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Welcome to my third annual look at retrospective player valuation here at Baseball Prospectus. Over the next few weeks, I will be writing a series of posts examining how players performed from a fantasy perspective in 2015. This is the first post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series will focus on NL-only leagues, the next two will shift their focus to AL-only, and the final two posts examine the more difficult terrain (from a valuation perspective) of mixed leagues.

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

The $ value column is based on my Rotisserie-style, 5×5 formulas. It doesn’t exactly match anything in Baseball Prospectus’ PFM, but is derived using a SGP valuation model (something the PFM does offer). There are two important things to know about the values:

1) They are derived using the 168 best perceived hitters and the 108 best perceived pitchers (read most expensive or highest draft position) on Opening Day 2014, not the best 168 hitters and 108 pitchers at the end of the season.

2) The values of the 276 most expensive players add up to $3,120. This is important, and comes into play in the next two columns.

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 have three complete NL and 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 is useless for the purposes of this exercise thanks to auction inflation.

The +/- column subtracts each player’s earnings from his salary and shows whether he gained or lost his fantasy owners play money. Decimals aren’t displayed in the $ and Sal columns, which is how Edwin Encarnacion can earn $29, get paid an average salary of $33 and lose $5.

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 or (worse) cherry pick the ones you got right and take a hollow victory lap. But how good are we at what we do? The prices below are from my fourth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2015. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

PK are Peter Kreutzer’s bids for AL and NL-only leagues, published at Patton and Company’s web site. It is useful to look back and see how you did, but even more useful to compare your predictions to someone else’s.

2014 shows what the player earned in 2014.

Just as is the case in the National League, the American League experts have reduced spending on the most expensive hitters over the last few years. Unlike in the National League, though, the best AL hitters have performed better as a group, particularly in the earnings column.

Table 1: 10 Most Expensive AL Hitters with Prior Year’s Earnings

Year

Sal

$

Prior Year $

Prior Year Ten Best $

2015

34

$28

$30

$34

2014

34

$24

$32

$34

2013

34

$26

$29

$33

2012

35

$24

$33

$35

2011

36

$24

$30

$34

Over the last few years, the experts have shied away a little bit from spending on the perceived best players. This is particularly true when you consider that Mike Trout has commanded a $45 salary or higher the last two seasons; take him out of the equation and the average hitter salary for the most expensive guys drops even further. While on some level it makes sense that the experts don’t want to push too far past $30 and take a significant loss, they should be careful not to allow their opponents to come too close to breaking even.

Table 2: Top 10 Salaries, 2015 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Mike Trout

$35

45

-10

46

44

46

43

42

$38

2

Jose Abreu

$27

37

-10

38

37

36

33

35

$34

3

Miguel Cabrera

$24

37

-13

39

35

36

35

35

$32

4

Jose Bautista

$29

34

-5

31

33

37

30

27

$32

5

Edwin Encarnacion

$29

33

-5

32

33

35

31

25

$25

6

Jose Altuve

$39

32

7

35

31

30

31

33

$45

7

Jacoby Ellsbury

$18

31

-14

32

33

29

30

27

$31

8

Josh Donaldson

$37

31

6

31

31

30

29

25

$26

9

Robinson Cano

$23

30

-7

30

30

30

29

32

$28

10

George Springer

$20

29

-9

31

29

28

28

17

$13

Average

$28

34

-6

35

34

34

32

30

$30

2015 was the best year the most expensive AL-only hitters have had since I started tracking these data for 5×5, AL-only leagues back in 2009. Despite the fact that this group loses its buyers money, there isn’t a nightmarish bust residing on Table 2. You have every right in the world to feel bad about Ellsbury if you spent $31 on him at your auction, but a $14 loss on a hitter isn’t nearly as bad as prior seasons’ biggest $30+ losers.

2014: Prince Fielder. Cost $33. Earned $3.
2013: Albert Pujols. Cost $34. Earned $13.
2012: Jacoby Ellsbury. Cost $36. Earned $11.
2011: Carl Crawford. Cost $40. Earned $16.
2010: Jacoby Ellsbury. Cost $35. Earned $2.
2009: Grady Sizemore. Cost $41. Earned $15.

Okay, looking at it this way you have every right in the world to be mad at Jacoby Ellsbury. Go have your tantrum and I’ll see you when you get back.

Feel better?

Overall, the worst of the best hitters weren’t nearly as disappointing as they were in the past. There were even a couple of profits to be had here. It may sound weird to newbies to auction formats, but a $28 return on a batch of players who cost $34 is excellent. Take Ellsbury out of the group, and these nine hitters earned $29 per player.

