Projections drive my fantasy baseball draft season preparation. From the first day they’re made available until my roster is complete I’m regularly pouring over the numbers to help guide my strategy. Now projections aren’t predictions, and they aren’t guarantees - what they can provide is a roadmap from point A (an empty roster) to point B (a championship quality lineup). And the best thing about projections is that combined with NFBC ADP data and auction valuations they can also help uncover season-defining bargains.
Most often those bargain players come in the form of boring veterans whose greatest seasons are likely behind them - that doesn’t mean they’re not good players, though. Factors such as injury histories or a wonky, pandemic-altered 60-game sample drive down expectations and therefore draft prices. I’m here to remind you that projections for a handful of veteran hitters suggest that all is not lost. I took a look at projected wOBA courtesy of Derek Carty’s The Bat X to find hitters going later in drafts than those with similar projections.
Josh Donaldson, Minnesota Twins - 193 NFBC ADP
It’s true that Josh Donaldson will play his age-35 season in 2021 and it’s also true that he played less than half of the shortened 2020. If you’re all about the numbers, like I am, those two things don’t matter much right now. Donaldson’s .357 wOBA projects to be the 37th best in 2021, per The Bat X. That’s good for 8th among third baseman and exceeds that of Rafael Devers, Manny Machado, Kris Bryant, Matt Chapman, Nolan Arenado, Mike Moustakas, and Yoan Moncada - all of whom are being drafted ahead of Donaldson on average.
You can easily point to the disparity between Donaldson and the others in counting stats, which is fair. Donaldson projects for fewer games and fewer opportunities to bat (that’s where the age and injury concerns come to play) but there is no denying Donaldson’s quality which is backed up by the underlying metrics. In 2020 Donaldson posted career highs in hard-hit rate (53.4%) and walk rate (17.6%) and he got even better as the season went on bumping those up to 55% and 19%, respectively, in the season’s final month. His average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives in 2020 was 96.3, good for top-30 among hitters with at least 50 batted-ball events. Donaldson’s problem was that his groundball rate jumped more than 10 points - I don’t believe that 28 games worth of PAs is enough for us to worry that a 55% groundball rate is Donaldson’s new baseline. And there’s reason to believe his barrel rate will revert somewhere closer to the 15.7% he posted in 2019 rather than 6.9% mark in 2020.
There’s risk with Donaldson, no doubt. But the upside is that of an elite power hitter who gets on base plenty and at his peak put up more than 200 RBI+R annually. I can’t think of too many other hitters being drafted in round 15 who can return top-5 round value.
Andrew McCutchen, Philadelphia Phillies - 199 NFBC ADP
Coming in with the 39th best wOBA projection is Philadelphia Phillies veteran Andrew McCutchen. Cutch is being drafted around the same time as Donaldson as projects similarly as a hitter. There are 17 outfielders being drafted ahead of McCutchen that maybe shouldn’t be. Aside from hitters projected for double-digit steals, it’s a collection of hitters whose skills vary. But the names that stand out to me are Charlie Blackmon, Michael Conforto, Teoscar Hernandez, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. With the exception of Blackmon none project for a better batting average than McCutchen, and including Blackmon they all fall short in OBP. The counting stats are similar enough that with a little luck, good or bad, you can make the case for any of them. Yet the four I mentioned are going before pick 100 and McCutchen has an ADP of 199. The disparity is almost criminal.
Unlike Donaldson, playing time is not the big hurdle for McCutchen (he’s missed significant time only once in 2019) and he projects to be the Phillies’ every day left fielder and leadoff hitter. For McCtuchen it really is a question of quality - he produced at superstar levels from 2009 to 2015 before dipping a bit in 2016. However from 2017-2019 he produced a .354 wOBA before dipping back down to .327 in 2020. He’s entering his age-34 season and isn’t the hitter he once was, no doubt. But his quality of contact remained strong in 2020 as his barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and xwOBA all were in line with or exceeded his career norms. While his walk rate failed to reach double digits for the first time in his career, it was still above average and he posted a 3-year low in strikeout rate thanks to his best swinging strike rate since 2010.
