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The League of Alternative Baseball Reality is entering its 25th season. As an early March auction draft featuring some of the best and most experienced fantasy experts around, it has long served as a guideline for those conducting their auction drafts later in the month. This year’s drafts took place during the weekend of March 3-4.

Last year, BP’s own Mike Gianella compiled an overview of the LABR auctions to identify trends and strategies, and provide some thoughts on how you might use that information in your own auctions. While I’m not one of the aforementioned experts, I will attempt to offer my own insights on the developments in this year’s results.

American League

Hitter Dollar Distribution, AL LABR 2016-2018

Group LABR 2018 LABR 2017 LABR 2016
1-12 404 416 399
13-24 330 310 309
25-36 266 262 251
37-48 224 227 221
49-60 193 203 201
61-72 167 178 175
73-84 147 142 147
85-96 125 119 119
97-108 104 96 102
109-120 79 76 85
121-132 54 53 60
133-144 34 30 37
145-156 16 16 26
157-168 12 12 13
Totals $2,155 $2,140 $2,145

AL LABR maintains its relative consistency in the distribution of spending. The only significant change comes in the top two groups, where some of the first tier’s money has shifted down into what appears to be a stronger second group. The latter features well-established veterans such as Brian Dozier, Josh Donaldson, Jose Abreu and Edwin Encarnacion, but the increase may well be due to the newer kids on the block: Jose Ramirez, Byron Buxton, Andrew Benintendi and Aaron Judge.

If some of those veteran names sound like they should be in the first group, it’s because two more youngsters have pushed them out: Gary Sanchez and Alex Bregman. The influx of young talent has created a very robust top end of the draft that lasts throughout these two groups. That seemed to discourage LABR members from pushing the bidding at the very top end, which is how Mike ended up with Trout, Altuve and Lindor.

One of the central issues of draft season has been whether it is crucial to get a no-doubt ace, given the dwindling number of starters who are likely to pitch 180-plus high quality innings. Below are the ten most expensive starters in this year’s AL LABR auction, compared to the pitchers who occupied those spots in the past two seasons.

10 Most Expensive Starting Pitchers, AL LABR 2016-2018

Player LABR 2018 LABR 2017 Comp LABR 2016 Comp
Chris Sale 38 30 33
Corey Kluber 37 30 29
Luis Severino 26 29 28
Carlos Carrasco 25 25 26
Justin Verlander 24 24 25
Chris Archer 23 22 24
Gerrit Cole 21 21 24
James Paxton 21 19 22
Dallas Keuchel 18 18 22
Shohei Ohtani 18 17 22
Total 258 235 255

The league seemed to respond to that issue by placing an extreme premium on Sale and Kluber, but maintained discipline elsewhere by not pushing up the prices of the pitchers below them a great deal. The result was a top 10 almost identical to 2016 in terms of total dollars spent, yet with a far greater spread.

The third member of the top tier from 2017, Yu Darvish, is obviously no longer in the AL. Even if he had been, he would clearly have joined that second tier. The presence of two pitchers on this list who are considerable question marks to top even 150 innings, Paxton and Ohtani, speaks to the changing nature of the game with regards to those workhorse pitchers.

One benchmark for LABR values are the CBS auctions which take place in February. Some of the most significant changes in draft values over the past few weeks can be seen below.

Biggest Hitter Price Differences, AL LABR – AL CBS

Player LABR CBS Diff
J.D. Martinez 31 17 14
Matt Chapman 22 11 11
Carlos Gomez 12 1 11
Brandon Drury 10 10
Logan Morrison 14 6 8
C.J. Cron 12 4 8
Eduardo Nunez 19 12 7
Ben Gamel 8 1 7
Mike Napoli 7 7
Mike Trout 42 49 -7
Jarrod Dyson 7 -7
Jose Ramirez 28 36 -8
Elvis Andrus 22 30 -8
Eric Hosmer 8 -8
Yulieski Gurriel 8 17 -9
Austin Hays 2 11 -9
Corey Dickerson 14 -14
Steven Souza 15 -15

This table is dominated by free agents who signed after the CBS auction, and league-switchers like Dickerson, Souza and Drury. Souza and Dickerson both went for almost identical values to their NL values in the CBS auction of $15 and $18 respectively. The effect of the uncertainty created by this unusually slow offseason can clearly be seen here. This may resolve itself over the coming days, yet with the likes of Jake Arrieta, Alex Cobb and Melky Cabrera still unsigned, this drafting environment seems set to remain uncertain right up until the start of the season.

