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Let’s set the table before we dig in: choosing between Aaron Judge and Cody Bellinger is like deciding between bacon or chicken wings. Both are delicious. And to put this analogy in overkill, let’s assume anyone that dislikes bacon and chicken wings just isn't a baseball fan.

Judge and Bellinger are two faces of baseball’s next generation. Both were unanimous Rookies of the Year in their respective leagues and took their teams and fans, both real and fantasy, by storm. Unfortunately, when it comes to rankings, the two players are a mere 10 picks apart. Alas, fantasy baseball is not an AYCE buffet and opting for one or the other will probably be a mutually exclusive event.

Today, we’ll build the bull case for each player then attempt to break them down. The purpose isn’t to exude favoritism or polarize the RotoBaller community. This is a conundrum many might actually encounter on draft day. Some facts shape certain opinions and other facts support different viewpoints. The debate is not black and white, so let’s rejoice in the key point that there’s no incorrect answer. Both players are awesome (just like bacon and chicken wings).

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Shadows of the Colossus

Aaron Judge (ADP 2.7, OF7, 17th overall)

An August 2016 article by Baseball America pegged Judge as the Yanks’ No. 3 prospect upon his call-up. The prodigious size and power were well-documented, but questions about plate discipline and a long swing raised doubt about his long-term viability in the majors.

Now 25 years old and coming off a campaign for the ages, Judge has alleviated those qualms. Judge ranked second last year in home runs (52), Runs (128) and OPS (1.049). He also finished sixth with 114 RBI. Most significantly, Judge was first overall in WAR at 8.2 despite mediocre defense, thanks to a 173 wRC+. His .343 ISO was supported by a 45.3 Hard% and a diminutive 11.2 Soft%. To state the obvious, Judge was spectacular in 2017.

Although the perception is he’s a strikeout artist, Judge showed impressive patience. His 0.61 BB:K wasn’t terrible for an alleged free swinger. Judge also went deep on 35.6% of flyballs which seems high. However, going back to 2014, perennial power hitter Giancarlo Stanton hovered around 29% across four total season. In a single season span, Stanton’s rate increases (34.3% in 2017). If balls really are juiced, there could be a structural uptick in HR:FB moving forward so Judge might see negative regression but not as drastic as initially thought. Importantly, Judge hit all pitches last season; in terms of standardized pitch values, he was top-five against fastballs, curveballs and changeups. Finally, to extrapolate into the future, let’s turn to situational factors. Yankee Stadium is friendly to all sluggers and Judge was tremendous in spreading his homers around the yard. The Giancarlo effect must be considered as he joins New York. Judge will likely resume his third spot in the order, now ahead of Stanton. No discrimination against Didi Gregorius or Gary Sanchez, but he could get better pitches to hit in 2018.

Judge’s peripheral numbers seem extraordinary but for a top-tier slugger aren’t that unusual. Well, what if Judge isn’t superhuman? For starters, the average might come down. Judge hadn’t hit .284 since Double-A so it’s odd that was the case in his first full season. Despite the quality batted ball metrics, a .357 BABIP is high by most measurements. All else constant, a 20-point reduction in BABIP would adversely affect slugging and all corresponding counting stats. Judge also went through some prolonged funks last season, hitting only .230 in July and .185 in August. Granted, he walloped 10 HR in that span, so he wasn’t completely useless. The most appealing bear case against Judge could be the limited experience. Managers crave consistency and Judge doesn’t have the track record. He’s only played in 182 career games and it’s wholly reasonable that teams will revamp their pitching strategy against him. They’d be foolish not to.

One thing’s for sure, Judge looks the part. But his fanatics ignore a trait players around his ADP like Freddie Freeman, Manny Machado and Anthony Rizzo all demonstrate: consistency. Nonetheless, if Judge hits over 40 HR and surpasses triple-digit runs and RBI in 2018, he should easily provide a profitable return on investment in the second round.

Cody Bellinger (ADP 3.7, 1B5/OF9, 27th overall)

Some think Bellinger’s stature and numbers don’t jump off the page as much as Judge. Try telling that to any Blue Crew aficionado. Anecdotal evidence aside, Bellinger was the No. 7 prospect in baseball prior to his call-up in last April 2017. His reputation was a sweet lefty power stroke, keen eye and Gold Glove-caliber first base. Few thought his impact would be instantaneous, though.

