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Welcome to my 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 2016. This is the first post in a series of six. The first two posts in the series will focus on AL-only leagues, the next two will shift their focus to NL-only, and the final two posts will examine 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 2016, 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 Miguel Cabrera can cost $37, earn $30, and lose eight 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 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 2016. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s 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.

2015 shows what the player earned in 2015.

The full AL-only hitter data can be found here.

I write these articles because I am searching for trends. After years of conservative spending on the best hitters, the experts cut loose and kicked off their Sunday shoes.

Table 1: 10 Most Expensive AL Hitters with Prior Year’s Earnings, 2012-2016

Year

Sal

$

Prior Year $

Prior Year Ten Best $

ROI

2016

36

$29

$30

$33

81%

2015

34

$28

$30

$34

82%

2014

34

$24

$32

$34

71%

2013

34

$26

$29

$33

76%

2012

35

$24

$33

$35

69%

From 2013-2015, the experts settled on what they believed was an acceptable price point for the most expensive hitters. Thirty-four dollars seems appropriate based on what the 10 best hitters earned the year before, even though we never get back a 100 percent rate-of-return on the 10 most expensive buys. The market wasn’t looking at the “Sal” column last year but rather the “$” column. The $28 these hitters put up in 2015 was the best performance by this group since I started tracking these data in 5×5 in 2009, and the market bet that the fun would continue in 2016. Not only did the good times roll, but these guys did better than they ever have.

Table 2: Top 10 Salaries, 2016 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Mike Trout

$41

46

-5

49

42

47

41

42

$35

2

Josh Donaldson

$29

39

-10

42

34

40

34

36

$37

3

Mookie Betts

$42

37

5

39

35

38

33

33

$31

Miguel Cabrera

$30

37

-8

38

36

38

34

36

$24

5

Jose Altuve

$43

37

6

39

33

38

34

35

$39

6

Carlos Correa

$23

36

-13

40

35

33

33

30

$22

7

Manny Machado

$27

34

-7

36

33

33

35

34

$35

8

Jose Bautista

$12

33

-21

34

30

35

29

31

$29

9

George Springer

$23

32

-8

32

30

33

28

31

$20

Jose Abreu

$22

32

-10

30

30

35

31

34

$27

Average

$29

36

-7

38

34

37

33

34

$30

Altuve, Betts, and Trout bolstered the most expensive hitters, but overall these guys were good (sorry, Bautista buyers). Abreu owners were certainly ticked, but at $22 he was the 35th best hitter in the AL. Seven of the 10 hitters appeared on this table in 2015, with Betts, Correa, and Machado replacing Cano, Ellsbury, and Encarnacion. Fantasy managers not only want stats, they want stability. For the most part, that’s what they got.

LABR was the most conservative of the three expert leagues, but since Tout uses OBP instead of batting average their bids must be graded on the curve, although this can be overstated. The 10 best OBP hitters in 2015 earned $37 per player. On a player-by-player basis there are some significant differences (Trout earned $10 more in OBP than he did in BA formats) but overall OBP does little on a player-by-player basis.

If LABR is conservative, Kreutzer and I were downright timid. Because I participate in NL Tout Wars, I focused on how I missed on all the top hitters in that league in earlier articles. But I wouldn’t have hit many of my targets in an AL expert league either. Even in a two-way battle with Kreutzer, I only had higher bids on Correa and Machado (and tied him on Betts). Last year, CBS wasn’t nearly as aggressive as they were this year. The table above paints a good portrait of how different leagues spend their money. If you’re in a league like CBS, you don’t want to spend $50 for Trout, but you might want to consider spending an additional buck or two on Abreu. Well, maybe not last year. Generally speaking, this is the play.

But the best hitters weren’t cheap.

