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Welcome to my second 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 2014. 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 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 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 Adam Jones can earn $29, get paid an average salary of $32 and lose $4.

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 fifth and final installment of Rotisserie style bids from late March 2014. I have always taken others to task for their predictions; now it’s finally time for me to face the music.

PK is a new column for 2014. These 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.

2013 shows what the player earned in 2013.

In 2012 and 2013, Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout provided some of the most stable fantasy investments among American League hitters in several years. As a result, I suspected that the average salary for the best AL hitters would rise. I was only half right. Cabrera and Trout’s salaries did spike, but on the whole, top AL hitter salaries plateaued.

Table1: Top 10 Salaries, 2014 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Mike Trout

$38

46

-8

43

45

49

43

44

$41

2

Miguel Cabrera

$32

43

-11

43

42

45

42

43

$42

3

Jacoby Ellsbury

$31

33

-2

34

35

29

32

31

$34

Prince Fielder

$3

33

-30

33

33

32

30

28

$23

5

Robinson Cano

$28

32

-4

34

33

30

33

34

$31

Edwin Encarnacion

$25

32

-7

30

34

33

31

29

$27

Adam Jones

$29

32

-4

34

33

30

31

29

$32

8

Chris Davis

$12

31

-19

32

31

30

32

30

$36

9

Jason Kipnis

$15

31

-16

26

33

33

31

28

$29

10

Adrian Beltre

$27

30

-3

31

29

29

28

30

$29

Average

$24

34

-10

34

35

34

33

33

$32

The $34 average salary for this group of 10 hitters matched 2013’s average salary of $34 per player. Despite Trout and Miggy’s higher salaries, the market held the line in the aggregate. It might seem a little strange that the experts wouldn’t pay for the top hitters across the board, particularly given the collective moaning and groaning about how the average hitter isn’t that good anymore, but year in and year out that’s how the experts roll.

Table 2: 10 Most Expensive Hitters with Prior Year’s Earnings

Year

Sal

$

Prior Year $

Prior Year Ten Best $

2014

34

$24

$32

$34

2013

34

$26

$29

$33

2012

35

$24

$33

$35

2011

36

$24

$30

$34

2010

35

$25

$28

$31

Table 2 shows the average salary of the Top 10 hitters from 2010-2014, what they earned that year, and what they earned the previous year. The column on the far right shows what the actual Top 10 hitters from the previous year earned. Typically, there is a lot of overlap among the best hitters the previous year and the most expensive hitters the following year, but usually at least a couple of hitters flip. In 2014, Fielder and Encarnacion replaced 2013 top earners Alex Rios and David Ortiz. 2013 saw five hitters on the 10 Most Expensive List who weren’t among the Top 10 earners and 2012 saw four. Generally speaking, we pay for past performance, regardless of whether or not it indicates future success.

Table 2 also instructs us that we get a very similar return on these hitters year in and year out. A range of $24-26 in terms of outcomes is narrow. It also seems bad. Why do we pay so much money for a 71 percent rate of return? Even the best ROI on this year’s list—Ellsbury—is a $2 loss. Why not just let everyone else duke it out for the top hitters and buy a balanced team?

The answer is that the most expensive hitters are still the best hitters. You don’t want to take a loss on any hitter, but you do need to purchase stats. The $238 the 10 most expensive hitters earned is more than any other group of 10 hitters earned in 2014. You might turn more of a profit lower in the food chain, but you won’t purchase as much in the way of stats without spending your money. To give you an idea of where a $24 hitter ranks, Kyle Seager was the 26th-best hitter in the American League last year at $23.98.

We are aware there is some failure built into this group. If we purchase Ellsbury, Cano, or Beltre, we aren’t necessarily thrilled but know that we are getting back most of what we paid for at the auction. Profit isn’t a win at the top of the food chain. Stats are.

Kreutzer and I are a little more conservative than the expert market but not by much. We have the same idea in mind. Pay for most of 2013’s best earners and hope for the best. Between the expert market (CBS, LABR, Tout) and the expert predictions (me and Kreutzer), there is very little variability. Trout gets a big salary from Tout Wars because it is an OBP league, and CBS seems to nail Kipnis with their pessimistic $26 price. Nearly all of the other price differences are yawners.

Another way to determine how predictable or unpredictable the most expensive hitters were is to see how much the best hitters cost.

