High-Stakes Leagues Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Hitters (2023)
“High stakes” may mean something different to you than it does to me. It’s all relative. I spend the bulk of my time at the NFBC in various formats. In all, I am entering my third year of competition on that site, so hopefully, I have something of value to share with the masses with regard to drafting hitters in the context of deep leagues (think 50 rounds, draft-and-holds). If you’re unfamiliar, the draft-and-hold format means just that–you have to hold everyone on your rosters, as there are no free-agent acquisitions. In short, you’re making all your additions and throwing your darts on saves men and streamers during your draft. It’s an exciting format that (theoretically) can be good for those who are prepared.
I’ll attempt to break this up by rounds for the sake of not causing anyone’s eyes to bleed. And in general, I’m operating on the assumption of a 15-team, 50-round, draft-and-hold league. Therefore, January Draft Champions ADP is what I’ll be referencing. There have been 16 such drafts completed since January 1, which gives us a nice sample size of how players are being drafted so far in the new year.
High-Stakes Fantasy Baseball League Strategy: Hitters
Round 1: Get Your Cornerstone Hitter
Corbin Burnes is the only pitcher being drafted in Round 1, with an ADP of 14.69. Essentially, he’s the 15th player off the board on average, with Manny Machado (15.94) in strong consideration right behind him. But the other 14 spots ahead of Burnes are going to hitters, and there’s no reason not to draft your offensive stalwart in Round 1, especially if yours is an early or mid-round pick.
For my part, I am a fan of either Jose Ramirez or Bobby Witt Jr. if I find myself towards the front or the middle of Round 1. Both offer an enticing blend of power and speed while being eligible at one of the thinnest positions in fantasy baseball. Ramirez could crush 30 homers with plenty of speed, while Witt Jr. could give us 30 steals with plenty of power. I’m also a fan of Witt Jr.’s 3B/SS eligibility and the ability to have options later on in the draft.
If I find myself towards the end of Round 1, I am looking for Bo Bichette. I thought he was underrated already, but the recent news of Rogers Centre’s new dimensions only makes me more of a fan. The right-center field alley is expected to be shortened from 375 feet to just 357 feet, and Bichette is a noted opposite-field hitter. For reference, Bichette’s 33.9% opposite field rate in 2022 trailed only Myles Straw and D.J. LeMahieu. Also, Bichette ranked inside the top 10% of the league in hard-hit rate, average EV, and expected batting average last season. Add in his perch atop the vaunted Blue Jays lineup and ability to offer some steals, and I’m all over him at the end of Round 1 in 2023.
I don’t think you can go wrong with any of the Round 1 hitters. They are first-round picks for a reason, and you probably aren’t losing your draft this early unless you suffer ill fortune. I know I didn’t mention drafting one of the stud Round 1 outfielders, but I have outfield targets that I like in Rounds 2-5.
Mike Trout in Round 2
Mike Trout is a superb pick in Round 2. There are only five active hitters inside the top 20 on the all-time at-bat per home run list, and they are Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Kyle Schwarber, Mike Trout, and Matt Olson. Aside from Stanton, all are being drafted inside the top 5 rounds in 2023. None have the track record or the floor that Mike Trout offers, however. And that’s the Mike Trout argument in a nutshell…floor. Even if he misses time in the coming season, the quality that he will give you when healthy is unparalleled.
Trout crushed 40 home runs in just 119 games in 2022, mostly in keeping with Aaron Judge’s historic pace. For reference, Aaron Judge hit a home run every 9.19 at-bats last season, while Trout was nipping at his heels with a homer every 10.95 at-bats. None of the rest of the top five home run hitters from last year were truly close to the top two. Kyle Schwarber (12.54) and Yordan Alvarez (12.70) were the next closest.
