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If it’s January, it must be time for fantasy analysts to come out of the woodwork and start identifying “sleepers.” This term is almost as old as fantasy baseball itself. While it is possible it was a useful exercise at one point, like a lot of other overused buzzwords the term sleeper has become completely arbitrary and therefore virtually worthless. So far this winter, I have seen the following players identified as sleepers:

While it’s entirely possible that these players will be somewhat undervalued at auction or in drafts, it’s difficult to call anyone who finished in the top 168 hitters or top 108 pitchers the year before a legitimate sleeper. Someone is going to land one of these players in a mixed league; the question is what does this player cost you.

If you are in a competitive league, you are going to need to dig deeper than Carlos Carrasco or Kolten Wong in order to win in 2015. The biggest sleepers from 2014 were the players who no one identified as draft-worthy in 2014 and wound up making significant impacts on the fantasy landscape. When I devise my values and look for bargains, I attempt to ascertain why these guys fell through the cracks and how (or if) I can remedy this the following season.

Table 1: Top 10 Free Agent Hitters, 12 and 15-Team Mixed Leagues, 2014

Rank 12

Rank 15

Player

NFBC

Actual

1

Dee Gordon

185

9

2

1

Charlie Blackmon

248

14

3

Denard Span

172

24

4

2

Corey Dickerson

237

27

5

3

Josh Harrison

>291

33

6

4

J.D. Martinez

>291

42

7

Melky Cabrera

173

44

8

5

Lucas Duda

258

56

9

Lorenzo Cain

202

57

10

6

Marcell Ozuna

227

64

11

7

Danny Santana

>291

65

12

8

Drew Stubbs

243

75

13

James Loney

191

89

14

9

Steven Pearce

>291

91

15

10

Casey McGehee

289

95

Table 1 looks at the 10 best free agent hitters in both 12-team leagues (drafted 169th or higher among hitters on average in NFBC leagues) and 15-team leagues (211th or higher). Obviously every league is different, but Dee Gordon was on the average 15-team mixed league roster but not on the average 12-team mixed league roster at the beginning of the season. Lucas Duda was not on the average mixed-league roster in any format. The NFBC rankings do go past 291, but the only information available online about 2014 is at fantasypros.com, which only goes 500 players or 291 hitters deep.

There are a few obvious takeaways that jump off of this table, but the most obvious takeaway is that speculating on rookies does not seem to pay off. The only rookie who appears here is Santana, and even in the savviest of expert leagues Santana was ignored even in the reserve rounds. A common piece of advice from most experts is to try and swing for the fences on a rookie with a late draft pick or a reserve round pick. Below are the rookies who were taken in the reserve round in Tout Wars mixed auctions and drafts last year.

Kris Bryant, Billy Burns, Byron Buxton, Matt Davidson, Maikel Franco, Joc Pederson, Gregory Polanco, Addison Russell, Jonathan Singleton, Oscar Taveras.

With the exception of Polanco, none of these players made a significant impact in mixed leagues last year. The idea that there is upside in these picks flies in the face of logic. The other side of this coin is that boring, vanilla veterans cannot or should not be able to produce top shelf mixed league value. Yet this is exactly what a number of the “boring” veterans manage to do here. Span and Cabrera are gimmies even for a 12-team mixed league, but a number of the players on Table 1 either had assured playing time or at least a path to playing time that was impeded only by a weak starting option. I understand the urge to avoid using a 17th round pick in a 12-team mixed league on Duda, but why would you have taken Singleton over Duda in the reserve round? Neither player was a sure thing in 2014, but rolling the dice on someone who had some time in the majors in 2014 was the better play. If you are in a league that chases rookies at the end of the draft, this is where you should wisely speculate instead of rolling the dice on the longshot that is unlikely to come to fruition (this advice doesn’t apply to keeper leagues, of course). Loney and McGehee are boring, but they are boring and they produced. Production—not bragging about snagging the hot rookie in March who is unlikely to produce—is the name of the game.

Table 2: Top 10 Free Agent Pitchers, 12 and 15-Team Mixed Leagues, 2014

Rank 12

Rank 15

Player

NFBC

Actual

1

1

Garrett Richards

158

15

2

2

Jake Arrietta

>207

16

3

3

Phil Hughes

148

18

4

4

Dellin Betances

>207

19

5

5

Tanner Roark

141

20

6

6

Collin McHugh

>207

22

7

7

Wade Davis

>207

25

8

8

Carlos Carrasco

>207

27

9

9

Matt Shoemaker

>207

36

10

10

Zach Britton

>207

38

With the majority of undrafted pitchers, the precept of “your guess is as good as mine” applies here. Carrasco isn’t a sleeper this year because everyone will be targeting him; he most certainly was a sleeper last year. The variability on this list of pitchers makes me believe that conventional wisdom is dead wrong and that it would be far more logical to avoid pitchers in the reserve round and simply try to scoop them up later via free agency and/or the waiver wire.

