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A Year to Remember: MLB Hitters Who Had Career Years in 2022 Fantasy Baseball

The World Series is still going on, but here at RotoBaller, we've already turned one of our eyes toward the 2023 fantasy baseball season. That is just the kind of round-the-clock baseball coverage you get here. I have already published two pieces, reviewing hitters and pitchers that were major disappointments in 2022 that I judge as likely bounce-backs in 2023.

Pitcher Bounce-Backs
Hitter Bounce-Backs

Next, I want to do the opposite. In these next two articles, I will look at pitchers and hitters that had career years in 2022 and what to think about them for 2023. We're covering hitters in this one, and soon the pitcher piece will be out.

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Every individual case deserves its unique attention and judgment, but my general rule:

  • Draft the player coming off of career-worst seasons
  • Don't draft the players coming off of career-best seasons

This seems a bit counterintuitive, and a large swath of the field likes to do the opposite. Again, every player is a unique case, so I'm not applying this rule globally - however, I think there is a real edge in "buying the dip" and "fading the premium." I will be looking to draft most of the players I mentioned in the articles linked above, but for the names in this article and the next, I will be more disinterested in them for 2023 given the likely higher cost. Let's get to it.


Career Year Hitters and What To Do With Them

Aaron Judge, New York Yankees

2016 95 4 23.8 .179 .608
2017 678 52 13.0 .284 1.049
2018 498 27 18.4 .278 .919
2019 447 27 16.6 .272 .921
2020 114 9 12.7 .257 .891
2021 633 39 16.2 .287 .916
2022 696 62 11.2 .311 1.111

If you're reading this, chances are you knew that Aaron Judge hit 62 home runs in 2022. He was the biggest story of the 2022 season as he set the American League record for most home runs hit in a season. This was clearly the biggest "career year" we saw in 2022, and it's the biggest one I can remember in quite some time.

Now it wasn't COMPLETELY out of nowhere. If you were told that someone would hit 62 homers before the season begins, Judge would have been one of the first players you would have guessed to be the guy to do it. That said, hitting this many home runs in a single season is an incredibly, incredibly hard thing to do and we should not expect to see that repeated any time soon.

Judge set the barrel rate record in 2022, although this statistic only goes back to 2015. Only nine players have managed to achieve a barrel rate above 20% over 400+ plate appearances, and Judge absolutely dusted that threshold:

The fact that Judge has done this twice and has the two highest rates is certainly a point in his favor as to the possibility of him doing it again in 2023, but it's worth noting that he has failed to meet this criterion much more often than he has achieved it. It's very, very hard to do.

I am willing to believe that Judge can hit 50 homers next year, and although I would probably bet the under on a line like that, it's not an insane projection. It's harder for me to believe that he can hit above .300 again given that 2022 was the first time he managed that feat. It wouldn't be shocking on that front either, given his improved strikeout rate (25% over the last two seasons) and his always-high BABIP (.345 career), but I would be betting the under on almost everything he did in 2022.

One big needle that needs to drop is the question of where he will be playing next year. He is a free agent and is sure to get a massive, massive contract from someone. If that team is not the Yankees, it's highly likely that the park factors will be getting worse for Judge in 2023. Yankees Stadium is a fantastic place for him to hit, so basic probability would say that he'll likely be in a worse spot next year if he doesn't re-sign with the bombers.

I'm using a lot of words on Judge here, who is a stud hitter and a first-round pick next year and there's really no debating that. I just don't think it's necessarily wise to buy in on a guy coming off of a season like this that will be nearly impossible to replicate when it will cost you a top-three pick in the draft. I am likely to have Judge a few slots lower than the field next year, which will probably mean I will have none of him.

Final verdict: I'm not telling anybody not to draft Judge next year, but the facts of probability in this world tell us that he will likely fall well short of his 2022 numbers moving forward.

Dansby Swanson, Atlanta Braves

In 2022, Swanson set career bests in all of these categories:

  • PA (696)
  • Runs(99)
  • RBI (96)
  • SB (18)
  • AVG (.277)
  • OPS (.776)

This was his age-28 season, so it's not surprising to see the peak around that age. This guy was also drafted #1 overall and seemingly always had a bit more offensive upside in the tank as compared to what we had gotten used to seeing from him.

However, there's no questioning that 2022 was a career year for Swanson, and his draft price is certain to reach a new max in 2023.