One final caveat: Mike Trout’s 24.6-degree average launch angle in 2022 was nearly double his 12.9-degree mark from 2021. That said, he was limited to just 76 batted ball events in ’21, and the two years prior, he was over 22 degrees on average. This is an overall departure from his earlier average launch angles when he would hover around 18 degrees on average. His strikeout rates have risen a tad as a result, but I’m all for this power focus from Trout, who still managed a .265 xBA last year despite a 27.9% strikeout rate. His .527 XWOBACON ranked inside the top 2% of the league…so if he whiffs more, it doesn’t matter when he’s blistering the ball as he does. Maybe Trout isn’t a “plus plus” guy in batting average, but at worst, he’s just a plus. Plus, more dingers? Sign me up.
Hitter-heavy in the first 10 Rounds
My general approach is to draft seven hitters inside my first 10 picks this year. Pitching is currently pushed down a bit and in more plentiful supply than I recall it being in recent seasons. It’s crazy to me to land an ace like Kevin Gausman around pick 60, but there is a bevy of great arms littered all over every round leading up to Round 10. In Round 10, you can still draft guys like Lance Lynn, Luis Garcia, Freddy Peralta, and Lucas Giolito. I think those guys are quality SP3s, or I could double-tap in that area if I felt I needed to do so. The point is, I’m trying to shore up the middle infield and have the foundation of my outfield all set before I exit the first ten rounds. I’m willing to get creative at catcher and first base, as well as at reliever. So my overall focus is the thin positions of second and third base and not missing out on at least a couple of trustworthy outfielders.
Rounds 3 and 4: Randy Arozarena, Ozzie Albies, Cedric Mullins
One early outfield target for me is Randy Arozarena in Round 3, which is a nice way to add more speed to my lineup if I draft Trout in Round 2. Arozarena has back-to-back 20/20 seasons under his belt, and last year he exploded for 32 steals. He showed some encouraging signs in his plate discipline from 2021 to 2022 by increasing his contact rate and decreasing his swinging strike rate. He did this while swinging more, which to me, is exciting. He also basically stood pat with regard to his hard-hit rate and set a career-high max EV mark at 114.1 MPH (94th percentile). He’s only 27 years old, and he’s slated to bat leadoff for Tampa Bay. He’s also a career .269 hitter who batted .263 last season despite a pedestrian (for him) .325 BABIP. Most projection systems give Arozarena a .255 or so average for the coming year, and I think that’s a stellar floor when you consider his power and speed potential. Don’t overthink things.
After Arozarena, I’m a fan of a fourth-round second baseman, namely one Ozzie Albies. Marcus Semien and Jose Altuve will probably be drafted in Round 3, and my preference for Albies over Jazz Chisholm Jr. works in my favor, as Chisholsm Jr. is typically drafted first of the two. I have already documented my Albies preference in my first pass at second base rankings. In short, I think Albies has a greater floor and the same upside.
Another player that stands out is Cedric Mullins. He’s one contingency if I miss out on Albies. Outfield has plenty of depth in the later rounds, but I want a couple of outfielders early on if possible. Corbin Carroll is another excellent (and speedy) target in Round 5 if I miss out on an outfielder in the first four rounds.
Round 6: The Last of the Hot Corner (Alex Bregman and Gunnar Henderson)
The title says it all. If you miss out on an elite third baseman, this round is likely your last chance to roster one without significant fleas. There are eight third basemen being selected inside the top 90 or so picks. Afterward, there isn’t another player with third-base eligibility off the draft board until some 50 picks later. Try not to miss out, and be wary of these two getting pushed up in ADP, as many drafters will consider them to be the edge of the third base cliff.
Round 7: Shortstop Central (Tim Anderson or Wander Franco)
I prefer to draft one of the trio of Xander Bogaerts-Tim Anderson-Wander Franco around pick 90. If I miss out, the trio of Jeremy Pena–Amed Rosario–Carlos Correa is my backup plan starting around pick 115. I can’t deny that my primary guy is Tim Anderson, though. This early in a draft, I am still on the prowl for impact speed. After Round 7 (around pick 100), I start to come off of that speed focus for a bit.
Rounds 8-10: The Lumber
I’m a fan of Nathaniel Lowe in Round 8, as the last of what I view as the more trustworthy first basemen. I’m also still not ready to give up on his ability to chip in with a little speed, not after he stole eight bags in 2021. He was 8-for-8 that season and 2-for-2 last season. His projection in most systems is four steals this year, for reference. He’s also a nice blend of power and batting average and playing in what should be an improving Texas Rangers lineup.
