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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 2015, 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.

The top dogs in 2014 didn’t earn as much fantasy coin as they had in previous seasons, which made me wonder last winter if this was a trend that would carry over into 2015.

Table 1: Top Fantasy Earners, NL-only Hitters, 2010-2014

Year

Top Earner

$

Top 10 Average

$40+

$35+

$30+

2014

Dee Gordon

$34

$31

0

0

8

2013

Paul Goldschmidt

$41

$34

1

4

15

2012

Ryan Braun

$45

$33

1

2

8

2011

Matt Kemp

$53

$38

2

6

14

2010

Carlos Gonzalez

$45

$35

3

3

10

The lack of a $40 earner wasn’t what mattered to me as much as the lack of anyone at $35 or higher. Even in 2012—a year that saw just as many hitters earn $30 or more as 2014 did—there were still three hitters who cracked the $35 barrier. While 2014 was most certainly an anomaly, a return to 2013’s earnings climate seemed more likely than a bounce back to 2010-2011.

Table 2: Top 10 NL Hitters, 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Paul Goldschmidt

$41

39

2

41

38

37

37

37

$24

2

Dee Gordon

$41

26

15

27

26

25

26

25

$34

3

A.J. Pollock

$40

19

21

19

20

19

18

16

$14

4

Bryce Harper

$39

28

11

27

28

28

27

29

$11

5

Charlie Blackmon

$34

22

12

22

20

23

24

22

$30

6

Nolan Arenado

$34

26

8

29

24

25

23

25

$18

7

Joey Votto

$32

26

6

25

23

29

23

24

$6

8

Anthony Rizzo

$32

31

1

32

30

31

28

30

$28

9

Starling Marte

$31

30

1

28

32

29

27

28

$27

10

Ryan Braun

$31

29

1

28

30

30

30

32

$22

Average

$35

28

8

28

27

28

26

27

$21

On the whole, this is exactly what happened. The 10 best hitters in 2015 earned more than they had going all the way back to any year since 2011. Three hitters cracked the $40 barrier, which had not happened in NL-only since 2010. While the best hitters couldn’t quite reach the $45 and up stratosphere of 2012 and earlier, it is clear in retrospect that 2014 was a blip on the radar and not the portent of a new fantasy baseball paradigm. The best National League hitters in 2014 just weren’t that good. Plug the 2014 version of Giancarlo Stanton into 2015’s formula and he “only” earns $33, as opposed to the $34 that he actually earned in 2014.

The theme of fluctuation from 2014 continued in 2015. Gordon, Blackmon, and Rizzo were the only repeaters from 2014’s Top 10 list, and based on their salaries the expert market did not expect Gordon or Blackmon to appear on the list for the second year in a row. However, for all of the individual changes in the Top 10 the best hitters were far more predictable than they were in 2014 based on average salary. The 10 best hitters in 2014 cost an average of $19 per player, or nine dollars less per player than they did last year. Eight of the 10 best hitters cost $26 or more… or were among the 24 most expensive hitters in 2015. In 2014, Blackmon and Gordon each had an average salary of $4. This is extremely rare; the last hitter who cost less than $10 to crack the NL top 10 was Angel Pagan in 2010.

Among the expert market and the expert bidders, the winners then were the ones who didn’t overcompensate and bid too conservatively on this group. From that standpoint, I was the biggest loser. In a hypothetical five-way auction with the expert leagues and Kreutzer, Blackmon was the only hitter my suggested bid prices would have “won.” Kreutzer was also somewhat conservative compared to the market, particularly CBS and Tout Wars.

It is easy to look at the success stories and simply point to the aggressive buyers as the big winners. It is also instructive to see where the experts actually did spend or recommend spending their money.