Table 3: Top 10 Earnings, 2014 AL Hitters

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Jose Altuve

$45

22

23

25

23

18

22

24

$24

2

Michael Brantley

$39

14

24

12

15

16

17

18

$21

3

Mike Trout

$38

46

-8

43

45

49

43

44

$41

4

Victor Martinez

$36

17

19

14

16

20

17

18

$21

5

Jose Abreu

$34

24

10

21

24

26

25

17

6

Miguel Cabrera

$32

43

-11

43

42

45

42

43

$42

7

Jose Bautista

$32

28

4

27

26

30

27

26

$20

8

Jacoby Ellsbury

$31

33

-2

34

35

29

32

31

$34

9

Nelson Cruz

$30

17

13

15

18

18

17

17

$18

10

Adam Jones

$29

32

-4

34

33

30

31

29

$32

Average

$34

28

7

27

28

28

27

27

$25

There were some surprises here, but at $28 per player this isn’t a cheap group. Brantley at $14 is the cheapest, and Cruz and Martinez are the only other hitters who cost less than $20.

Finally, there is some variability among the experts in prices. The addition of OBP in Tout Wars led to higher prices for Trout and Bautista and lower prices for Altuve and Jones. Once again, though, the expert auctions and expert prices all come very close to each other in the aggregate. A $1 average difference on a group of 10 hitters isn’t much of a difference at all. Even with a handful of differences on individual hitters, we are all converging around the same price points for the most part.

This groupthink makes some sense on the most expensive hitters, but seems a little more baffling with this group. Michael Brantley earned $21 last year? Okay, let’s agree to give him a moderate bargain (CBS exhibits some independent thought here and is hammered for it). Jose Abreu is a complete wild card? All right, let’s pay him in the low to mid-20s. Nelson Cruz is coming off of a PED suspension and is a perpetual injury case? Okay, let’s pay him what he earned last year. Baseball is unpredictable, but in trying to make predictions, we all hedge in almost the same exact manner.

The closer we get to Opening Day, the more aggressive our hedges are.

Table 4: Top 10 AL Profits 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Michael Brantley

$39

14

24

12

15

16

17

18

$21

2

Jose Altuve

$45

22

23

25

23

18

22

24

$24

3

Victor Martinez

$36

17

19

14

16

20

17

18

$21

4

Rajai Davis

$26

10

16

3

13

15

11

12

$21

5

Lorenzo Cain

$24

9

15

10

10

8

12

13

$12

6

Lonnie Chisenhall

$17

2

15

2

1

3

5

3

$5

7

Melky Cabrera

$25

10

14

9

12

10

12

13

$8

8

Jarrod Dyson

$17

4

13

4

8

2

5

$14

9

Nelson Cruz

$30

17

13

15

18

18

17

17

$18

10

Conor Gillaspie

$13

0

13

1

1

3

$8

Average

$27

11

17

9

11

12

12

13

$15

CBS auctioned in late February, LABR in early March and Tout Wars in mid-March. I am making predictions right before the season starts and Kreutzer is making them one week into the 2014 campaign. The prices creep up a little bit once roles become somewhat more established.

There are always these loosey goosey concepts floating around fantasy baseball about end game sleepers and low priced bargains. A few of these players make the big bargain list, but the most significant profits don’t come from players like Chisenhall, Dyson, and Gillaspie, but from Brantley, Altuve, and Martinez. To be sure, there is always profit to be had at the bottom of the food chain in the aggregate, but in 2014 the 25 hitters who cost between $0.67 and $1.33 earned $70 on a $23 investment. Average earnings of $2.80 on a $1 throw is great, but you are not taking a Yoo Hoo shower solely based on that kind of ROI.

The column that often wins this retrospective battle is the “2013” column. While the most expensive and best hitters received raises in 2014, the bargains received a moderate pay cut on the whole. Cabrera is the only hitter on this list to get a raise. If the top hitters are going to get a little extra money, somebody has to get cheated. The guys in the middle get cheated a little bit, but the cheap guys at the very end are robbed.

One place where we (ahem) pilfer a lot of money from is stolen bases. I haven’t wonked out and taken a deeper dive into the earnings formulas (I’ll save that for another day), but it doesn’t take a deep dive to notice that four of the hitters on the chart above (Altuve, Davis, Cain, and Dyson) derive a healthy chunk of their money from steals.

Last year I was asked by a commenter if this was the beginning of a trend and poo-pooed the notion. This year I’m not so certain.