Table 3: Top 10 Earnings, 2016 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Jose Altuve

$43

37

6

39

33

38

34

35

$39

2

Mookie Betts

$42

37

5

39

35

38

33

33

$31

3

Mike Trout

$41

46

-5

49

42

47

41

42

$35

4

Brian Dozier

$31

24

7

25

22

24

25

22

$22

5

David Ortiz

$30

20

10

20

18

23

20

17

$25

6

Ian Desmond

$30

13

17

1

20

18

20

20

$15

7

Miguel Cabrera

$30

37

-8

38

36

38

34

36

$24

8

Ian Kinsler

$29

19

10

17

19

22

22

22

$25

9

Josh Donaldson

$29

39

-10

42

34

40

34

36

$37

10

Jose Ramirez

$29

5

24

3

6

6

4

5

$8

Average

$33

28

6

27

27

29

27

27

$26

Twenty-eight dollars per hitter is far from a bargain. Not even Ramirez can save the best hitters from being an expensive proposition. When half of the best hitters are also the most expensive hitters, this is bound to occur. But not all the great hitters were created equal in 2016. There were some clear and obvious differences.

Where 2015 saw some parity at the top, last year had a clear hierarchy, with Altuve, Betts, and Trout finishing in the $40s and no one else topping $31. All three of these players cost big money, but getting $42-43 of stats from a $37 investment is terrific. It is even more terrific when only seven AL hitters cracked $30. On the other hand, spending $19 on Kinsler or $20 on Papi and getting a Top 10 hitter was even better.

Last year I noted how young the best hitters were. There was some of that this year, but with Ortiz, Desmond, Cabrera, and Donaldson on Table 3 this chart doesn’t trend young. If 2015 was the year of the rookie, 2016 was a consolidation season for young talent. Barring injury, the Big Three are extremely likely to remain on this table in some way, shape, or form but everyone else is a question mark. Cabrera and Papi highlight the challenge of cracking into the Top 10 without speed. In 2012, a stolen base in the AL was worth 31 cents. Last year it was worth 42 cents. The disparity between the top three and everyone else is tied to the scarcity of the steal as much as anything else. If you’re using a non-SGP pricing model, the stolen base guys are going to be that much more valuable. The disproportionate value of the steal also explains the lack of Robinson Cano and Machado on Table 3.

Steals were a big driver of the next table as well.

Table 4: Top 10 AL Hitter Profits 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Jose Ramirez

$29

5

24

3

6

6

4

5

$8

2

Rajai Davis

$26

8

18

7

8

10

4

9

$16

3

Ian Desmond

$30

13

17

1

20

18

20

20

$15

4

Paulo Orlando

$18

2

16

4

1

1

4

$7

5

Jackie Bradley Jr.

$22

7

15

9

7

5

9

6

$10

6

Carlos Beltran

$23

10

13

7

10

12

8

10

$16

7

Tim Anderson

$14

1

13

1

3

2

8

Tyler Saladino

$12

0

12

1

1

1

$6

9

Cameron Maybin

$19

7

12

9

7

5

9

9

$20

10

Nomar Mazara

$13

1

12

1

2

1

2

Average

$21

6

15

4

7

6

6

6

$10

Every year, I drone on and on about how much these guys make an impact. Even if you play in an AL-only, you can be forgiven for scratching your head a little bit about Anderson and Saladino and the profit they generated for their fantasy teams.

The 2015 column is useful in terms of identifying the true surprises versus the guys who should have received more aggressive bids based on prior earnings. Davis always gets ripped off, and Maybin has now come close to earning $20 in back-to-back seasons. Most of these hitters are true surprises, except for Beltran.

The expert leagues and the experts (me and Peter) don’t have any particularly brilliant insights. One challenge that remains in fantasy is trying to get past the groupthink that dominates the “industry” and stand apart from the crowd. There isn’t a single case where a bidder went all that far out on a limb. Perhaps Desmond would have cost more if the CBS AL auction had been a few weeks later (they auction in late February). CBS’s heavy spending early during their auction means that they’re out of money and their bargains were cheaper than they were in LABR or Tout.

This year’s AL surprises were even cheaper than in 2015, when the comparable group of hitters cost seven dollars and earned $23. As I pointed out last year, lower cost often means higher risk. Bradley looks great now, but when he was hitting .272 with one homer, 11 runs, 13 RBI, and one steal on April 30 were you sure about him? I wasn’t.

I like Stars and Scrubs in theory, and this bucket of players shows it can work, but as a reminder the cheapest buys often don’t work out. Of the 61 players who cost three dollars or fewer in AL-only, 10 earned $10 or more, 14 earned between $5-9 dollars were the remaining 35 earned less than five dollars. The cost opportunity is virtually nothing, but the likelihood of significant ROI is very low.

