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November 19, 2013

Fantasy Bargains and Busts

American League Hitters

by Mike Gianella

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Why look back?

This question is typically asked in philosophical or self help circles, with the answer typically being that we should never look back and should always focus on what lies ahead, not behind. Generally speaking, this isn’t bad advice. If you get too bogged down in what happened yesterday, you’ll miss out on opportunities in the present.

In fantasy baseball, this philosophical view is held strongly by the vast majority of experts as well as players in the industry. For them, Satchel Paige had it right: “Don’t look back; something may be gaining on you.” Last year is last year, and to waste time focusing on last year is wasting time that you could be looking at ways to improve your team in the upcoming season. It’s only November, and already there are mock drafts being held, magazines being written and edited, and prognosticators gearing up for 2014. 2013 is in the past, and we should stop thinking about it.

There is something to be said for this philosophy. And yet, there is also something to be said for looking back at what happened last year, seeing what happened, examining what went right and what went wrong, and looking for trends that might help us in the future.

Analysts in a variety of fields do it all the time. Looking back at what happened last year offers us something that we cannot get by merely looking ahead: a vast amount of useful data. What happened this year will not happen next year. However, last year’s numbers do provide us with a foundation for understanding what could happen based on the data we have at our disposal.

Where some analysts look at statistics, I’m far more interested in how owners spent their (hypothetical) fantasy dollars. Are we spending our money wisely in fantasy auctions? Is there anything that can be gleaned from our spending habits in fantasy baseball that can improve our gaming performance next year? What does 2013 tell us?

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2013. This is the first post in a series of six (at a minimum). The first two posts in this series will focus on AL-only leagues; the next two will shift their focus to NL-only, while the final two posts examine the more difficult terrain (from a valuation perspective) of mixed leagues.

Before I dig in, a brief description of the charts below is in order.

The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5x5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer when it is up and running). The most important thing to know about the values is that for the 168 best perceived American League hitters and the 108 best perceived American pitchers on Opening Day 2013 the values add up to $3,120. This is important, as this is where the next two columns come into play.

Sal is the average salary of the players. This column is derived from the prices in CBS, LABR, and Tout Wars, the three expert leagues that convene before the regular season starts and (thank goodness for the purposes of my analysis) have three complete AL-only auctions with no frozen players from which to derive data. While I would love to use more leagues to derive each player’s average salary, most Rotisserie-style leagues are keeper oriented and average salary data isn’t useful for this exercise thanks to inflation.

The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether or not he gained or lost his fantasy owners money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Robinson Cano can earn $31, get paid an average salary of $35 and lose five dollars.

MG is yours truly, your heroic pricer and proud prognosticator since 2013. Another good reason to look back is to see if the fantasy expert you are following is good at what he or she does. It is easy to make predictions in March and never revisit those predictions. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my sixth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2013. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

2012 shows what the player earned in 2012. If you don’t like looking back, you might think that looking back an additional year is worthless, but as you’ll see an additional season’s worth of fantasy earnings data is sometimes very instructive.

The first thing I usually look at is how did the hitters that we thought would be the best perform? Was buying a big-ticket hitter a winning proposition? Or would you have been better off ignoring the expensive buys and hanging back waiting for the bargains?

Table 1: Top 10 Salaries, AL Hitters 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1t

Miguel Cabrera

$42

41

1

39

40

43

38

$40

1t

Mike Trout

$41

41

0

40

42

40

43

$47

3

Robinson Cano

$31

35

-5

36

35

35

33

$31

4

Albert Pujols

$13

34

-21

33

34

35

33

$27

5

Prince Fielder

$23

34

-10

32

34

35

32

$29

6t

Jose Bautista

$20

31

-11

29

33

32

30

$16

6t

Jose Reyes

$18

31

-14

34

29

31

31

$29

8

Yoenis Cespedes

$17

30

-12

31

29

29

29

$25

9t

Adrian Beltre

$29

29

0

28

30

30

31

$32

9t

Evan Longoria

$23

29

-7

29

31

28

28

$14

Average

$26

34

-8

33

34

34

33

$29

The easy thing to do is to look at the $26 these players earned on average, look at the $34 they cost on average, and deem them failures. However, before we do that and simply move onto the next table, some historical context is necessary.

