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In past years, this space has been reserved for a broad recap of what happened in the Tout Wars AL- and NL-only leagues. This year, we decided to combine our two expert league landscape articles into one in order to discuss what happened in both LABR and Tout Wars.

Tout Wars is the third and final major analyst league that holds mono-league auctions throughout the spring. CBS holds their auctions in mid-to-late February, followed by LABR in late February and Tout Wars in mid-May. When we convened in Florida for LABR last month, we had no idea that a short two weeks later Tout Wars would shift to online auctions. We quickly had to figure out how to navigate the challenge valuing injured players whose “not going to be ready for Opening Day” timetables had quickly become utterly worthless.

Despite these challenges, as well as the uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season and the overwhelming feeling that the last thing anyone cares about right now is fantasy baseball, I will do what I’ve done in the past: examine trends and strategies in LABR and Tout Wars. The goal of this article is not to delve into individual team rosters or examine every purchase in depth. This is difficult to do, particularly since the timing and rhythm of every auction is quite different. Still, it is worth examining a few general trends in the hopes that this will help you with your auctions. If you are looking for analysis of how some of our in-house, Baseball Prospectus fantasy writers did, follow the links below:

LABR AL – Bret Sayre
LABR NL – Mike Gianella
Tout Wars AL – Mike Gianella
Tout Wars Mixed Auction – Bret Sayre
Tout Wars Draft and Hold – Jon Hegglund

AMERICAN LEAGUE

The first thing I compare every season is how the experts distribute their money on hitting compared to pitching on a year-over-year basis. Historically, the Tout Wars mono leagues spend $40-45 more on hitting than LABR does on a leaguewide basis. Given the shift in the majors toward quicker hooks, openers, innings caps and other trends that limit starting pitcher earnings and impact, I wondered if we’d see a trend toward a higher hitting spend in 2020 compared to 2019.

Table 1: Hitter Dollar Distribution, AL LABR versus AL Tout, 2019-2020

Group LABR 2019 LABR 2020 Tout 2019 Tout 2020
1-12 $433 $400 $456 $421
13-24 $310 $321 $323 $331
25-36 $270 $282 $285 $299
37-48 $227 $236 $225 $251
49-60 $193 $193 $197 $207
61-72 $163 $163 $163 $167
73-84 $136 $135 $138 $143
85-96 $110 $116 $112 $109
97-108 $97 $102 $85 $82
109-120 $73 $73 $65 $65
121-132 $48 $50 $50 $44
133-144 $31 $32 $32 $26
145-156 $17 $18 $18 $14
157-168 $12 $12 $11* $11*
Totals $2,120 $2,133 $2,160 $2,170

*Tout Wars has one position where you can use a hitter or pitcher and one team opted for a pitcher.

Both AL Tout Wars and LABR saw a sharp dip in prices at the top, with a $33 drop in the Top 12 in LABR from 2019 to 2020, and a $35 drop in Tout from 2019 to 2020. There’s some logic to this approach based on what happened last year, as the earnings curve flattened thanks to the spike in home runs and offense across the board. No hitter cracked $37 in AL-only AVG leagues in 2019 (Jonathan Villar) or $43 in OBP formats (Mike Trout). One reason the superstars might be worth chasing if we do have a shortened season is that the odds of an outlier, $50-plus year from a superstar increase in a 90- to 100-game sample compared to a full 162-game slate.

The OBP/AVG difference is the most common explanation for the price differences between LABR and Tout.