Table 5: Top 10 AL Hitter Losses 2016

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2015

1

Prince Fielder

$3

24

-21

25

20

27

23

26

$26

2

Jose Bautista

$12

33

-21

34

30

35

29

31

$29

3

Michael Brantley

$1

20

-19

17

20

22

25

22

$28

4

Chris Davis

$15

31

-16

29

31

33

29

31

$29

5

Byung-Ho Park

$3

17

-15

16

15

21

17

16

6

Shin-Soo Choo

$6

21

-15

20

18

24

20

21

$23

7

Mike Moustakas

$3

17

-14

17

17

17

18

17

$21

8

Miguel Sano

$11

25

-14

29

21

26

23

22

$13

9

Carlos Correa

$23

36

-13

40

35

33

33

30

$22

10

Carlos Gomez

$14

26

-13

24

26

29

27

24

$18

Average

$9

25

-16

25

23

27

24

24

$21

Table 5 is a typical “bust” table. On the aggregate, these hitters were very good last year but not great (no one earned $30 or more) and the market bet on even better things in 2016. At lot of this was certainly tied to Correa, Park, and Sano, but Gomez, Davis, and Bautista also received raises. There are some significant injuries that impact the table, but most of these players simply didn’t perform as expected.

Among the experts, Tout Wars goes out on a limb the most. Most of this is tied to OBP, but not every hitter on Table 5 is an OBP asset. This made me wonder how each league was allocating its money and if there were any significant differences.

2016 Recommended Hitter Bid Limits: Total
Peter Kreutzer (askrotoman.com): $2,201
Tout Wars: $2,190
Mike Gianella: $2,149
LABR: $2,145
CBS: $2,040

Across 168 hitters, the $161 difference between Kreutzer’s bids and CBS’s prices doesn’t sound like much. But when you’re siphoning that much money from hitting to pitching, it makes a significant difference.

Table 6: Hitter Spending, Expert Leagues

Total

% of spend

Top 10

% of hitter spend

CBS

$2,040

65%

$380

19%

LABR

$2,145

69%

$339

16%

Tout

$2,190

70%

$370

17%

MG

$2,149

69%

$334

16%

PK

$2,201

71%

$343

16%

Table 6 shows the overall spending on hitters by each expert league as well as the recommend spending by me and Kreutzer. The “% of spend” is how much is spent on hitters, the Top 10 represents the amount the 10 most expensive hitters cost, and the “% of hitter spend” shows what percentage of money was spent on the Top 10.

For the most part, LABR, Tout, Kreutzer, and I are in lockstep. Tout spends almost as much as CBS on the 10 most expensive hitters in raw dollars. But when reflected as a percentage, CBS spends nearly one-fifth of their budget on 10 hitters. Meanwhile, everyone else spends about 16 percent, except for Tout.

The move to greater pitcher spending in the CBS leagues is rather odd, particularly given the lack of differentiation in the best pitchers in the AL the last two seasons. Unlike in the NL, there isn’t a Clayton Kershaw looming who could earn $50 or more assuming full health. The AL pitching pool speaks to a greater sense of parity, making a higher spend on the best pitchers less logical. That money “should” go to some of the hitters in the middle.

One anomaly about SGP pricing is that in theory each league’s hitter/pitcher earnings should match its splits. So, if CBS is spending $2,040 on hitting, the hitters purchased at auction should earn $2,040. But in my model, they don’t. Twenty-one hundred dollars, not $2,040, is allocated to the hitters purchased at auction in my formulas.

While this number may seem like I am splitting the difference between CBS and LABR in price, the truth is that the $2,100 is a legacy figure from older valuation models. I could tweak the dollar valuations every year to reflect for changing prices. If this is the case, why don’t I?

The primary reason is for posterity’s sake. Comparing hitters in 2012 from 2016 in a model using the same scale gives me (and hopefully my readers) a better idea of how much better the 2012 version of Mike Trout was than the 2016 model. For an individual season, it is fine to tweak the model. But for multiple seasons, the $2,100 stands…at least until there is a clear trend.

Clear trends were difficult to come by last season. There was more offense and fewer steals but it remains to be seen if this holds. It makes sense to invest more heavily in a stolen base threat than in the past in AL-only. Otherwise, 2016 marked a stable year in fantasy baseball that did not see too many fundamental changes.