Sleepers for RBI (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Statistical advances have made the average fantasy baseball manager smarter than ever before. At the same time, most leagues continue to count the simplest numbers.
Unfortunately, the typical fantasy league doesn’t directly award someone for possessing a blood-shot red Statcast page. Too many formats only judge hitters by categories widely ignored when weighing their real-life worth.
That especially applies to RBI. The hallmark for evaluating hitters decades ago is now widely viewed as overrated currency. And rightly so. Batting behind teammates adept at reaching base isn’t a skill, and production with runners in scoring position rarely sticks on a year-to-year-basis.
This isn’t a case of shouting “Neeerrrdddd!” out the window to anyone who embraces analytics. It’s just a reminder to also consider the basic stuff.
Sometimes a boring dude with middling metrics still gets parked into the cleanup role. Eric Homer has one more RBI (402) than Mike Trout since the start of 2016. He’s obviously not a better hitter, but lineup placement and durability have led to continued success in the category.
With this in mind, many of the RBI sleepers aren’t exciting, young upstarts, but unheralded veterans at the right place at the right time. Most of them are getting undervalued because of poor 2020 campaigns, presenting great buy-back opportunities for steady performers capable of driving in ample runners.
Average Draft Position (ADP) referenced is FantasyPros consensus ADP.
Carlos Santana (1B – KC): 243.6 ADP
Santana averaged 85 RBIs per season from 2014 to 2019. He was on pace for 81 despite batting .199 last season. That’s what happens when you get to bat fourth every day — and that’s no exaggeration, as he slotted fourth in all 60 games.
The Royals could take a different path; Salvador Perez, Jorge Soler, Hunter Dozier, and Andrew Benintendi are all middle-of-the-order candidates. Roster Resource nevertheless projects Santana to ride his veteran experience to the cleanup role. Hardly a has-been, Santana hit .281/.397/.515 in 2019 and notched a wRC+ of 107 or higher in 10 straight seasons before 2020. Santana could instead leverage his keen batting eye to set the table, but Kansas City seems to prefer speedsters at top.
Eduardo Escobar (2B/3B – ARI): 262.4 ADP
Perhaps this is a lazy choice, as Escobar etched out 118 RBIs in his last full season. However, confirmation bias has transformed him from a bust to a bargain.
Nobody expected Escobar to duplicate his 2019 breakout. Aside from the lofty RBI total, he mashed a career-high 35 homers in 699 plate appearances. His previous single-season highs were 23 homers and 84 RBIs, but both of those marks came in 2018. Those would be perfectly fine results at his deflated cost.
Since most anticipated a 2020 decline, nobody is questioning the extent. While he’s not as great as his 2019 showing, he’s also not as awful as last season’s .212/.270/.335 slash line. For all of the jokes made about Best Shape of My life stories, losing 20 pounds with a diet change means a professional athlete reliant on his body got more fit. That’s a good thing.
Escobar is locked into a starting job, and Kole Calhoun’s knee surgery could open up the third or fourth slot in Arizona’s batting order. Consider the 32-year-old a good bet for 80 RBIs with an outside chance at 90 if catching some breaks.
Ryan McMahon (1B/2B/3B – COL): 255.2 ADP
C.J. Cron (1B – COL): 311.8 ADP
Drafters should jolt awake and draft Cron far earlier after he signed with the Rockies. In 2019, he recorded 78 RBIs in 125 games for the Twins, who do not play their home games in Coors Field. Now he could bat fourth or fifth behind Raimel Tapia, Trevor Story, and Charlie Blackmon in the hitter’s paradise. He’s gone as early as pick 137 in NFBC drafts since joining the Rockies.
If Cron doesn’t clean up, McMahon likely will. Even with the Colorado advantage, he’s a career .237/.318/.423 hitter with a 30.8% strikeout rate. His value would be non-existent anywhere else. However, he’s not anywhere else. The Rockies seem especially committed to him after dealing Nolan Arenado, so McMahon would get enough playing time to produce 80 0r more RBIs. It also helps that he’s eligible at three infield spots.
Avisaíl García (OF – MIL): 333.0 ADP
We got another BSOML tale from a 2019 breakout player who crumbled in 2020. After posting 20 homers and 10 steals, García batted .238/.333/.326 with just two long balls and one steal during the 60-game campaign.
How does he plan on rebounding? García showed up to camp over 30 pounds trimmer.
"My body feels way better, I've got more energy and I'm feeling good, man."
— FOX Sports Wisconsin (@fswisconsin) February 26, 2021
If his newfound fitness isn’t enough to intrigue you, just remember his outlook last year. Having locked down a featured role in 2019, García netted a .351 expected wOBA — above his actual .334 clip — with a 40.3% hard-hit rate and 11.7% barrel rate. He didn’t hit the ball with nearly as much authority last year, but it’s a small sample size from a weird year.
At his best, García has the potential to make an impact in all five standard categories. Unfortunately, the Brewers hindered his path to playing time by signing Jackie Bradley Jr. Instead of having a likely role as a potential No. 5 hitter, García is now a fourth outfielder/platoon option barring an injury or last-second implementation of the universal DH. As a result, he’s now a late deep-league target and player to closely monitor on the waiver wire in shallower formats.
Alex Dickerson (OF – SF): 346.6 ADP
Playing time is fueling most of the other inclusions. Dickerson, on the other hand, is clearly in a platoon. He received just 12 plate appearances against lefties for a Giants squad assembled to play the splits. This limitation has him going outside of the top-300 picks in all leagues besides ESPN, where he has a 281 ADP.
The thing is, he’s awesome in his given role. Since making a comeback in 2019, Dickerson is hitting .299/.367/.561 against righties. Statcast compares his 2020 batted-ball profile to those of Manny Machado, Cody Bellinger, George Springer, and Kyle Tucker.
An active manager could make good use of Dickerson in a league with daily lineup changes. Play him when the platoon advantage beckons, and you could get a strong chunk of work from a part-time stud. He’ll likely also receive strong lineup placement when his name is called.
Josh Naylor (OF – CLE): 391.3 ADP
Opportunities were scarce in San Diego, but Cleveland played Naylor regularly after acquiring him in late August. He didn’t make much of the chance, going 14-for-61 with no home runs in 22 games.
The frugal franchise isn’t flush with options at first base and right field. Naylor should thus get one more opportunity to sink or swim. While the 23-year-old hasn’t yet succeeded in the majors, he possesses 70-grade raw power. In 2019, he sported a .936 OPS in Triple-A. Consider him a cheap post-hype sleeper for the bench of an AL-only or 15-team mixed league squad.
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