May 5, 2014
The Upside Fallacy
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.
Table 1: Baseball Prospectus Top 20 Prospects 2009-2013 Rookie Seasons
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.