This offseason, I decided to roll out this series as an extension of my own fantasy draft prep. By sifting through National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) draft data, I’ve gone position by position through average draft position (ADP) info to identify players who I believe my fellow fantasy owners are overrating or underrating. By doing so, I’m able to better identify potential sleepers, and get an idea for what price I’ll pay for them. So far, I’ve written posts on third basemen, shortstops and second basemen, and today I’ll take a stab at first base.
As you might have guessed from reading the headline above this article, today’s comparison involves Rockies rookie Ryan McMahon and Brewers veteran Eric Thames. I’ll lead off by saying that this one boggles my mind more than any of the other underrated/overrated pieces I’ve written this offseason.
Let’s take a quick look at where these two are being drafted:
|2017 Overall Rank||2018 Overall ADP||2017 1B Rank||2018 1B ADP|
Essentially, Thames is a 16th-round pick in 12-team standard leagues, and McMahon is a 30th rounder — or in other words, he’s basically being drafted as an NL-only guy. I wondered if these numbers might be changing as we get closer to the season, so I took a look at Yahoo, which has only even had their fantasy baseball site up for a little over week. However, it’s the same story there, where Thames is 86% owned, compared to just 9% for McMahon. My goal for today is to help close that gap.
To be perfectly honest, I think this one is almost too obvious to bother writing about. But every way I look at the ownership numbers for Thames and McMahon makes me wonder the same thing: do I just have wildly different opinions about one or both of them than most of my fellow owners do? I’ll be interested to read your comments to see if that’s the case. Let’s get down to business!
You can see quite clearly by his ADP that fantasy owners expect Thames to match or exceed his 2017 production, when he was a solid two-category (HR/R) fantasy contributor. Last season, Thames returned from three years in Korea to have a most unexpected breakout season. The 31-year-old hit .247/.359/.518 with 31 homers and 83 runs, adding 63 RBI and four steals.
Of course, as I expect many of you know, Thames’ 2017 production was heavily front-loaded, as he hit .345/.466/.810 in the season’s first month. He was so good that my buddy Matt and I coined the term #thamestrain, which was trending all month in our Gmail chats. Thames launched 11 bombs in 24 April games, while adding six doubles, 28 runs and 19 RBI. Unfortunately, his production fell off a steep cliff after that.
- April ’17 (103 PA) – .345/.466/.810, 11 HR, .464 ISO, 17.5% BB, 22.3% K
- ROS ’17 (448 PA) – .226/.335/.455, 20 HR, .229 ISO, 12.7% BB, 31.3% K
To me, that looks like a guy who pitchers had never seen before having a crazy hot month, until teams more or less figured out how to pitch to him. He still had strong power production the rest of the way, and he drew his fair share of walks, but that’s about it. For what it’s worth, I do believe in the power, and it appears our projection systems essentially believe in it as well. Still, Thames is being drafted this year slightly ahead of his 2017 full-season production, which I guess means most owners think he has another April 2017 in the tank somewhere.
Furthermore, with all the acquisitions the Brewers made this offseason, I don’t remotely expect Thames to repeat last year’s 551 PA. In fact, he looks like a bit of an odd man out to my eyes. Christian Yelich, Lorenzo Cain and Domingo Santana are all going to be extremely difficult to unseat as the starters, especially since Thames is a horrific defender in the outfield. Because of that outfield logjam, Ryan Braun is expected to get the lion’s share of starts at first base, which is the only position Thames can play other than left field.
Don’t get me wrong, I still think Thames will get a decent amount of playing time — say, four starts a week or so — but if Braun, Santana and Yelich are all healthy, I don’t see an everyday job for him on this roster. Combine that with another glance at his non-April production from last year, and I’m a hard pass on Thames this year.
Which brings us to McMahon. The 23-year-old looks like the favorite to play first base in Denver this year, with the Denver Post calling him the “clear front-runner.” It’s still possible that the Rockies could bring back Mark Reynolds again, but he was so mediocre as Colorado’s starting first baseman in 2016 and 2017 — 1.0 WAR in 266 games — that I don’t really see why they would do that. There certainly are still some playing time concerns for McMahon, but I’m not sure they’re significantly more worrisome than the same issue is for Thames. A bit, sure. Not a lot.
As for McMahon, he’s a top 100 prospect this year for the third time at Baseball America and Baseball Prospectus, and he’s the No. 83 prospect on FanGraphs list for 2018. Last season, he murdered Double-A (205 PA) and Triple-A (314 PA) pitching to the tune of a combined .355/.403/.583 with a .227 ISO.
He’s not just some guy who can play first if no one else takes the job. Have a look at the summary Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel wrote for him in the FG 2018 Top 100 article:
We’re buying McMahon’s bounceback 2017. He began altering his footwork late in 2016 and continued to grow more comfortable with it through 2017. His fly-ball rate has actually dropped in the last year, but McMahon’s timing at the plate has improved and this is probably a function of him more frequently putting the ball in play than he was in 2016. He has plus raw power and is adept at golfing out balls down and in, but he has the strength to drive them out the other way.
Our projection systems all expect McMahon to hit between .284 and .287, which would likely put him on the cusp of being a top ten 1B in AVG. He’s not a huge power guy at present, as last year’s 20 bombs were a career high at any level, but he was an extra-base machine last year in the minors. In addition to his 20 homers, he clubbed 39 doubles and four triples. I don’t know about you, but I’m interested to see how that profile plays in Coors Field.
One intriguing aspect of McMahon’s game is his speed. He’s no burner, but he’s swiped 11 bases in each of the last two seasons in the minors, a total which would’ve been good for 4th among all eligible first basemen last year. In addition, he made 35 starts at second base in 2017, along with with 25 starts at third, and he appeared at both positions in his brief stint in the majors. Gaining eligibility at either position would be a major boost to his fantasy value.
In short, I cannot even begin to explain why Thames is being drafted 14 rounds earlier than McMahon in NFBC, or why Thames is 86% owned in Yahoo compared to McMahon’s 9%. The Rockies signing a free-agent first baseman could change my mind I suppose, but aside from that, I’ll go so far as to say that although it’s close, I think I would rather own McMahon.
Am I crazy for saying that? According to the data, this is a borderline insane claim, but I feel pretty strongly that I’m well within the grip of sanity.
Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.