December 4, 2013
Fantasy Bargains and Busts
National League Hitters
Welcome back to my series on retrospective, Rotisserie-style player valuation. Before the holiday break, I tackled the American League. Today I’ll look at the hitters in the National League.
The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5x5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer when it is up and running). The most important thing to know about the values is that for the 168 best perceived American League hitters and the 108 best perceived American pitchers on Opening Day 2013 the values add up to $3,120. This is important, as this is where the next two columns come into play.
Sal is the average salary of the players. This column is derived from the prices in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars, the three expert leagues that convene before the regular season starts and (thank goodness for the purposes of my analysis) have three complete AL-only auctions with no frozen players from which to derive data. While I would love to use more leagues to derive each player’s average salary, most Rotisserie-style leagues are keeper oriented and average salary data isn’t useful for this exercise thanks to inflation.
The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether or not he gained or lost his fantasy owners money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Robinson Cano can earn $31, get paid an average salary of $35 and lose five dollars.
MG is yours truly, your heroic pricer and proud prognosticator since 2013. Another good reason to look back is to see if the fantasy expert you are following is good at what he or she does. It is easy to make predictions in March and never revisit those predictions. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my sixth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2013. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.
2012 shows what the player earned in 2012. If you don’t like looking back, you might think that looking back an additional year is worthless, but as you’ll see an additional season’s worth of fantasy earnings data is sometimes very instructive.
For the last five years, the salaries of the most expensive hitters in the National League have been plummeting, and this trend continued in 2013.
Table 1: Top 10 Salaries, NL Hitters 2013
In 2009, the average salary of the best hitters in the National League was $40 per player. This dropped to $39 in 2010, $38 in 2011, and then down to $37 in 2012. The expert market continues to pay the best-perceived hitters less and less and is beginning to spread the wealth around more and more with each passing season.
The expert market isn’t being conservative without cause. The best hitters in the National League simply aren’t quite what they used to be:
Table 2: 10 Most Expensive National League Hitters: 2009-2013
There was a time where the 10 best hitters in the National League easily earned $35 or more per hitter, but for the moment at least those days are gone. The “Prior Year” column lists the earnings for the 10 most expensive hitters while the “10 Best Prior Year” column shows what the 10 best hitters from the previous year actually did. There is always a difference between who the best hitters were and whom the market actually purchases but for the last two seasons this gap has widened considerably.
Generally speaking, when there is as wide a gap between what the most expensive hitters earned the previous year and what they are paid this year, it indicates a transitional period…or at least the anticipation of a transitional period. The market paid for Stanton and Harper like they were going to take that next Big Step Forward.
The players from last year’s 10 best hitters who don’t show up here are Chase Headley, Aaron Hill, Aramis Ramirez, David Wright, Buster Posey, Jose Reyes, and Matt Holliday. With the exception of Posey, the market is betting on youth in the National League. The superstars of tomorrow are going to be here today.
Except it doesn’t work out that way. Stanton and Harper both disappoint, while the bets on Upton and Heyward fail miserably. The best bets in this group were on stability. Gonzalez and McCutchen both earned over $30 in 2012, and turned out to be the most reliable hitters in this bracket in 2013 as well. Braun earned more than both of them in 2012, but his injury/steroid marred 2013 merits a planet-sized asterisk.
2013 was a year of transition, just not in the way the experts imagined.
Table 3: Top 10 Earnings, NL Hitters 2013
Gonzalez and McCutchen were the only two hitters in the most expensive group who also appear on the Top 10 earnings list. While this might seem typical, it used to be far more common in the NL to see far more crossover between both charts.
Table 4: # of hitters on Top 10 AND Most Expensive Charts: 2009-2013
Below is a list of the hitters who topped both charts from 2009-2011, with earnings in parenthesis.
Some of the names changed from season to season, but 2009-2011 was a golden era for fantasy baseball superstars in the National League. Pujols and Braun appear here three years running, while Ramirez, Kemp, and Tulowitzki made it two of the three years.
As I noted above, the market sensed this sea change coming and tried guessing with players like Stanton and Harper. Instead, other young players provided the earnings that Stanton and Harper did not. Whether or not Goldschmidt, Gomez, Segura, Freeman, and Marte are part of a new fantasy baseball landscape or just a blip on the radar remains to be seen. 2014 is going to present an uncertain auction landscape in NL-only leagues. If you asked me today which one of these hitters would appear in my Top 10 NL Projected Hitters for 2014, Goldschmidt, McCutchen, and Gonzalez are the only three I am certain about. Everyone else might make it, but I’m not confident that any of these players will top $30 in earnings next year.
Adding to the uncertainty is that some of last year’s surprises might also be one-year blips on the radar, as opposed to the beginning of a concrete new trend.
Table 5: Top 10 Profits, NL Hitters 2013
Part time/platoon players who cost next to nothing and provided solid value dominated the American League profit list. This list is more of a mix. Half of the players here cost $10 or more. A surprise is always a bargain, but a bargain is not always a surprise. In other words, Gomez was a bargain at $21 and in surprise in that he was the third-best hitter in the National League in 2013, but $21 isn’t a cheap price tag for a surprise.
Notice how the market gets more and more confident about these hitters as Opening Day gets closer and closer. Byrd, Pollock, and Puig didn’t even get bids in CBS (auctioned in late February) and LABR (early March); by the time of the Tout Wars auction (late March) all three are worth rostering. Brown’s hot spring gives him a more reasonable $15 price in Tout. Information is king; the more information the experts have, the more accurate they are (although an $11 average salary still doesn’t come close to these players’ $27 average earnings).
Most of the players on this list are outfielders. I don’t make adjustments for position scarcity in my valuation formulas (this is due to valuation theory that is too comprehensive for the scope of this article), but the fact that outfielders like Byrd, Puig, Denorfia, and Pollock are sitting around in the end game does make me inclined to push the prices down for the top outfielders by a dollar or two.
This reluctance to pay big dollars for big time outfielders is reinforced by the next table as well:
Table 6: Top 10 Losses, NL Hitters 2013
In some seasons, the worst losses are a fairly even split between players who cost $15-20 and earned nothing and players who cost $25+ and earned something for their owners. 2013 saw mostly big ticket items fall flat on their faces. Seven of the 10 hitters in Table 6 cost $25 or more.
What I find more interesting is that most of the players on Table 6 are outfielders. Six of the 10 biggest NL busts in 2013 were outfielders, and if you include Hart (who was 1B/OF eligible) that number swells to seven.
What did it look like across the field?
Table 7: 10 Most Expensive NL Hitters by Position
There were some losses across the board, but nothing like there was for the top outfielders in the National League last year. McCutchen and Cargo were great, but generally speaking you got burned if you spent any kind of money on your outfield.
And the outfield is where the NL money was guessing the next elite wave would come from. Eight of the 10 most expensive hitters were outfielders in 2013. Seven of the 10 best hitters were also outfielders. There was money to be made in the outfield, it just so happened that the experts swung and missed in 2013.
However, it is hard to see when the next top-tier wave of talent will emerge. Oscar Taveras is likely to make an impact at some point in 2014, but players breaking into the top 10 in their rookie campaigns are few and far between. Billy Hamilton as a starting outfielder is intriguing from a fantasy perspective, but penciling him in for a $30-plus season is questionable at best. Next year’s top 10 looks as uncertain as it ever has. Will prices get pushed down again? I can’t predict the future, but judging by the market trends and by the talent available to buy, it seems likely.