Jose Altuve Should Be the Second Overall Pick

Here’s the coldest take ever: Mike Trout should be the top pick in this year’s fantasy baseball drafts. Only slightly more lukewarm is the opinion that Mookie Betts should go second. That is the consensus among drafters in Yahoo, CBS and NFBC leagues, as well as among industry experts, according to the data compiled by FantasyPros. Jose Altuve is generally considered to be the best choice for the third pick, though Yahoo drafters are waiting until the sixth pick on average to snag the Astros’ second baseman.

If I wind up with the second overall pick in any of my upcoming drafts, I won’t be taking Betts, and I don’t think you should either. Betts did outearn Altuve (and everyone else) in Roto value a year ago, but if we take a closer look at how Betts got the top spot, it’s clear that he won’t be as likely to outgain either Trout or Altuve in value. If I can’t have Trout this year, then Altuve will be the next best thing.

My guess is that Betts is being favored over Altuve because owners expect him to provide more home runs, RBI and runs. In each of the last two seasons, Altuve has outproduced Betts in steals and batting average, and there is no clear reason to expect Betts to overtake Altuve in either category. It’s also not a given that Betts will outscore Altuve, now that Dustin Pedroia is set to be the Red Sox’s leadoff hitter. I would give Betts the edge in RBI, as I do expect him to typically bat cleanup with Altuve hitting second or third in the order for the Astros. Even if Altuve bats third, hitting behind George Springer and Alex Bregman probably won’t provide as many RBI opportunities as hitting behind Pedroia, Andrew Benintendi and Xander Bogaerts will for Betts.

I feel pretty comfortable expecting that Altuve will outperform Betts in steals, batting average and runs, and I don’t think Betts will leave him in the dust in RBI. That leaves home runs, and in 2016, Betts hit 31 of them as compared to Altuve’s 24. My hunch is that most owners view Altuve’s total as flukier than Betts’, but I see it as the opposite. The legitimacy of Altuve’s power surge is, in fact, the key to why I’d rather draft him than Betts.

On the surface, it appears that both players experienced a power spike last year. Betts’ home run total increased from 18 in 2015, and Altuve hit just 15 homers that year. In 2016, Betts required 65 percent as many at bats per home run as in 2015, and Altuve needed 63 percent as many at bats for each home run. Seems pretty even.

However, when we look at each player’s power indicators, only one seemed to grow that skill last season. Altuve increased his average flyball distance, hard contact rate and barrels-to-batted ball event ratio dramatically. Betts, on the other hand, made only modest gains in flyball distance and hard contact rate while actually declining in barrel rate.

Power Indicators, 2015-16
Player ’15 Avg Flyball Distance ’16 Avg Flyball Distance ’15 Hard% ’16 Hard% ’15 Barrels/BBE ’16 Barrels/BBE
Mookie Betts 268.2′ 270.5′ 31.7% 33.4% 6.4% 5.4%
Jose Altuve 271.1′ 285.7′ 25.9% 33.8% 3.8% 6.9%
SOURCE: FanGraphs, BaseballSavant.

So how did Betts wind up with seven more home runs when he made only 17 more plate appearances? I’d argue he was much luckier than Altuve was. According to the 2017 Bill James Handbook, of all balls that were hit at least 400 feet for home runs or outs, 94 percent turned into homers last season. Seven of Betts’ nine balls that went that distance were home runs, so he was “cheated” of one or two additional homers, Then again, Altuve was cheated similarly, as only 13 of his 16 drives of that distance were home runs. For those balls hit between 380 and 399 feet, 51 percent became home runs. Betts beat the odds by having 13 of 18 balls in that category become homers, so this year, he could “give back” four of those home runs (all other things being equal). Altuve had only two of 16 balls in that distance category leave the yard, so he was arguably cheated of a home run six times. In terms of flyball distance, Altuve actually profiled better as a 30-homer hitter than Betts did.

ESPN’s Home Run Tracker confirms this suspicion. They categorize 15 of Betts’ 31 home runs as having had “just enough” distance, whereas only seven of Altuve’s 24 home runs were put in that category.