The other lesson is not to forget middle relievers. Betances and Davis would have been worthy early pickups. They didn’t usurp the closer role, but given the ungodly numbers they put up it didn’t matter very much. Both pitchers provided plenty of value in all formats, and relievers with those kind of qualitative numbers either ensure ERA/WHIP victories or allow you to speculate liberally on starting pitchers thanks to the ERA/WHIP cushion they are creating.

It is worth noting that in the expert leagues the speculation on rookie arms is not nearly as prevalent among pitchers. Jameson Taillon and James Paxton were taken in both Tout Wars mixed leagues, but that was pretty much it when it came to rookie speculation. The experts seem to understand from experience that rookie pitchers are unlikely to crack this list, or at the very least that rookie pedigree does not guarantee success.

In deeper leagues, you would expect the landscape to be different.

Table 3: Top 10 AL Free Agent Hitters, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

J.D. Martinez

$25

$6

2

Danny Santana

$24

3

Steve Pearce

$19

$3

4

Brock Holt

$15

$1

5

Conor Gillaspie

$13

0

13

1

$8

6

James Jones

$13

7

Sam Fuld

$13

$3

8

Rougned Odor

$11

9

Eduardo Escobar

$11

$2

10

Kevin Kiermaier

$11

$0

Average

$16

0

16

0

$2

You could argue that I am cheating including Gillaspie, since someone in Tout Wars purchased him for $1. However, the “free agents” are the players who were not among the Top 168 A.L. hitters purchased. It doesn’t really matter all that much, because this is a group of hitters that comes completely out of nowhere.

Gillaspie is the only one you can perhaps make an argument for paying a little more for based on last year’s earnings; everyone else is purely a $1 play, at best. Martinez’ $6 earnings are more than offset by the fact that he was buried in Houston at the beginning of the season and it didn’t look like he’d have a spot in the majors.

Unlike in mixed, the AL looked like a good play to speculate on rookies. However, the rookies were players like Santana, Jones, and Kiermaier who came from out of nowhere. Even Odor, who certainly had a healthy prospect sheen, wasn’t expected to be an impact player in 2014; it isn’t surprising no one took a stab at him in March.

Table 4: Top 10 NL Free Agent Hitters, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Josh Harrison

$27

$3

2

Justin Turner

$17

$4

3

Ender Inciarte

$15

4

Chris Coghlan

$14

$2

5

David Peralta

$12

6

Scott Van Slyke

$11

0

11

1

$4

7

Alexi Amarista

$9

$6

8

Rene Rivera

$8

$1

9

Tommy Medica

$7

0

7

1

$3

10

Joe Panik

$7

Average

$13

0

13

0

$2

It is more or less the same story in the National League. There is a nice mixture of veterans who come from out of nowhere and rookies who were low profile who come out of nowhere. The difference is that only six NL free agents cracked double digits in fantasy earnings. This is one of the most significant differences between mono and mixed formats. It’s always hard to find a worthy replacement in mono leagues, but some years it is virtually impossible.

Half of the players on the list are either Padres or Diamondbacks. If you are idly trolling for replacements in a thin year, looking for players on teams with weak or oft-injured regulars isn’t a bad play.

Table 5: Top 10 AL Free Agent Pitchers, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Zach Britton

$23

-$2

2

Collin McHugh

$22

-$7

3

Dellin Betances

$21

-$1

4

Wade Davis

$20

-$4

5

Matt Shoemaker

$20

$1

6

Joe Smith

$20

0

20

1

$9

7

Dallas Keuchel

$19

1

19

2

-$2

8

Danny Duffy

$18

0

17

1

$3

9

Andrew Miller

$15

$3

10

Brad Boxberger

$15

$1

Average

$19

0

19

0

0

$0

If you needed further proof that all we’re doing is playing a guessing game with pitchers, this table confirms it. Half of the pitchers on the mixed league top 10 reappear here, and not a single one of the top five gets so much as a $1 bid in any of the three expert leagues. CBS gets the most “credit” for buying two of these 10 pitchers, with LABR purchasing Keuchel. Despite convening the latest of the three expert leagues, Tout Wars doesn’t purchase one of these 10 guys.

Another significant difference between mono and mixed is that six of the 10 best freebies are relievers. If you don’t want to forget about relievers in mixed, you must absolutely remember that they are essential in mono formats. You could have remedied a significant number of sins simply by picking up two or three of the guys on Table 5. Even if you “only” had Smith, Miller, and Boxberger, you still would have owned three of the top 46 pitchers in AL-only.