In Round 9, It’s a great time to snag my first catcher if I haven’t done so, as Sean Murphy, William Contreras, or Tyler Stephenson should be available. My preference here is Murphy due to his track record and the fact that he didn’t finish last season injured. I expect Travis d’Arnaud to eat into his opportunities, but Murphy’s defense will keep him in the lineup frequently. Additionally, the Braves have never minded batting their catchers fifth or sixth, and I expect that to continue to be the case this year as players like Eddie Rosario, Marcell Ozuna, and Vaughn Grissom round out the bottom of the Atlanta lineup.
Round 10 (for me) is all about Giancarlo Stanton. This is a way to swing for the fences, and it won’t cost you an early pick. I think Stanton’s 150 ADP is a gift. He still ranks inside the top 2% of the majors in nearly every quality of contact metric, including barrel rate, average EV, max EV, and hard-hit rate. He has appeared in 139 and 110 games over the last two seasons and bashed 35 and 31 homers in those two years, respectively. Additionally, I think the Yankees have learned not to trot him out into the field, as he’ll occupy the DH slot while Harrison Bader and some combination of Aaron Hicks/Oswaldo Cabrera man the other two outfield spots. If he were a catcher, we’d be all giddy over an impact bat that didn’t have to catch every day. Instead, he’s one of the elite batted-ball quality monsters in the game, and you don’t have to spend a premium pick to get him.
Rounds 11-25: Mix and Match
To round out the first half of any draft-and-hold, I am likely only rostering about nine or 10 pitchers…maybe even less if I feel I can get away with it or if I have the positional flex of a guy like Shohei Ohtani. The point is, through the first half of the draft, my emphasis is on hitters. In Rounds 11-15, I’m probably adding a corner infielder, another outfielder, and probably a second catcher. Jose Miranda is an excellent target due to his skill set and his 1B/3B flexibility. Ke’Bryan Hayes is a nice corner infielder choice if I’m lagging in steals. Seth Brown is a guy I don’t want to miss on if I’m desperate for corner infield or outfield help, so long as I can cover for his batting average.
There is solid middle infield depth around Rounds 15-17 that I don’t want to miss out on in Ketel Marte, Bryson Stott, Jean Segura, and Kolten Wong. If loading up on hitting depth means I have to stream or manipulate the bottom end of my pitching staff each week, so be it. I would rather have a floor of at-bats to work with. In general, I trust that I can hit on pitchers in the second half of my drafts who will have varying degrees of usefulness.
Leading up to Round 20 is a great time to look at outfielders like Esteury Ruiz, Lane Thomas, or Brandon Marsh. Afterward, guys like Luis Garcia (WAS) and Alex Kirilloff are enticing. Kirilloff is a great way to take a shot on some upside after pick 325 or so, and the sort of pick I prefer to make instead of spending an early-round pick on the same injury-prone profile.
Rounds 26-50: Streamers, rookie hitters, saves darts
It’s not the focus of today, but the second half of my draft-and-holds will generally feature more arms being selected. There are way too many names to list, but I’ll say there are a lot of outfielders that I like in this half of the draft. Michael Brantley has an ADP of 400 for reference. Oscar Colas, the left-handed potential starting right fielder for the Chicago White Sox, is another example. Leading up to Round 30, you won’t want to miss out on potential impact rookies in Spencer Steer, Brett Baty, and Elly De La Cruz. Cruz punished Double-A in the second half of 2022, and there’s a reasonable argument that he begins 2023 at the Triple-A level.
Other names I enjoy much later in drafts (say, past Round 35) are Ji-Man Choi, Elehuris Montero, Kyle Manzardo, Franmil Reyes, Jarren Duran, Bobby Dalbec, Kyle Lewis, Jake Burger, Jesus Aguilar, Sam Huff, Aaron Hicks, and Romy Gonzalez. That’s just me spitballin’. And that’s not an inspiring group…right? The original point remains. Be sure to draft your hitters early and often in 2023 fantasy baseball.
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