Table 2: Biggest Hitter Price Differences, AL Tout Wars Greater Than AL LABR

Hitter LABR Tout Diff PROJ $ AVG PROJ $ OBP
Shohei Ohtani 14 14 $16.22 $16.11
Carlos Santana 18 29 11 $18.20 $23.35
Domingo Santana 6 17 11 -$1.96 -$2.44
Mike Trout 43 53 10 $46.47 $51.19
Ji-Man Choi 5 14 9 $5.37 $8.06
Cavan Biggio 21 29 8 $17.35 $23.22
Shin-Soo Choo 12 19 7 $12.05 $13.92
Michael Brantley 18 24 6 $19.12 $16.50
Franmil Reyes 17 23 6 $17.25 $15.45
Isiah Kiner-Falefa 6 6 -$3.88 -$4.18

This is as good a place as any to mention that while LABR treats Ohtani as one player (you can use him as either a hitter or pitcher but not both), Tout Wars had two separate Ohtanis on whom you could bid. During the auction, it didn’t seem like everyone was aware of this, which had far more of an impact on his price as a pitcher ($7).

Carlos Santana, Trout, and Choo have been on this list for years. Projections are logically conservative, and OBP is one area where the best hitters in the category soundly thump their projected earnings. The prices for C. Santana and Choo might look too high, but they earned $33 and $28 last year in OBP leagues. Biggio and Choi are the other two hitters on Table 2 who were clearly OBP targets. One surprise for me in the Tout auction was Alex Bregman costing “only” $37, despite earning $41 in OBP AL-only in 2019. I bought Trout for $53 before Bregman was nominated; otherwise, I would have pushed Bregman to at least $40. Outside of Brantley, there was a discount for Astros hitters in Tout.

Missing from Table 2 are Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, the two hitters most likely to get a boost from a delayed start to the 2020 season. For Judge, this was mostly an issue of timing. The worst of his injury news came after LABR, so while he did get a bump in price, it wasn’t extreme. Stanton barely misses inclusion on the table above. Where Tout did differ from LABR was the push for speed. Mallex Smith ($20 in Tout, $15 in LABR), José Ramírez ($40, $35), and even Cameron Maybin ($7, $2) were evidence of this. The loss of Jonathan Villar to the NL has made steals even scarcer in the AL.

On the pitching side, the price fluctuations were much wilder.

Table 3: 11 Most Expensive AL Starting Pitchers, Tout Wars

Pitcher LABR Tout Diff
Gerrit Cole 43 37 -6
Shane Bieber 26 30 4
Mike Clevinger 20 30 10
Justin Verlander 37 28 -9
Zack Greinke 24 25 1
Lucas Giolito 24 24 0
Tyler Glasnow 22 23 1
Charlie Morton 24 23 -1
Blake Snell 28 22 -6
José Berríos 24 22 -2
Ken Giles 15 22 7

With Luis Severino absent from the player pool and Chris Sale on his way out (he cost $13 days before news of his Tommy John surgery broke, down from $25 in LABR two weeks prior), I was confident that aces would be at even more of a premium in Tout. It didn’t play out that way, as only five starting pitchers cost $25 or more, compared to six costing at least $30 in 2019. Despite the dearth of frontline pitchers in the AL, the market wisely recognized that overextending for the next best things isn’t a winning play. The four non-Cole/Verlander pitchers, who cost at least $30 in 2019, earned a combined $49 on our aggregate $133 investment.

Here is where the possibility of a shortened season combined with injuries impacted our spending the most. The time Clevinger was going to miss is a non-issue now, while the concern about Verlander back on March 14 was all too real. The uncertainly that surrounds Snell’s health doesn’t change regardless of when we were or are drafting. We will need to see him pitch in actual games before we feel better about his elbow.

Giles’ high price is a nice segue into what we paid for closers this year and why.

