January 13, 2012
The Risk of Rostering Rookies
From a 2007 Future Shock report on a team’s top prospect:
In 2007, he was ranked as high as the 22nd best prospect in baseball. In 2008, he was bumped up to 20th, but by 2009 he slid to 30th, then to 77th, and now Fernando Martinez has been released by the Mets and claimed by the Astros. A player that was once considered one of the 20 best prospects in baseball owns just 131 at bats in the major leagues with a .183/.250/.290 slash line at the age of 23.
Rookies in fantasy baseball are like junk bonds because of their high default risk. After all, is there any other classification of player in fantasy baseball that has a cool yet unfortunate acronym like TINSTAPP attached to it? Yet, those junk bonds can also, at times, yield some amazing returns. Those times can sometimes be few and far between, but that is what is so enticing about rostering rookies in March drafts. Here is a list of failed prospects that received at least one ranking in the top 10 from Baseball America from 1990 to 2007; how many of them did you own at one point or another?
I will admit to owning at least four of those players at one point myself, and Wood as recently as this past AL Tout Wars. Wood is a great example of how people can get too tied up in potential and overvalue a prospect. In my local league, the same guy owned Brandon Wood each of the past six seasons. There is not a guy in our league that did not try to trade for Wood when his status was high, but we could never meet that owner’s asking price. We have a limited number of keeper spots each season, and yet Wood still managed to hang onto one of those spots for the last six seasons.
If you look back into your own fantasy baseball history, I am certain each of you has that type of player in your own closet as you have fallen victim to hanging on to the dream for too long. My own white whale was Ian Stewart, who I rostered at $2 the year before he broke out in Asheville, turning down more trades than I care to remember in the years since. I eventually traded him in 2007 as part of a deal to acquire Luke Scott, passing him on to someone who believed in Stewart more than I did.
Even if these rookies do get to the majors in the season in which we draft them, the playing time becomes a factor. Picking a random year, say 1972 (my birth year) as a starting point, we find that from 1972 to 2011, just 169 hitters saw at least 400 plate appearances in their rookie season. If we go back to just 1990, we find that only 99 hitters have seen that much playing time in a single season. For AL- or NL-only players, that is not as bad as it is for mixed league players where harvesting massive amounts of plate appearances is a big part of the game. On the pitching side of the ledger, 173 rookies have made as many as 20 starts in their rookie season, and if you are looking for 20 saves in a rookie season, forget about it. Nine pitchers have saved as many as 20 games in their rookie season with Javy Guerra and Craig Kimbrel most recently pulling off the feat.
The junk bonds are appealing, but the research into the risk one is taking by targeting or clinging to rookies too strongly is very strong. Scott McKinney of Royals Review did a fantastic piece early last year on the success and failure rates of top prospects. For his work, he used the Top 100 lists from Baseball America from 1990 to 2003 and set a benchmark of 2.5 career average WARP for labeling a prospect “good.” He found that just 22 percent of positional prospects qualified while just ten percent of pitchers made that list. In the same piece, a career average WARP below 1.5 earned a bust label, and that applied to 63 percent of the positional prospects and 77 percent of the pitching prospects.
He also found that while nearly 70 percent of prospects fail, positional prospects ranked in the top 20 have a 66 percent better chance of becoming better prospects than their pitching counterparts. I highly recommend reading the entire piece as you decide how to construct your reserve and dynasty draft strategies, as it will help you get a better feel for the risk associated with certain types of players.
Prospects have a high failure rate, and those that do make it fight like salmon swimming upstream to get consistent playing time. Every once in awhile, you can land that big fish that makes the pick worthwhile, but there is a reason why I have adopted two fantasy credos: