Who is the Safest Hitter in the First Round?

It’s Mike Trout. The safest first round hitter is Mike Trout, and that’s boring. You already know this. I tried many different ways of looking at it and it all came back to Trout.

Trout isn’t the perfect fantasy baseball player. His strikeout rate took a big jump last season and his stolen base attempts dropped considerably. I’m not worried. He’s been so good that the natural inclination is to try to find problems with his game or reasons why he might become less good. He’s 23! What if he gets better? If you take last season’s 36 home runs, add a dash of 2012’s 49 steals, toss in a career .305 average and his usual awesome run/RBI totals, you have an absolute fantasy monster. Trout isn’t the perfect fantasy baseball player, but he’s the closest thing there is.

But what if Trout isn’t available? Who are the safest hitters after him? When you’re talking about safest, you’re talking about the player with the highest floor of production. I’ll break down my top 10 hitters and what issues might affect their statistical floor. I included an average of the past three seasons (where applicable), a Steamer projection for 2015 and what I considered to be a reasonable statistical floor for each player.

1. Mike Trout / 23 / OF

3-year average 117.7 31 97 32.7 .311
Steamer 108 31 92 21 .296
Floor 100 27 85 16 .287

2. Giancarlo Stanton / 25 / OF

3-year average 75.3 32.7 84.3 6.7 .277
Steamer 95 41 104 7 .279
Floor 62 25 62 1 .255

Having said all those nice things about Trout, Stanton is just as interesting. He did, after all, produce nearly the exact same line as Trout last season outside of runs. Stanton was the inspiration for this article because he is the toughest guy for me to rank. His upside is immense. He’s also been injured a lot, averaging 133.5 games his past four seasons. I’m tempted to say his floor looks like 2012 when he hit 37 home runs and .290 in 123 games, but it really should be closer his 2013 when he hit 24 home runs and .249 in 116 games.

3. Andrew McCutchen / 28 / OF

3-year average 97.6 25.7 87.7 21.7 .320
Steamer 88 23 86 16 .300
Floor 83 21 80 16 .300

While McCutchen isn’t the 30/30 threat some fantasy owners hoped for any longer, he remains immensely valuable thanks to his consistency. He attempted a career low in steals last season, but offset some of the loss by converting those attempts at a career-best rate. His 31 home runs in 2012 came with a spike in HR/FB he hasn’t repeated, so last season’s 25 is a safe expectation. He’s only been a detriment in batting average once in his six seasons and that came with a BABIP well below his career rate.

4. Miguel Cabrera / 31 / 1B

3-year average 104.3 37.7 128.3 2.7 .329
Steamer 90 30 99 2 .314
Floor 74 19 80 .290

There have been injuries, a drop in production and declarations he may not be ready for Opening Day after ankle surgery, so… why is Cabrera in this conversation? Because he hasn’t played fewer than 148 games since 2003. And because that three-year average is insane, even with last season’s dip. Cabrera’s numbers didn’t show a serious trend of decline going into last season, when injuries clearly hampered him. It’s tempting to paste 2014’s numbers in as his floor, but if he’s not ready to start the season, that doesn’t work. Cabrera takes a hit as the only player on this list whose health status for Opening Day is currently in question.

5. Paul Goldschmidt / 27 / 1B

3-year average 86.7 25 92 14 .296
Steamer 88 30 91 11 .282
Floor 82 25 82 6 .286

Goldschmidt’s Steamer projection has some built-in decline that should be expected the year after a wrist injury. His wrist has been healed for some time, so there’s no concern about his readiness for Opening Day. Even if he doesn’t continue to steal double-digit bases and his OBP-challenged teammates slice into his RBI opportunities, Goldschmidt remains a steady source of power and batting average – exactly the type of floor you want in the first round.

6. Carlos Gomez / 29 / OF

3-year average 82.3 22 65.7 37 .277
Steamer 79 22 72 31 .262
Floor 80 19 73 29 .265

Last season Gomez swung and missed more than ever, and chased more pitches than he has since 2007. That worries me for a hitter approaching 30. Even so, it’s impossible to look past his recent production. Ian Desmond is the only other hitter to steal 20 bases and hit 20 home runs the past two seasons. Does that make him safe? I think so. It’s now been nearly 300 games of Gomez being very good to wipe out the first several seasons of his career when he struggled.

7. Edwin Encarnacion / 32 / 1B

3-year average 86 37.3 104 7.3 .274
Steamer 90 34 101 4 .266
Floor 75 31 85 2 .268

If you’re looking for a sign of decline, Encarnacion’s 2014 BB/K was the worst he’s produced since his 2012 breakout. He’s also 32 and injuries limited him to 128 games. But it’s not all downside. While it was a step down for him, his BB/K was solid relative to other hitters and he still hit 34 home runs, giving him an average of 37.3 for the past three seasons. As power gets even more scarce, no player can match Encarnacion’s consistency in the area in recent seasons.