I believe the short season really distorts just how good of a hitter McCutchen was in 2020. Take out just a handful of PAs in July and his wOBA jumps from .323 to .340. I think that really illustrates just how much of a small sample 2020 was. He may not hit in Coors and he doesn’t have the upside of a younger bat like Conforto or Gurriel, but McCutchen is as solid as they come and come and I’m happy to take the discount while I focus on other positions in the earlier rounds.
Joey Votto, Cincinnati Reds - 377 NFBC ADP
Among the four I’m listing here, Joey Votto might be the biggest stretch. But with a projected wOBA nearly identical to Donaldson and McCutchen, at .355, I felt it necessary to bring him up. He made a noticeable stance change late last season and subsequently saw a surge in performance. Votto is being drafted after 376 other players, on average, yet projects to be the 40th best hitter by wOBA, and the 10th best first baseman. Paul Goldschmidt is being drafted almost 300 picks earlier and projects to be nearly the exact same hitter as Votto. The same goes for Matt Olson, who projects for worse numbers, with the exception of home runs.
Why is that?
Time for the cold water. Votto will be playing his age-37 season and has hit a steep decline since his superstar peak that lasted almost a decade. His power disappeared from 2018 to 2019 and his overall performance from 2019-2020 was underwhelming. I’m optimistic because his core skill has mostly remained intact (plate discipline) and in 2020 we saw the power return.
The Bat X projects him to maintain his power gains and combine them with his elite plate discipline. In 2020 Votto’s 113 MPH max exit velocity was his best in the statcast era. His 9.1% barrel rate is his second best. Assuming he regresses some toward his mid-6% barrel rate of the previous two seasons he’s still likely to post an average, if not above average barrel rate which will lead to above average power. If you’re just looking at it from a pure numbers standpoint Votto currently projects to give you mid-to-high 20s home runs and nearly 200 R+RBI and at pick 377 it’s hard to argue with that output.
Giancarlo Stanton, New York Yanees - 122 NFBC ADP
Finally we come to Giancarlo Stanton - I hope this post serves as a reminder of just how dominant Stanton can be. It’s quite obvious with his reputation of missing time why he’s being drafted in rounds 8-10. From his projections, though, it doesn’t make sense. Let’s consider the similar hitters going ahead of Stanton: Nick Castellanos, Jose Abreu, Marcell Ozuna, and JD Martinez, among others. Only Martinez has as great of a track record as Stanton, and none have the ceiling Stanton does. They also all carry risk too, whether it be playing time or age and injury related decline.
What sticks out about Stanton is the low playing time projection, which is warranted. Stanton has had only 2 full seasons since 2015. What sets Stanton apart is that the risk surrounding him has never been about quality. Despite the assortment of injuries over the years he has continued to hit quite well when in the lineup. In fact, the last time we saw Stanton in 2020 he was healthy and crushing the ball like his prime self. He played in all seven of New York's postseason games, swatting six home runs and slugging over 1.000. He has never posted a max exit velocity below 120 MPH, a barrel rate less than 14%, or a hard-hit rate less than 45%.
Again, it’s not an issue of quality.
With Stanton you’re drafting him and hoping he stays healthy. If the Yankees are committed to him exclusively at designated hitter then its possible he hits his playing time projection. If he does you’re getting a top-50 hitter that you didn’t use a top-100 pick to get. Depending on your league settings he may only be available for your utility spot, so keep that in mind. That isn’t a detail that bothers me, however, if Stanton is performing to his career standard. There is a tremendous opportunity for profit by taking Stanton in 2021 drafts.
Did you learn something, have a comment or think I’m just plain wrong? Let me know on Twitter @JoeyThomasD
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