The more surprising differences are on the high end names that went for significantly more in CBS: Trout, Ramirez and Andrus. CBS showed the tendency to be dramatically more aggressive on the high-end hitters relative to LABR, spending a huge $42 more on their top 12 hitters. That money came from the bottom end in a far more “stars and scrubs” style approach, with just $243 going on their final 72 hitters, $56 less than LABR.

Chapman was a prime example of draft dynamics, as Steve Gardner explained in his recap of the auction. With Joey Gallo and Chapman the two clear best options available at a time when a number of owners had both money to spend and open CI slots, two bidding wars ensued.

National League

As Mike noted last year, NL LABR is typically notorious for spending heavily on hitters compared to other expert leagues. That didn’t quite happen in 2018.

Hitter Dollar Distribution, NL LABR 2016-2018

Group LABR 2018 LABR 2017 LABR 2016
1-12 411 393 412
13-24 308 323 313
25-36 265 280 272
37-48 236 244 237
49-60 208 215 210
61-72 180 178 184
73-84 153 157 155
85-96 119 133 133
97-108 90 111 111
109-120 69 79 80
121-132 51 44 49
133-144 32 36 31
145-156 15 19 17
157-168 12 12 12
Totals $2,149 $2,224 $2,216

Bidders went after the elite players just as aggressively. The values subsequently dropped off quickly, with almost every group after the top tier allocated less money than 2017. NL owners actually spent six dollars less on hitting than AL owners did, after spending $84 more in 2017.

The shift towards pitching was clearly significant. NL LABR also spent $42 more than NL Tout Wars did on pitching in 2017, whereas last year the difference was $66 in the other direction. Here’s the breakdown behind that shift:

Pitcher Dollar Distribution, NL LABR 2016-2018

Group LABR 2018 LABR 2017 LABR 2016
1-12 337 311 325
13-24 204 180 196
25-36 157 126 133
37-48 105 106 99
49-60 67 69 61
61-72 37 45 38
73-84 25 28 24
85-96 17 17 15
97-108 12 12 12
Totals $961 $894 $903

Unsurprisingly, in a league now perceived to have very few reliable options beyond the collection of elite talent at the top, money was pumped into getting one of those first options. The $75 saved on hitting was all invested in the top 36 pitchers, a group that collectively went for $81 more than in 2017.

Unlike the AL, the NL group of pitching doesn’t seem to fall into the pool of high variance options so quickly – as much as that can be said about the highly volatile pitching market in general.

10 Most Expensive Starting Pitchers, NL LABR 2016-2018

Player 2018 2017 Comp 2016 Comp
Clayton Kershaw 38 44 38
Max Scherzer 38 31 33
Madison Bumgarner 31 30 29
Noah Syndergaard 29 28 29
Stephen Strasburg 28 24 27
Yu Darvish 28 24 25
Zack Greinke 26 23 25
Jacob deGrom 24 23 25
Aaron Nola 23 22 25
Robbie Ray 23 20 25
Total 288 269 281

Scherzer has joined Kershaw in the very top tier, matching their draft results so far. While more capital was devoted to this group than the AL, or in 2017, the prices at the lower end still don’t match the level of confidence in the same-ranked pitchers in 2016. The investment in pitching also tails off quickly after this list: only Jose Quintana (also $23) and Carlos Martinez ($21) were close, before a clear tier drop to Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester and Rich Hill at $17.

The really significant shift hasn’t come on the starting pitching side, of course.

Closer Prices, NL LABR 2016-2018

Pitcher 2018 2017 Comp 2016 Comp CBS
Kenley Jansen 26 22 20 25
Corey Knebel 18 17 18 19
Felipe Rivero 18 16 17 19
Brad Hand 16 15 15 19
Raisel Iglesias 16 11 14 18
Sean Doolittle 14 11 12 17
Brandon Morrow 14 11 10 14
Wade Davis 13 10 9 16
Hector Neris 13 10 9 16
Jeurys Familia 12 9 9 14
Arodys Vizcaino 12 8 7 10
Archie Bradley 12 7 5 9
Mark Melancon 11 7 4 16
Luke Gregerson 7 5 4 10
Brad Ziegler 5 4 4 9
Total 207 163 157 231

These values aren’t extreme in context of the CBS values. They are in the context of NL LABR history, where there has essentially been a 25 percent increase in dollars spent on closers in just one year.

