-- Over the past dozen years, only about a third of the players we drafted in the first round returned first-round value. The 2016 season seems to be bucking that trend. With less than three weeks remaining, we are seeing an historically high number of first-rounders providing at least par earnings -- about eight of the top 15.
Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Manny Machado, Jose Altuve, Kris Bryant and Max Scherzer were all top-15 picks who are earning their keep. Josh Donaldson is barely outside this group, but knocking at the door. Since 2004, the only seasons in which there have been even seven first-rounders returning fair value were 2005 and 2008.
The eight players above will be strong considerations for returning to the top of 2017's average draft position (ADP) rankings. But what about the players who have fallen short? Of those for whom we had high hopes in March, which might have the potential to rebound?
Bryce Harper has been this season's highest-ranked disappointment. The consensus No. 3 pick is currently ranked No. 62, earning $19 in Roto dollars. These levels could have been much worse if not for the career-high 20 stolen bases he has recorded through Monday's games.
The biggest drag has been his .249 batting average, but this has been the result, in part, of a massive 107-point drop in BABIP (.369 in 2015 to .262 this season). Harper's 78 percent contact rate is still solid for a power hitter, but his 43 percent fly-ball rate is the peak of a four-year trend (33, 35, 39, 43). Combine this with a home-run-to-fly-ball rate regressing back to 15 percent from last season's 27 percent, and the result has been a lot of mostly harmless fly balls.
Harper was a first-round pick based on the promise of his 2015 season, but with 2016 included, he has not reached that level in any other campaign. Still, drafters will probably still slot him somewhere near the top in 2017, if only because a 23-year-old comes packaged with upside. I'm dubious.
Clayton Kershaw came into 2016 ranked No. 4 and typically drew auction bids well into the $30 range. It is a testament to how dominating he was before going on the disabled list that he's still ranked as high as No. 19, earning $27.
There is no question that his skills were vintage before he got hurt. Five strikeouts and no walks in three innings of his abbreviated first start back still speak to his skills. The question for next season is whether he is still a first-rounder. Kershaw's performance the rest of this month will go a long way to answering that. We cannot dismiss the potential lingering nature of back injuries, nor can we dismiss the high number of innings that Kershaw, 28, has put on his arm after nine seasons.
Carlos Correa was ranked No. 6 in March based on the expectation of big numbers after his partial-2015 performance. He is currently ranked No. 67, earning $18.
Clearly, optimism and recency bias drove his 2016 ranking, and this season's performance is within a normal growth range for a player of his caliber. While some of his support metrics have naturally regressed, he has still retained a good deal of skill and has even shown growth in some areas, including on-base average and speed.
At age 21, is it too early to expect him to consolidate those skills and earn first-round value in 2017? I think it might be. There will be some drafters who follow the approach many have taken with Bryce Harper and continue to push the ADPs for "fear of missing out," but the Correa monster season might still be a few years away.
Anthony Rizzo came into 2016 ranked No. 9 and by all rights is posting a perfectly acceptable season. But in a season when Brad Miller can hit 28 home runs, Rizzo's stat line is ranked only No. 38, earning $23. Rizzo is on pace to surpass last season's numbers by a fair amount, but could still fall well short of the $33 earnings he posted in 2015.
Where does that leave him for 2017? It all depends on whether baseball's current offensive surge continues. Rizzo's underlying metrics have been pretty flat for three seasons, though a 26-year-old might still have a spike left in him. He'd need to take a further step up or reclaim some of the stolen bases he relinquished this season to avoid ending up as a second- or third-rounder.
Giancarlo Stanton was ranked No. 10, yet again another reach for a player who routinely battles the disabled list. This year's shortened season has yielded a ranking of No. 213 and earnings of $7.
But it was not just injury that has derailed 2016. Stanton was also struggling at the plate, his batting average dropping as low as .192 on June 12. He has batted .298 since that point, and a strong finish this month might push up his 2017 ADP once again.
But is he a first-rounder in 2017? The volatility and injury risk remain as important as ever, as does the potential for a 40-homer season. Stanton has seen 500 at-bats only twice in seven seasons. For me, the first round is no place for risk.
Miguel Cabrera came into 2016 ranked No. 13. At 33, he is posting his best season since 2013 and is currently ranked No. 35, earning $24. Similar to Rizzo, Miggy owners can't be disappointed in the numbers he has been putting up. His underlying metrics do show some small age-related erosion, but that's just a quibble at the heights in which he performs.
Next season adds another year to his age and continues to elevate the associated risk that we might see some decline. Some drafters will probably keep him in the first round for the batting-average potential alone. But the power is more likely to regress than maintain, which probably makes him more of a second-round earner.
Andrew McCutchen was ranked No. 14, a comedown from his prior top-5 levels. He has fallen far short of even that, currently ranked No. 172, earning just $9.
The trends are telling. His falling batting average (.327, .317, .314, .292, .247) and stolen base output (27, 18, 11, 6) are outcomes of deeper issues, such as a declining contact rate (83 percent, 79, 77, 75). Knee and thumb injuries have contributed to these trends, but research has shown that he has also been chasing more bad pitches this season.
The recency bias of this down season will probably push McCutchen into the second or third round next spring. But at 29, it's too early to start writing off his potential to return to first-round earnings.
Dee Gordon was ranked just outside the first round this spring (No. 17), even though he finished 2015 as the sixth-best player in baseball. Losing half the season to suspension has obviously tarnished 2016's rankings (No. 373, $0), but can a full season boost him back into first-round consideration?
The key here is the value of scarce speed. If we project stolen bases to continue to lag, a 60-bag, .300 season could be worth gold. But Gordon's numbers were mediocre at the start of the season and have not gotten much better since he returned. The .250, 40-stolen-base pace he's on is probably a more representative level, and certainly not first-round-worthy.