I think I have already said enough to make my case, honestly. Swanson was just a good/fine hitter for years, and then in 2022, he became a great hitter. It might seem overly simplistic, but for me at this point, I've already seen enough. I will always believe in the bigger data sample more than I believe in the smaller sample, even if that smaller sample is more recent.

But I will trudge on. One other thing I can offer is that Swanson has been a very streaky hitter. He tends to have these massive spans of several weeks where he just tears the cover off of the ball only to go a month or so after that being pretty mediocre. This happened for Swanson in 2022:

Here are his stats by month.

April 82 .216 .293 .351 1 2 36.6%
May 112 .304 .357 .490 5 6 25.0%
June 123 .330 .390 .563 7 3 23.6%
July 115 .308 .357 .430 2 3 21.7%
Aug 129 .254 .302 .373 2 2 27.1%
Sep-Oct 135 .236 .274 .449 8 2 25.9%

Half of his homers in two months, and just one month with an SLG above .500 (it finished at .447).

This is a weaker argument, I admit, there's no great reason to prefer a guy that evenly distributes the production over six months to a guy that does it in chunks, but the 2021 season was similar for Swanson and I just have the fear that he could have a season where he puts five or six bad months up instead of just two or three and then you have a full-scale disaster.

The other criticism I can level is that he doesn't do any single thing all that well. His 26% K% was a couple of points worse than the league average and the 10.8% Brl% is far from elite (as we saw the league leaders flirting with or exceeding 20%). He will steal some bases, but I don't think he has 30 steals in the range of outcomes, so there just really isn't a ton of ceiling here.

Final verdict: It seems to me that there's more downside and less upside than the field will realize here, so I will let someone else pay the premium on Swanson in 2023.

Adolis Garcia, Texas Rangers

I would have bet a large amount of money that Garcia would not best his 2021 rookie season in 2022, so it's good that such a bet was never proposed to me. Garcia had one of the latest "rookie" years of anybody you'll ever see in 2021, debuting at the age of 28 and pounding 31 homers on a .243/.286/.454 line despite a large 31.2% K%. I would have been fully confident that such a season was a mirage and Garcia would end up benched or worse in 2022.

What actually happened was that Garcia hit 27 more homers, stole 25 more bases, and slashed .250/.300/.456 while improving the strikeout rate to 27.9%. He was incredibly valuable for fantasy, and very well could have been the overall best pick of the average 2022 draft.

We seem to have a "fool me twice" situation on our hands here. The improvement made on the strikeout rate is encouraging and convincing, and his expected stats were just fine as well:

  • xBA: .244
  • xSLG: .447
  • xwOBA: .322
  • xwOBACON: .422

He hits the ball with authority (12.9% Brl%, max exit velo of 113), and has above-average speed (66th percentile). I tend to hold grudges in fantasy, which means I will probably not draft Adolis in 2023 - but that doesn't mean you shouldn't do it even at the elevated price, so I'm not planting a flag here.

Final verdict: I still won't be surprised at a disappointing 2023 season for Garcia, but I see no problem with drafting him even at this elevated cost.

Christian Walker, Arizona Diamondbacks

One of the goofier stat lines of the 2022 season went to Diamondbacks first baseman Christian Walker. He smashed 36 homers, the seventh-most in baseball while slashing .242/.327/.477 in 667 plate appearances.

What's goofy about that? I guess not much, but the way he got to that .242 batting average sure was:

On August 5th, Walker's batting average sat below the vaunted Mendoza line at .199. This was after posting an expected batting average of around .240 for the entire year. Over his final 241 plate appearances, Walker hit .315 and raised the batting average the whole way up to basically match that expected figure. Let's do an expected stats comparison for the full year:

Stat Actual Expected
AVG .242 .257
SLG .477 .484
wOBA .346 .359

As someone who paid close attention to Walker for most of the year but then not much in the final month, it shocks me how much his line changed over the final two months.

The thing I liked the most about Walker during the season was his strikeout rate, which finished at a great 19.6%. This is a pretty impressive thing for someone hitting for so much power to do. Walker finished the year with a barrel rate of 11.5%. Only eleven hitters managed a barrel rate above 10% and a strikeout rate below 20%.

What is also very weird about Walker's season was how low his barrel rate finished.

Walker's barrel rate sat at 14.3% at the all-star break, the 14th-best in the league at that time. From August 1st to the end of the year, Walker had a pedestrian 8.6% barrel rate despite still hitting homers at a strong rate (19.8 PA/HR).

