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Trying to determine any Fantasy Baseball MVP is inherently difficult because the notion of what is the “most valuable” depends on the specific league settings, the makeup of individual teams, and even the type of draft. However, we can certainly highlight some of the players who carried significant surplus value by comparing the preseason average draft position (ADP) of a player and his end-of-season ranking. Those players, we can reasonably assume, impacted the overall success rate of fantasy teams more than other picks.

Michael Brantley, OF, Cleveland Indians

  • 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP): 210
  • 2014 ESPN Final Ranking: 4

I wrote about Michael Brantley in early July and said, “Owners should not be itching to “sell high”—they should kick up their feet and watch Brantley quietly produce for the remainder of the year.”

As it turns out, Brantley didn’t quietly do anything. He announced himself to the larger baseball world, hitting .334/.384/.500 with 25 doubles, seven homers, and 13 stolen bases from when that article was published to the end of the year. The 27-year-old won a Silver Slugger and has even garnered some support for the AL MVP. More directly to our interests, though, Brantley finished the season as ESPN’s fourth-ranked fantasy player.

For those in keeper leagues, it should be noted that Brantley doesn’t project to be a flash in the pan. He boasts a mature approach at the plate, a keen understanding of the strike zone, and a minuscule swinging-strike rate (3.6 percent). In fact, all six qualified hitters who owned a swinging-strike rate below four percent enjoyed quality offensive seasons.

Player

Team

SwStr%

Ben Revere

Phillies

3.2%

Matt Carpenter

Cardinals

3.3%

Denard Span

Nationals

3.3%

Victor Martinez

Tigers

3.4%

Nick Markakis

Orioles

3.5%

Michael Brantley

Indians

3.6%

Perhaps he doesn’t reach the 20-home-run plateau again in 2015, but that hardly gives him significant bust potential. He’s a .300 hitter who could easily go 15/15, and considering his position in the Indians’ batting order, the run/RBI totals should remain high. Plus, his nickname is Dr. Smooth, and I dig that.

Dee Gordon, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers

  • 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP): 268
  • 2014 ESPN Final Ranking: 11

Gordon grabbed the attention of all fantasy owners early in the year due to his gaudy stolen base numbers. In the first half alone, he swiped 43 bags. That type of speed is rare in fantasy baseball, and when that can be coupled with a high batting average and a myriad of runs, it has the making of a stud.

Question marks remained, though. Gordon had historically struggled with left-handed pitching, and if he was to avoid being platooned in the second half and into the 2015 season, he was going to have to display an ability to handle southpaws. I didn’t see it and routinely called for owners to sell high. Fortunately for the owners who disregarded my advice, the speedster actually finished the year with a higher OPS against lefties (.719) than against righties (.699).

Granted, that performance came in many fewer plate appearances — so the small-sample caveat should be kept in mind — but the underlying peripheral numbers suggest that success against lefties could be sustainable. He compiled a better walk rate against lefties (5.0 percent vs. 4.7 percent) and a lower strikeout rate (13.5 percent vs. 17.3 percent). Some may express concern about the .346 BABIP, but those folks aren’t taking into consideration his phenomenal speed. He should be expected to post lofty BABIP numbers.

I won’t be considering Gordon in the first two rounds of the 2015 Draft of standard 10-team leagues; however, that doesn’t mean I consider his performance to necessarily be a fluke. It does counter the overarching assumptions of what he would be, though, and I simply need to see the elite fantasy production for more than 650 plate appearances before I consider paying a premium for it.

Corey Kluber, SP, Cleveland Indians

  • 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP): 204
  • 2014 ESPN Final Ranking: 14

To be sure, Kluber had a substantial fan club heading into the 2014 season, largely based on his 3.30 FIP and 10.4 percent swinging-strike rate in 2013. Even the most optimistic of fantasy owners, though, couldn’t have foreseen his step forward to utter dominance. People look at the 2.44 ERA and the strikeout rate of 10.27 K/9, but for fantasy owners who pushed for a league championship at the end of the year know that Kluber lit up the American League down the stretch. Over his final 104 innings, the right-hander owned a 1.73 ERA with 127 strikeouts and just 19 walks. Opposing hitters only hit .210/.251/.304 over that stretch, which means he essentially made the entire American League look like Matt Dominguez for the final three months.

