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May 5, 2014

Fantasy Freestyle

The Upside Fallacy

by Mike Gianella

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If you do something for long enough, you start to get complacent. As a fantasy baseball “expert,” for me this complacency came in the form of assuming that there are certain, self-evident truths that “everyone” who plays fantasy baseball simply knows and need no further discussion. However, the reality is that based on some of the questions I receive, this clearly isn’t the case.

One of the biggest misconceptions out there is something that I call The Upside Fallacy. Typically, the concept rears its head when I recommend a boring, stable, yet productive veteran over a rookie or second-year player. The younger player typically has a path to playing time, so to some it seems like the better play is to choose the player with the high ceiling over the player with a more narrow range of options.

This fallacy reared its ugly head a couple of weeks ago after uber-prospect George Springer was promoted to the majors by the Astros. In an only league or a 15-team mixed league, someone like Springer is an instant add. In an only league, it’s likely he’ll be replacing some big league team’s backup, while in a deep mixed he’ll be subbing for a weak regular. Springer might not perform, but since he’s replacing someone who isn’t performing the risk is irrelevant.

In a 10- or 12-team mixed league, this is what constitutes a difficult decision. Chances are good that Springer won’t be replacing a marginal MLB player but rather an outfielder receiving regular playing time. It still could be an easy decision, but if your roster is solid enough, you might have to actually think this one through.

One of my followers on Twitter wanted to know if he should hang on to Will Venable or pick up Springer—a free agent in his league. This must be a shallow league format; it is probably a 10- or 12-team mixed league and possibly a head-to-head (with three starting outfielders). As awful as Venable has been, even in a 12-team mixed Rotisserie league, you probably would have worse options in your lineup.

Over the last three years, Venable has averaged 13 home runs, 58 RBI, and 24 steals. He has also averaged 465 plate appearances over that time; the presumption is that Venable will get over 500 plate appearances in 2014 assuming health.

The PECOTA projection for Springer makes him seem like a no-brainer. The updated PFM has him at 23 HR, 64 RBI, 24 SB, .246 AVG, and 79 runs. So you should definitely pick up Springer, right?

Table 1: Baseball Prospectus Top 20 Prospects 2009-2013 Rookie Seasons

Player

Year

PA

R

HR

RBI

SB

BA

Mixed?

Wil Myers

2013

373

50

13

50

5

.293

49

Buster Posey

2010

443

58

18

67

0

.305

63

Bryce Harper

2012

597

98

22

59

18

.270

73

Desmond Jennings

2011

287

44

10

25

20

.259

90

Giancarlo Stanton

2010

396

45

22

59

5

.259

92

Jason Heyward

2010

623

83

18

72

11

.277

93

Freddie Freeman

2011

635

67

21

76

4

.282

110

Domonic Brown

2011

210

28

5

19

3

.245

113

Dexter Fowler

2009

518

73

4

34

27

.266

115

Carlos Santana

2010

192

23

6

22

3

.260

117

Chris Carter

2012

260

38

16

39

0

.239

133

Pedro Alvarez

2010

386

42

16

64

0

.256

157

Eric Hosmer

2011

563

66

19

78

11

.293

162

Colby Rasmus

2009

520

72

16

52

3

.251

NO

Matt Wieters

2009

385

35

9

43

0

.288

NO

Travis Snider

2009

276

34

9

29

1

.241

NO

Cameron Maybin

2009

199

30

4

13

1

.250

NO

Alcides Escobar

2010

552

57

4

41

10

.235

NO

Justin Smoak

2010

397

40

13

40

1

.218

NO

Dustin Ackley

2011

376

39

6

36

6

.273

NO

Mike Moustakas

2011

365

26

5

30

2

.263

NO

Jesus Montero

2012

553

46

15

62

0

.260

NO

Manny Machado

2012

202

24

7

26

2

.262

NO

Mike Trout

2011

135

20

5

16

4

.220

NO

Jurickson Profar

2013

324

30

6

26

2

.234

NO

Travis D’Arnaud

2013

112

4

1

5

0

.202

NO

Average

380

45

11

42

5

Table 1 lists every hitter who was a rated as a top 20 Baseball Prospectus prospect between 2009 and 2013 who had at least 100 major league plate appearances during those seasons. The list is a Who’s Who of young premium talent; many of the players on this list are current stars or the next best thing, and there are only a handful of true busts.

However, the average stats these players produced aren’t particularly impressive. Eleven home runs, 42 RBI, five steals, and 45 runs across 380 plate appearances aren’t especially mixed league worthy. Granted, some of the hitters on this list weren’t ranked in the top 20 for their offensive prowess, but that isn’t that important; nearly any hitter ranked in the top 20 on a prospect list should have some kind of bat (sorry, Austin Hedges).

The “Mixed?” column tells you whether or not these players were worth owning in a standard, 12-team mixed league. Rather than simply use PECOTA values, I calculated each player’s value per at bat so as not to penalize a player for “lost” value for fewer at bats. The result is that players like Santana and Brown get credit for contributing enough while they played to be worth owning in a mixed league.

Looking through this lens, the results are mixed. Half of the players on Table 1 were worth owning in a 12-team mixed league while half of the players were not. However, it could be argued that Alvarez, Hosmer, and possibly Carter while worth owning did not have significant impact (the “worst” hitter in a 12-team mixed league is the 168th best hitter in the league).

This analysis is in hindsight, though. What can we take away from this when we try to decide whether or not to insert someone like George Springer into our lineup?

Entering Sunday’s action, Springer has an awful zero-home-run, five-RBI, zero-steal, one-run, and .180 AVG output in 61 at-bats. He’s talented enough to be one of the top 168 fantasy hitters in baseball by year’s end, but he has an uphill climb.

This brings me back to the Springer versus Venable debate on Twitter. I “selected” Venable over Springer, which led to a barrage of criticism. One of my critics lambasted me for making such a “boring” choice, but another critic said something that went like this:

I’d rather have Springer than Venable because Springer’s downside is Venable’s upside. The worst Springer will do is the best that Venable will do.

I agree that Springer will eventually be a better player than Venable is right now (putting aside Venable’s awful start). But the idea that Springer’s downside is a 20/20 season with a .268 batting average is silly. The downside is a career like Travis Snider or Mike Moustakas’s. This probably won’t happen; Snider and Moustakas are the exceptions and not the rule to the chart above. But it can happen and it does.

If you are asking me “which hitter should I stash on reserve in my mixed league” the answer is Springer, and this is where I emphatically agree with the idea of upside. But even in a mixed league, you can’t simply roster players based on upside and potential. You want to maximize the statistical contributions from all of your players. But you do need to actually accumulate those stats. If you rostered Springer from day one, those bad stats have all counted thus far.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

Related Content:  Fantasy,  Will Venable,  George Springer

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