June 25, 2014
Looking at Values, Part 1: Hitters
In the fantasy baseball community, we have reached the time of year when we start examining player performances, because we are at or near the halfway point of the season. This designation is as arbitrary as arbitrary endpoints get. However, there is enough data to begin to at least develop a picture of how accurate or inaccurate we were prior to the regular season compared to the actual results.
This week I will take a look at the best, most expensive, biggest bargains, and biggest busts in the NL and AL-only hitter pools. Next week, I will look at the pitchers.
Entering the 2014 season, it seemed that there were few rock solid certainties among the best NL hitters, and this was reflected in the way the market priced these hitters prior to the start of the season.
Ten Most Expensive NL Hitters, YTD 2014
The average salary of $33 might seem robust compared to the earnings in the “$” column. But the average salary is slightly less aggressive than the expert market (CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars) has been in previous years. As I documented back in March, LABR was especially conservative in its pricing for the best bats. CBS and Tout Wars followed the more familiar hierarchy of giving McCutchen and Goldschmidt a noticeable edge over the rest of the best, while LABR refused to spend the extra dough.
On the whole, this makes LABR appear “right” compared to the other expert leagues. Their average salary of $32 is closer to the $25 these 10 hitters are on pace to earn so far. Therefore, it would seem that the best of course of action is to spend conservatively on the best hitters and wait for bargains later.
However, this variance is due in great part to McCutchen and Goldschmidt’s low prices. Both hitters are profitable in LABR, and that puts the other 11 teams that missed the boat on this dynamic duo in a hole. Letting your opponents turn a profit on the best hitters means that you’re going to have to push harder to squeeze value out of your team in the middle of the auction.
Nearly all of the losses in this group come from the trio of CarGo, Votto, and Harper. Without them, these hitters nearly break even and are pretty solid investments. The nine-dollar profit on Tulo is tremendous, but I’ll take a $6 loss on Freeman or a $5 loss on Hanley any day of the week. You look for value in the middle and end of your auctions. You look for stats here.
If you did pick up a big bargain in the next table, the mild losses on most of expensive hitters have been rendered moot.
Top 10 NL Hitters, YTD 2014
Gordon and Blackmon are the hitters who obviously jump off of the page. They are anomalies; most of the 10 best NL hitters were not cheap. Frazier was the only other hitter who cost less than $25. Put differently, Hamilton was the 22nd-most expensive hitter in the NL. There is this odd idea floating around in fantasy circles that because Gordon was such a bargain that you wasted your money/draft pick on Hamilton. I’d argue that the opposite is true. It is great if you bought Gordon, but your odds on the whole of obtaining a top player were much better if you spent your money or invested your draft picks early on hitters.
This “uncertainty meme” loomed large entering 2014. It was suggested that only four or five players were worth a big bid or high draft pick and that the front end of your draft or auction didn’t matter. In NL-only, the opposite seems true. From McCutchen down to Hamilton, only the Gonzalez/Votto/Harper trio are on pace to earn less than $15 this year. The order of the best hitters turned out to be different than expected but this happens every year and shouldn’t be a surprise. As is almost always the case, an investment in a top hitter offers a fairly safe rate of return once again in 2014.
What Gordon and Blackmon are doing thus far is no minor accomplishment, and should be examined further.
Top Ten Bargains NL Hitters, YTD 2014
Blackmon and Gordon aren’t even close to the next biggest bargain—Todd Frazier—on this table. They are likely to tail off, but then that is what nearly everyone has been saying for the last two and half months. I am not immune to this proclamation. It is easy to fall into groupthink and simply keep repeating the same mantra over and over again without diving deeper into why they were such big bargains and where we all went wrong.
Regardless of where both hitters land, it is extremely likely they will both be among the top 10 bargains at the end of the season. While it would be nice to sell on either or both, if you purchased either one you already benefited greatly. Instead of continuing to bang the regression drum, more time should be spent examining why this duo has been so profitable. In Gordon’s case, opportunity plus an existing (fantasy) skill made him an almost obvious bargain. In Blackmon’s case, he earned $12 in half a season in an extremely favorable hitting venue in 2013. Both hitters probably should have cost more money entering the season.
The rest of the chart has a fairly interesting mix of $10-15 salaried players and $3-5 bargains. Absent from this chart are the $1-2 bargains who are almost entirely overlooked on auction day. If you wanted to grab one of the bigger NL bargains in 2014, you had to spend a little money to get there. The best $1-2 hitters thus far are on pace to earn $10. This is solid, but not the kind of endgame return that speaks well to a Stars and Scrubs strategy.
Harper, Votto, and Gonzalez were already chronicled above and as expected make for the biggest busts. Who else landed on the bad list?
Top Ten Busts NL Hitters, YTD 2014
Three Nationals appear on this table, making me wonder how the team has survived three significant hits on offense and thrived overall. Three Padres also appear on this table. This is less surprising in theory, but the 2013 column shows that Gyorko, Venable, and Headley all were capable of returning at least some value in 2013, Petco or no.
MLB affiliations aside, this table is dominated by established veterans, not green rookies. Gyorko is the only second-year hitter on the table and while Harper’s price was once again likely too high based on his age combined with lofty expectations, injury is mostly what did him in this year. Injured players dominate this table, but not every injured player on this table comes with an injury history. It would have been easy to tell you to avoid Zimmerman due to past injuries, but not so much with Trumbo. This table is always the hardest to analyze because while I would not have paid most of the prices CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars paid, I cannot say that any of these prices are way out of line.