Table 6: Top 10 NL Free Agent Pitchers, 2014

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

2013

1

Jake Arrieta

$23

0

22

1

$2

2

Hector Rondon

$17

$0

3

Jacob deGrom

$16

4

Pat Neshek

$16

$2

5

Tony Watson

$16

$11

6

Edinson Volquez

$16

-$5

7

Santiago Casilla

$15

0

15

1

$8

8

Alfredo Simon

$15

1

$11

9

Josh Collmenter

$14

0

14

1

$9

10

Mike Fiers

$13

-$2

Average

$16

0

16

0

0

0

$4

Finally, the National League pitchers include some players who actually earned something the year before and were overlooked. They are mostly relievers, but Watson, Simon, and Casilla are all pitchers who probably should have been carried for a buck in all of the expert leagues. Collmenter is another nice, all around utility arm who deserved more play than he received during the auctions.

This is still a group that pretty much comes from out of nowhere. If you know that deGrom was going to put up even 75 percent of the season that he put up, I’d like to spend a weekend in Vegas at the roulette tables with you. Maybe we need to start giving more credence to the Ray Searage phenomenon and start paying for anyone on the Pirates, but given Volquez’s past performance, it is understandable why people took a pass.

There are always surprises on the free agent landscape, but the biggest takeaway—in both mixed and mono formats—is that highly hyped rookies aren’t the way to go in redraft leagues. In mono leagues, they cost money and won’t be bargains, but even in mixed leagues there are a significant number of better bets among the boring vanilla veterans. To bring this all the way back to the beginning of the article, if you are looking for “sleepers”, it is better to look at players who have major league experience but have been forgotten. Players who have already experienced some success aren’t sleepers… they’re just players who we are trying to make a decision on. If you’re looking for a “sleeper,” look for a player with a low profile who won’t cost much or anything at all.

