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Is Mike Trout Still the #1 Pick in 2020?

Is it time to talk ADP already? Affectionately known as Mike Trout Doubting-Season, this is the time of year when some touts stick out sorely in declaring that the best player of this - and possibly any - generation should not be chosen first overall in fantasy. Instead, they have declared that it should be Mookie Betts or Jose Altuve or Bryce Harper. Or even Paul Goldschmidt, for Trout's sake!

However, besides these few yearly dissenters, Trout has still remained on top on draft day, with his ADP in NFBC holding the number-one spot in every year since 2015, with things likely to stay the same in 2020. But should he be?

Ending up with Trout on draft day is like draping yourself in layers of the finest chinchilla. both keeping your roster warm and soft while also giving it a rock-solid foundation upon which to build a contender. If it's the safest fantasy-floor in baseball that you desire, then Trout is your certainly your man at number-one. However, if it's the biggest catch in the fantasy pond that you most desire and don't mind gambling away his warm security, then 2020 might be the right time to fish elsewhere.

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Elite Cruising Speed But Losing Top Gear

Let's get one thing out of the way; Mike Trout is the best baseball player on the planet, unequivocally. This year, next year and every year, for only Trout knows how long. This makes saying that he lacks upside sound ludicrous. But this isn't real life, this is fantasy. In terms of fantasy-dollars*, Trout hasn't led the league in earnings in any year since he took over that top-drafted spot from Miguel Cabrera in 2015.

*Earnings for this article were calculated using the Fangraphs auction calculator. This is not to say that it is necessarily the best method for calculating earnings, as there are many, but it is widely respected and freely available. 

2015 PA $-Earned $_Rank  S/PA  $/PA_Rank
Josh Donaldson 711  $    42.80 1  $   0.060 2
Bryce Harper 654  $    42.30 2  $   0.065 1
Paul Goldschmidt 695  $    41.10 3  $   0.059 3
Mike Trout 682  $    34.90 6  $   0.051 6
2016
Mookie Betts 730  $    41.70 1  $   0.057 1
Mike Trout 681  $    38.50 2  $   0.057 2
Jose Altuve 717  $    37.70 3  $   0.053 3
2017
Charlie Blackmon 725  $    46.30 1  $   0.064 1
Giancarlo Stanton 692  $    44.40 2  $   0.064 2
Aaron Judge 678  $    42.40 3  $   0.063 3
Mike Trout 507  $    26.50 13  $   0.052 7
2018
J.D. Martinez 649  $    45.80 1  $   0.071 2
Christian Yelich 651  $    45.70 2  $   0.070 3
Mookie Betts 614  $    45.40 3  $   0.074 1
Mike Trout 608  $    35.50 9  $   0.058 4
2019
Ronald Acuna 715  $    41.20 1  $   0.058 3
Christian Yelich 580  $    40.30 2  $   0.069 1
Cody Bellinger 660  $    40.10 3  $   0.061 2
Mike Trout 600  $    32.10 7  $   0.054 5

The beauty of Trout lies in his consistency from year to year, with his dollars-earned per plate-appearance always making his floor in any given year a top-five hitter, assuming good health. Knowing your first pick in the draft has a worst-case scenario of top-five value is exactly what it means to drape your roster in the aforementioned chinchilla, but it also doesn't change the fact that Trout seems to be losing the part of his real-life game that made him once be able to fly so high in the fantasy world.

Trout had 11 stolen bases in 600 plate-appearances this season, after stealing 24 in 608 PA last year and 22 in 507 PA in 2017.  Given the recent track record of new manager Joe Maddon, it's hard to be optimistic that Trout's ceiling on the basepaths will be going up any time soon. You may remember Maddon's Rays as being fun and free-running but may not recall that he sped them way down towards the end of his tenure in Tampa Bay and then kept his foot off the gas when he went to Chicago.

