While it is true that you rarely win or lose a draft based on whom you select with the first overall pick, it's still important to set the tone for your draft by making a smart decision when granted the top spot on the board. Mike Trout and Jose Altuve are both great options as a fantasy franchise cornerstone, but if the draft starts, and you're on the clock, whom should you choose?
Our experts provide their picks for the No. 1 overall player in fantasy baseball for each of our three most popular league formats.
Head-to-head points -- click here for AJ Mass' top 300 rankings
In points leagues, when you check out the end-of-season scoring leaders, there are likely to be more starting pitchers in the top 50 than players from any other position on the field. For 2018, 40 hitters are projected to have 400-plus fantasy points in ESPN default scoring, and that's spread out all over the diamond. By comparison, 22 starting pitchers are projected for the same 400-plus total.
It's for this reason that, especially in terms of the elite arms, Clayton Kershaw and his fellow Cy Young candidate brethren tend to get a big bump in points league rankings, as compared to in category-based leagues, in which even the best of the best starting hurlers are destined to have a goose egg in the saves category, putting a ceiling on their maximum overall value compared to hitters. No such handicap exists in points leagues, which is why I often lean toward the No. 1 starting pitcher as the No. 1 overall selection.
However, in 2018, that isn't the case. Mike Trout, even though he missed close to 50 games last season with a thumb injury, was one of only nine members of 20-20 club -- and his 33 HRs were far and away the most of this group, despite his having only 507 PA on the season.
Assuming a healthy 2018, there's little reason not to expect a final stat line in the neighborhood of 40 HRs, 100 runs, 100 RBIs and 20 steals. Throw into the mix that Trout has seen his BB/K rate rise for four consecutive seasons, to the point that in 2017 he had more walks than strikeouts for the first time in his career, and we're looking at a points-league player to which there are few rivals.
While it's true that you can never predict injuries, and I tend to shy away from trying to bake the risk of a player getting hurt into my overall rankings, it's hard to ignore the chance that Clayton Kershaw's back won't allow him to get through 2018 without his missing any starts. With that in mind, I'm going to have to take last year's No. 1 and drop Kershaw a few pegs. If I get the No. 1 overall pick in my points league draft, I'll be sure to land Trout and take it from there. -- AJ Mass
Trout has been a joy to roster in a fantasy league since his breakout season of 2012, and few have questioned his place atop the fantasy rankings hierarchy. However, a funny thing has happened while the Los Angeles Angels' star has earned (mostly) unquestioned status as the No. 1 guy for most every format: The diminutive second baseman for the Houston Astros has been valuable for fantasy purposes each and every season since 2014. Jose Altuve has topped Trout in value in four consecutive seasons!
As a result, it seems only fair that Altuve ever so gently brushes Trout to the No. 2 spot, which by the way is still really, really good. It is not that anyone is dumping Trout to Luis Valbuena territory. Trout is awesome. Altuve has just been a bit more awesome, as he has compiled a .334 batting average -- with three AL batting titles! -- over four years with an average of 18 home runs, 76 RBIs, 39 steals and 98 runs in 156 games per season. Altuve deserves this honor, and there's no hint of pending statistical drop-off, either.
In a basic roto league, one should be looking for all kinds of things, with balance chief among them, but most of the time, it comes down to taking the best player available, at least in the early rounds. Trout does everything well. He hits for average, offers power and speed, and scores many runs. Let us not hold the 2017 injury and missed games against him. Altuve, however, hits for more average -- a lot more, really -- and steals more bases. These are important factors.
It is certainly not solely about the power, and position scarcity plays no role here, either, but Altuve is great. Trout is great. Just be objective and willing to think outside the proverbial roto box: One of them finishes ahead of the other on the ESPN Player Rater each season. It seems time to acknowledge this with the top spot in the rankings as well, so please, Jose Altuve, do not disappoint. -- Eric Karabell
Head-to-head categories -- click here for Tristan H. Cockcroft's top 300 rankings
It's a fact that Altuve's earnings have exceeded Trout's in each of the past four seasons and that Altuve finished no worse than second overall on our Player Rater in three of those seasons. Trout, however, lost by a narrow margin each year from 2014 to 2016 and finished 22nd to Altuve's second in 2017.
That "wide" victory margin of Altuve's last season fools people into believing that he is the superior pick. Remember, Trout finished 22nd despite missing 39 Angels games while recovering from a torn UCL in his left thumb, suffered on a slide in a stolen-base attempt in May, and performing slightly beneath his usual standards initially upon his return. It was more of a fluky than chronic injury, with any player subject to the whims of the former, and that Trout fared so well is a testament to his elite ability.
Despite the lengthy absence, Trout was the only player to finish with at least a .300 batting average (.306), 30 home runs (33) and 20 stolen bases (22), and if you pace his stats to 162 games, he would have finished fourth on the Player Rater. In short, he has provided competitive per-game earnings to Altuve in each of those four seasons. By the way, Trout in 2017 set personal bests in terms of walk rate, contact rate and isolated power, providing hints that he might have another step to take.
Grant Altuve and Trout equal batting average earnings in each of those four years, and Trout would've been the better finisher each year from 2014-16 and close in 2017 despite the injury, so the choice between them comes down to how sustainable you believe Altuve's career-high .346 mark to be or whether you believe he can bat 20-plus points higher than Trout in a noticeable number of additional at-bats (for added weight) or steal 10-plus more bases than Trout or have a combination that comes close.
Could that happen? Certainly, and it's a philosophical debate worth having.
But I'll take Trout's greater contributions in home runs, RBIs and runs scored and his competitive, within-range-of-Altuve's numbers in stolen bases and batting average, especially in a head-to-head categorical league in which balance is paramount.
Remember, yesterday's stats don't matter, outside of how they influence today's and tomorrow's projections, and ESPN's, Steamer's and ZiPS' 2018 projections all have Trout as clearly superior, mainly because they don't think their differences in those two categories are as great as they to be appeared last season. -- Tristan H. Cockcroft