May 28, 2014
Success Stories in the Endgame, Part One
After a very slow start, George Springer arrived with a vengeance this past weekend. His sizzling 1.091 OPS in May is seventh-best in the majors for the month and the buzz/wow factor or whatever the heck you want to call it is extremely high. For the purposes of comparison, Springer has a 268/348/500 slash line in his first 155 major league plate appearances. Mike Trout had a .220/.284/.376 slash over his first 155 plate appearances. It’s an apples-to-bananas comparison given that Springer is almost two years older than Trout is now, but it is nevertheless amazing how quickly Springer has broken through.
It is also an aberration.
Earlier this month, I documented the performance of Baseball Prospectus’ top 20 hitting prospects between 2009-2013 in mixed league formats. Over the last five years, 26 of these prospects have accrued 100 or more plate appearances in a single season. Only half of these hitters were mixed league worthy (12-team league) and only three—Buster Posey in 2010, Bryce Harper in 2012, and Wil Myers in 2013—finished among the top half of mixed league hitters. Hats off to you if you drafted Springer this year, but if you were counting on elite production, you were really hoping that Springer bucked historical trends.
In keeper leagues, performances like Springer’s lead some owners to inappropriately value all rookies and bet entirely on the upside. Contenders ask for the moon and the stars for their elite prospects, and far too often the teams out of contention pay the full asking price.
There is another avenue to building a competitive team if you’re playing for next year, and that is mining your opponents for lower-profile players on the cheap. This week I will take a look at the hitters who fit this profile; next week I will focus on the pitchers.
Many owners don’t even consider this approach because at first glance the ROI from seems underwhelming.
Table 1: Rate of Return on $1-3 AL and NL Only Hitters: 2009-2013
Table 1 lists all of the hitters purchased in the CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars AL and NL only leagues for an average salary of three dollars or less between 2009 and 2013. There aren’t going to be this many endgame hitters in your home leagues since this table is working off of an average price. However, the numbers above give a rough idea of what your endgame dollar buys you, and in the aggregate it doesn’t buy you that much.
To be certain, getting $4-5 of stats on your $1-2 investment is fine. However, it’s not going to win you a title in your league. You are also not going to target players like this when you’re rebuilding. If there is profit to be had every year in your league’s endgame, it stands to reason that there is no need to trade anything of value for a four-dollar player.
In the aggregate, this is all very logical. However, there is plenty of value to be had from the best players to come out of the auction endgame every year.
Table 2: The Cream of the Crop: Best $1-3 Auction Hitter Buys, 2009-2013
Table 2 looks only at the success stories from the past five years. This is obviously a more selective picture, but keep in mind that this discussion is focusing on mining for future talent. At the end of May or beginning of June you’re not crossing your fingers on a cheap auction gamble but rather targeting the likely success stories.
With the exception of 2009 in the American League, there is typically enough value to found at the end of the auction to provide significant value during the season. This is the Holy Grail for fantasy owners: The cheap end-of-the-auction player who turns into a core member of your fantasy team. It doesn’t happen often—which is why you need to spend wisely at the beginning, middle, and end of your auction—but it does happen.
One of the biggest arguments against targeting players like this in dump deals is that they are flukes, and unlikely to hold their value the following year. However, the data from the last five years mostly contradicts this belief.
Table 3: Best $1-3 Auction Hitter Buys, 2009-2012 One Year Later
The American League had a subpar rate of return in both 2010 and 2011, but for the most part the cheap and surprising buys held most of their value the following season.
Before you decide to run out and try to hoard this year’s best $1 buys, it is worth noting that this is not the most dynamic group of hitters in the world. There are a total of 99 hitters from 2009-2012 included in Tables 2 and 3. Their average value was $12 the year they were purchased. Their average value the following year was nine dollars. I’m not sneezing on an eight-dollar profit from a freeze, but keep in mind that most of these freezes are not going to catapult your team to the promised land by themselves.
However, because so many focus almost entirely on looking for the next Springer or Trout, there is definitely a buying opportunity with these types of players. If you can pick up three or four “marginal” freezes who can each deliver $5-6 worth of profit, it is another way to build a foundation for next year’s contender.