In this offseason column, I’ll be taking both sides of a classic dilemma facing fantasy owners every draft: do I go for broke with upside or take the safer bet?
For me, my teams always look fairly similar, with an offense of safe bets and maybe a Giancarlo Stanton or other high volatility middle rounder to go with a pitching staff that has at least one sure-thing closer taken in the top-100 picks.
But following 2020, a season where that strategy really let me down, I figured it was time to at least consider breaking the mold. And that’s where Floor to Ceiling comes in. In each article, I’ll break down two players that play the same position that is within 10-20 draft picks and try to determine which to take.
Sure, team construction will come into play, but this should help serve as a guide as you build your ideal team, and will point out reasons to buy the hype or decide that the risk isn’t worth it.
This week, I’ll be starting off with two of the more polarizing figures in baseball, shortstops from the AL Central, Adalberto Mondesi (ADP 28) and Tim Anderson (ADP 39). Mondesi, a 25 homer, 50 steal threat, is entering his sixth season in the MLB at 25 years old, with all of the upsides in the world. He’ll represent the ceiling.
Tim Anderson, the 27-year-old from East Central College in Mississippi, who almost chose basketball over baseball coming out of high school, represents the floor, and quite possibly a ceiling only surpassed by Mondesi amongst shortstops drafted near him. Over the past two seasons, Anderson has hit .331, winning the 2019 batting title and finishing seventh in baseball AVG in 2020.
Anderson only represents the floor in this debate simply because of how well the underlying numbers support his high average, and because he has proven that his speed and power are no flukes either, even as injuries and the pandemic have kept him from joining the 20-20 club since his mini-breakout in 2018.
On the flip side, Mondesi has failed to play more than 102 games at any point in his career, though he’s certainly spent more time in the bigs at 25 years old than Anderson had at that age. His upside comes not only from his obvious skills but also because he is young enough to expand on that upside.
Let’s start with establishing floors for the pair. To do so, we’ll take a look at their expected stats, worst seasons to date, and their injury histories, along with some of the underlying numbers that can help us see what potential roadblocks could keep them from reaching their respective ceilings, as lofty as they are for both.
The Basement vs. The Second Story
Adalberto Mondesi’s floor is low, not necessarily for a full season, but certainly for stretches. This was evident in 2020, as he hit .179 in 95 ABs without a home run in August; the speedster did steal seven bases in that time but was also caught four times. He turned it on in September and October though, nearly doubling his hits with a .356 AVG to go along with 16 steals and 42 R+RBI in 90 AB.
That stretch was enough to win managers their leagues, in Head-to-Head Category leagues especially. But even for that incredible final stretch, he still struck out a lot. After punching out 30 times in August, he struck out another 28 times during his best stretch. On the season, that meant a 30% strikeout rate, consistent with his career marks. His walk-rate was also right along with his career marks, and he’s never walked over 5% in his career.
That strikeout rate, and all of the causes behind it, really are what end up destroying his floor. And that floor becomes apparent, especially in the batting average department, when comparing him to Anderson.
Anderson, like Mondesi, sports a low walk-rate. In 2020, the pair had two of the lowest in the game, finishing amongst the bottom 7% of the league with walk rates below 5%. While a low walk-rate is not a death sentence in terms of fantasy production, it certainly puts a cap on your ability to get on base when you’re struggling at the plate. This manifests itself in Mondesi’s game with a lot of strikeouts, and an OPS that consistently underwhelms, despite strong batted ball numbers. But for Anderson, he’s the only hitter from 2020 with a BB% under 5% that still had an OPS over .850, rocking a .886.
How did Anderson succeed where Mondesi failed, and who else can slot into this comparison to provide context? How about Mondesi’s base-stealing teammate Whit Merrifield? Like our pair of shortstops, Merrifield had a sub-5% walk rate. Merrifield is also a notable batting average threat, like Anderson. The second baseman hit .282 last season, though his xBA was .292 in 2020, good for a top 10% mark league-wide. Anderson’s xBA was .293. Mondesi’s, representing his nearly bottomless floor, was a meager .208.
That terrifying number really is what does a better job than any in showing us why Mondesi’s floor makes him almost untouchable, especially as a player going in the top-30 picks in ADP. But let’s dig in a little more. How can a player who’s hit .265 over his last three seasons like Mondesi represent such a low batting average floor?
The answer lies in the strike zone. And out of it.
Let’s bring back this comparison of Anderson, Merrifield, and Mondesi. Out of the three, Mondesi actually swung at the highest percentage of pitches inside the zone, though all three were between 71% and 76%, a relatively insignificant gap. The real difference is in how well they hit on pitches inside the zone.
Mondesi, who already struggles to get on base via walks, swung and missed at 31.9% of pitches inside the zone. Compare this to Anderson’s 23.2% mark, and better yet to Merrifield’s stellar 11.5%, and you can begin to see why a 5% walk-rate does not make all three players equally out of control when it comes to handling the strike zone. Here’s how they stacked up league-wide.
Things only get worse for Mondesi moving outside the zone. Again, his swing% on pitches outside the zone is roughly the same as that of Merrifield and Anderson. And again, he just swings and misses outside of the zone at a much higher rate than either of them, sporting a 56.3% mark compared to Anderson’s 43.6% and Merrifield’s 23.5%. To add insult to injury, Mondesi sports an outlandish 12.6% pop-up rate, compared to 1.3% for Anderson and 4.6% for Merrifield, which helps explain his xBA as well.
