Fantasy Baseball Draft Prep No. 1 Contenders: Will the real Bryce … – CBSSports.com

Chances are, someone other than Mike Trout is going to finish as the No. 1 hitter in Fantasy baseball this season. As brilliant as Trout is, he has only finished as the No. 1 hitter in Roto leagues in two of his five full seasons in the majors, though no player has topped him twice in that span.

With that in mind, this preseason series is going to look at the seven players with the best chance to finish ahead of Trout in 2017. We’ll look at the path that could take them to the No. 1 spot, as well as the potential pitfalls along the way.

Let’s take a look at a big-time bounce-back candidate, Bryce Harper.

Path to Glory

I’ll admit it; a year ago this time, I thought Harper was an obvious choice for the No. 1 pick. Arguably the most talented baseball prospect since at least Ken Griffey Jr., Harper was coming off a season where everything simply clicked for him. In case you can’t remember, Harper hit .330 with an 1.109 OPS, and 42 homers. He led the majors in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, while walking 124 times to 131 strikeouts. It was the best offensive season by any player since Barry Bonds hung up his elbow guard, and only 20 players since 1900 have posted a season with an OPS+ better than Harper’s 198 mark.

Harper was one of just 10 players ever to post an OPS+ over 170 while 22 or younger, and the rest of the list is littered with Hall of Famers — and Mike Trout — a pretty good sign that a season like that can’t exactly happen on accident.

So, we know what Harper is capable of. The path to glory isn’t very complicated, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy; he just has to get back to his 2015 level. Harper reportedly dealt with a shoulder problem for much of the year, so it could be as simple as getting and staying healthy for a full season.

However, if 2015 was a season where everything that could go right did for Harper, 2016 saw the exact opposite happen. His power numbers declined across the board, and Harper also saw a more than .100 point drop in hiss BABIP. Those things aren’t unrelated — if you hit the ball with more authority, it’s more likely to fall in for a hit — but after having seen Harper dominate so thoroughly in 2015, it’s hard to think he isn’t capable of it.

He does have work to do to get there, of course, as Harper received fewer good pitches to hit as pitchers learned to respect what he accomplished. He responded with the best strikeout rate of his career, but still needs to figure out how to capitalize on the rare pitches in the zone he is going to get.

Harper’s hard-hit rate dropped from 40.9 percent to 34.1, and his average batted ball exit velocity dropped from 91.4 miles per hour to 89.5. We know Harper has the mastery of the strike zone down, but he needs to get back to punishing mistakes the way he did in 2015. That’s the key, and it gives him as much upside as anyone in baseball.

What could derail him?

If I wanted to, this whole thing could be a lot easier. His Path to Glory could be described as, “Do what you did in 2015.” And, of course, it’s not hard to see what could derail Harper: “Whatever happened in 2016.”

However, it is worth noting that Harper had an awful lot of luck go his way in 2015. His BABIP wasn’t just .105 points higher in 2015 than 2016; it was .052 higher than his career mark too. Now, he had managed a .352 mark in 2014 as well, so this wasn’t a total outlier, but there was still plenty of room for it to come back down to Earth, even if his 2016 results overstate things.

However, despite his terrific plate discipline numbers, Harper made more contact on pitches out of the zone than ever before in 2016. That’s a good way to avoid strikeouts, but it’s hardly the kind of thing we want to see from a power hitter, because those pitches tend to be harder to drive. Worse, Harper actually swung at just 68.5 percent of pitches in the strike zone, down from 72.5 percent in 2015; his swing rate on pitches outside of the zone remained largely unchanged.

Also, as FanGraphs.com noted last August, Harper sported a 1.238 slugging percentage on fly balls, line drives, and infield flies, one of the highest marks in baseball. This was actually a major outlier based on his batted-ball exit velocity on these hits, and he came back down to earth in 2016, with an .818 slugging percentage on such hits.

There are reasons to think, in other words, that 2016 wasn’t just a fluke. Not least of which, when you look at Harper’s career, 2015 is the season that sticks out like a sore thumb. In 2016, Harper wa slarger the same hitter he’s always been.

Chances he finishes as the No. 1 player: 5%

There may not be a player in the first round with a higher range of potential outcomes. There also may not be a player in the first round whose potential risks and rewards are more obvious.

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