MASTER NOTES: 2020's Top Three

A Twitter thread the other day asked an interesting fantasy baseball question, namely: Who would be the best first pick in a 2020 5x5 draft?

What made it interesting to me was that, for the first time in many years, the obvious answer is not “Mike Trout.” Of course, Trout has been a fairly obvious top pick every year since he soared to fantasy dominance in 2012, although he was well off the pace last season (relative to his history). Sure, some years there have been modest discussions about possible alternatives, usually based on what pretender to the throne had a good previous season, but when the actual drafts start, Trout has regularly been the consensus #1 by ADP.

Not only is there a legitimate alternative to Trout, there are two: Christian Yelich and Ronald Acuna Jr.

I weighed in with a typical Twitter response, which is to say, off-the-cuff and completely not analytical. I said my top two would be Yelich and Acuna, in that order, with Trout out of the running because, well, he’s out of the running, with a sharp decline in his SB attempts that caps his overall value.

Since sending that hasty response (is there any other kind on Twitter?), I’ve had a chance to mull over the question, and to talk about it with people whose opinions I value a lot.

As a result of all that cogitatin’, let me criticize my response that the first two taken should be Yelich #1 and Acuna #2. Upon further review, I wasn’t sure I had the order correct. I was influenced by Yelich’s current $46-$45 lead in HQ’s YTD 5x5 valuations, which he has amassed despite having 90 fewer AB than Acuna. He has five more HRs and four more RBI than Acuna despite the AB deficit, and only five fewer SBs and 18 fewer runs. He also has a 34-point advantage in BA and a 47-point margin in OBP, for leagues that wisely and correctly use OBP as a category.

As well, when I pro-rated all the hitters to 550 AB, Yelich was almost $13 up. In counting stats, Yelich ties Acuna in runs and SB, and opens up huge leads in HR and RBI, all while retaining his advantage in BA/OBP.

The counter-factual in this is that Yelich is 90 AB behind Acuna for a reason. He has had lower-back issues which have cost him 14 games this season, including a five-game layoff at the end of April, three in May, a couple of odd July games, and four straight games in August.

As well, there is a truism that stolen bases are a young man’s pursuit, and Yelich is six years older than Acuna. Even when he was younger, Yelich was a low-20s SB threat, while Acuna has legit 40/40 potential as soon as this season, and he’ll be a year older when 2020 rolls around.

It seems the key question for #1 pick holders in 2020 will be how much to discount Yelich for the risk relating to SB potential between the age factor and the achin’ back factor. Even though this year’s pro-rated numbers say he’s Acuna’s peer as a 30-ish SB guy, all the SB upside is on Acuna’s side in this category, which is a critical component in Acuna’s favor as game-wide SB numbers in general start to slide. This season’s pro-rated numbers have already shown that he’s a low-30s peak in that department—and he hasn’t even attempted a theft since mid-July.

Yelich also has those back problems, which have done in many a fine player over the years, and which undoubtedly add to his risk. That said, Acuna actually has more DL days (32) over the last three seasons than Yelich (10), so it’s not as though Acuna shields his owners from any injury risk at all.

Finally, we have to credit Yelich for his better plate discipline (20.2% K% and 12.6% walk rate vs. Acuna’s 24.2% and 9.8%), which puts a little safer limit on the risks relating to BA/OBP and slumps. We also have to give props for Yelich’s far better-demonstrated clout (51 HR/550 AB vs Acuna’s 38, average EV 93.4 MPH vs 90.8, 49.2% hard-hit vs 47.2%, 16.9 Barrels/batted ball vs 15.3). Yelich also has a very favorable home park.

It’s hard to go wrong with either candidate. For that matter, picking Trout first overall would not be outrageous, either. Perhaps the best plan is, if you’re in a Kentucky Derby System, pick 3-2-1 as your top options, knowing that you’re bound to get a truly premium talent at #3 while retaining a bit of advantage later through the snake.

If I got #1? I’m sticking with Christian Yelich, barring any further, more definitive injury news. Another truism says we need to be more aware of the risk at the top of the table—a high floor is more important than a high ceiling. Considering his profile, and the fact that he will have been the top earner for two straight seasons, that floor belongs to Yelich.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.