Table 3: 10 Most Expensive NL Hitters 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Andrew McCutchen

$29

39

-11

40

39

39

38

39

$34

2

Paul Goldschmidt

$41

39

2

41

38

37

37

37

$24

3

Giancarlo Stanton

$18

37

-19

36

36

38

36

36

$34

4

Carlos Gomez

$11

34

-23

34

32

37

35

33

$34

5

Anthony Rizzo

$32

31

1

32

30

31

28

30

$28

6

Troy Tulowitzki

$14

31

-17

35

28

29

30

29

$23

7

Starling Marte

$31

30

1

28

32

29

27

28

$27

8

Ryan Braun

$31

29

1

28

30

30

30

32

$22

Yasiel Puig

$9

29

-21

29

30

29

28

29

$26

Anthony Rendon

$7

29

-22

30

31

27

20

23

$31

Average

$22

33

-11

33

33

33

31

32

$28

Once again, it appears that I’m the most conservative on pricing. Some of this is Rendon (the expert market didn’t get even a whiff of the bad news on him until the Tout Wars auction in mid-March) but overall I really seem to be “afraid” of spending big on a top tier player. Where once I was the one chastising LABR and Tout for not spending enough on the blue chippers, now I have not only caught up with them but have moved even further in the other direction.

There is a good reason that I’m reluctant to spend money. It is because despite all of the success stories in 2015 in Table 2, the most expensive NL hitters still aren’t as good as they were in the past.

Table 4: 10 Most Expensive National League Hitters: 2011-2015

Year

$

Sal

+/-

Prior Year

10 Best Prior Year

2015

$22

33

-11

$28

$31

2014

$21

34

-13

$29

$34

2013

$22

35

-13

$27

$33

2012

$28

37

-10

$33

$38

2011

$33

38

-6

$33

$35

From 2012 forward, every group of 10 hitters on Table 4 lost at least $10 for their owners on average. However, there’s a significant difference from 2012 and 2013-2015. Getting a $28 per player return on a $37 investment offers a higher ROI (76 cents on the dollar) than a $22 return on a $33 salary (67 cents on the dollar).

It isn’t merely that half of the hitters on this list are awful and lose their fantasy owners $17 or more. The best hitters on Table 3 fail to jump into the earnings stratosphere and make me and the other experts inclined to open our wallets. Spending $40 and getting $41 back in fantasy earnings from Goldschmidt is a great plan, but if this is his ceiling (or the ceiling for any National League player, as it was in 2015) then the risk far outweighs the reward. You do not expect to see Goldschmidt on the Top 10 bargains table below, but without the hope that there isn’t at least the potential for even a mild profit on Goldschmidt, the expert market isn’t going to break the bank.

The paradigm of unpredictability in the NL has become so predictable that even the typically freewheeling experts in CBS have put the brakes on their spending. Goldy and McCutchen were a little more expensive in CBS than they were in LABR and Tout, but the price jumps are far from crazy. Gomez in Tout and Marte in LABR are just as much of a jump in the other direction. The experts recognize that Goldy and Cutch could earn $40, but they also recognize that the potential for loss built into these players far outweighs the potential for breaking even.

When the most expensive hitters cannot possibly profit because the ceiling is low, the profits generally come from the bottom of the food chain.

Table 5: Top 10 Profits NL Hitters 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

A.J. Pollock

$40

19

21

19

20

19

18

16

$14

2

Cameron Maybin

$20

2

18

1

3

2

3

3

$3

3

Ender Inciarte

$23

5

18

3

5

6

4

5

$15

4

DJ LeMahieu

$26

8

18

4

10

9

10

11

$13

5

Odubel Herrera

$20

2

18

4

2

5

4

6

Justin Turner

$18

1

17

1

1

2

3

3

$17

7

David Peralta

$24

9

15

14

9

4

6

10

$12

8

Yunel Escobar

$20

5

15

2

9

5

9

7

$8

9

Dee Gordon

$41

26

15

27

26

25

26

25

$34

10

Gerardo Parra

$17

3

15

1

4

3

2

4

$14

Average

$25

8

17

7

9

8

9

9

$13

Maybin, Herrera, Turner, and Parra all reside in what I call the “crapshoot” of an only-league auction. Players in this bracket cost under $4. Escobar and Inciarte are cheap buys at five dollars, but I would say that at least two fantasy experts in the auctions were aiming to purchase these guys, and weren’t simply stuck with undesirable targets at the end.