Table 2: Top 10 Salaries, AL Hitters, 2009-2012

Year

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2012

$24

35

-11

35

35

34

2011

$24

36

-12

41

35

32

2010

$25

35

-10

38

33

32

2009

$24

36

-12

41

33

34

The 2013 crop of most expensive players are “failures,” but they are not the failures that they were in the past because the expert market (a term you’ll hear me use a lot over the next few weeks) has started paying less for the best hitters. A one or two dollar average difference per player doesn’t sound like a lot, but in terms of groupings of 10 it is a pretty significant shift in market dynamics.

Much of this comes because of CBS. The most recent of the three expert leagues, the experts in CBS once spent money liberally for the best hitters before learning that there is a ceiling on what the best players can do and started behaving like the other expert leagues do. In 2013, CBS went one step further and spent less than any of the three expert leagues on the most expensive hitters. As noted above, it still wasn’t enough.

In prior years, I have generally made the argument that losing some money on the top hitters isn’t necessarily a bad thing. You don’t want to take losses but you do need stats, and getting $26 worth of stats from any player isn’t a terrible thing even if it comes at a steep price tag. In 2013, Eric Hosmer—the lone $26 earner in the American League—was the 15th-best hitter in the junior circuit. Spending $34 to get a piece of the 15th-best hitter in the league isn’t a disaster.

However, I’m not so sure this was the case in 2013. Cabrera and Trout skew the results considerably. It isn’t often that a $40 hitter repeats his performance, but that’s what both Trout and Miggy did last year. Take them out of this group and the remaining eight hitters get paid $32 to earn $22. Only Beltre breaks even, and only Cano and Longoria don’t suffer double-digit losses. You want earnings (and more importantly the statistics that come with those earnings), but there is a tipping point where the losses matter. Spending $34 to get $23 back from Fielder isn’t an optimal outcome.

While spending really big might not have been the way to go, if you wanted to make a splash you had to at least be somewhat aggressive.

Table 3: Top 10 Earnings, AL Hitters 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Miguel Cabrera

$42

41

1

39

40

43

38

$40

2

Mike Trout

$41

41

0

40

42

40

43

$47

3

Chris Davis

$36

20

16

20

20

20

18

$21

4

Jacoby Ellsbury

$34

28

6

31

24

29

28

$11

5

Alex Rios

$32

23

10

21

24

23

24

$33

6

Adam Jones

$32

28

4

29

25

29

28

$30

7

Robinson Cano

$31

35

-5

36

35

35

33

$31

8

Adrian Beltre

$29

29

0

28

30

30

31

$32

9

Jason Kipnis

$29

25

4

22

26

28

23

$24

10

David Ortiz

$29

16

13

19

16

12

14

$19

Average

$34

29

5

29

28

29

28

$29

Cabrera, Trout, and Beltre are the only repeaters in Table 1 and Table 3; everyone else is new. However, Ellsbury and Jones just miss and Kipnis isn’t that far behind. In fact, Davis and Ortiz are the only hitters here who cost $20 or less.

In other words, this is an expensive group of hitters. If you were looking to buy an anchor for your squad and didn’t have the stones to pony up $40+ for Cabrera or Trout, you still would have had to pay at least $23 for a shot at a $30-plus earner. Spending $16 on Papi would have gotten you close, but this isn’t a group of big bargains for the most part. If you want to get stats, you have to spend.

I haven’t commented on this yet, but in Table 1 and Table 3 the uniformity of the expert markets is apparent. If you’ve played in a home league for a significant amount of time, the uniformity is probably similar. Everyone is looking at the same magazines and the same websites; everyone is listening to the same podcasts or following the same fantasy experts on Twitter. There are a few large gaps (such as the $7 difference between Jacoby Ellsbury in CBS and LABR) but for the most part the prices are fairly uniform. We might have some disagreements over what a player is worth, but we are in agreement over what a player should be paid.

