March 30, 2011
Down the Rabbit Hole
You don't need me to tell you that real baseball and fantasy baseball, for all their similarities, are separate entities governed by completely different sets of rules. The things that make a real-life ballclub successful (a balance of pitching, defense, and hitting) are not the same things that help you win in fantasy (as many saves and steals as your roster can handle, and that fellow owner you always know you can swindle midseason when he's busy waiting for football to start).
This is never more evident than when you look at which real teams have plenty of fantasy-worthy options on their rosters, but are, in reality, terrible. The opposite holds true, as well—a real team is a collection of 25 players that (in theory) contribute something to the collective goal of winning, and clubs that utilize every single piece of their roster in order to succeed are not going to score well according to fantasy metrics. Baseball is a team game, while fantasy baseball is one for collections of individuals.
When you combine the two worlds, the results are a bit odd. The table below ranks the 30 teams in baseball according to how many dollars in fantasy value each roster is projected to create in 2011. This was derived from the PFM, using standard (the PFM's default) league rules, and only counts players who provide positive value. The "Players" section lists the number of players who are projected to contribute a positive dollar value for their clubs:
You have your obvious teams at the top—the Yankees and Red Sox, unsurprisingly, dominate the fantasy landscape, in both dollars and number of players. Philadelphia has fewer players worth drafting, but thanks to their rotation and a few valuable position players (Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, and Jimmy Rollins), they're all the way up in third. Milwaukee may not even make the playoffs, but thanks to their big three of Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, and Corey Hart, they are loaded with fantasy contributors. The same goes for the Marlins, who can lean on Hanley Ramirez, a collection of talented pitchers, and young hitters like Mike Stanton and Logan Morrison, but will probably finish in the middle of the NL East.
The more interesting clubs are the ones like the Diamondbacks and the Orioles. Both clubs will likely finish last in their divisions, but they should provide plenty of fantasy value. We've discussed in the past that the Orioles are a deceptively solid club, and that it is just their placement in the strongest division in baseball that makes them appear totally useless, but the D'backs are a bad team in a division that is up for grabs—their worthwhile fantasy players are essentially their only good players, and their many negatives drag down the club as a whole.
The Rays have a shot at the American League East title as always, or at least October baseball via the Wild Card, yet if you played fantasy baseball with their roster, you would finish back in the second division. They aren't bereft of options by any means, despite the departure of Carl Crawford—they have Evan Longoria, David Price, B.J. Upton, Ben Zobrist, Jeremy Hellickson, and James Shields—but they are one of those teams that utilizes the abilities of every player on their 25-man roster in order to win. The strongest points of the successful Rays clubs have been their bullpens, their defenses, and their ability to succeed on the basepaths (and not necessarily because of successful stolen base attempts)—none of those items matter in fantasy, unless we're talking about saves. As Jason Collette points out, unless you're talking about Rafael Soriano, they Rays aren't even relevant for saves most years.
Things take a nosedive once you get to Pittsburgh. Near the conclusion of last season, I wrote a piece about the Pirates who deserved your attention in fantasy. Andrew McCutchen, Neil Walker, Pedro Alvarez, Jose Tabata, and James McDonald formed a worthwhile fantasy core the likes of which Pittsburgh had not seen in ages, but between then and now, they added zilch in terms of fantasy-worthy players. That group—and closer Joel Hanrahan with them—are the only ones worth looking at on the Bucs, and with the exception of McCutchen, none of them are expected to return high value. Hell, even the Mariners have Felix Hernandez and Ichiro Suzuki, and the Astros have Hunter Pence, Michael Bourn, and Wandy Rodriguez to point to.
Kansas City has a few prospects, as you may have heard. If Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer or one of the various others comes up and sticks, they could change the fantasy outlook for Kansas City basically overnight. Until that time, though, the Royals are basically the saddest kids in the room.
San Diego ranks below them, but PECOTA and the PFM (at least at the weighted-mean level) dislike Will Venable and Chase Headley, enough so that neither of them appears with positive value. I rated Venable a two-star outfielder, and am confident he can replicate his 90th percentile forecast (.265/.345/.434 with 19 homers and 19 steals). Headley is another two-star player of mine, and while I don't have the same enthusiasm for his bat as I do for Venable's, he should be able to beat out even his loftiest stolen base projections given San Diego's newfound (as of 2010) enthusiasm for running the bases. In addition, Tim Stauffer is projected by the Depth Charts (and therefore the PFM) to throw just 145 innings. This conservative forecast makes sense, given that he is switching from the bullpen back to starting full-time, but if he approached a full season's worth of innings at the quality he is capable of, he would easily make this list and help to bump the Padres out of depressing territory, straight into plain old Sadville. With Simon Castro, Anthony Rizzo, and Casey Kelly on the way, the Padres are also in better shape for the future, though they will never escape the damage their park does to their hitters. Kids, don't let friends draft Padres hitters.
Lest you think that those are the mad ravings of a San Diego fanboy, I'm here to defend the Athletics as well. At the weighted-mean level, PECOTA dislikes their pitching staff, but, much like in San Diego or Seattle, their pitchers are going to have plenty of value thanks to their home park. Every single starter in that rotation is worth a look on draft day, and the lineup, while held back by the very same park that boosts their pitchers' value, deserves more credit. Kurt Suzuki is the lone A's hitter projected for over $10 in value, and most of that has to do with his position. Josh Willingham isn't going to make or break your season, but he has his uses even in mixed leagues—the same goes for David DeJesus, Hideki Matsui, and Coco Crisp. Of course, pessimism with regards to those four staying on the field all year may be why they rank as low as they do to begin with.
If these kinds of differences between real value and fantasy value drive you crazy, there are always alternatives, like Scoresheet, Box Baseball, or Diamond Mind. For those of us who like to continue to confuse our inner baseball fan, though, we can enjoy watching the Athletics contend in the AL West while knowing that as far as fantasy is concerned, they're still dog meat.