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Shawnykid23
1/16
Great article, Mike. After watching the names above produce in my leaguemate's lineups, because I didn't want to drop the high-upside rookies sitting on my bench, the point of boring veterans ("Raul Ibanez All-Stars" as Scott Pianowski of Yahoo calls them) over highly hyped rookies is at the front of my mind this draft season.
ravenight
1/16
Yeah, I think this is a key point - no one was going to take exactly the right guys in reserve round of their draft, but by hitching your wagon to a rookie who may or may not be up in a few months, you prevent yourself from picking up the guys that will inevitably come out of nowhere.
kvamlnk
1/16
In 2012, in the first reserve round, my co-owner said, "Take Mike Trout". That turned out pretty well. Still your point about the rookies vs veterans is well taken. How do you identify the veterans worth targeting? Focusing on Josh Harrison, he didn't get to start much until mid May. Even if I had drafted Harrison, I doubt I'd have held him until then. He'd have been dropped for someone who was playing. (In our 16 team league, Harrison was the first free agent from your list. Blackmon and Dickerson were drafted as Coors field hopefuls.)
MikeGianella
1/16
A lot of this obviously upon your league's format. Trout was a no-brainer nearly everywhere in 2012 unless you were in a 10-team mixed league with no reserve list. There are a lot of ways to go about this, and it would be better served in a longer article, but here are a few general rules of thumb. 1) Playing time. Look for every day players who are undervalued. Marlon Byrd was "boring" but barring a trade was going to play. Casey McGehee, Juan Uribe, and James Loney all fit this profile. No, you're not going to win with these guys alone. But at worst you break even and get runs/RBI every day. 2) Sneaky speed. "One-dimensional" players like Raj Davis contribute more than it seems and earn more than you'd expect. 3) Graybeards. Older players who seem finished have more of a likelihood of a dead cat bounce/producing than a rookie who might be up in September.
lipitorkid
1/16
As you mentioned it gets a little more complicated with deep dynasty/keeper leagues where a prospect who is finally eligible in your league, for drafting, might go in the first/second round of your draft. I'm wondering if looking one hot month is a sign that someone has breakout potential and they just need to turn that into two or three hot months? Or is it a new chance at increased playing time?
MikeGianella
1/16
It depends a lot on the player/team/situation. Often it is nothing more than confirmation bias, but teams are just as likely to suffer to confirmation bias as we are and give their young kids a chance to play. I think you have to ride that hot hand as a fantasy owner while full well knowing that you can't bet too heavily on the hot month since it is likely that some slippage is coming.
fbraconi
1/16
Nice article with some sound advice. But as lipitorkid points out, the calculus changes dramatically in keeper leagues. In my competitive league with 3-year escalating contracts, the trick is find somebody who will provide surplus value for all three years, freeing up funds to bid aggressively for the McCutchens and Kershaws. Guys like Santana and Loney may help you one year but sink you the next. I'd still like to see BP run a survey of the configuration of leagues subscribers participate in. I'd have to think that BP subscribers play in more sophisticated leagues, often with some kind of keeper provisions, than the average fantasy player. That's why the sleeper lists on most popular sites border on the comical to us BP readers.
MikeGianella
1/16
I think you're right, which is why I pivoted after the introduction and talked more about the perils of rookie pyrite, which I have noticed even the savviest experts out there fall for every year. In early NFBC drafts, Kris Bryant is going in the 7th round and Javier Baez is going in the 8th. I like both of these players long term, but this seems extremely risky from my perspective. I know Bret Sayre looks at some of the "who is reading/subscribing to BP" but I think a survey is a good idea. I will ask.
mblthd
1/16
"Sleeper" = 2009 Everth Cabrera. He wasn't even mentioned in the 2009 BP book, not even as a "Line Out" entry. He went on to get 438 PA and 25 SB that year.
MikeGianella
1/16
Many years ago, John Benson was asked to name a sleeper for a panel discussion and mentioned Tony Womack. He was practically ridiculed for naming such a fringy, joke of a prospect. Benson admitted that Womack was no high-tier prospect but believed that because of the opportunity and the speed that Womack would provide excellent value. Womack eventually flamed out, but that rookie year he was terrific. Speed is a great tool to target in fantasy drafts but it is also a lesson in looking past our prospect biases and trying to make sure we grab production.
BCermak
1/16
To take a step back and consider another view point-- people play fantasy baseball for fun. If it weren't fun, no one would play. I'm very skeptical that anyone plays exclusively for monetary gain; that's an added bonus, but there's enough random variation at play that there are FAR more ways to make money more reliably. Perhaps some people derive enough utility from drafting and rooting for certain "sexy" rookies/up-and-comers that it more than offsets their decreased chance at winning. One might say they are "rationally irrational"...
MikeGianella
1/16
I half agree with you. I don't really like DFS because I enjoy riding with a player all year long (or for multiple seasons in my keeper leagues) and the money I play for isn't going to make or break me financially. Sure, it's nice to get that check in October but I could play for free and enjoy it just as much. That being said, I love to win and I hate to lose. There is a certain joy in picking a prospect and seeing him make it, but finishing 5th or 6th and having a bunch of prospects that made it isn't as satisfying to me as winning. You are right, though: everyone plays for different reasons. If you would prefer to enjoy waiting for the inevitable joy of Carlos Gomez when he eventually made it, then you have to follow your bliss and do what makes you happy.
BCermak
1/16
Absolutely- it would appear as though we are of the same mindset. By no means would I ever lessen my chances of victory by any margin to take a guy I like. I see it happen all the time, however, and thought it was worth mentioning
lipitorkid
1/17
Speaking of Carlos Gomez. So his 2011 was his last "terrible" year. Looking at the splits you can see he had major trouble with righty pitching and away games. In 2012 he "normalized." Could young players with platoon/split issues be a sign of someone who is one season/off-season from figuring it out. I mean just look at the jump Rizzo made.
LynchMob
2/01
DFS?
MikeGianella
2/01
Daily Fantasy Sports. Like our partners at Draft Kings.
boatman44
1/16
Been rummaging around looking for a true sleeper for 2015, and though fraught with danger, due to his home park, if you look at last September's stats for this young post hype pitcher, notably a 1.39 E.R.A and 1.19 Whip, he may be getting the hang of things, the guy is Tyler Matzek
Muboshgu
1/16
You should never trust September stats when projecting forward. September call-ups and teams out of the race muck up the usefulness of those numbers. Justin Smoak's September of 2012 is my example of this.
boatman44
1/16
Yes, September stats are indeed very volatile , and I should have made it clearer in my comment , that having watched him in June when he first started to the four September games he played , there was a noticeable difference to the stuff he was offering to hitter's and if he takes that forward he could be a legitimate bargain at the back end of a draft.
Muboshgu
1/16
It is indeed possible that Matzek has turned a corner. I traded him in my dynasty league two years ago, so I'd have mixed feelings about that.
MCMcShizz
1/18
12team 5x5 dynasty lge. Keep 25 of 36 players. Trade my scherzer and my round 7.06 pick for soler and his rnd 1.09 pick? Current staff= scherz, jzimm, cashner, kluber, arrieta, carrasco, cody allen, britton. Stroman, taijuan,archie, heaney. Outfield is (start 4) j upton, springer, cespedes. R.i.p. OT, Dahl, Frazier. Any help from anyone would be great!! Thx
jfranco77
1/19
It would depend a lot on who's going to be there at 1.09 but given that you keep 25 players I'd say nobody that exciting. Especially with Max going to WSH, I'd hang onto him. I like Soler but I don't love him that much.