The “first base is terrible” narrative is a real thing and it is being continuously hammered home across many articles and podcasts across the fantasy media spectrum. To an extent, I get it. Like many others, I really want to own an elite first baseman this year. There is a steep advantage to having a stud at the position and there is going to be a team in every league that faces a steep climb at the first base position.
However, I would also contend that the 1B position provides ample quality at utility and for corner infield options. And if you have the benefit of daily lineup changes – as opposed to weekly – you can really wait at first base and play the platoons. During our first base podcast, I highlighted the trio of Justin Bour, Brandon Moss and Lucas Duda as a collection of affordable 1B. I still maintain that using two of those three in combination could produce quality fantasy results. However, today, I want to highlight Justin Bour (ADP: 307.29), who has no hype despite making some sneaky improvements last year.
A former Rule 5 selection, Justin Bour never had any prospect buzz. This is reinforced by his FanGraphs player page, which provides him with a Future Value grade of 40 – meaning a below average regular. With just 1.8 career WAR, it is possible that the FV grade might be correct, but we are not concerned with his real-life value. We want to know if Bour can be a fantasy asset.
Last season, in 321 PA, Bour hit 15 homers and triple-slashed .264/.349/.475. His season suffered from a two-month interruption between the beginning of July and the beginning of September due to a high ankle sprain. As Bour did not hit a homer after returning from the injury and was likely affected by the injury, we are left to ponder what Bour’s season might have been had he not been injured. 15 home runs in 242 PA with a .873 OPS indicates that Bour might have been onto something special pre-injury. Does the underlying data indicate that these results may have been sustainable?
In that pre-injury stretch, Bour was making ample hard contact – 37.9% – with a 42.6% pull rate. His GB/FB ratio of 1.19 was less than ideal and his HR/FB rate 24.2% hinted at regression. The HR/FB ratio would have been 7th best in the league right between Mark Trumbo and Chris Carter. Now, before we brush this off as small sample noise, remember that HR/FB rate hits its stabilization point at at approximately 50 flyballs – between the start of the season and July 2 – Bour hit 62 flyballs. Further, recall that Bour posted a HR/FB rate of 21.5% in 2015 and the HR/FB rate league-wide was up 1.4% last year. If you give 2015 Bour that boost, he’s at 22.9%, just a stones-throw from where he was pre-injury. Is it possible that Bour was rounding into a near-elite power hitter and was only undone by injury? I would say so.
The Marlins certainly seem to think Bour has something special going on – Don Mattingly was quoted in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel as stating the following about Bour: “We think there’s a lot in the tank with this guy. He brings fear to the lineup.” Now, that certainly could be a manager talking a player up, but it is nonetheless positive buzz surrounding Bour.
In terms of StatCast data, Bour is keeping very interesting company, but his closest comp is Yoenis Cespedes, who has hit 69 homers over the last two season. When I say closest, I mean he is nearly identical, see below:
|Player||AVG EV||AVG FB/LD EV||AVG HR DIST||BRLS/BBE||BRLS/PA|
You don’t need me to tell you that table is extremely promising for Bour.
Another explanation for Bour’s pre-injury bump in HR/FB percentage could be his improved discipline at the plate. Bour became more patient and selective at the dish, which is illustrated in the results – a 11.8% BB% and a 17.4% K%. Bour swung less outside the zone – 2.7% less – and made more contact overall 77.6% Contact% and cut his swinging strike rate from 11.2% to 9.6%. These minor improvements could be simple variation or the signs of a player incrementally improving year-over-year.
Lastly, let’s not forget that Marlins brought the fences in at home last year. According to Baseball Prospectus, the HR park factor for left-handed hitters jumped from an 87 to 96 last year. In 2016, Bour hit 9 of 15 at home compared to 10 of his 23 at home in 2015.
This all sounds spectacular and for the most part, I think a lot of what Bour was doing pre-injury was sustainable improvement. However, there is one major caveat that comes with Bour’s production from last year and potential for this upcoming season: almost all of Bour’s 2016 production came against right-handed pitching.
Bour received just 30 PA appearances against lefties last season and hit for a .233/.233/.300 triple-slash in that tiny sample. We can chalk that up to a small sample, but it’s par for his career course – 110 PA, no homers, .223/.273/.291 triple-slash with a 5.5% BB% and 32.7% K%. Despite this lack of success in that limited sample, the Marlins want to see if Bour can figure out lefties and plan to play him everyday according to early reports. If Bour can figure them out, he could become an asset in all leagues. Remember that 110 PA is still a small sample and that Bour could improve with increased exposure to left handed pitching.
However, this will lower Bour’s appeal in weekly lineup leagues, where his numbers could be dragged down based upon increased exposure to lefties. In daily lineup leagues, Bour owners can avoid lefties early in the season and then reap the benefits later if Bour is starting to figure them out, while taking advantage of his great production against right-handed pitchers in the mean time.
Despite this apparent downside, Bour appeared to be in the midst of a breakout beyond what most prognosticators ever saw for him. If he carries over what he was doing in the first half of last season, we might have a top ten first fantasy first baseman going after pick 300.
Justin Bour welcome to the Villar Village!
My projection for Justin Bour is: 149 GP, 72 R, 27 HR, 94 RBI, .251/.337/.479