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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.

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kdierman
2/28
whew sheesh! I am thrilled that I am not the only person that looks at clouds and sees baseball players' names and stats. Sizemore just fell off the 2012 cloud. I saw "Kalish" on the 2011 cloud ...he might be worth a try as an end gamer in an AL only. Bottom line got to mix in the ingredients in appropriate proportions .... a little "proprietary" sleeper dust before putting in the oven can make the dish taste great.
jfranco77
2/28
Post-hype sleepers can be a thing, though. Would you rather draft from the 2011 cloud or the 2012 cloud? (Given the ability to pick-and-choose just 10-15 names and get them at their current market value)
Grizpin
2/28
I'm in a keeper league and sleepers are players you stash long term hoping they pay off. Sometimes you have to look ahead a few years before it even happens. I had A. Cabrera on my roster a year and a half before he broke out last year. His breakout + a few strategic draft picks and trades won me the championship. I picked up A. Escobar in last years draft hoping he may do the same in the next year or two. If I were in a yearly league I wouldn't bother with drafting sleepers but rely on grabbing one of waivers if I'm lucky. But in a keeper league with a few extra bench slots it pays to use a little foresight... and of course, BP! :)
Bellis
2/28
My great uncle, the richest person I've ever known personally used to say, "there's no money to be made by taking advice, but there's a fortune to be made selling it." Your piece is really more about touts as much as it is about players. Without the touts, there's no such thing as a sleeper. There are no real unifying characteristics that bind the players in your clouds. I see untested rookies, post-hype, guys who displayed some SABR characteristics that somebody noticed, veterans coming off bad years, guys coming back from injuries, heck there are even guys who are coming off career years that are getting hyped as sleepers by touts who are assuming that everybody is building too much regression into their forecast. I bet you won't be able to find any stronger correlation to success or failure with the "sleeper" group as you would with any randomly selected group. I don't think touts are necessarily steering people wrong by digging for sleepers that aren't really there. Yeah they have to move content, but their rationalizations for the sleepers are usually plausible. What actually steers folks wrong is believing that touts (or anybody else) has true foresight into how players are going to perform in the upcoming season. If they really knew, they'd take that knowledge to high stakes fantasy leagues and clean up. What I'm starting to see more and more on the internet are pieces that kind of look at fantasy through a strategic lens and use some new economic concepts to teach you how to succeed in playing the game. These kinds of pieces are much more valuable than the old, here are the players I think are going to break out kind of pieces. I really like the use of word clouds in this piece by the way. Are you familiar with Edward Tufte? He invented the sparkline. He's a guru for the graphical or visual representation of information. I think it's a very interesting topic and I like seeing people getting creative like you did. The word cloud really conveys the information you're trying to get across very nicely.
ErikBFlom
2/28
One has to consider the alternatives. After the middle of a draft, one is often faced with the below-average-but-predictable versus the might-be-a-sleeper picks. In filling out bench positions, I would much rather have a potential diamond because I can always get a ho-hum player for most positions. In my experience the potential diamonds crap out more than half the time, more like 2/3 or 3/4. But the gain on the 1/3 to 1/4 who find their upside more than make up for the discards to get ho-hum from the free agent pool. I like the game of heads-I-win, tails-I-tie.
cfinberg
2/28
I have trouble getting to the tails-I-tie part, though heads-I-win does happen occasionally. I have a tendency to get attached to my sleepers and hang onto them - maybe even start them! - for much longer than I should. That to me is the real art form of bottom feeding. Well, that and getting the valuable ones to begin with...
timber
2/28
How can Billy Butler be termed "mediocre" in 2010? His slash line was .318/.388/.469 and he had an OPS+ of 134. His value numbers, whether you like WAR, VORP or whatever aren't super-fantastic - and they likely never will be - but that's because he's not a great defender and we know it. It was still the top WAR season he's posted and in no way could it be called mediocre.
ErikBFlom
2/28
Timber, It depends on the expectation. I knew people who were expecting Butler to become much more of a power hitter. That would have significantly changed his value proposition in a 5x5. Mind you, I have owned him in a non-5x5 keeper for years, and often can get him at an appropriate pick in 5x5 leagues. He is the most certain hitter for production I can think of. If you think you have scored earlier in the draft, he is a great choice for stabilizing the production of the team, as opposed to getting more high and low swings. CO
cfinberg
2/28
Eriq, those montages are awesome. I think you should get them printed on canvas and framed and then make them into prizes for HACKING MASS. Seriously man, they're beautiful.
Robotey
2/29
Eriq, you easily win Best Art Direction for a BP story, and you have plenty to say that makes sense. Over hyping sleepers is the nature of the beast and to be expected of a 'game' that is the product of hot stove excitement. Perfect example is Brandon Belt. Who didn't drool over that guy by the time Opening Day came around. He went for $14 in our 11 team NL-only to the team that had Heyward and McCutcheon locked up so low they could afford to speculate. Needless to say his team finished near the cellar. Then you have other semi-sleepers who evolve as the season wears on. I was psyched to get Javier Vazquez for cheap, but not smart enough to reserve him until he turned it around. I let him go and he became someone else's sleeper on the waiver wire. I love baseball, but I've loved fantasy baseball since HS for the sheer economy of it all. Every draft tests an economic model and it's fun to observe the ebb and flow of the bids. Touts and sleepers are no exception.
theFlederMice
3/01
This is incredibly cool.