8. Jose Bautista / 34 / OF

3-year average 82.3 30.3 80.3 6 .266
Steamer 97 36 99 5 .267
Floor 64 27 65 1 .255

Bautista’s ISO has been in steady decline since it peaked in 2010. He’s remained an excellent hitter by cutting down on strikeouts at the same time. Last season, he was one of two players to walk more than he struck out, along with Victor Martinez.

Steamer likes Bautista to repeat most of last season’s numbers with a big drop in average. The projection includes a .266 BABIP, which is much closer to Bautista’s career rate of .271 than last season’s .287. That may have made sense when Bautista was a dead pull hitter. But he changed things up in 2014 by adjusting his hitting style to counteract defensive shifts, which Jeff Sullivan covered here. It’s real and it’s fabulous. It also means Bautista can safely expect to have a higher BABIP moving forward and doesn’t represent the batting average risk you may have anticipated.

Bautista has shown the ability to adjust his game on the fly which puts him in a better position to avoid sharp decline as he ages, as long as he can avoid injury – something he did well in 2014 after not doing it so well in 2012 and 2013. That makes his floor complicated. He’s a great hitter who’s proven he can make adjustments to counter his aging, and he’s also been injury prone.

9. Anthony Rizzo / 25 / 1B

2-year average 80 27.5 79 5.5 .258
Steamer 89 32 95 6 .270
Floor 71 23 75 6 .250

The only players to top Rizzo’s .240 ISO and have a strikeout rate under 20% were David Ortiz and Encarnacion. If I expand the ISO limit to .200, it adds Josh Donaldson, Adrian Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Andrew McCutchen, Victor Martinez and Bautista. That’s an interesting list because Donaldson (29) and McCutchen (28) are the only non-Rizzo batters to be under 30, and Rizzo is three years younger than McCutchen.

What does this mean? Maybe not much. Domonic Brown did it in 2013 at 26 years old and he’s Domonic Brown. Maybe something. At the very least, Rizzo appears to control the strike zone very well for a player his age and with his power.

10. Jose Abreu / 28 / 1B

2014 80 36 107 3 .317
Steamer 88 36 102 3 .293
Floor 80 22 75 2 .260

Abreu impressed with his massive power in 2014. He also swung and missed at pitches more often than almost anyone in baseball. That doesn’t necessarily mean he’ll strike out a ton or won’t hit for average. Adam Jones swung and missed at about the same rate and hit .281. It does mean Abreu isn’t a surefire asset in batting average.

Upside abounds, but uncertainty is Abreu’s biggest issue. The first-half Abreu with a .292 average/.339 ISO is much different from the second-half Abreu with a .350 average/.162 ISO. And that second half was boosted by a .419 BABIP. That’s a shift in ISO from 2013 Chris Davis to 2014 Starling Marte.

I re-ranked the group taking the players’ floors into account:

1. Trout
2. McCutchen
3. Gomez
4. Goldschmidt
5. Encarnacion
6. Bautista
7. Stanton
8. Cabrera
9. Abreu
10. Rizzo

Stanton’s five-spot drop is the biggest surprise, but none of the players ahead of him produced a recent dud quite like his 2013. I’d say he has the highest non-Trout upside, but that’s not what this list is about. McCutchen at the top makes sense as many rankings have him at No. 2 to begin with. Abreu may be more of the first-half guy from last season, though that’s a difficult assumption to make when he’s up against the talent around him in this group. Cabrera’s chance of missing time at the start of the season bumps him down the list. It’s definitely more fun to think about a player’s upside, and while I’m still taking Stanton over Bautista if I have the chance, it was interesting to look at the first round without that distraction.

Adam McFadden contributes to RotoGraphs when he's not working as a sports editor at MSN. His writing has appeared online for FOX Sports and Sports Illustrated.

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7 years ago

no Tulo before those bottom 1Bmen.

7 years ago
Reply to  KY

Usually the snarky reply to these kinds of comment is…”Someone just read the headline and went straight to the comment section”.
I’m not even sure what to do here.
Tulo, while arguably worth a late first round pick, is just about the least safe pick in any round.

John Wickmember
7 years ago
Reply to  kevin

It’s a perfectly valid question. From the, you know, article: “I’ll break down my top 10 hitters and what issues might affect their statistical floor.”

I don’t think Tulo belongs in the top 10, and there’s reason to believe a writer interested in ranking safety would agree, but this isn’t just a list of the 10 safest hitters.