With The First Pick, You Select…

There’s a debate going around Twitter. If you want some cheap likes and retweets, try dropping this poll:

Who would you pick first overall?

Mike Trout

Christian Yelich

Ronald Acuna

Other

The emerging narrative relates to Trout’s declining speed. These alternatives, possibly including Cody Bellinger, Trea Turner, and a few others, can deliver those much needed swipes without necessitating a later dip into the Mallex Smith pool of despair. Depending on how you run your calculations, a stolen base is roughly 150 to 300 percent more valuable than a home run. A 40/40 threat like Yelich and Acuna is worth his weight in gold.

Still, we’ve been here before. In recent seasons, Mookie Betts, Jose Altuve, and Mookie Betts again have challenged Trout for the draft crown. Each and every time, the alternative to Trout has been the wrong choice. Interestingly, Trout played more like a fringe Top-10 player in the latter portion of the 2010s. Where we failed as an industry was with accurately identifying the players who would outperform him. Perhaps we’re a little better at this now. Or perhaps many contrarian fantasy owners are about to experience déjà vu all over again.

Consider this: Cody Bellinger is just a year removed from a forgettable season. Yelich was good-not-great as recently as mid-2018. Treat Urner runs hot and cold due to his gritty playing style. He played through broken fingers last season. Acuna is young enough that we can’t rule out a junior slump. If he were to hit .265 with 28 home runs and 19 stolen bases, nobody would be surprised. At least not in retrospect.

To the best of my knowledge, Mike Trout has never slumped. Sure, if you slice the data small enough, you’ll find 0-for-12 and 2-for-25 spans peppered throughout his career. But on the whole, he’s never vanished in a way that has been distinctly detrimental to his fantasy owners.

One common fantasy truism suggests that drafts aren’t won in the first round. By extension, it’s considered proper to manage for floor rather than ceiling. This advice is all well and good except for one thing – there’s no evidence we, as people, have any ability to predict who has a high floor among apparently elite players. The reason is obvious enough. Among very good players, the factors that contribute to “floor” are largely unpredictable.

Every year, a few studs turn into busts. Sometimes, it’s the specter of injury that steals our first round dreams. Or the hoary grasp of regression. Or our so-called stud simply plays to his 30th percentile projection (we’re looking at you Betts).

Rarely are we flat out wrong about a player we placed in the first round pool. Something happens to make them underperform enough to become a bust. Since early picks carry so much scrutiny, I’d hazard we (i.e. fantasy touts) are exceptionally cautious as a collective. We missed Acuna and Yelich as the alternative to Trout in 2019 because of the many incentives to be conservative. It’s only “reasonable” or “safe” to pick anti-Trouts who have outperformed him in the last season.

All of which brings us back to the poll. While I’ll likely never have to make this call in the wild*, I’m picking Trout first overall without a moment’s hesitation.

*My only redraft leagues this year will use KDS to determine draft order. I plan to prioritize the second half of the round.

For one, the Angels lineup is finally moving in a positive direction. Trout has been hugely productive without a supporting cast. Usually, players improve when surrounded by superior talent. We can tentatively expect a small increase in plate appearances, runs, and RBI if nothing else.

A larger consideration is observing recent experiences with Trout alternatives. Nobody in the league offers a more stable statistical profile. Everybody has warts if you squint hard enough. For Trout, he seems to break down later in the season due to overuse. That’s a gamble I’m willing to take. It’s a gamble I can actuarily wrap my head around. There’s no real risk of surprise regression or a new scouting report finding an exploit. Trout is Trout. And, per my reckoning, his injury risk is comparable to all the other elites. If I have to be mindful to select an extra Ramon Laureano-type later in the draft, so be it.

To be clear, not picking Trout is not wrong. There are many right answers in the first round. In addition to those named above, Gerrit Cole, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto, and Trevor Story are all legitimate candidates for that #1 seed. While I personally think selecting a non-Trout is trying too hard to be clever, there are countless arguments in favor of the many alternatives. And, if this is finally the year when the Altuve or Betts du jour rewards their owners for eschewing Trout, it certainly won’t come as a shock.

We hoped you liked reading With The First Pick, You Select… by Brad Johnson!

Please support FanGraphs by becoming a member. We publish thousands of articles a year, host multiple podcasts, and have an ever growing database of baseball stats.

FanGraphs does not have a paywall. With your membership, we can continue to offer the content you've come to rely on and add to our unique baseball coverage.

Support FanGraphs




You can follow me on twitter @BaseballATeam

newest oldest most voted
Pepper Martin
Member
Pepper Martin

All in on Vlad Guerrero Jr.