June 18, 2014
A Deeper Look at FAAB in Deeper Leagues
Last week in Tout Wars (NL-only) I made a trade, flipping hot prospect Kris Bryant (yes, it is a non-keeper league, why do you ask?) for Tony Cruz and $50 in free agent acquisition budget (FAAB). I needed space on my reserve list and wasn’t going to deal Bryant (I had planned on cutting John Mayberry or a middle reliever) but the $50 FAAB was too good to pass up so I made the deal.
The trade left me with the most FAAB to spend by far; I had $141 compared to the next-highest team’s $96. I wasn’t going to cut Bryant, so I can’t quite look at the trade like it was something for nothing, but with Bryant’s ETA an open question I didn’t have a big problem making the move. The gamble is that 1) Bryant won’t be up until at least August, and 2) the best free agent who comes over from the American League is better than Bryant.
This is one wrinkle only leagues have that mixed leagues don’t. Since every player in the MLB pool is available in mixed leagues, there isn’t a FAAB feeding frenzy due to multiple players getting shipped over at the deadline. But in NL- and AL-only, players from the “other” league join the player population, leaving fantasy owners trying to decide how much to bid.
Is holding onto your FAAB—or trading for FAAB to spend later in the season—a good idea?
To answer this question, I decided the first thing I needed to do is establish a baseline. I culled through four and a half years of expert league data (going back to 2010) in NL and AL only leagues to see how much bang for your buck you could get from the best free agents. Tables 1-4 below look at the Top 10 hitters this year with their prorated earnings to date and compare these players’ earnings to comparable earners from prior years.
Table 1: Top Fantasy 2014 NL Free Agent Hitters
2014 is likely an anomaly, but thus far the projected earnings for the best free agent hitters are simply awful. If you bought a weak offense in one of the NL-only expert leagues, chances are good that you still have a weak offense (experts don’t trade much). It is likely that the 2014 final number will improve. Gregory Polanco is a near certainty to appear on this list at the end of the season and one or two AL imports will change the complexion of this list entirely. But there is a fairly clear trend, and it speaks to a more difficult opportunity to obtain a quality hitter in-season. Free agent earnings for the best players in NL-only have dropped every year since 2011 and are likely to drop again this year.
Table 2: Top Fantasy 2014 NL Free Agent Pitchers
On the pitching side, the trend has moved in the other direction, with the best free agent pitchers earning more in the last two seasons. That $29 earner in 2013 is Jose Fernandez, who is the anomaly of anomalies. Getting $20-plus out of a pitching free agent is extremely difficult, and it is entirely possible that Simon and Machi both drop below $20 in earnings before the season is over.
A big surprise in these lists to mixed league owners is the power of middle relievers. Seven of the 10 pitchers on this list are middle relievers; Rondon is the only closer to crack the list. Harang joins Simon representing the starting pitchers, but the big impact guys are mostly in the bullpen, and they are not closers.
Table 3: Top Fantasy 2014 AL Free Agent Hitters
The AL has not seen the same kind of sharp peaks and valleys that the NL did on the. You can almost set your watch by the return on your best free agent bids. This list appears nearly as boring as the NL did, but the big difference in the junior circuit is playing time. Solarte, Francisco, and Holt have all generated a significant amount of plate appearances despite going undrafted; the NL’s best free agent earner Harrison has not been a regular all season long.
Table 4: Top Fantasy 2014 AL Free Agent Pitchers
If you’re wondering why the return on the best pitchers is higher in the AL than it is in the NL it is because the average league ERA and WHIP in the AL are higher than they are the NL. Betances amazing season (to date) would “only” be worth $21 in NL-only. While this split in value is more dramatic in some seasons than in others, the NL has always produced better pitching stats, in part because pitchers bat in the National League.
Once again, middle relievers make up the majority of pitchers on this list. McHugh is the best starting pitcher by six dollars over Tomlin, Elias, and Gibson, but because the average pitcher is worse in AL-only the middle relievers have an even more significant impact. Betances, Britton, and Davis all have gone a long way toward helping out their squads.
How many of the best earners were purchased around the major league trading deadline? I decided to take a look back at the Tout Wars free agent results for both the NL and AL going back to 2010 to see how expert owners spent their money at or near the trade deadline.
Table 5: NL/AL only $20+ FAAB Bids: Last Week of July/First Week of August
*Players in bold represent Top 10 earners from Tables 1-4
The table above captures all of the free agents purchased in AL or NL Tout Wars for $20 or more FAAB either the transaction week immediately following the MLB trade deadline or the transaction deadline one week earlier. The FAAB budget in Tout Wars is $100, but since FAAB can be traded or reclaimed for disabled players teams often go over $100. There is also no in-season active roster salary cap. If some of these bids appear to be high compared to your home league it is because not all leagues allow for FAAB trades or reclaim.
I assumed that the results for this exercise would not favor hoarding your FAAB. I did not realize how poor the returns would be. Of the 26 free agents purchased for $20 or more, only four amassed enough earnings to finish among the Top 10 free agents.
The “Top 10” designation is an arbitrary endpoint to be sure, and two-month free agent rentals most likely need to be judged on a different curve. Eight to $10 of earnings can be considered a pretty strong return on a two-month FAAB rental for a hitter, while $10-15 is very solid for a pitcher. 2010 Daniel Hudson and 2013 Alfonso Soriano were off the charts terrific, but 2011 J.D. Martinez and 2010 Miguel Tejada are also examples of players who offered some solid return.
Something lacking here—particularly in recent years—are solid players coming over from the other league. The National League in particular has not seen a particularly strong crop of imports the last couple of years. Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett did come into the NL in 2012 but after the August trade deadline; this offered little solace to USA Today’s Steve Gardner, who pulled the trigger on Travis Snider at $83 three weeks earlier.
Hudson, Tejada, and Martinez might all be solid adds, but the fact that they were purchased in late July/early August is immaterial to the major league trade deadline. Yes, some players are called up by second division teams to plug the holes created by deadline day trades, but this isn’t what we’re looking for when we consider making a big splash with our FAAB.
So while I received mostly positive buzz from my fellow league mates when I turned Bryant into a big chunk of FAAB cash, history tells me that I’m probably not going to get a lot of bang for my buck. If there is a reason this maneuver worked out for me it is because the free agents this year are far worse than usual. This has been a bad year to try to add a hitter via free agency in NL-only. An $8-10 return on a hitter via FAAB may offer a better return compared to the overall market than in previous years. Derrek Lee’s $7 earnings didn’t crack the top 10 in 2011. In 2014, his performance would have made him the fifth-best free agent hitter in NL-only.