If there is a case to be made for picking Betts second overall instead of Altuve, it’s that quality, reliable outfielders have become scarce. If I take Altuve at pick No. 2 in a 12-team league, I don’t have a chance to fill my first outfield slot until the 23rd pick at the earliest. There could be an even greater urgency to fill first base at that point, since I would prefer not to deal with the post-Freddie Freeman dropoff. By the time I make my third pick at No. 26, I am probably choosing from among Springer, Starling Marte, Nelson Cruz, A.J. Pollock and Giancarlo Stanton.

Alternatively, if I take Betts second in order to lock up a top outfielder, I’m probably looking at Robinson Cano, Brian Dozier, Daniel Murphy, Jean Segura and Rougned Odor as my top second base options. I could also take Jonathan Villar, even though he won’t qualify right away in all formats, due to having played only 11 games at second base last year. In NFBC and CBS leagues, Villar’s ADP is 20 and 27, respectively. I can’t necessarily count on getting him in the second or third round. If that’s the case, I’d rather secure Altuve and fill my outfield spot with one of the aforementioned options than have Betts and then settle for one of Cano, Dozier, et. al.

If you see the upper echelon of outfielders as being shallower than that of second basemen, I could see the merit of taking Betts second, but I think the level of scarcity is similar enough at the two positions that I just simply want the better player with the second pick. Upon closer inspection, that player is Altuve.

We hoped you liked reading Jose Altuve Should Be the Second Overall Pick by Al Melchior!

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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.

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James
Member
James

I’m not so sure Altuve is a cinch to steal more bases than Betts.

He had just 12 swipes on 21 opportunities in 429 PAs out of the 3-hole last season; while he should be more successful than that in 2017, extrapolating to 650 PAs only results in 30-35 attempts. Let’s say he matches his career success rate of 77.1%. That’s still just 25 steals. Betts had 26 last year, and should still see enough of a green light to approach or surpass that total.

I’m not suggesting Altuve can’t or won’t win the steals battle, but I feel far less comfortable about it than you do.

LieutKaffee
Member
Member
LieutKaffee

Smart of you to analyze Altuve’s steal rate when he moved to the 3-hole, but what about a similar analysis of Betts? Betts was a 25-30 steal guy when he was primarily lead-off, right? I haven’t looked closely yet, but I assume his steal rate from the 4-hole (where he figures to bat the vast majority of 2017) was relatively low. So while Altuve should come “down” from his career norms to ~25 steals, I think we should expect Betts–for similar reasons (e.g., batting order change and an overall shift in what type of player he is)–to also come “down” from *his* career norms, perhaps to 15-20.

Overall, I think it’s still safe to consider Altuve more of a natural base-stealer and aggressor than Betts. Plus, his OBP (and thus steal opportunities) should crush Betts’s.

Captain Tenneal
Member
Captain Tenneal

Mookie actually increased his steal rate when batting cleanup. I think he will maintain the 25-30 SB pace regardless of batting order position.

LieutKaffee
Member
Member
LieutKaffee

For what it’s worth, I analyze all players pretty closely in relation to their own recent tendencies and reasonably foreseeable changes for 2017. On my first pass, I came up with 30 steals (and 10 CS) for Altuve and 20 steals (5 CS) for Betts. Projecting steals is nearly as much art as science, but when I look at my own work, I can’t find much reason to bump Betts up or Altuve down, so with a 10-steal spread I’m fairly comfortable projecting Altuve to win the category.

James
Member
James

Eight steals on nine attempts in 159 PAs from the 4-hole for Betts. Even a modest dip in attempts will still result in 35+ tries over 650 PAs. As I suggested in my initial comment, I wouldn’t rule out Altuve having more SBs than Betts – but it’s more of a toss-up for me than it is, I gather, for most people.

Groundout
Member
Groundout

Agreed. I was happy to nab Altuve last year, but when he stopped running in the second half, it hurt my season pretty hard. I’ll be staying away from him in the top half of the first.

Great info about each player, though. This makes me want to drop Betts from #2, but not sure who I’d place ahead of him.

LieutKaffee
Member
Member
LieutKaffee

Harper is not getting enough love as a #2 possibility. 2015 may have been a little fluky on the lucky side, but 2016 was pretty clearly injury-influenced and unlucky. You can almost split the difference between the two seasons (seems reasonable) and still envision him producing #2 value pretty reasonably.

That said, the lack of a consensus #2 hitter is also a fairly strong argument for Kershaw if all his health indicators are good coming out of Spring Training.

gristlewhistle
Member
gristlewhistle

at that point then, I think Arenado is an easy sell at #2.