Though they have different types of fantasy appeal, Whit Merrifield and Eduardo Escobar have a few things in common. Both were late bloomers, and both will turn 31 before the start of spring training next year. Both players qualified to be eligible at second base in fantasy leagues in 2020. They will also head into the coming season having accrued nearly the same value in standard 5×5 Roto leagues in 2019. Escobar ranked fifth among second basemen with $20.8 in value, while Merrifield was one spot behind him with $20.3 in value.
Despite being at the same point on the aging curve, Merrifield and Escobar will enter 2020 on different trajectories. Nearly across the board, Merrifield’s skill indicators held steady, and he improved as a run producer, but because his stolen base total plunged from 45 to 20, he lost $5.3 in value. He also fell from ranking second in Roto value at second base in 2018. Meanwhile, Escobar added $9.2 in value, increasing his home run total from 23 to 35, his RBI total from 84 to 118 and his run total 75 to 94. These surges far outstripped the slightly more than 10 percent increase he achieved in plate appearances in his first full season with the Diamondbacks.
The results of a Twitter poll suggest that owners are either not concerned about Merrifield’s loss of value or impressed by Escobar’s breakout. Just over three out of every four respondents indicated that they would rather draft the Royals’ four-year veteran, assuming Merrifield and Escobar would require the same draft pick or auction bid.
Cost being equal, which second baseman would you rather draft for #fantasybaseball next year, Eduardo Escobar or Whit Merrifield?
— Al Melchior (@almelchiorBB) October 22, 2019
Skepticism over Escobar’s newfound standing as a top-10 finisher at second base and third base is warranted. He batted 19 points above his xBA of .250 and slugged 69 points above his xSLG of .442. Escobar’s ground ball rate essentially held steady, inching up from 32.1 to 32.8 percent, and his average exit velocity on flies and liners (EV FB/LD) was also only marginally higher, increasing from 90.8 to 91.1 mph. He was also only slightly better at avoiding strikeouts, shaving his K% down from 20.0 percent to 18.8 percent.
These indicators suggest that Escobar’s ISO should have been closer to his 2018 mark of .217 than his actual .242 from 2019, but our expectations for 2020 should be set even lower than that. That’s because he apparently overachieved in 2018, too. Though Escobar batted .272 and slugged .489 that year, his xBA and xSLG were .249 and .429, respectively. This season, Brian Goodwin was comparable to Escobar in terms of ground ball rate (32.5 percent) and EV FB/LD (91.1 mph), yet he had a .208 ISO and a 13.8 percent HR/FB (as compared to Escobar’s 15.2 percent). Goodwin had the decidedly inferior power stats, even though he had the more favorable home park environment for home runs.
It should be safe to pencil Merrifield in for a .290 Avg with 12-to-15 home runs, but it’s his stolen base potential that elevated him to early-round status this past March. With steals falling by nearly eight percent across MLB this season, it’s not reasonable to expect Merrifield to separate himself from the bulk of the field in 2020 the way he did in the stolen base category in 2018. No one looks like an especially good bet to steal 40 bases next year, much less a 31-year-old who totaled only 20 steals in 2019. Merrifield is a particularly dubious candidate for a significant stolen base rebound, as he was caught 10 times in 30 attempts this season. It also remains to be seen if the Royals’ next manager will be as amenable to having his players run as Ned Yost has been.
If Merrifield can manage to steal close to 20 bases again, he could still be a top 50 player overall next season, but that assumes he would have another campaign with 100-plus runs and at least 70 RBIs. It is likely that Adalberto Mondesi helped him to achieve the former by batting .296 with runners in scoring position, as compared to his overall .263 Avg. Merrifield helped himself with RBIs by hitting .331 with runners in scoring position. He appears to be due for at least modest drops in both of those stats, which could leave him outside the top 80. If not for the likelihood of more runs scored and greater scarcity at his position, there may not be much that separates Merrifield from Amed Rosario (.287, 15 HR, 72 RBI, 75 R, 19 SB in 2019). For what it’s worth, Merrifield’s ADP in the #2EarlyMocks was 36.4, while Rosario’s was 140.0.
Both Merrifield and Escobar could be in for serious regression in 2020, but Merrifield stands the better chance of recapturing the bulk of his 2019 value. Escobar, on the other hand, could lose all of his 2019 statistical gains and then some. It’s not clear how he has managed to outperform his peripherals in back-to-back seasons, but if he fails to do so for a third straight year, he could wind up on the wrong side of Hunter Dozier’s .279/26/84/75/2 line from this season, and possibly by a good margin. The #2EarlyMocks ADPs offer another lesson in the perils of overpaying for Escobar. He had an 81.3 ADP, while Dozier clocked in at 128.5.
Note: Exit velocity data are from Baseball Savant.
Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.