I have always been an advocate for overpaying a little bit for the best hitters (see last year’s article for an explanation as to why this is the case) so I’m a little concerned that I’m two dollars per player behind the expert market. In a five-way battle with the expert leagues and Kreutzer, I don’t have the highest bid on a single player. CBS is out in front on Abreu, Cabrera, Altuve, and Springer. LABR is out in front on Ellsbury, while Tout is ahead on Bautista and Encarnacion. Kreutzer, who is extremely conservative, is saving all of his money for Robinson Cano. CBS and Tout tie on Trout while CBS and LABR tie on Donaldson.

While I did underspend relative to the market, at least I didn’t miss out on any $40+ players last year.

Table 3: Top 10 Earnings, 2015 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Jose Altuve

$39

32

7

35

31

30

31

33

$45

2

Josh Donaldson

$37

31

6

31

31

39

29

25

$26

3

Manny Machado

$35

20

15

20

21

19

21

21

$11

4

Lorenzo Cain

$35

15

20

15

15

16

17

16

$25

5

Mike Trout

$35

45

-10

46

44

46

43

42

$38

6

Nelson Cruz

$32

22

10

24

21

20

23

22

$30

7

Mookie Betts

$31

22

9

20

22

24

19

21

$10

8

Chris Davis

$29

28

1

30

26

28

24

20

$12

9

Jose Bautista

$29

34

-5

31

33

37

30

27

$32

10

J.D. Martinez

$29

21

8

24

21

17

18

18

$25

Average

$33

27

6

28

27

27

26

25

$25

While the most expensive hitters were more reliable in 2015, the best hitters didn’t earn a significant chunk of change. For the first time since 2009, not a single American League hitter cracked the $40 barrier. Only seven hitters earned more than $30, which also happened two years ago in 2013. So while the most expensive hitters are more reliable investments than they have been in the past, they aren’t quite the types of anchors that fantasy teams have previously relied upon.

This table seems to represent a changing of the guard in fantasy, even though four of the 10 hitters on Table 3 were also in the Top 10 in 2014. Betts and Machado are the types of young go-getters who fantasy owners in keeper leagues are going to try to build around for years, but in redraft leagues their salaries are going to rise considerably. Altuve and Cain are the types of players who fantasy managers will doubt belong in this group and question whether or not they are being valued correctly. But the valuations don’t lie. If anything, SGP valuation downgrades stolen bases somewhat; Altuve would be worth more in a scarcity pricing model. Altuve is going to be a cornerstone of fantasy teams for years to come if he maintains this level of performance.

At least the market believed in Altuve enough so he could avoid a repeat performance on the next table.

Table 4: Top 10 AL Hitter Profits 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Kevin Pillar

$26

1

26

1

1

1

1

$3

2

Delino DeShields

$20

0

20

1

2

2

3

Lorenzo Cain

$35

15

20

15

15

16

17

16

$25

4

Francisco Lindor

$21

5

16

6

5

3

5

Manny Machado

$35

20

15

20

21

19

21

21

$11

6

Alex Rodriguez

$22

6

15

5

6

8

10

5

7

Mitch Moreland

$19

4

15

2

7

2

7

6

$3

8

Kendrys Morales

$24

9

15

9

9

10

8

12

$4

9

Brock Holt

$14

0

14

1

1

3

$15

10

Anthony Gose

$18

4

13

6

3

4

9

3

$7

Average

$23

7

17

7

7

6

8

7

$7

Ah, Brock Holt. Excuse me for a moment. Be right back.

Mmmmm. Such beautiful hair. Wait, what were we talking about again?

Oh yes, fantasy hitter bargains. That’s right.

One of the themes in the NL was that the best bargains shouldn’t have been nearly as surprising as they were, particularly based on what they earned in 2014. The bargains in the AL tell a different story. While it’s true that Holt and Cain should have been paid more based on their prior earnings, most of the hitters in this group really were far from certain based on what they had done in the past. While it is easy to sit back in November 2015 and castigate the market for its conservatism on ARod, he hardly seemed like a sure thing back in March after sitting out for a full season. Lindor and DeShields paid off, but they both could have just as easily spent all of 2015 in the minors. Even Morales—the cagey veteran in this table—wasn’t the kind of underappreciated player who earned $12-14 in 2014 and was discounted. The $9 average salary on him seemed fairly aggressive in March.

The National League had players like DJ LeMahieu and Yunel Escobar in the bargain bin. They weren’t sexy, but these are the types of players I like to pack on the back end of my roster in an only-league format. In the AL, the bargain bin led to some higher risk players based on their previous earnings. The average NL best bargains earned $25 and cost eight dollars, while the AL bargains earned $23 and earned seven dollars. The results weren’t that different, but I would have been far less comfortable sticking someone like Moreland into one of my corner slots at the end hoping for a windfall than I would have been with Yunel Escobar in the National League.

2015 was also slightly unusual as far as the worst hitters go.