Table 5: Big Profits, Big Steals, Little Else

Year

Players with < 10 HR, > 20 SB in Top 10 Profits

Earned

Cost

2014

Altuve, Cain, Davis, Dyson

$112

$45

2013

Davis, Dyson, Craig Gentry, Nate McLouth

$69

$14

2012

Davis

$24

$5

2011

NONE

2010

Brett Gardner, Austin Jackson, Juan Pierre

$84

$39

For the second year in a row, four of the top 10 hitters earned most of their Roto money with their legs. There are two types of steals investments that we usually make during our auctions:

1) The cornerstone steals guy: This player will play regularly (we hope) and steal so many bases that he’ll anchor the category while providing a little value in every non-HR category.
2) The super valuable part-timer: He won’t get regular playing time, but will start 2-3 times a week and run enough to push his way into big profits.

There was a time when we expected to see players like the second type in the National League but not in the American League. The offensive culture of the early-to-mid-2000s (I want to say “Moneyball” but even the mere consideration of using that term as a generic catch-all makes me cringe) was wary to give up a potential run or destroy a big inning by sacrificing an out on a caught stealing.

And that last paragraph is mostly a bunch of anecdotal nonsense.

Table 6: Number of 20+ SB Players, AL, 2010-2014

Year

# of Players

# of Steals

Total Steals, AL

2014

19

530

1394

2013

21

632

1428

2012

22

617

1501

2011

24

694

1600

2010

21

706

1505

Given the dip in offense the last few years along with all of the gushing last month about the Royals successful model, you would think that steals have jumped up the last couple of years. The reality is that steals have dropped every year since 2011 in the AL; on average each AL team has lost 13.73 steals in the past three years. Category scarcity has increased the value of each stolen base. The expert market in LABR and Tout Wars seemed to adjust for this, paid Davis and Dyson, and reaped significant dividends. My conclusion based on the last couple of years is that it is worth paying a little more for players like Davis and Dyson than I have recommended in the past. I have argued previously that steals are somewhat like saves, in that you can still grab the commodity cheaply off of the wire and do OK. Last year, James Jones, Sam Fuld, and Daniel Santana all stole 20 or more bases and were free talent that could be scooped up in-season. However, J.D. Martinez and Steve Pearce hit 20 or more home runs and were also free talent, even in AL-only leagues.

Can you get burned on a one category stolen base guy? Sure, but you’re more likely to get singed elsewhere, as you can see in the next table.

Table 7: Top 10 AL Busts, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Prince Fielder

$3

33

-30

33

33

32

30

28

$23

2

Chris Davis

$12

31

-19

32

31

30

32

30

$36

3

Wil Myers

$6

25

-19

27

24

24

23

21

$15

4

Shin-Soo Choo

$10

29

-19

27

25

35

26

25

$30

5

Jurickson Profar

16

-17

17

15

17

7

8

$4

6

Shane Victorino

$3

20

-17

20

20

20

21

17

$25

7

Jason Kipnis

$15

31

-16

26

33

33

31

28

$29

8

Will Middlebrooks

$0

15

-15

16

16

13

14

11

$9

9

Alfonso Soriano

$3

18

-14

19

17

17

18

15

$29

10

Carlos Beltran

$10

24

-14

22

24

25

22

19

$26

Average

$6

24

-18

24

24

25

22

20

$23

If one of these players graced your roster last year, looking at this list is a little painful. If two or more of them graced your roster, it is very likely that you did not win your league.

Compared to the expert auctions, I exercised a great deal of caution on these hitters. But Kreutzer really won by sitting this one out entirely. If you pretended that he and I were in a five-way battle with the expert auctions, Kreutzer didn’t “buy” a single player. CBS won out on Myers and Soriano, Tout Wars was most aggressive on Choo and Beltran, while LABR tied CBS on Fielder and Middlebrooks and tied Tout on Kipnis. I managed to tie CBS on Davis and “outbid” the market and Kreutzer on Victorino outright. CBS and Tout tied on Profar.

I dig looking at this list of hitters because to my experienced eyes there isn’t a specific lesson you can draw from this list of players. Some of these hitters are young but some are past their primes. A few of them are getting paid in the hopes of improvement or a bounce back but others receive a moderate pay cut. I don’t even see lessons that can be drawn, because CBS, LABR, or Tout were more aggressive than the other expert leagues.