More goes into making a successful starting pitcher than simple whiff rates, but fantasy owners understand that increased whiffs almost certainly leads to an increased strikeout rate. Considering Kluber fans were already fawning over his strikeout rate in 2013, the gains in whiff rate across the board should give owners heart palpitations.

Year

Sinker

Slider

Cutter

2012

3.75%

20.26%

13.41%

2013

4.41%

20.67%

15.86%

2014

5.34%

24.32%

18.74%

I focused on these specific pitches because he threw one of those three offerings 93% of the time in 2014. The fact that his whiff rate significantly increased on all three offerings is incredible. It’s also the main reason why his strikeout rate jumped from 22.4 percent in 2013 to 28.3 percent in 2014. Only Clayton Kershaw and Chris Sale struck out a higher percentage of batters.

Johnny Cueto, SP, Cincinnati Reds

  • 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP): 147
  • 2014 ESPN Final Ranking: 5

Each year, a starter falls through the cracks due to an injury-plagued season the year before. Either fantasy owners assume the injuries will carry over, or they simply overlook the player because they don’t appear in the season-ending stat sheets because they failed to eclipse the minimum number of IP or PA to “qualify.”

I told myself to target Cueto for the 2014 season. I wrote articles about it. I placed him in a separate column in my pre-draft rankings to ensure that I didn’t forget about him by mistake. Inevitably, I drafted him in exactly zero leagues and loathed myself for it after he posted a 2.25 ERA, struck out a batter per inning, and won 20 games in 243 2/3 innings. If Clayton Kershaw didn’t exist, we may be talking about Cueto as the NL Cy Young winner.

Many have pointed to his .238 BABIP as a reason why his incredible performance shouldn’t be expected to continue into the following season. However, those same individuals need to explain how he’s managed to compile a combined .237 BABIP over the past 304 1/3 big-league innings. Not all BABIPs are created equally. After all, a combined 57.5 percent of balls put in play were either on the ground or infield popups. That doesn’t leave much room for fly balls and line drives, and Cueto also had an above-average defense behind him. Perhaps we shouldn’t expect a BABIP hovering around .240 yet again, but I wouldn’t be so quick to assume that his ball-in-play regression will be dramatic. Much like Pat Neshek and his crazy-low BABIP, guys don’t square up Cueto very well because he’s straight-up nasty. In three of his past four seasons, he’s posted a BABIP below .250. Keep that in mind when other fantasy owners are shying away due to a simplistic assumption that he’ll be BABIP-ed back to normal in 2015.

Todd Frazier, 1B/3B, Cincinnati Reds

  • 2014 Average Draft Position (ADP): 218
  • 2014 ESPN Final Ranking: 20

The power has long been present for Frazier. Fantasy owners have been waiting for the 29 home run season. While that perhaps wasn’t expect, it wasn’t beyond the realm of possibility on draft day. Two significant things happened that made Frazier a top-20 fantasy player, rather than a fringe-average option at third base: (1) he somehow stole 20 bases, and (2) the Votto-Bruce-Phillips trifecta became relatively useless.

Frazier once stole 17 bases in Triple-A, but at 28 years old and after stealing a mere 10 bases in three big-league seasons, absolutely no one expected the big corner fielder to swipe 20 bags. Hell, he stole more bases than Andrew McCutchen this past season!

Similarly unexpected, the middle of the Reds order succumbed to injury or general ineffectiveness. That left Frazier to slide into the heart of the lineup and reap the run/RBI benefits. That, combined with the increased stolen base totals, gave him well-rounded value. He didn’t rank in the top 10 in any of the five standard roto categories, but he was better than average across the board. It’s incredible to think that Todd Frazier was one of the five players who posted 20/20 seasons. I don’t think you could’ve given me favorable enough odds to bet on that.

With that said, I’m not betting on that stolen base production to carry over into the 2015 season. Too much history suggests that’s not sustainable, and with the Big Three presumably returning to the lineup, I don’t believe the Reds will run as often. The power production could carry over, but it’s worth noting that he only had a .149 ISO in the second half, which is far from desirable from a power hitter. He was a bona fide stud in 2014. There’s just no way I’m going to be willing to meet the lofty price tag in 2015. No chance at all.