Table 4: AL Expert Closer Prices 2020

Pitcher LABR Tout Diff
Ken Giles 15 22 7
Aroldis Chapman 21 20 -1
Taylor Rogers 15 20 5
Roberto Osuna 19 19 0
Brad Hand 15 17 2
Liam Hendriks 17 16 -1
Nick Anderson 13 15 2
Hansel Robles 14 15 1
Ian Kennedy 12 13 1
Joe Jiménez 9 12 3
José Leclerc 11 12 1
Alex Colomé 9 11 2
Brandon Workman 10 11 1
Mychal Givens 5 9 4
Yoshihisa Hirano 4 7 3
Totals                     189 219 30

The aggregate price for these 15 closers in Tout almost mirrors what their 2019 counterparts cost ($220). However, it feels like LABR’s conservatism was the right play. Analysts don’t typically push on closer prices because they feel obligated to compete in the category or get their guy, but that’s what happened this year, particularly with Giles, who was the last frontline closer nominated. One possible reason the closers cost more in Tout is that there was little, if any, speculation on their potential replacements. Only six non-stoppers cost $3-4 in Tout, with Matt Magill ($4), Hunter Harvey ($4), and Diego Castillo ($3) being the only three who reside in potentially unsettled bullpens. The shorter season and the long break between now and Opening Day made saves speculation an even more useless exercise than usual.

NATIONAL LEAGUE

The biggest shift in both NL expert leagues was an increase in spending on the top hitters without a significant spike on hitter spend overall. Where the AL pushed spending down on its top-12 hitters, the NL went in the other direction.

Table 5: Top-12 Hitters, LABR and Tout Wars: 2016-2020

Year LABR Top 12 LABR Total Tout Top 12 Tout Total Prior Year Top 12 AVG $ Prior Year Top 12 OBP $
2020 $445 $2,174 $440 $2,152 $406 $424
2019 $414 $2,159 $416 $2,130 $381 $387
2018 $411 $2,149 $420 $2,163 $385 $407
2017 $416 $2,140 $422 $2,185 $394 $411
2016 $412 $2,216 $436 $2,152 $412 $445
Average $420 $2,168 $427 $2,156 $396 $415

The 2020 season saw the most aggressive spending in both LABR NL and Tout NL in the last five seasons. Mookie Betts’ trade to the Dodgers explains some of this, but most of it is explained by the market aggressively pricing the best hitters because it had little, if any, faith in the middle and bottom of the player pool. (Villar was the top earner in AL AVG leagues and was the 15th highest-paid player in LABR.)

LABR increased its offensive spending for the fourth consecutive season, while Tout reversed a three-year trend and increased its hitter spend for the first time since 2016. In both mono leagues, uncertainty drove the market in both directions. The soft underbelly of AL pitching, particularly for bad teams’ rotations like the Orioles, Tigers, and Royals made other pitching prices increase. In the NL, soft lineups on teams like the Pirates and Giants made the experts push more aggressively for the best hitters.

Two premier NL fantasy players who saw their prices drop in the two weeks between LABR and Tout were Trea Turner ($40 in LABR, $34 in Tout) and Manny Machado ($33, $27). Timing is everything in auction formats. Turner was the sixth player off the board in LABR, when the bidding was in person and aggressive in the first round. He was the 15th player nominated in Tout in a virtual environment where, if it was anything like the AL on Sunday, everyone was still getting accustomed to the unfamiliar feel of an online auction.

Since both leagues use a $3,120 budget, where one league taketh away, the other surely must giveth.

Table 6: Biggest 2020 Hitter Differentials, Tout and LABR

Hitter LABR Tout Diff PROJ $ AVG PROJ $ OBP
Trent Grisham 7 15 8 $9.44 $11.26
Max Muncy 23 30 7 $16.20 $21.33
Joey Votto 13 20 7 $14.99 $18.23
Brandon Belt 9 15 6 $11.15 $15.00
Justin Smoak 9 15 6 $4.98 $8.13
Dylan Carlson 3 8 5 -$0.70 $0.10
Andrew McCutchen 13 18 5 $15.00 $17.79
Ryan McMahon 12 17 5 $13.75 $13.98
Brandon Nimmo 6 11 5 $9.91 $14.39
Anthony Rizzo 26 31 5 $23.80 $26.84

What jumps out from Table 6 aren’t the names that are there but the ones that are not. Yasmani Grandal ($16 in AVG leagues, $24 in OBP) and Josh Donaldson ($22, $28) both signed with American League teams this past winter, leaving the NL with an even greater lack of OBP-centric players than usual. Rhys Hoskins, who had the biggest difference in NL earnings in 2019 between OBP and AVG ($14, $23), didn’t make the cut because of an aggressive bidding war in LABR that saw him climb to $28, compared to $27 in Tout.

