Every season, a handful of players improve by leaps and bounds. There’s no denying this fact. These breakout players tend to have an inordinate impact on both the success of our teams as well as our collective consciousness. That too is well established. Those who ended up with Asdrubal Cabrera, Melky Cabrera, or James Shields in 2011 will thank the lucky heavens and hope for similar fortunes this coming season. Anybody who has been paying attention to the Jeremy Lin story will testify to the same. But is it wise in fantasy baseball drafts to chase these players instead of selecting others with more established production? That’s a more complicated subject.

In the preseason, we’re all very excited for the games to begin. These days, there’s a booming industry providing player analysis and attempts to forecast the season ahead, aimed directly at those who compete in fantasy baseball leagues. Among the most popular features this time of year is the community’s attempt to identify which players are primed to provide value well beyond their salary or draft spot.

In fantasy baseball parlance, these players are commonly referred to as “sleepers.”

It’s a rather unfortunate term. On one hand, when we read about these players, we’re supposed to believe that everyone else is sleeping on them. Unfortunately, the very act of touting a sleeper is an exercise of paradox. If these players are underhyped, undervalued, or underexamined, they begin to lose these qualities the more we discuss them. So it goes in a game of perfect information. There are no secrets. Word travels when players are mispriced in the marketplace.

It’s also possible, however, that the biases of the content business might steer competitors wrong. How? Here’s the hypothesis: analysts wish to prove they’re smarter than the crowds—they think they can make more reasoned drafting decisions than those who might simply rely on average draft position or auto-drafting. Publishers also want to sell copies of magazines or garner traffic to websites. Touting “sleepers” is not only SEO-friendly, but it also serves a psychological need to perpetuate our communal  belief that knowledge is power and that we control our own success by recognizing the diamonds in the rough.

Is it possible, as a result of all this, that some sleepers become overhyped?

Maybe there are some players who appear to be promising rocks beneath the sediment before suddenly erupting through widespread sleeper publicity as the equivalent of the Hope Diamond—the gem too precious to take any chance that might cause it to fall into another’s hands. We all certainly know of players who have been repeatedly touted as potential breakouts, but if we have a suspicion that someone else in our league has heard the same advice, we might be prone to spending too much on these players so they don’t fall into our leaguemate’s hands.  While this player might hold big potential, he’ll also likely carry a lot of risk at this inflated price. Our cravings and our competitive suspicions might lead us astray. Suddenly, the average draft position of the so-called “sleeper class” rises, thus destroying any bargain in the process.

Sure, that’s a nice theory, Eriq, but does that really happen? Soon, I’ll do some hard number-crunching to see if there’s real value in rostering popular sleepers. But first, let’s take a trip down memory lane to see which players have been hyped in past seasons and which players are being heralded going into 2012. We tend to exhibit some confirmation bias by tallying our successes, but it’s also important to be mindful of those failed sleepers who haven’t lived up to past praise.

For the past few seasons, I’ve been pouring through preseason magazines, top sports websites, blogs, and message boards and recording the names of those players being described as “sleepers.” I keep a tally of how frequently each player is deemed to be a “sleeper.” I then transform the pages upon pages of names into a Word Cloud, which neatly visualizes the amount of hype a player has received; the bigger the font size, the more times a player has been touted as a sleeper.

Let’s start out back in 2009.

Looking back, the community did very well in predicting in 2009 the breakthrough performances of Nelson Cruz, Adam Jones, Jason Werth, Josh Johnson, Pablo Sandoval, Edwin Jackson, Adam Lind, Yovani Gallardo, Tommy Hanson, Shin-Soo Choo, and Justin Upton.

Unfortunately, there were quite a few misses. Max Scherzer started out that season on a roll but eventually wound up with a mediocre 4.13 ERA and 1.34 WHIP. Even worse were preseason sleeper touts like Mike Fontenot, Matt Wieters, Edwin Encarnacion, Chris Davis, Dallas McPherson, Alex Gordon, Elijah Dukes, Chris Young, Mike Aviles, and Brandon Morrow.

Let’s move onto 2010:

In the positive column for 2010, we have Brett Anderson, Carlos Gonzalez, Kelly Johnson, Jonathan Sanchez, Martin Prado, and Drew Stubbs.

Several other sleepers turned out to be merely mediocre that season, including Howie Kendrick, Billy Butler, Kevin Slowey, Ian Stewart, Sean Rodriguez, and Kurt Suzuki.  Worse, quite a few players were plain bombs, including Julio Borbon, Everth Cabrera, Jake Fox, Jeff Clement, Travis Snider, and Nolan Reimold.

We’ll reserve special attention for Chris Davis and Brandon Wood, who were lumped into a derivative form of the tout art known as “post-hype sleepers”: the theory that some players only fulfill their promise after experiencing failure. Unfortunately, there’s been little attempt to actually validate this theory, and again, it’s impossible to argue that people are sleeping on a guy who is commanding lots of attention. Instead, such as with Davis and Wood and so many others, pundits get away with doubling down on bad bets by occasionally pointing to a success like Alex Gordon in 2011. Except… Gordon wasn’t really touted as a post-hype sleeper by many people last season:

Again, a mixed year for predicting sleepers.

Bet on Ryan Raburn? Sorry. Loved Gordon Beckham or Jose Lopez? Oops. Drafted Kila Ka’aihue, Jose Tabata, Brandon Morrow, Aaron Hill, Chris Johnson, Pedro Alvarez, Tsuyoshi Nishioka, Daniel Murphy, and Brian Matusz? Out of luck.

Fortunes were slightly better for Chris Iannetta, Mitch Moreland, and Alcides Escobar, who delivered satisfactory but not spectacular performances in 2011.

On the bright side, J.P. Arencibia, Peter Bourjos, Jhoulys Chacin, Jeremy Hellickson, Matt Wieters, Carlos Santana, Drew Storen, Cameron Maybin, and Tim Stauffer were all solid. And those who drafted Mike Napoli and Daniel Hudson were rewarded handsomely.

Let’s take a look at 2012. Who are we seeing as popular sleepers this coming season, for better or worse?

Some of the players getting smothered with love these past few months include Kenley Jansen, Jason Kipnis, Zack Cozart, Brandon Belt, Mike Minor, Logan Morrison, Devin Mesoraco, Justin Smoak, Ryan Doumit, Addison Reed, Cory Luebke, Lucas Duda, Brandon Beachy, Lonnie Chisenhall, Dee Gordon, Yonder Alonso, Brett Lawrie, Salvador Perez, and a guy whose middle name really should be changed to “sleeper,” Kelly Johnson.

Will these guys hit it big this season and reward their owners for taking a shot? Or have they already become too expensive and express too much risk for the price? Obviously every year has hits and misses—that’s to be expected—but do we really see anything in the above Word Clouds that leads us to believe that predicting sleepers is substantially better than a 50/50 proposition? Not really, at least on the whole, when we’re drawing from a large number of sources that may be predicting sleepers using little more than gut instinct. Still, we still haven’t yet solved the dilemma of whether it’s better to aggressively target popular sleepers in hopes of getting the next Carlos Gonzalez or whether it might be best to exercise caution when seeing a “sleeper” on the horizon. We’ll pick up this topic again soon.