From 2009 - 2012, Maddon's Rays finished either first or second in stolen bases but since 2013 only one of Maddon's teams has finished higher than 20th for the season. When taken together with Trout's already-declining stolen base numbers, the hire of Maddon doesn't seem to bode well for the prospect of Trout suddenly becoming more aggressive in his thefts.

This doesn't change Trout's level of general awesomeness and please remember that Trout is a magical unicorn who could probably wake up and just decide to steal 50 bags if he wanted to, but it might also be prudent to lower expectations of what you can expect from him in 2020. The loss of the stolen bases is a drag on his fantasy bottom-line but that drag is compounded further by declining in a category that's becoming more and more of a scarce resource in the MLB, with total stolen bases and attempts in baseball dropping in each of the past four years.

Gone are the days when easy speed could be found cheaply in drafts and seemingly everyone drafted in the first 10 rounds came included with a dozen free bags. Even if it's true that Trout's ceiling is relatively limited by his lack of future on the basepaths, does it even matter? It's easy to say that Trout won't be the top earner but that's not actionable advice unless you can pair it with whoever will be. In other words, if you pass on Trout to take a shot at bigger game, you had better not miss the bear.

 

The Other Half of the Equation

Using NFBC ADP data, there are a handful of players every year who have been taken at number-one over Trout, but only a few were drafted as legitimate contenders for top billing. In 2015, for example, Carlos Correa's minimum pick was one, but his 8.3 ADP says that people picking him first were outliers. In 2015, Trout had no real competition for number-one but from 2016-18, at least one player in each year had an ADP of less than three, along with being picked first. Here are those chosen few, along with their numbers before and after their elevation to the first-pick overall.

Player ADP (2019) Rank ('19) Rank ('18) PA ('19) $$ ('19) PA ('18) $$ ('18)
Mike Trout 1.2 7 9 600 $32.10 608 $35.50
Mookie Betts 2 11 3 706 $29.60 614 $45.40
ADP (2018) Rank ('18) Rank ('17) PA ('18) $$ ('18) PA ('17) $$ ('17)
Mike Trout 1.1 9 13 608 $35.50 507 $26.50
Jose Altuve 2.2 45 4 599 $17.60 662 $37.90
ADP (2017) Rank ('17) Rank ('16) PA ('17) $$ ('17) PA ('16) $$ ('16)
Mike Trout 1.2 13 2 507 $26.50 681 $38.50
Mookie Betts 2.7 12 1 712 $26.80 730 $41.70
ADP (2016) Rank ('16) Rank ('15) PA ('16) $$ ('16) PA ('15) $$ ('15)
Mike Trout 1.7 2 6 681 $38.50 682 $34.90
Paul Goldschmidt 2.3 6 3 705 $31.12 695 $41.10
Bryce Harper 2.9 54 2 627 $15.70 654 $42.30

 Trying to correctly anticipate the value of other players can involve evaluating a myriad of different variables, necessarily increasing your likelihood of failure. Anticipating the value of Trout involves just one variable; how many times will he get to bat? On the flip side, it's also easy to see how dangerous it is to gamble and lose. Drafting Trout first won't necessarily win your league, but passing on him can definitely lose it for you. Those that drafted Betts and Goldschmidt may have survived with their eventual earnings; those that drafted Altuve and Harper probably didn't. In other words, you had better be sure about who you're aiming for.

 

Two Rise to the Challenge

As stated prior, just saying that Trout won't finish first, isn't enough to not pick him first. And just because Trout hasn't finished first in earning since 2014, doesn't mean there are players worth taking over him in any given year. In order to pass on Trout and live to tell the tale, the conditions must be perfectly ripe. In 2020, we have not one, but two contenders to the throne.

Run Ronald, Run

The top-earner in 2019, Ronald Acuna Jr. is 21 years old and coming off of a near 40/40 season, making him less and less of a controversial choice at number one. While his overall line of 41 HR, 127 R, 101 RBI, 37 SB with a .280 AVG was certainly impressive, Acuna was much less fantasy-friendly serving as the Braves cleanup hitter for his first 157 PA, stealing only two bases through May 9. After moving to leadoff, Acuna not only stole 35 bases in his next 558 plate-appearances but his power didn't suffer either, with his home run-rate increasing from 0.46 HR/10 PA to 0.60 HR/10 PA.

