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Five Guys … I’m going to ride or die with in 2021 (hitters)

I play in a lot of fantasy baseball leagues. Some might call it an unhealthy obsession, or even an addiction – if you are one of those people, you should probably stop reading this and do something more useful with your time like making solar energy more accessible – but it brings me joy to play this game and root for these players.

What brings me pain is when the players I’ve been rooting for on my roster underperform my expectations, or suffer a serious injury. That’s why I take a diversified approach to rostering players. In most cases, I like to spread the risk and avoid loading up with the same guys on all of my fantasy teams. It makes it more likely that I’ll have something to root for all year long. 

That being said, like everyone, I have my favorite players. The ones I like more than the crowd. It’s one thing to list the players you like. But quite another to put your money where your mouth is. Which is what I’ve done with these guys.

In 2021, excluding Best Ball formats, I drafted 11 teams. Not all the leagues have the same number of teams, categories, or players drafted. And some even have keepers. But if I drafted the same player on a bunch of my teams – especially given my affinity for risk avoidance – you know my fantasy season is very much in their hands. This list includes players on 40%+ of my rosters this season.

Without further introduction, here are Five Guys … I’m going to ride or die with in 2021 (hitters) …

First Guy: Anthony Rizzo, 1B, CHC – On the surface, this is a boring 31 year-old first baseman coming off a season in which he sported a .222 batting average. But there is so much to love here. Prior to 2020, he produced six straight seasons of batting average over .270, and 2020 was only as bad as it was due to a .218 BABIP. He is a lock for 25+ HR and 160 R+RBI. His 11% walk rate provides a nice on-base floor. Rizzo is slotted into the third spot in a talented Cubs lineup that should rebound as a whole, he is playing for the biggest contract of his life, and he even steals you around five bags consistently. 

He was the 11th 1B by ADP this draft season, which just boggles my mind. In drafts, I used most of my early draft capital on five-tool players and arms, and waited on 1B. In almost half my leagues, Rizzo fell to me, and I caught him with open arms and bad Jay-Z jokes (mostly, but shamefully not always, uttered in my own head).

Second Guy: Michael Conforto, OF, NYM – There’s a market inefficiency when it comes to over-performers in fantasy baseball. People look at hitters with unsustainable BABIPs (like Conforto’s .412 in 2020), scream regression, and move on. Of course Conforto’s batting average will regress, but as Todd Zola has been saying over and over about this concept: regress to what? With Conforto, he might regress right back to the .260/30/85/85/5 line that looks a lot like his 2019. Which makes a perfectly fine pick at the end of the 5th round in 15-teamers.

But there might be more than that for the 28 year-old hitting in the middle of a much-improved Mets lineup that should mash. The floor is solidly built off of a career 24.2K% / 12.1BB% rate, but I believe that Conforto has a higher ceiling than most people realize. He showed some improvements in the plate last season that I like, setting a career high with a 30.3% line drive rate. He also stopped pulling the ball so much. He has a career pull rate of nearly 40%, but last year he put a lot of those balls up the middle with a career high of 39.3%. If he has become a more complete hitter, he could make the modest batting average projections this year look silly.

Third Guy: Dansby Swanson, SS ATL – If I only said I drafted him because of his name and his flow, I’d say that more than justifies his inclusion on many of my rosters. The fact that he was a five-category contributor in 2020 only increases my desire to roster him. Swanson actually broke out in the first half of 2019, then hurt his heel and tanked in the second half. He was a target of mine last year as well, and that investment paid off handsomely as he performed like a second-round pick.

I honestly assumed I wouldn’t have Swanson on many 2021 rosters. I was sure the market would value his breakout more than I did. But that hasn’t happened, as his NFBC ADP is 106. Let’s play one of my favorite old Matthew Berry games with two hitters’ 2021 projections from The Bat X:

Player A – .266, 23 HR, 87 R, 87 RBI, 11 SB

Player B – .273, 23 HR, 89 R, 85 RBI, 16 SB

These are two remarkably similar player projections. I’d obviously take Player B, with five more bags and five points in batting average. But the overall value is close. Player A is Swanson, and Player B is his teammate Ozzie Albies, who comes off the board at an ADP of 35, more than 70 picks earlier. 

Fourth Guy: Jake Cronenworth, 1B/2B/SS, SD – Cronenworth is an underrated athlete, with plus speed and a plus arm. The glove should find him opportunities all over the diamond, and my bet is the hit tool (15.6% K% and 9.4% BB% in 2020) will make those plate appearances productive. He’s not a big power hitter, but should provide a plus batting average and swipe some bags with good counting stats in a great lineup.

After a productive 2020 debut in which he slashed .285/354/.477 in Slam Diego, there has been a lot of confusion about his role in the offseason. In the earlier fantasy drafts, when he appeared to be the Padres clear starting 2B, he was being drafted in the 120s. As the Padres continued to stack chips by adding other players who can play 2B like Ha-Seong Kim and Jurickson Profar, Cronenworth’s ADP slipped dramatically. My personal ADP for him was pick 214, where I believe he’ll provide me with a solid return on investment. And as of Opening Day, he looks like he’ll be playing close to every day, and will have a shot at a spot near the top of the batting order.

Fifth Guy: Brian Anderson, 3B, MIA – Boring Brian Anderson. Pencil him in for a line like .255/20/75/75 with a handful of steals. He pretty much defines “not going to hurt you”. But not every roster spot is going to be a league-winner. Solid predictable production can be valuable. And unlike other boring guys, Anderson is only 27 years old. There might be another level to his power in a Marlins park that isn’t as unfriendly as it once was.
With my early focus on five-tool hitters and arms, I’m not ending up with a lot of top tier third basemen, because apart from José Ramírez, none of them really have that profile. I don’t love the middle tier of the third base position this season, where I see a lot of unproven and risky propositions. So I get my speed and average elsewhere and take the boring production from a guy who will play everyday and hit in a good spot.

Five More Guys:

  • Nick Solak, 2B/OF, TEX – Texas is going to run. Solak has 91st percentile sprint speed. The hard hit numbers look tasty. Infield/outfield position eligibility.
  • Jorge Polanco, SS, MIN – Throwing out 2020. Love the lineup, love the price, good all around skills. Adds 2B eligibility early.
  • Mitch Garver, C, MIN – Betting on a moderate bounceback. Glad Jeffers is there to keep him healthy and keep his price down.
  • Nelson Cruz, DH, MIN – Like Big Papi, I will ride this bus until the wheels fall off. The biases against his age and his position mean his production comes at a multiple-round discount. Also have a bunch of JD Martinez.
  • Christian Vázquez, C, BOS – Should play a lot, put up the counting stats without hurting your batting average, and sneak in 5 bags.