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High Risk/High Reward Hitters (2021 Fantasy Baseball)

There are two general ways you can go when investing for the future. You can take your money and go big, throwing a lot in an investment that could either hit the moon in a month or crash to zero before bedtime. Conversely, you can take the safer route, investing in slow-but-steady positive returns. This is the cryptocurrency vs. mutual fund question. If you throw your life savings on crypto, you could be owning a yacht next summer, or you could be moving back in with your parents next week. If you throw that money slowly into mutual funds, you’ll have a very happy retirement, but you’ll be definitely be getting up and going to work next Monday.

This isn’t InvestmentPro’s, and I am nothing in the financial blogging world, but if it were and I was, I’d tell you to just stop trying so hard, put your money somewhere safe and enjoy the compound interest. But this article is about fantasy baseball, where there’s much less to lose. So let’s throw off the training wheels and talk about a handful of hitters that will either send you to the top of the standings or flame out and send you to the cellar by May 1.

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Luis Robert (OF – CHW)
If you are a frequent reader of fantasy baseball content, you have probably already seen Robert being talked about as a potential 2021 bust. That has mainly to do with the 32.2% strikeout rate he posted last year. That’s a real concern when we’re talking about his batting average. I looked at every hitter with more than 200 PA’s and a strikeout rate above 30%, and the average batting average of those hitters is .225. Only two hitters have cleared a .270 batting average with a 30% strikeout rate and a full season’s worth of at-bats (Aaron Judge in 2017 and Kris Bryant in 2015). 

So yes, it’s ridiculous to project the guy to hit for a good batting average. However, we’re talking about 227 Major League plate appearances with Robert. He posted a 22.1% strikeout rate in AA and a 24.7% rate in AAA in 2019, and while it makes sense that you would see that grow as you take the step up to Major League pitching, the jump to 32% is a huge one. At age 23 and bursting with raw talent (this guy hit a ball at 116 miles per hour last year and stole 9 bags in 56 games), it’s not going to be a surprise if he brings that strikeout rate down towards the mid-twenties.  If he can do that, with the bat and foot speed he has, a .275 batting average is absolutely in reach.

Robert has an easy 30 homer, 20 steal upside with a high run and RBI ceiling in that White Sox lineup as well. Add on the best case scenario .275 batting average, and you’ve got a fantasy stud. You do have to absorb the risk of a .230 batting average to get it, though.

Keston Hiura (2B/1B – MIL)
This is almost the exact same story as Robert. A former top prospect with huge power and speed, but a nack for the strikeout. What makes Hiura a bit less appealing is that we’ve seen him strike out at a 30%+ rate for longer. He’s now played 143 Major League games and has a 32.3% strikeout rate. After his anomalous 2019 season where he managed a .303 batting average in 84 games, the batting average predictably plummeted in 2020 the whole way to .212. That made him a tough man to roster, even with the 13 homers and 32 RBI (a full-season pace of about 35 and 90). The running game also slowed with Hiura, as he stole just three bases in his 59 games, being caught stealing twice (just a 13 steal attempt pace).

So a useful batting average and a high steals total are harder to believe with Hiura than it is for Robert, but we are still looking at a potential 30/30 guy in a best-case scenario. A .212 batting average is also likely the lowest we’ll see from Hiura, as it’s just hard to do that even with a 32% strikeout rate. A reasonable projection is 30 homers, 90 RBI, 15 steals, and a .240 batting average, but a 40 homer, 25 steal, .270 batting average season is within the range of possible outcomes, so Hiura definitely qualifies as a high risk, high reward pick.

Teoscar Hernandez (OF – TOR)
Fitting the same profile, Hernandez has huge pop, some speed, but a 30%+ strikeout rate. He managed to hit .289 last year, which is probably an outlier outcome since his strikeout rate came in at 30.4%. The way he managed that was by hitting a ton of line drives when he was making contact. His 25.8% line-drive rate was one of the highest in the league, and if he could keep it there, then sure, he can hit for another .280 batting average, but I just don’t see that as being easily repeatable.

Hernandez has massive bat speed, showing off a maximum exit velocity of 116 with an average velocity on fly balls of 89, very impressive stuff. He’s also swiped 12 bases over the last two seasons (which have combined to make about a full season of plate appearances), so there are definite double-digit steals upside here. You can also pile on some RBIs to his projection with the Blue Jays’ much-improved lineup. The sky is the limit for Hernandez.

Yordan Alvarez (DH – HOU)
We all saw what this guy could do in 2019 when he hit .313 with 27 homers in 369 plate appearances while walking at a high rate (14%). He was one of the best hitters in the league after his call-up, but the injury bug limited his 2020 season to just nine plate appearances, and it’s a knee injury that seems like it could be a long-term lingerer. All of that combined with his likely DH-only eligibility has sent Alvarez’s ADP the whole way down into the eighties.

The risk is that his knee is still a problem, and he misses tons of time and/or the knee hurts his production when he’s on the field. The upside is that the knee is healed, and Alvarez gives you top 20 hitter numbers (he won’t steal bases, of course) at the cost of a 7th round pick. Good luck deciding what to do!

Dylan Moore (2B – SEA)
The Mariners young second baseman was electric for fantasy in the short 2020 season with eight homers, and 12 steals in just 159 plate appearances. That’s a 600-PA pace of 30 homers and 45 steals. His batting average came in at a non-crippling .255, and he posted a pretty strong on-base percentage at .358, aided by a better than average 8.8% walk rate.

The problem with Moore is, you guessed it, the strikeout. He struck out at a 27% clip after doing so at a 33% rate in 2019 (282 plate appearances). That makes the .255 batting average seem like a lucky outcome for the guy. The upside is a great source of steals later in the draft (ADP currently is at 111) while keeping you afloat in homers while slotting in at the very tough-to-fill second base position. The downside is he does nothing but steal bases and nukes your team’s batting average.

Giancarlo Stanton (DH – NYY)
A perennial contender to make this list, I nearly left him off just because of his bottomed-out ADP of 121. Getting this guy after round ten takes away a lot of the risk that you had to take on by drafting him in years past, but only getting double-digit games out of anybody before round 20 is a killer, so he still qualifies here.

You know the upside, it’s a 50 homer guy, and you know the downside, it’s a guy that is hurt and completely useless. The good news is that the draft price more accurately reflects the risk this year, so it might finally be go-time on Stanton.

Shohei Ohtani (DH/SP – LAA)
This only applies to leagues where you can use Ohtani as both a hitter and a pitcher with one roster spot, but in those leagues, there is no higher-upside player than Ohtani. Many a fantasy manager in such a league last year drafted him with a premium pick to make sure they locked him up, and they know the taste of the downside better than anybody. Ohtani has had constant injury issues since 2018, not being able to pitch for the entire 2019 season and then making only two miserable starts before being shut down on that side of the ball for 2021.

The Angels will give him another shot in 2021 though, and the reports out of Spring Training so far are good. That restores Ohtani to the #1 slot in terms of upside. He can be a nine-category player, even while sitting two games a week – that is a player you want on your team, especially when you can get him at a relatively cheap price given his disastrous 2020 season.

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