We’ve spent a lot of time this offseason talking about how scarce innings are in the current environment and NL LABR seems to have responded by shifting money away from hitters and into those elite, mostly proven arms who can still pass 200 innings, as well as almost all of the closers. Jansen isn’t going to be that many strikeouts behind some of the starters who go five innings in most starts, and he’ll have much better ratios. Last year, CBS looked like the outlier in spending $244 on closers; now the two leagues are just $24 apart.

In leagues that have historically been like NL LABR in terms of heavily focusing on hitters, fantasy players may have to allocate more dollars than they’re typically used to spending on pitching if they want to obtain upper-tier starters or almost any closer. To reiterate a point that Mike made last year, however, NL LABR is typically a more volatile league, and this dramatic shift only reinforces that. Being able to adjust to any situation in an auction is key.

In addition to the closers listed here, another $54 was spent on relievers, making it $261 total on bullpen arms. While this fits in with the growing chorus of voices recommending an extra middle reliever or two to pad your pitching staff, it’s important to remember that there are far more high-quality relievers with great ratio and strikeout potential than there are actual available roster spots, even in a league like this.

For that reason, it’s rarely worth paying up for the non-closing relievers. For instance, Dominic Leone and Anthony Swarzak, who both went for a dollar in LABR, could easily provide 80-plus strikeouts with elite ratios, and in Leone’s case, could even have a closing gig before long. Only Josh Hader, at $6, was more expensive than a closer listed above.

There were again some significant differences in pricing between the LABR and CBS drafts. As we’ve already taken a look at some of those value changes, I have removed the league-switchers and free agents from the list below. Even so, there are some double-digit differences.

Biggest Hitter Price Differences, NL LABR – NL CBS

Player LABR CBS Diff
Ketel Marte 16 6 10
Jedd Gyorko 12 2 10
Asdrubal Cabrera 15 7 8
Ian Desmond 26 20 6
Manuel Margot 25 19 6
Ryan McMahon 13 7 6
Logan Forsythe 8 2 6
Daniel Murphy 19 24 -5
Ozzie Albies 17 22 -5
Cesar Hernandez 13 18 -5
Lewis Brinson 11 16 -5
Aaron Altherr 11 16 -5
Nick Williams 8 13 -5
Raimel Tapia 3 8 -5
Brian Anderson 2 7 -5
Trea Turner 43 49 -6
Chase Headley 2 8 -6
Nolan Arenado 38 45 -7
Billy Hamilton 26 36 -10

Much like the AL, it seems that owners in the CBS auction were more aggressive on the top-end names, with Hamilton, Arenado and Turner all considerably more expensive in the earlier draft, even though Turner was the most expensive player in LABR. LABR drafters were paying up for their speed lower down the scale, with Marte, Desmond and Margot all getting a bump. CBS owners paying up for certain elite players in both leagues is a clear change from 2017, when Brian Dozier was the only player in the upper echelon who cost at least $5 more in the CBS auction. In total, CBS spent $31 more on their top 12 hitters than LABR did.

As the season gets closer, we can also see the effect of playing time issues on values, both in terms of roster construction and injury. Tapia’s cost has dropped as the Rockies’ crowded outfield looks no closer to resolving itself (even more so now that Carlos Gonzalez is returning, although that news broke after this auction) while owners seemed more confident that Ryan McMahon would get the playing time at first base. Similarly, both Altherr and Williams look set to be splitting time in Philadelphia. Murphy’s lingering knee issues look set to delay his 2018 debut, dropping his cost five dollars in LABR. There is what appears to be a Scott Kingery-induced discount for Cesar Hernandez.

The unsigned free agents and the scarcity of top-tier starting pitching are likely to make this a particularly volatile auction season. That extreme scarcity will often drive up the prices of those rare truly elite starters through bidding wars, as well as those of many closers, as owners who don’t get hold of an ace look to shift their attention to getting an elite option out of the bullpen. Ultimately, pitching is still more volatile than hitting, and the perceived need to get a true number one starter will undoubtedly create value elsewhere. Monitoring these trends in your auction and pouncing on the bargains when they come, rather than getting hung up on a particular player or strategy, is just as crucial as ever.

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