NOTE: During the All-Star Break, we’re not doing our normal format of news coverage from all 30 teams. Instead, we’ll be providing insight over the next four days on each position, with an eye toward helping you reach your second half goals.
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Today’s insight is on catchers and first basemen. We’re going to do this in bulleted list format, with the order being based on the position rankings from ESPN’s Player Rater.
- J.T. Realmuto (#1) is for real, but his power numbers may come down a little bit due to a home run per fly ball rate of 16.7 percent, which is well above both his career average (10.5 percent) and his previous season-high (11.6 percent). Still, he has a career-high hard-hit percentage, and any home run drop will be offset by his continued dominance at the position in batting average.
- Yadier Molina (#5) is pulling the ball 52.3 percent of the time, far outpacing his career rate of 37.6 percent. But this is a trend that begin last year, when his pull rate jumped from the 35-37 percent range between 2013-2016 to 42.6 percent last year. Combined with a career-high hard-hit rate, and it isn’t a fluke that Molina has 13 homers in just 251 plate appearances. We could see him finishing with anywhere from 20 to 25, which would smash his previous career high of 22, which came in 563 plate appearances in 2012.
- Kurt Suzuki (#9) has arguably been unlucky despite proving that last year wasn’t a fluke. His home run per fly ball rate in 9.8 percent, despite a 42 percent fly ball rate and a 38 percent hard hit rate. With an overall contact rate of 85 percent and no real bad signs in his other discipline and batted ball skills, Suzuki just needs to get the 60-65 percent of the playing time pie with Tyler Flowers to challenge for a top five spot at the position.
- Tucker Barnhart (#16) gets some of the best volume playing time at the position and is on pace to pass his career highs in HR, RBI, and runs scored in mid-August. He’s improved his walk rate and cut his softly-hit ball rate. Based simply on that defense-aided playing time and his current numbers, he should finish in the top 12 at the position.
- Mike Zunino (#24) is our favorite high-risk/high-reward option at the position in the second half. He’s pulling the ball 58 percent of the time, an insanely-high rate, but with a 39.3 percent hard-hit rate and 47 percent fly balls, all he needs a stretch of good luck to put up 10 or more home runs in one month. The M’s have no realistic challenger for playing time and Zunino should be back in early August. He could end the last two months with a .240 average and 18 home runs, or he could hit .175 with 6 home runs. You’ll know if you can stomach that risk or not.
- This isn’t going out on too much of a limb, but we don’t see Jesus Aguilar finishing as the #2 player at this position. That’s not saying that we think everything he’s done so far is a fluke, but Aguilar’s .298 batting average is likely going to end up close to .280, and it is going to be very hard for him to maintain the home run to fly ball rate that has been hovering around 45 percent since mid-June, when he’s really gone on a power surge. He’s hitting .298 with 24 homers and 70 RBI right now. Our prediction is that he finishes at .280 with 35 homers and 118 RBI. That means he’s going to have to hit .259 the rest of the way with 11 homers and 38 RBI in about 230 at-bats; over a full-season pace, that’s still a pretty solid season, but not what he’s doing right now.
- On the surface, Ian Desmond (#4) may look due for regression that drops him well below his current ranking at the position, especially with an absurd 62.8 percent ground ball rate. But he’s still only hit 5 of his 18 home runs at the best hitter’s park in baseball, which happens to be his home ballpark, and the Rockies have 35 of their remaining 66 games at home; he also has some one of the best speed skill sets among first basemen, trailing only Eric Thames in the FanGraphs Speed Score metric this season, which gives us some hope that his current stolen base total of 11 ends up at around 17 or 18 when all is said and done.
- Justin Smoak (#19) closed the first half on a tear, with a 1.047 OPS over the last 30 days, which includes seven homers, nine doubles, and 18 RBI over a stretch of 92 plate appearances. Smoak’s hard-contact rate is down this year, but so is his soft-contact rate, and he’s making smarter choices about the pitches he attacks outside of the strike zone. His .245 batting average should come up closer to .260 to finish the season, and in addition to plenty of home games remaining, Smoak also gets 16 road games at power-friendly parks in Baltimore, Chicago, and New York. We think he’s got a good shot at finishing with 30 home runs and 100 RBI despite only having 16 and 52 now, respectively.
- Carlos Santana (#29) has a career-low strikeout rate (13.8 percent), a career-high walk rate (18.2 percent), and his batted-ball luck is so far skewed toward not only just unlucky, but also unusual compared to his career profile so far. While we’re a little bit concerned about his heavy shift toward fly balls that has destroyed his line-drive rate (13.5 percent, by far a career low), we still think Santana is due for a stretch of two weeks where he hits 5-6 home runs, and he’s got probably the highest upside amongst first basemen to give you a big boost in batting average the rest of the way.
- Jake Bauers is at #50 right now due to his late call-up, but we’re going out on a limb and saying he finishes in the top 30 amongst first basemen. He’s shown an incredibly advanced plate approach that seems to literally improve with every at-bat. Bauers is at .252 with five homers, 18 RBI, 25 runs, and two steals so far. We expect him to finish at around .265 with 14 homers, 50 RBI, 60 runs scored, and seven steals.