The exciting thing about Acuna, in both fantasy and real life, is that 2019 isn't necessarily his high watermark because Acuna is young, fun, and doesn't look like he'll stop running anytime soon. That is, unless the Braves go off and sign a leadoff hitter, moving Acuna (and his stolen bases, presumably) back down to fourth. As things stand now, the Braves' cleanup options in 2020 are Austin Riley and Nick Markakis, with the Braves playing Riley at third and pairing Ender Inciarte with Acuna and Markakis in the outfield.

With only $89 million on the books in 2020, will Atlanta stand pat with this arrangement until top-prospects Christian Pache and Drew Waters arrive to reinforce the outfield, spending their money on pitching instead? Or could they sign someone to play third base or outfield; and if so, where would that person bat? Surely, the Braves will leave well enough alone and leave Acuna at leadoff, but those drafting before Atlanta has made their free-agent decisions need to be aware of how much his value could change if he drops in the lineup.

Brother Christian Keeps Motoring

While taking Acuna over Trout may be a popular pick this year, taking Christian Yelich likely won't be. Unlike Acuna, it's harder to project more production than the $40.30 that Yelich earned in 2019, but does he even need to improve to be worth a pick over Trout? Remember that Yelich was earning at virtually the same rate prior to missing the last 17 games of the season with a knee injury and was arguably a better baseball player in 2019 than he was in 2018 when he ended the year as fantasy baseball's second-highest earner.

Season $$ PA  $/PA  HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG K% BB% wOBA
2018 45.7 651 0.070 36 118 110 22 0.326 0.402 0.598 20.7% 10.4% 0.422
2019 40.3 580 0.069 44 100 97 30 0.329 0.429 0.671 20.3% 13.8% 0.442

A pessimist could point to impending regression due to a 32.8% HR/FB and a .355 BABIP but an optimist would point out that while high, both numbers are lower than 2018's marks and that a change in approach may help sustain both rates. Yelich not only had career-highs in launch-angle, Barrel%, Pull%, and Hard%, he also had a top-3% barrel-rate and a career-low groundball-rate. And a visit to Baseball Savant shows that maybe this isn't just a two-year mirage, with Yelich posting an exit velocity in the top-3% of the league and x-stats that were all in the top 2% or better.

Season Brl% EV LA xBA xSLG wOBA xwOBA xwOBAc
2018 12.9 92.3 4.7 0.327 0.572 0.422 0.418 0.500
2019 15.8 93.1 11.2 0.314 0.623 0.442 0.421 0.501

There may have been deserved trepidation after Yelich's breakout in 2018 but after putting up virtually identical production in 2019, at what point do we accept that this is what Yelich is and that there are few reasons to expect significant regression in his age-27 season? Just how elite has Yelich's production per plate-appearance been over the last two years? Since 2013, just five players have posted rates over $0.069/PA and Yelich has two of them.

 

To Trout, Or Not to Trout

That is the question, with a wrong answer bringing you not only fantasy hardships but also the immense shame your league-mates will inevitably cast down upon you. And with the increasing popularity of a Kentucky Derby Style draft lottery system, players have more control of where they will pick, thereby increasing their chances of having to answer this question in the first place. If your league is using a KDS system and if you're confident in valuing Acuna and Yelich at or above Trout, then why set your preference to pick number one, when you can get a guy you want at number-three and get to pick sooner coming back around?

Or, just pick Trout first, wrap yourself in that sweet chinchilla and be confident that there's almost zero chance that it'll blow up in your face. Will you take the safest path and bank the straight-cash that Trout virtually guarantees?  Or forego safety and blaze a gambling trail, reaching instead for the heights of $45 and beyond? Whatever the choice, here's hoping your trail ends in Oregon and the Willamette Valley, not in dysentery and death.

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