My favorite thing about putting together these charts is the wonderful surprises I find waiting for me after I crunch the numbers. I don’t concern myself very much with player valuation once the season starts so it is often a great moment when I see the price tag on certain players once I am finished.
Top 10 AL Hitters, YTD 2014
I would not have guessed that Altuve was the best hitter to date in the American League if you had given me a dozen guesses. Speed is at a premium this year in the AL but this barely explains Altuve’s dominance. His performance in an NL-only would be worth $38, which is a downgrade but hardly an earth-shattering one. He is the only pure speed demon among the best hitters; Dozier is the only other hitter with 10-plus steals to crack the top 10, and every other hitter here had 11 or more home runs when I put these charts together on Wednesday night.
The AL hitters are less surprising than their NL counterparts in some ways but in some ways they are not. On the one hand, the best hitters in the AL don’t contain any incredible surprises. At $14, Brantley is the cheapest hitter on this list. This is certainly a decent enough bargain but not the “eureka” kind of bargain that Gordon or Blackmon are in the NL. On the other hand, four hitters fall in between $14-17: Brantley, Cruz, Dozier, and Martinez. Nabbing an anchor at this price is a pretty solid return, and the fact that it happened four times (at least so far) is not a trivial matter.
Beyond this, Cabrera and Trout’s prices jump out considerably. Trout’s $45 average salary is the first time a player has cost $45 or more since I started tracking these data in 2008 and Cabrera’s $43 for hitter who doesn’t contribute across all five categories is quite a considerable leap of faith by the normally conservative expert market. Where the NL experts were tentative on McCutchen and Goldschmidt, they leap in with both feet on Miggy and Trout. While they don’t take a bath on either player, it does have a considerable impact on the next chart.
Ten Most Expensive AL Hitters, YTD 2014
Unlike in the NL, there is only one $20-plus bust thus far (Fielder), but the wild spending on Trout and Cabrera makes the cost versus return on this table similar to the NL. I am not averse to breaking the bank on anchors with as much potential strength as Cabrera and Trout, but you have to know what you are getting into with these types of purchases. Buying $38 worth of stats from Trout for $46 gives you the stats, but you need to find your value elsewhere. This takes on even more urgency with a $10 “loser” like Cabrera.
Anchoring your squad with a non-Miggy/Trout player has been a mixed bag. On average, the eight other players on this chart earned $23 on a $32 investment (compared to $35.5 earnings versus a $44.5 cost for Cabrera and Trout) but on a player-by-player basis it is a wild swing all over the place. Getting a Cano/Ellsbury/Encarnacion/Jones anchor is the kind of ROI on your best player you should be fine with, but getting Davis/Fiedler/Kipnis is the kind of nightmare we all would like to forget. If it is a coin flip between getting a near even return on your stud or a disastrous return versus getting Cabrera or Trout, I think I want Cabrera or Trout.
Nobody really wants to be faced with this kind of decision. What we really want is one or more of the players on the chart below.
Top 10 Bargains AL Hitters, YTD 2014
Four players from the 10 best hitters chart also land in the bargain bucket, with Cabrera barely missing at no. 11. This is the dream: getting a moderately priced player who offers a top-10 return.
This chart is apples compared to the National League’s bargain bin oranges. The NL was dominated by players in the $3-5 cost bracket; in the AL, seven of the big bargain hitters cost $10 or more. Altuve is the only hitter who anyone feels like paying $20 or more for in any expert format, but to get a bargain in the AL this year you generally had to spend.
The exceptions to this rule are quite striking in Chisenhall, Gillaspie, and Gentry. These three hitters barely cost anything and have offered a robust return. Gillaspie and Gentry are the poor man’s versions of Gordon and Blackmon in the NL. Their prior earnings suggest that while they shouldn’t have been paid exactly what they earned in 2013 that a few more fantasy dollars should have been spent in anticipation of a repeat performance.
In case you believe there are bidding sweet spots in fantasy baseball, the table below quickly puts this notion to rest.
Top Ten Busts AL Hitters, YTD 2014
Middlebrooks, Profar, and Swisher fell into the same $14-17 price range as Brantley, Martinez, Cruz, and Dozier. All three are failing so far, and it will take a strong second half for Middlebrooks and Swisher to fall off of this list at season’s end.
Just like in the NL, veterans dominate the bust list in the AL. The perception in fantasy baseball is that rookies are risky, but the expert market seems to know this and prices the young guys appropriately. Profar is here due to the unpredictability of an injury, and only Kipnis, Myers, and Middlebrooks come close to the younger end of the age curve. This is yet another bust list dominated by veteran players. If you were hoping to glean some sort of lesson from this chart dictating that rookies are bad, the reality is that the opposite is quite true
The season isn’t over yet and these charts will change as events play out. However, the framework for your season in mono formats likely appears on the charts above. If you have Brantley and Martinez on your AL-only team, chances are excellent that your offense is top shelf, while if you bought Votto and Gonzalez in your NL-only as part of a Stars and Scrubs plan, there is an excellent chance that you are already looking ahead to 2015.