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The first base position in fantasy baseball has seen a transformation in recent years. Notorious for its power hitters, it's becoming more scarce to find a stable option once the first few elite names come off the board. Among the first basemen in the third-tier and beyond, there’s an assortment of question marks concerning the bulk of these batters in 2019. Before there’s a significant drop off at the position, the sixth and seventh first basemen are currently getting selected nearly side by side. The head-scratching question is, which one should we choose?

Joey Votto and Jesus Aguilar are two first sackers that are seemingly trending in opposite directions in their respective careers. Votto is a former MVP and perennial threat for the on-base percentage crown who had a down year in his age-34 season. Making a season-long impact for the first time in 2018 was Aguilar, as he finally got consistent playing time resulting in his first ever All-Star selection.

With spring training creeping up and many drafts already taking place, which one of these NL Central first basemen have the fantasy edge in 2019?

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Votto-Matic Mastery

Before 2018, Joey Votto had been one of the most consistent players in all of baseball. Playing in at least 158 games in four out of five years from 2013-2017 for the Cincinnati Reds, he has averaged 29.5 HR, 101 R, 88 RBI, and a .316 AVG in these four years. By the way, these strong seasons might not even be considered his “peak” years compared to his 2008-2011 run when he was in his mid-20s. In 2018 however, Votto saw a massive decline in numbers across the board after only clubbing 12 HR, 67 R, and 67 RBI while hitting to a .284 AVG. Extremely odd to see, this sudden drop-off in production was a huge hit to his fantasy value for those owners who selected him in the second round last year. Let’s look at what factored into this disappointing season.

The most glaring number from Votto’s 2018 was his dreadful 12-HR output. Coming off 36 round-trippers in 2017, he saw his FB% drop from 38.0% to 31.1%. Although it’s a significant decrease, his 2018 clip is only just below his career average mark of 33.3%. Nothing really to worry about there. The left-handed swinger also saw a remarkably low 9.5% HR/FB, which was nearly half of his 18.3% career baseline. One might think he was making weak contact, but that wasn’t the case as he set an all-time high with a 41.0% Hard%. The only number out of whack was his 6.7 Barrel%, which was considerably off the pace of his 9.9% mark from 2015-17. Despite the lack of barrels, it was an anomaly that his HR total was this low and positive regression will certainly find Votto in the HR/FB category in 2019.

Even though the majority of big leaguers would be ecstatic about a .284 AVG, it’s a vexing mark for Votto. As mentioned, he hit the ball the hardest of his career in 2018, and he also paired this contact with a new best in line drives. His 31.4% LD% was way over his 25.8% career rate and 8% higher than his 2017 percentage. Hard hit balls and line drives are the top two factors that play into getting a base hit, so we should have seen a better number at season's end. While Votto did this better than ever, his BABIP on these balls was at a new personal low of .654, way off his .711 career line drive BABIP. Here was Lady Luck biting Votto on the keister again. He also maintained stellar walk and strikeout rates in his sub-par season. His elite 17.3% BB% was third best in the majors which led to a .417 OBP, also good enough for third. His 16.2% K% was a just over a percentage lower than his career mark, and he was one of four players last year to generate more walks than strikeouts.

 

Aguilar's Reservoir

Adding a new dosage of power for the Milwaukee Brewers in 2018 was Jesus Aguilar. An intimidating stature at the dish, he went yard 35 times for the Brew Crew to go along with 80 R, 108 RBI, and a .274 AVG. Aguilar forced the team to give him more playing time after platooning with Eric Thames in his first full season in 2017. Although Aguilar is younger than Votto, he’s no spring chicken entering his third season in the majors, as he’ll turn 29 mid-season. The power maturation is unquestionably here, but what else comprises the Venezuelan native?

Like Votto, Aguilar is above average at hitting the ball hard and on a line. His 44.0% Hard% was just outside the league's top-20, and his 23.7% LD% was nothing to scoff at either. A patient approach at the plate netted him an admirable 10.2% BB%, but there’s more to be desired with a below average 25.3% K%. All these factors played into his .274 AVG at years end, but it was a sluggish second half that draws a few flags moving forward. After batting .298 at the All-Star break, Aguilar spiraled down to a .245 AVG in the second half. While his LD% only took a small dip, he exchanged over 3% of hard contact for soft contact driving down his BABIP nearly 50 points from .331 to .283. The slugger also failed to hit the ball in the air as his GB/FB fell dramatically from 0.67 to 1.16 after the break. Aguilar also became less disciplined as the season wore on as his walks plummeted to 6.7% in September and his strikeouts rose to 26.7% in this final month of the year.

Aguilar’s 35 home run season was awe-inspiring, especially since he went mostly undrafted at the beginning of last season. He displayed tremendous power to all fields smacking 17 of these taters to center and right field. While he finished 10th in baseball with a .539 SLG, he again failed to live up to his superb first half. As a result of driving more balls into the ground and out of the air, the right-hander seen his SLG and ISO drop substantially from .621/.324 in the first half to .436/.191 in the second. Although it's a plus to hit the ball over the fence the other way, seeing his Pull% drop from 48.0% to 38.0% isn’t the best news for a power bat. It’s clear the rest of the league made adjustments to Aguilar in the second half, and now we’ll have to see how Aguilar will respond in 2019.

 

Resolution

Both of these players will offer slightly different contributions to their fantasy owners in 2019. Neither of these players would be considered a bad choice at their price, but you must know what you will receive from them in return. With Votto, you can expect a better amount of runs as well as superior OBP and AVG, whereas Aguilar offers a higher ceiling in the HR and RBI categories. When choosing which player to take, it may depend on how well they fit with the rest of the guys on your squad.

In a vacuum, we have to decide which sample sizes to believe. For Votto, the success of over a decade’s worth of performance considerably outweighs a one-year bout with bad luck. If age were a factor for Votto’s decline, he wouldn’t have seen this sharp of a slump directly after an MVP-caliber season. Age usually shows up after seasons of incremental deterioration, not with one massive step down. Just four picks apart in ADP (Votto 75/Aguilar 79), Votto holds a much safer floor and a clear advantage in AVG and OBP among all first basemen in the league. His power numbers may not return to full form, but he won’t hurt you in these categories like he did last year.

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