Table 5: Top 10 AL Hitter Losses 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Adam LaRoche

$4

22

-18

25

20

21

19

18

$22

2

Oswaldo Arcia

$2

17

-15

21

14

17

15

14

$12

3

Victor Martinez

$9

24

-15

23

27

23

23

24

$36

4

Leonys Martin

$8

22

-14

22

21

24

21

20

$23

5

Hanley Ramirez

$15

29

-14

28

30

28

28

22

$21

6

Jacoby Ellsbury

$18

31

-14

32

33

29

30

27

$31

7

Yan Gomes

$7

20

-13

21

21

18

19

16

$19

8

Chris Carter

$9

22

-13

18

24

25

21

15

$21

9

Pablo Sandoval

$8

21

-13

20

23

19

18

20

$19

10

Danny Santana

$4

17

-13

20

16

15

14

18

$24

Average

$8

23

-14

23

23

22

21

19

$23

Typically, the hitters on this table get a raise from the previous year. Fantasy players are often betting on a bounce back or betting aggressively on a rookie or an injured player. But in 2015, the market paid these hitters exactly what they earned in 2014 (on average, at least). Arcia and Hanley both received fairly hefty raises, but the market was extremely reluctant to pay these guys for a second year in a row and in some cases the advice was to hit the brakes.

Kreutzer was extremely cautious compared to everyone else. His $19 average salary was very low, and good advice across the board. He doesn’t come close having the highest bid on any of these players in a hypothetical bidding war with me and the market, and looks like a genius.

However, I’m noticing that in the four tables above that Kreutzer is way behind on every group of hitters, and while he is on pace with the best bargains, he isn’t far ahead of the field. Caution is admirable where bad investments are concerned, but you do have to spend your money somewhere.

I went back and looked at what the expert leagues spent on hitting and what Kreutzer and I recommended spending on hitting, thinking that Kreutzer was going to be way behind us in overall spending. Not only wasn’t this the case but Kreutzer’s combined bids on his top 168 hitters totaled more than what any of the expert leagues or my recommended bid limits recommended spending on hitting.

2015 Recommended Bid Limits: Total
Peter Kreutzer (askrotoman.com): $2,184
Tout Wars: $2,178
LABR: $2,161
Mike Gianella: $2,130
CBS: $2,095

Kreutzer’s low bids on all of the charts above aren’t a case of low bids in the aggregate or higher bids on pitchers but rather the case of a different philosophy regarding the distribution of bids. This is better than having prices that are too low across the board (you won’t spend your money). My guess is that if Kreutzer were competing against the market and my bids to put together a team, it would be a very balanced squad.

Table 6: Hypothetical Peter Kreutzer Roster (Offense)

Pos

Player

PK

Sal +1

$

+/-

C

J.P. Arencibia

1

1

$4

3

C

Kurt Suzuki

8

6

$6

0

1B

Billy Butler

19

16

$13

-3

2B

Robinson Cano

32

31

$23

-8

SS

Erick Aybar

19

18

$18

0

3B

Nick Castellanos

18

17

$12

-5

CO

Trevor Plouffe

14

14

$17

3

MI

Jed Lowrie

13

12

$5

-7

OF

Austin Jackson

18

16

$16

0

OF

Dustin Ackley

13

11

$6

-5

OF

Michael Bourn

13

12

$8

-4

OF

Rajai Davis

13

13

$16

3

OF

Colby Rasmus

12

11

$15

4

DH

James Loney

17

12

$8

-4

Total

210

190

$167

-23

Table 6 shows what Kreutzer’s roster might look like if he were simply using his recommended bid limits in an auction where everyone else was using the expert league bids and my prices. The “Sal +1” column is one dollar higher than the expert league prices or my bids, which is a fairer way to gauge how Kreutzer did against the market and me.

Sure enough, Kreutzer is only ahead of the market on one player who costs $20 or more, Robinson Cano. It is in the $12-19 range where Kreutzer would pounce and put together his “team”. Despite the soft catching core, this is the kind of team that I typically like coming out of a deep league auction: a balanced roster that makes up in counting stats what it is lacking in star power. Not a single player lost $10 or more and players like Plouffe, Aybar, and Jackson all contributed far more in individual earnings than you would have expected based on their stats.

But with $167 of player earnings, this is probably a seventh-place offense. It’s certainly not a bad team, but it isn’t a team that is going to win you your league, either.

One of the conundrums of mono leagues—and especially of auction leagues—is that while you want to be careful not to have a Stars and Scrubs squad, you also want to be wary of walking out of your auction with a team like the one in Table 6. There’s nothing wrong with any of the individual players. However, some of the prices are fairly aggressive and take away most of the upside, which is what you need in a couple of places on your roster to win a fantasy league.

2015 was even more of a year than usual to push for players on the high end of the cost spectrum. Whether this trend continues is not certain, but even with the best players failing to crack the $40 barrier, the youth and stability of this year’s top players makes it likely that many of their earning trends will continue going forward.