So what we have now is just complete confusion. Walker's career prior to 2022 was such that he was going undrafted in most fantasy drafts, and then for four months he was one of the best power hitters in the league while hitting for a putrid batting average. Then, for two months, he hit for a great batting average but the underlying power numbers got significantly worse despite continued home run production.

Who is the real Christian Walker? I'm throwing my hands up - your guess is as good as mine. And in cases like this, I will just draft guys I have a better grip on and let someone else pay the heightened cost for the unknown entity.

Final verdict: When in doubt, fade the high prices.

Nathaniel Lowe, Texas Rangers

The former top Rays prospect put up the best effort of his career, slashing .302/.358/.492 across 645 plate appearances, hitting 27 homers, driving in 76, and scoring 74 times.

He did this with a barrel rate of just 9.9%, above average but a few points away from being great, and he kept hitting a bunch of ground balls (48%, although that did come down from 55% in 2021). Lowe was also a guy that did a ton of damage in a portion of the season. He had an OPS right around .600 in mid-May, but then from June on posted a mark of .914.

Stat Actual Expected
AVG .302 .275
SLG .492 .459
wOBA .368 .344

We have some serious discrepancies in the table above. The .368 BABIP and the 19.9% HR/FB marks were the best (read: luckiest?) of his young career.

Lowe is a young hitter at just 27-years-old, and he is placed firmly in the middle of a very capable lineup. There are reasons to believe he can continue to improve and post another top-10 season at the first base position, but I think his cost may be a bit higher than is right in 2023 given that he seemed to have been pretty fortunate in 2022.

Final verdict: I think the floor is fine with Lowe, and he is a talented hitter at a young age, but I would rather be on the side of the fade here given what I expect from the ADP.

Brandon Drury, San Diego Padres

The "what the hell was that?" hitter of the year was Brandon Drury. He turned 30 this year and had the best season of his long career.

Drury hit his way into a trade to a postseason team. He slashed .274/.335/.520 with the Reds while hitting 20 homers (19.3 PA/HR). The slash line with the Padres (.238/.290/.435) was much worse, but he kept hitting homers at a good rate (eight bombs in 183 PA for a 22.9 PA/HR).

Drury will become a free agent after this season wraps up, so his 2023 outlook will be slightly determined by where he lands, and I think the field is sharp enough not to buy this guy as a real .800 OPS hitter, but even so - I'm guessing he will be too expensive and I'll be off of Drury almost entirely.

Final verdict: My guess is that Drury is a guy that just wanted to homer his way out of Cincinnati, and we saw how bad the batting average got after his departure. I can buy Drury as a 25-homer guy next year, but I don't think his output will mass his draft cost - I'm fading Drury.

Paul Goldschmidt, St. Louis Cardinals

One more to go here, and it's questionable if 2022 was truly Goldschmidt's "career year." He slashed a light .317/.404/.578 with 35 homers and seven steals, but I would probably take his 2013 season over that. In that breakout year, Goldy slashed .302/.401/.551 with 36 homers and 15 steals with the Diamondbacks.

We don't need to start a fight about that. What we do know is that Goldschmidt crushed expectations as a 35-year-old, and will be drafted as a top-three first baseman for 2023. Aside from the age question, it does seem that Goldy overpowered a bit in 2022:

Stat Actual Expected
AVG .317 .261
SLG .578 .482
wOBA .419 .367

Weirdly, Goldschmidt put up a .293 xBA, a .575 xSLG, and a .397 xwOBA in 2021 while his actual stats vastly underperformed those. So we had a flip-flop here.

All of that aside, we know Goldschmidt is a very good hitter - we shouldn't analyze the stats to death with veterans. His 11.5% Brl% was strong, his 21.7% K% was very good, and he benefits big time from some really strong hitters around him in that lineup.

I think it will be fine to draft Goldschmidt in the top-50 again, and another 30-homer, 10-steal season with a good batting average should be expected. Is there much upside for him at his price - I don't think so? It feels to me like the best he can do for you is a "Yeah I'll take that" season - and there is obviously risk associated with a guy of this age coming off an elite season like this somewhat surprisingly.

Final verdict: It's unlikely you really kick yourself for drafting Goldschmidt next year, but I don't see a ton of upside at the cost. I will probably be more interested in cheaper, younger first basemen in 2023.

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