Three years Judge’s junior, the now-22-year-old Bellinger crushed 39 HR and nearly reached 100 runs and RBI in 130 less plate appearances. His middling 4.0 WAR was due to being pressed into outfield service, but the 28.7 offensive WAR was good for 20th in baseball. His .315 ISO was good for fifth in the majors supported by a 43.0% Hard%. It’s difficult to tell where Bellinger’s numbers would fall with another 100-plus PA but it’s undeniable he sparked the Dodgers’ historic run to last year’s World Series.

Where Judge’s peripherals seemed to validate his monster season, Bellinger’s confirm there’s possibly upside. His .299 BABIP last season ranked 86th and he was fifth in HR with the 10th best HR:FB (25.2%). Conceivably, Bellinger could make meaningful strides from last year’s .267 BA, providing more opportunities for counting stats. His 26.6% K-rate is high but not particularly a concern for power hitters. Regarding pitch values, Bellinger was excellent against breaking and offspeed pitches. A modest improvement against fastballs could also lead to broad upgrades in at-bat quality. Despite generally being a pitcher-friendly park, Dodger Stadium plays well to Bellinger’s strengths of pulling homeruns. He is entrenched as the Dodgers’ first baseman in 2018 so should worry less about playing defense. His supporting cast also returns basically the same starting lineup. Whereas Judge’s 2017 could be a steady-state representation of his numbers, Bellinger’s results could be just a taste of his potential.

A clear argument against Bellinger is he plays in the NL, where runs are tougher to come by. Another claim could be the aforementioned pull-rate of his HRs. A new pitching approach and last year’s spoils could be this year’s weak grounder to short. We all remember Bellinger’s World Series to forget (29 PAs, .565 OPS, 17 Ks) and his plate discipline wasn’t great during the strong 2017 (0.44 BB:K). Without improvement in this key fundamental, all talk of stratospheric hype could be moot and the ceiling lowered substantially. Like Judge, Bellinger’s biggest knock is the inexperience. He has less than a full season on paper with 132 games played. It’s easy to buy the fervor of a young player whipping the league into a frenzy and assume it’ll extend perpetually into the future. Pitchers adjust, managers adapt. The game is always changing.

Based on our arguments, taking Bellinger in the 3rd could result in 1st round value if he continues last year’s trajectory. He is expected to again push 40 HR while exceeding 100 runs and RBI. At Bellinger’s ADP, there is an attractive collection of offensive players like Francisco Lindor, George Springer and fellow Blueblood Corey Seager. Any meaningful deterioration in his performance this year could result in buyer’s remorse and major disappointment.

 

All Rise or Cody Love - What’s the Verdict?

I believe draft outcomes for the first three rounds rest mainly on manager preferences and biases. Many highlight position scarcity when others prioritize specific categories. Some might look at two equally rated players and just pick the guy they like better.

For me, the choice is Cody Bellinger based on three reasons:

1) Upside - Bellinger’s numbers suggest a better 2018 compared to 2017. As mentioned, BABIP and Hard% worked against Bellinger last year. Judge’s 2017 may not be an anomaly, but certainly points to peak results. An extra 100 PAs or more will also provide cover for any modest erosion in Bellinger’s productivity.

2) ADP - In the first three rounds, I prefer to lock down one ace SP. At 17th overall, Judge is surrounded by Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber and Chris Sale. At an ADP of 27, Bellinger has the likes of Madison Bumgarner, Noah Syndergaard and Stephen Strasburg around him. I’d take my chances with the former SP options while targeting Bellinger in the third. However, if Bellinger is gone by then, my consolation prizes of Lindor, Seager or Springer aren’t bad. Based on Point 1, Bellinger and Judge are equals, so I could reach for him in the second and settle for one of the third-round pitchers mentioned.

3) Position flexibility - This argument may be flimsy for some, but the ability to toggle Bellinger between 1B/OF slots when necessary will come in handy throughout the season.

It’s a 51/49 call and my coin toss was Bellinger. If you draft Judge in hopes of a one-handed homerun, no one’s blaming you though.

 

More 2018 MLB Draft Strategy