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First Basemen Set To Break Out in 2019


First base is no longer the premier position it once was for fantasy baseball. Aging sluggers have not been replaced by all-around talents for the large part and it has left a massive gulf in quality. Part of the decline in hitting has been due to the demand to get better fielders at first base, but some of it is also just a gulf in players currently in their prime. The first base position is either loaded with over 30s declining hitters or hitters under the age of 25. There are players that fall in the middle but in the majority, they are outnumbered by the guys either side.

However, that does not mean you cannot find effective hitters. I have written previously about my belief that Trey Mancini and Ryan Zimmerman can take the next step and go from good to great. I am also high on Joey Gallo and really believe that could be a top-50 player overall this year. However, neither of those are truly breakouts as they have both had success in the majors, even if it is not as much as we hoped it might be.

So who are the players lower down the rankings that could return a real value at first base? Is there someone lurking outside the top-20 at first base who could finish the season inside the top-12? Let's take a look.

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Jake Bauers (1B/OF, CLE)

A change in scenery in 2019 may be just what Bauers needs after a tough first stint in the majors. The positives are that in half of a season (388 PA) Bauers hit six home runs and stole 12 bases. However, that came packaged with a .201 batting average, largely thanks to a 26.8% strikeout rate. The problem for Bauer last season was that he got away from what he was good at and sold out for power. Another issue last year was that Bauer was in a fairly young lineup that overperformed expectations. Now Bauer is in a far more experienced lineup, competing for a team who should have a realistic shot of winning their division. The two situations are poles apart and the change should be to the benefit of the young hitter.

Power is unlikely to ever be Bauers strong suit. The best season of his career in terms of home runs came in 2018, when he hit a combined 16 across the majors and Triple-A. The Statcast numbers from 2018 do not suggest that Bauer was unlucky in any way with his home run return in 2018. However, if he is to break out on the power-front then Progressive Field might be the place to do it. His old home in Tropicana Field had a 0.86 park factor for left-handed hitters when it came to home runs while his new park is at a whopping 1.20. That is a significant increase for a young hitter who should be hitting his peak in terms of power ouput.

Additionally, in the past, Bauers has demonstrated the ability to steal bases, hit for a decent batting average and provide a nice on-base floor thanks to a high walk rate. Currently projected to hit fifth in a strong Indians lineup, Bauers should be able to return approximately 160 combined runs and RBI, with the potential for more. If Bauers can combine these skills with a power breakout in his new, more hitter-friendly park, we could be looking at a first baseman with the potential to return a 30-home run, 20-stolen base stat line. Even if his average remains down near his expected batting average of .225 from last season, those home runs and stolen bases will make him an extremely valuable commodity in 2019.

 

Tyler White (1B, HOU)

2018 was a promising season for White. He finally got a chance to make amends in the majors with 237 PA, which resulted in 12 home runs and a .276 batting average. Last year was also the second year in a row in which White has hit a combined 25 or more home runs between Triple-A and the majors. The Statcast numbers indicate that the results in the majors were not a fluke. White's average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives was 93.7, which was good enough to put him the top-100 among major league hitters.

With the possibility of a full-time role in 2019, White has the potential to hit 25-30 home runs if he just repeats his output from 2018. One thing in White's favor when it comes to his batted-ball profile is his launch angle. White's 17.1-degree launch angle was tied for 51st-highest in the majors. When you combine the launch angle with the impressive exit velocity then he has the potential to power through 30 home runs in 2019.

Something important to watch will be how White's batting average fairs early in the season. In 2018, White outperformed his expected batting average by a considerable amount with a final line of .276 compared to an expected line of .248. If his actual batting average begins to regress in the early part of the season, then 25-30 home runs may not be enough to make him worth a roster spot. However, if he just simply repeats his average from 2018 in 2019, he will be an interesting option at his current draft day price.

Finally, White will find himself part of one of the most potent lineups in the whole of baseball. That will open up plenty of opportunities for him to post solid runs and RBI numbers, despite likely hitting near the bottom for the majority of the season. Current projections have White reaching around 150-160 combined runs and RBI, which could make for an interesting final line when combined with the power and average potential.

 

Ryan O'Hearn (1B, KC)

O'Hearn had a superb finish to 2018, hitting 12 home runs with a batting average of .262 in 170 PA. There are a lot of question marks around his sudden success. O'Hearn hit more home runs in the majors last season than he hit in 406 PA in Triple-A, so who is the real O'Hearn. Unfortunately, we do not get to see Statcast data from the minor leagues, so we cannot see the full extent of what switched when he got to the majors.

What we do get to see is his batted-ball information, and there are a couple of interesting trends. Last season, O'Hearn returned the highest fly ball rate of his career (>44%), but he did that in both the majors and the minors. The biggest change between Triple-A and the majors last season was an increase in line drive rate, from 11.2% to 19.2%. However, only two of those line drives in the majors resulted in home runs, meaning that those line drives were not the change. There was also a big shift towards pulling the ball more, but pulled balls only accounted for 50% of the home runs, compared to 33% to the opposite field. Ultimately, O'Hearn has success hitting the ball to all parts.

All of this screams of regression, and there, of course, will be. If he did not regress, he would be projected to hit close to 40 home runs in full-time plate appearances. What is positive for O'Hearn are the Statcast data. Had he managed enough PA to qualify, he would have been among the top-50 in baseball in exit velocity on line drives and fly balls, barrel %, and launch angle. Names that ranked similar are Max Muncy in exit velocity, Mike Trout in launch angle and Trevor Story in barrel %. All of those names suggest that O'Hearn could have real success in 2019. There will be sticky points, such as his xBA being nearly .030 lower than his actual batting average, but his price is so low that he is worth the risk.

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