That being said, what was I thinking on this group? In a four-way battle with the expert market, I would have walked away with only Trout and Beltre (with a share of Rios)… at slight losses for both. If you want to look at these prices as predictions, I have about the same “won/loss record” against the market. I hit Ellsbury on the nose, tie LABR on Rios, and come closest to Cano. But in terms of the big-ticket items—both in Table 1 and Table 3—I miss out on most. This means I had better do better at prognosticating what is going to happen in this next table:

Table 4: Top 10 Profits, AL Hitters 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Josh Donaldson

$27

6

21

1

6

10

6

$7

2

Nate McLouth

$20

4

17

4

4

3

6

$8

3

Brian Dozier

$17

0

17

1

4

$7

4

Chris Davis

$36

20

16

20

20

20

18

$21

5

James Loney

$19

3

16

1

2

7

5

$6

6

Rajai Davis

$21

6

14

7

6

6

6

$24

7

David Ortiz

$29

16

13

19

16

12

14

$19

8

Craig Gentry

$14

1

13

2

1

1

$11

9

Raul Ibanez

$14

2

12

4

2

3

$12

10

Jarrod Dyson

$14

3

11

7

2

2

$14

Average

$21

6

15

6

6

6

7

$13

I make a couple of good calls here compared to the market, “getting” McLouth and Dozier. However, while I’m slightly more aggressive than the market on the whole, I don’t have any particularly brilliant insights here with my prices.

But then nobody does. In late February and March when we’re buying these teams we are guessing on most of these players. The Tout Wars owners are more aggressive on Donaldson and Loney, while CBS pushes Ortiz and Ibanez a little harder than everyone else. Meanwhile, LABR goes all out after Dyson.

Without the benefit of hindsight, the lower bids seem like the smarter ones. I liked Loney more than the market did, but seven dollars for him seemed a little cuckoo prior to Opening Day. I begrudgingly froze Donaldson at six dollars in my home league, but $10 felt like too much for a guy who might not keep his job all year. Seven dollars for a one-dimensional burner like Dyson? I like speed, but even in AL-only, that seems like a lot for a bench player, speed or no.

So while we can all claim our victories on these players, we’re all grasping at straws. The smartest person in this “room” is 2012. These players earned an average of $13 per player in 2012. That’s a lot, and significantly more than what the market was willing to pay. Some say that skills trump role, but in valuation analysis, earnings often trump role. Every year, Rajai Davis is a fourth outfielder with a questionable path to playing time and every year Davis seems to find a way to earn $20 or so.

I hate ending on a down note, but this chart has to go somewhere.

Table 5: Top 10 Losses, AL Hitters 2013

#

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

2012

1

Albert Pujols

$13

34

-21

33

34

35

33

$27

2

Mark Teixeira

$0

18

-18

25

23

6

10

$16

3

Jesus Montero

$0

16

-16

15

16

18

16

$11

4

Derek Jeter

$0

16

-15

16

17

14

12

$27

5

Josh Willingham

$5

20

-14

16

20

23

19

$24

6

Curtis Granderson

$6

20

-14

20

20

20

19

$24

7

Jose Reyes

$18

31

-14

34

29

31

31

$29

8

Brett Lawrie

$11

25

-13

27

25

22

21

$17

9

Melky Cabrera

$8

21

-13

20

20

22

18

$27

10

Michael Morse

$4

17

-13

17

16

17

16

$17

Average

$7

22

-15

22

22

21

20

$22

You would expect there to be a number of super expensive players on Table 5, but this isn’t the case at all. Only Pujols and Reyes show up from Table 1, and Lawrie is the only other player who cost $25 or more who makes the list. Instead of expensive players, this chart is dominated by players who were paid between $16-21 and earned nothing or next to nothing for their owners.

Not all $16-21 salaried players are worthless, obviously. But when you spend in the mid-tier and player doesn’t perform, you not only don’t get your money back on the player, but you waste a roster spot as well. This is especially true in only leagues, where the replacement level of talent of threadbare.

This is my predictions finally shine compared to the expert league bids. My average salary of $20 is low compared to their (relative) exuberance. Some of my trepidation is simply my low, post-injury news price on Teixeira, but I’m reluctant on Jeter, Lawrie and the Melkman even without any damaging injury news.

There isn’t a one-size fits all approach to pricing, and maybe you’ll find a bargain in the mid-tier. However, if owners aren’t spending their money at the top of the pyramid, they are going to spend it at the middle. While taking a loss on your most expensive hitter isn’t appealing, if you’re getting good stats back, it beats the alternative of spending $17-18 for a statistical zero.

Mike Gianella is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Mike's other articles. You can contact Mike by clicking here

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