute much else to your fantasy fortunes. Drafting Gordon will depend on how your first four or five rounds go.

And speaking of speed ...

Need steals? Draft a Brewer.

Craig Counsell’s drove of jackrabbits stole 181 bases in 2016 - the next-best team in the category got 139. Villar’s prowess on the basepaths was followed by Hernan Perez (34 SB), Keon Broxton (23) and Ryan Braun (16).

Broxton could be in for a full-time role (or close to it) in 2017, so his stolen-base total could jump. Young SS Orlando Arcia (23 SB between Triple A/MLB) and Korean League import Eric Thames (64 SB in three KBO seasons) are interesting late-round speed sources as well. Perez doesn't appear to have a job at the moment, so cross him off your list until something changes.

The Rockies finally have a rosterable fantasy starter.

Yes, really. Jon Gray posted a 4.61 ERA in his first full season, which sounds depressingly predictable at Coors Field. But look deeper, and you’ll see that Gray’s 1.26 WHIP wasn’t too bad, and his 26 percent strikeout rate ranked 11th in the majors. Also, Eno Sarris notes in this article that Gray got even better when he started throwing more curveballs.

Coors Field isn’t going away for Gray – at least until he hits free agency in five years – so we can’t expect top-notch ERA/WHIP numbers, and we can anticipate some blowup games. However, we could be looking at a sub-4.00 ERA with 200 strikeouts. Gray’s pitching altitude will scare many away from him as an SP4, but you’ll be pleased if you draft him.

Robbie Ray is a good late-round strikeout target.

The late, great Jose Fernandez led MLB in K/9 last season. Ray was second, ahead of dominant aces Max Scherzer and Noah Syndergaard. Ray also ranked fifth in strikeout percentage, behind Fernandez, Scherzer, Syndergaard and Justin Verlander. That’s pretty good company.

But while those starters will be drafted as top-10 fantasy options, Ray is SP62 per NFBC ADP, and 61st among starters in the FantasyPros.com rankings. He displayed shaky control and a penchant for giving up too many home runs, but even with a 4.90 ERA he finished 30th in SP scoring at FOXSports.com. If that ERA goes down by a run or more - Steamer has it pegged at 3.47 - Ray could be the second-best starter on some fantasy squads for a bargain draft-day price.

Some closers aren’t the sleepers you think they are.

“OMG Edwin Diaz and Seung Hwan Oh got all those saves and struck out soooooo many batters late in the season! I HAVE TO GET ONE OF THEM!”

Yeah, so does everyone else. Early indications from NFBC and FantasyPros.com are that both Diaz and Oh will be among the top eight closers off the board - they’re going ahead of Wade Davis right now, for crying out loud. In the late rounds, consider Adam Ottavino or Brandon Maurer, Anaheim committee member Cam Bedrosian, or closers-in-waiting Dan Hudson and Kyle Barraclough

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