There is a fairly common theme in Table 5. While we certainly can be surprised by how successful these players were in 2015, nearly every player on this table had some profit built into his price even before he went out and had a lights out season. Always undervalued to begin with, the drop in stolen bases since 2012 has been recognized but hasn’t been accounted for in the way experts price individual players.

Five of the Top 10 hitters on Table 5 derived more value from their stolen bases than they did from any other category. They aren’t one-dimensional players (batting average plays a fairly significant role in a couple of cases as well) but the expert market refuses to pay these players because it is clinging to an old belief that more stolen bases will appear in the free agent pool later. This may have been true a few years ago, but given the precipitous drop in stolen bases from 2012 to now, this is where there may be an advantage for owners in deeper formats who pay for steals at auction.

Another market inefficiency on display is the failure of the market to pay even what these hitters earned the year before. Some of this is due to job uncertainty, but the drops for hitters like Turner and Parra are precipitous, full time job or no. And Escobar and LeMahieu did have full time jobs, yet were dinged anyway. If you are looking for profit on the back end of your roster in 2016, looking for stolen-base guys and underappreciated prior earners is not a bad way to go.

If the market efficiencies in 2015 were cheap steals and underestimating prior earners, then where were the inefficiencies?

Table 6: Top 10 Losses NL Hitters 2015

Rank

Player

$

Sal

+/-

CBS

LABR

Tout

MG

PK

2014

1

Carlos Gomez

$11

34

-23

34

32

37

35

33

$34

2

Anthony Rendon

$7

29

-22

30

31

27

20

23

$31

3

Yasiel Puig

$9

29

-21

29

30

29

28

29

$26

4

Devin Mesoraco

$0

19

-19

21

18

17

21

17

$20

5

Giancarlo Stanton

$18

37

-19

36

36

38

36

36

$34

6

David Wright

$6

24

-18

25

22

25

21

25

$15

7

Troy Tulowitzki

$14

31

-17

35

28

29

30

29

$23

8

Corey Dickerson

$10

26

-16

28

25

25

24

25

$27

9

Matt Adams

$4

20

-16

19

19

21

17

21

$19

10

Mark Trumbo

$6

22

-16

22

20

23

18

19

$10

Average

$8

27

-19

28

26

27

25

26

$24

Injured players typically dominate the Top 10, and 2015 proved to be no exception to the rule. What is maddening is that if you believe in the concept of the “injury prone” player there wasn’t a lot of rhyme or reason to the players on this list. Stanton, Wright, and Tulowitzki fall into the “injury prone” bucket based on prior seasons with injuries, but Gomez, Rendon, Puig, Mesoraco, Dickerson, and Adams do not. Since this table does not include American League stats, the injury prone designation is even more misleading, as both Tulo and Trumbo would have fallen off of this list entirely if their AL statistics were also included.

Injury prone or no, the lesson in only-league formats is an obvious one…and ties back somewhat to the lessons from Table 5. If unheralded players who garner playing time are undervalued, then missing at bats and plate appearances—regardless of how or why it happened—are going to lead to significant losses. For players with 500 or more at bats in 2015, only four lost their fantasy owners six dollars or more off of their average expert league salaries: McCutchen, Starlin Castro, Jimmy Rollins, and Jay Bruce. We think of disappointments as not delivering on their overall potential, but as long as someone “shows up,” we generally should obtain some level of production out of that player.

I have advocated for building fantasy rosters without concern for whether it is a “Stars and Scrubs” or a balanced roster for years, but the flattening out of earnings in the NL for the players we have anticipated will be the best over the last 2-3 seasons make me question this strategy, particularly since outside of Goldschmidt there are not a significant number of players who bring both power and speed to the table in NL-only. I managed to make the strategy work in Tout Wars this year, but on-base percentage tends to alter the earnings landscape significantly. While the earnings curve did spike somewhat at the top in NL 5×5 this year, it still makes sense to be wary of going all in on too many big names at $30 and above in 2016.

The complete list of Mike’s valuations can be found here, and will be updated as this series continues.