Based on The AX’s projected earnings, this is a logical list of price increases. Outside of Muncy and Rizzo, most of these hitters are in the lower or middle class. Additionally, Table 6 is dominated by corner infielders. It is difficult to guess how much the battles on hitters like Votto and Belt were because of their OBP value and how much was because there were bidding wars for what was a weak market at corner infield.

While there were price fluctuations between the two NL expert leagues on the top pitchers, they were market-specific and not injury-driven.

Table 7: 14 Most Expensive NL Starting Pitchers, Tout Wars

Pitcher LABR Tout Diff
Jacob deGrom 38 38 0
Max Scherzer 34 31 -3
Walker Buehler 34 30 -4
Jack Flaherty 29 27 -2
Yu Darvish 21 24 3
Clayton Kershaw 24 24 0
Josh Hader 21 23 2
Aaron Nola 23 23 0
Stephen Strasburg 27 23 -4
Trevor Bauer 22 20 -2
Luis Castillo 25 22 -3
Patrick Corbin 22 22 0
Chris Paddack 24 22 -2
Noah Syndergaard 20 22 2
Totals 364 351 -13

A $13 difference spread across 14 pitchers sounds like nothing, but considering that Tout spent $24 more across the board on arms, it does indicate that the experts online were more reluctant to push the envelope on the perceived best arms than their counterparts in Florida were two weeks earlier. One thing to consider is how the deeper pitching pool in the NL flattened the earnings curve in 2019. Even without Cole and Verlander, there was a $22-33 earnings gap between the third- and 10th-best starting pitchers in the AL in 2019. In the NL, the gap between the Top 10 was $25-34. Every one of the NL experts bid as if they were confident that they were going to get quality stats from their ace or near ace and weren’t compelled to chase any of these arms.

A combination of uncertainty in most of established NL closers and job shares at the bottom of the market made stopper prices plunge.

Table 8: NL Expert Closer Prices 2020

Pitcher LABR Tout Diff
Josh Hader 21 23 2
Kirby Yates 19 18 -1
Edwin Díaz 16 16 0
Kenley Jansen 17 16 -1
Craig Kimbrel 12 14 2
Hector Neris 19 14 -5
Raisel Iglesias 14 13 -1
Archie Bradley 15 12 -3
Giovanny Gallegos 7 11 4
Sean Doolittle 6 10 4
Keone Kela 8 10 2
Will Smith* 8 9 1
Brandon Kintzler 6 5 -1
Tony Watson 3 5 2
Scott Oberg** 4 2 -2
Totals                     175 178 3

*Mark Melancon cost $8 in both LABR and Tout.
**Wade Davis cost $2 in both LABR and Tout

When it comes to closer price, $5 or lower in an only league is as close to saying “no thanks” as it gets. Eight potential closers have cost this little in one of the expert leagues since 2017. Fernando Rodney in 2017 was the only rousing success, saving 39 games and earning $17. The other seven “closers” averaged seven saves and $3 in earnings. The overall bottoming out of the relief market is a reaction to last season, but we know from experience that last year isn’t this year. There will be more than a few bargains among the top 8-10 closers purchased.

Without a doubt, this is the most bizarre one of these recaps that I’ve ever written. At best, this analysis will serve as a thought experiment as far as how much value these early auctions will have in June or July. At worst, there won’t be a major-league season in 2020. As much as I’m longing for the normalcy that comes with the start of the baseball season, it is also the furthest thing from my mind right now, which I’m sure is the case for nearly everyone in this uncertain and rapidly changing world in which we’re living.

Thank you for reading

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