It is possible that there are never any lessons to be drawn from this list, and that I’m blowing smoke up your collective derrieres. This was the case one of last year’s commenters made. He pointed out that the list in 2013 was dominated by injury cases. To be certain, there is a good deal of missed time in the chart above. The 10 biggest AL Roto busts averaged 284 at-bats per player; it could be argued that if they had played a full season that they would have earned $13-14 per player. This is still bad, but obviously not as bad as the carnage we see in Table 7.

As a thought exercise, let’s see what happens if we take injuries out of the equation.

Table 8: Top 10 AL Hypothetical Busts (Min. 100 AB)

Rank

Player

Pro $

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2013

1

Prince Fielder

$12

33

-21

33

33

32

30

28

$23

2

Will Middlebrooks

-$1

15

-16

16

16

13

14

11

$9

3

Chris Davis

$16

31

-15

32

31

30

32

30

$36

4

Shin-Soo Choo

$14

29

-15

27

25

35

26

25

$30

5

Wil Myers

$12

25

-13

27

24

24

23

21

$15

6

Jason Kipnis

$18

31

-13

26

33

33

31

28

$29

7

Miguel Cabrera

$31

43

-12

43

42

45

42

43

$42

8

Nick Swisher

$6

17

-11

16

16

18

16

13

$14

9

Eric Hosmer

$17

26

-9

29

26

24

27

29

$26

10

Alfonso Soriano

$9

18

-9

19

17

17

18

15

$29

Average

$13

27

-13

27

26

27

26

23

$25

Table 8 is a recreation of Table 7, with all hitter statistics and earnings prorated to 600 at-bats. I used 100 at-bats as a barometer because while Justin Maxwell’s 600 at bat line was fun to look at, including his negative $13 earnings in this table isn’t particularly instructive.

The chart changes very little. Cabrera, Swisher, and Hosmer replace Profar, Beltran, and Victorino. Profar is simply removed from the equation while Beltran barely misses the list at 12th. Victorino is the only hitter from Table 7 whose performance over the course of a full season would have pushed him close to his 2014 salary (Victorino’s 2014 would have been worth $16 over the course of 600 at-bats).

The losses for all of these hitters with the exception of Middlebrooks (whose slightly negative earnings become slightly more negative) would have been mitigated with more at bats. But even when they were playing, this was not a useful group of hitters to have on your squad, with the exception of Cabrera, who provided plenty of value, just not nearly as much as he had during his past few signature seasons. It could be argued that some of the players on Table 8 had injuries impact their performances, but if you use this argument it is nearly impossible to gauge success or failure for a good portion of the player pool. Injuries have something to do with the players on this list, but for the most part poor performance is the primary reason we see hitters land here.

Despite the changes in the hitting landscape, the AL saw a similar earnings curve this year as it had in years prior. Just as a rising tide lifts all boats, a low tide brings everyone down.

Table 9: 2011 Top 10 AL Hitters, Then and Now

Hitter

2011 Value

2014 Value

Comparable 2014 Value

Jacoby Ellsbury

$45

$50

$45

Curtis Granderson

$37

$41

$39

Miguel Cabrera

$36

$38

$38

Adrian Gonzalez

$36

$38

$36

Jose Bautista

$34

$37

$34

Dustin Pedroia

$34

$37

$32

Robinson Cano

$32

$35

$32

Melky Cabrera

$31

$34

$31

Alex Gordon

$31

$34

$30

Michael Young

$30

$32

$29

Last table, I promise.

Table 9 is a look at the Top 10 AL hitters from 2011, what they earned in 2011, and what they would have earned had they put up identical stats in 2014. The “Comparable 2014 Value” column lists the earnings of the actual Top 10 AL hitters from 2014 (Table 3).

I picked 2011 because the earnings curve that year among the top hitters was relatively similar to 2014. There is a fallacy that less offense makes the best hitters less valuable, but this is only true if the best hitters produce less relative to what the league produces. Relative to the league, Altuve produced as much value in 2014 as Ellsbury produced relative to the league in 2011.

This is really what we should be looking at when we put together our bid limits for 2015. Offense was down in 2014, but if the trend continues in 2015 it doesn’t matter if the best hitters provide a higher percentage of offense relative to the league. Some fantasy analysts are going to tell you to pay Cabrera or Trout more next year because the average hitter is worse. Feel free to do so if you believe that they will produce more, but just as the “2013” column was the most instructive column in many of the charts above, the 2014 column is the one that will be the most informative as we put together our bids for the upcoming season.