So far, we’ve compared Mondesi only to Merrifield and Anderson directly, which may come across as unfair. Even though they essentially share a walk-rate, Anderson and Merrifield are notable batting average successes and Mondesi is more of a power threat. So to provide a more fair, league-wide context, let’s review Mondesi’s whiff rates on pitches inside and outside the zone compared to the rest of the league.
Mondesi’s zone swing and miss% is second only to Keston Hiura and is higher than Joey Gallo’s. No surprise that none of those three had an xBA over .210 or an OPS over .707 in 2020. Mondesi’s outside the zone swing and miss% is less daunting, as Nelson Cruz, AL Rookie of the Year Kyle Lewis, and Brandon Lowe all had higher marks despite carrying an OPS over .800, and for Cruz and Lowe, over .900.
Simply put, you can’t be a high floor player without being able to hit pitches inside the zone and without taking walks, especially when your hard-hit rate and barrel rate are right at league average, so you can’t be expected to make up for a lack of contact with power.
Vaulted Ceilings vs. The College Dorm
2020 was the year of “Dad Power” in Major League Baseball. From Mike Trout to A.J. Pollock, players who had a kid during the season came out and hit homers and simply raked upon returning to the game. Anderson put together a similar season in 2019.
After coming off the paternity list in early April, Anderson went on to power through a right ankle sprain that sidelined him for a month to hit .335/.357/.508 with 18 home runs and 17 steals. His .865 OPS put him ahead of fellow shortstop Francisco Lindor that season, and those 17 steals vaulted him over Mookie Betts, all in just 123 games.
The complete breakout saw Anderson climb out of Mondesi territory in terms of expected stats, as his xBA shot up from .228 to .296 thanks to a 10-percentage-point jump in hard hit%. Sure, his strikeout and walk numbers really didn’t change, but his K%, down to league average at 21%, was already solid. His BB%, in the bottom 1% of the league at 2.9%, nearly doubled in 2020 back to 2018 levels. And you really don’t need to walk if you’re just smacking singles and doubles instead. If Anderson can take a step forward in that area though, maybe a .900+ OPS could be in order.
Mondesi’s ceiling on the other hand is a completely different story. As mentioned earlier, Mondesi is the type of hitter who can hit Anderson’s season-long steals total in one month, and who can blast as many home runs as Anderson in just two months. Sure, his ceiling may be slightly lower than Anderson’s in the runs and RBI departments due to Kansas City’s offensive woes, but he certainly could be a four-category contributor at least, pitching in for a fifth only if that batting average remains stable at around .250.
And despite the aforementioned plate discipline numbers for Mondesi, he really could have some room to grow in batting average, especially if you use Anderson as an example. Here’s a chart from Fangraphs comparing the two shortstops in AVG by season, depending on their age.
You’ll notice Mondesi really doesn’t stray too far from Anderson if you compare them by age. You may also notice how Anderson really took off right around age 26. If that sort of leap is in the cards for Mondesi, which it certainly might be if he can gain control of the plate, he’d be an MVP-caliber player. I wouldn’t count on it but it’s fun to dream on Mondesi’s ceiling.
The Verdict: Take the Safer Bet, At Least for 2021
Based on those underlying numbers and age comparisons, Mondesi really does look to be poised for a breakthrough if he can stay on the field, even for 120 or 130 games. That might be all it takes for him to reach a 30 homer, 60 steal season, vaulting him into the first round in 2022 drafts. But until we’re shown that upside is attainable and not just a pipe dream blocked by a high strikeout rate, abysmal walk rate, and overall lack of consistency, we shouldn’t pay that price.
If you’re in a Head-to-Head League, especially one that’s a 12-team or deeper, you really should stay off of Mondesi for 2021. The steals may not be replicable at any point in the draft, but through picks like Anderson, Whit Merrifield, and Starling Marte, and maybe even a rebound season from Javier Baez, you can make those steals up with a very high AVG floor and solid counting stats.
But if you are in a shallow H-2-H league, or better yet in a season-long Roto, you may decide to take the shot, and it would be justified. Just make sure to keep roster construction top of mind, especially in the later rounds. Taking Mondesi might mean you have to pass on power sell-outs like Rhys Hoskins and Joey Gallo in favor of players with a secure batting average, even if they are lacking in steals. Guys like Alex Verdugo (NFBC ADP 126) and Michael Brantley (ADP 164) will be necessary for the later rounds to save you during the weeks where Mondesi bottoms out with an 0-30.
Taking Anderson provides far more security. Even if he isn’t likely to single-handedly win you a week with seven steals in as many games, or blast five homers and nab five bags, Anderson should keep you in the hunt for a Roto title, especially due to his AVG, and his walk-rate seems to be improving, which coupled with a high AVG, should keep you afloat in a Points league as well, especially compared to the sub-.300 OBPs put up by Mondesi over his last two seasons.
In my view, Anderson will be the way to go for most owners. Unless you’re going for an all-upside offense, Anderson is likely to be a five-category contributor in the top 10-15%tile in steals and batting average, even in a down year where he misses 30-50 games to injury as he did in 2019. His plate skills are only improving, with all indications pointing to a modest jump in OBP thanks to a keener eye at the plate. If he goes 25-25 in 2020, you probably won’t be too mad if you miss out on Mondesi, especially when your league mates complain during his inevitable down month(s).
Save yourself the trouble, take the safer bet in this case with the 10-pick discount, and save your risk for the later rounds with outfielders, who are easier to replace on the wire mid-season.