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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball: HR/FB

Using BABIP to predict a player's batting average is great. Average is a category in many league formats and every hit is an opportunity to steal a base or score a run. But most owners find the long ball sexier.

Every HR comes with a guaranteed run scored and at least one RBI. Many owners build their teams around power for this reason. Yet fluky HR campaigns can happen just as easily as fluky batting average ones.

How do we tell the difference between a legitimate breakout and a fluke?

 

How to Interpret HR/FB

HR/FB measures the percentage of fly balls that leave the park. Last year, a power-friendly baseball contributed to 15.3% of all fly balls ending up in the seats. Like BABIP, an experienced player's personal benchmark in the stat is a better indicator of his future performance than the league average. For example, Cody Bellinger is generally regarded as one of the top sluggers in the game today. His HR/FB was 24.6% in 2019, significantly higher than the league-average rate. If this number regressed to the league average, Bellinger wouldn't be very good. However, he has a career rate of 21.8%. Clearly, above-average power is something Bellinger just does. He should continue to crush bombs with regularity.

Large spikes or dropoffs in HR/FB are generally temporary, meaning that the stat is usually not predictive of a power breakout. Fantasy owners want to know the next power breakout, so this may be somewhat disappointing. Future power production may be predicted, however, by an increase in fly ball rate, or the percentage of a batter's flies as opposed to liners or grounders. There are limits here, as Billy Hamilton is never helping a fantasy team with his power no matter how many fly balls he hits. Still, FB% is generally the stat you want to look at for power potential.

 

What Is a Good FB%?

Elite sluggers generally post a fly ball percentage of around 40%. Subjected to this test, Bellinger had a 42.4% fly ball rate in 2019 and a career mark of 42.9%. These rate stats, combined with a consistently above average HR/FB, make Bellinger the consensus top-round pick he is.

Bellinger doesn't really illustrate the distinction between HR/FB and FB% because he excels at both. For a predictive illustration, consider Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees. His HR/FB last season was an unbelievable 35.1%, powering fantasy rosters with a total of 27 long balls despite being limited to 447 PAs. Of course, you know that Judge has the potential for more if you remember his 2017 total of 52 homers.

Judge posted a 35.6% HR/FB in his stunning rookie campaign, virtually unchanged from his rate last year. The difference lies in his FB%, which passed the 40% test described above in 2017 (43.2%) but fell well short last year (32.4%). If his FB% remains low, he could disappoint owners expecting 40+ home runs in a full healthy season. Of course, you could also make the argument that Judge's FB% has fallen because of his injuries, in which case it will rebound as soon as he's truly healthy. Do you want to roll the dice?

Some of the other players who look primed for significant power regression in 2020 include Fernando Tatis Jr. (31.9% HR/FB, 30.9 FB%), Alex Avila (37.5% HR/FB, 25 FB%), and Shohei Ohtani (26.5% HR/FB, 27.9 FB%). Two of the three players listed here last year (Ian Desmond and Eric Hosmer) were clear fantasy busts, while Ohtani returns to the list after a second successful season with limited PAs. You can bank on a repeat if you want to, but consider yourself warned.

 

Conclusion

HR/FB is considered the BABIP of power because it can be used to evaluate whether a given player is outperforming his true talent level. A player with a large spike or decline in HR/FB should generally be expected to return to his established baseline moving forward. Ballpark factors may alter HR/FB, but in general raw fly ball percentage is a better tool to identify potential power breakouts.

Of course, it is possible for a batter to legitimately change his approach and permanently boost his HR/FB. Statcast allows us to measure precisely how hard a player is hitting the ball, potentially validating a performance that would otherwise be labeled a fluke. Check out some of our other introductory sabermetric articles by clicking on this link!

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How To Win Your Fantasy Baseball Leagues on Draft Day

I hate intros. Nobody takes the time to read these things. I could say whatever I wanted and it would literally pass zero sets of eyes. Watch.... I have hemorrhoids! See? No one. But in the rare occasion that one of you sad saps does in fact read this paragraph before jumping to the meat and potatoes, allow me to admit that I am no one special. I have never enjoyed the financial freedom to enter high stakes fantasy leagues. You won't find my name on any NFBC leader boards this year. When I finally close the laptop for good down the road, I will not receive any votes to the Fantasy Baseball Hall of Fame.

But what I have is almost 20 years of fantasy draft experience, keen observation skills, and the ability to run the table in the RotoBaller Experts staff league the past two seasons. Do I win my leagues by scouring the waiver wire and fleecing the other managers in trades? Not even close. I have been on Active Duty for the past seven years and am a father of two, so I have very little time for in-season management aside from the 10 minutes I set aside in the morning to set my lineups (enter the new obsession of my life, Best Ball drafts). I have found 90% of my success in fantasy baseball comes from D-Day, or as it is more commonly known, Draft Day.

For the first time ever, I sat down and thought about how I handle fantasy drafts. I broke down all that information into my Top 10 Draft Tips. I hope you are mentally prepared on how you plan to spend all those winnings this year.

 

Top 10 Fantasy Baseball Draft Tips

1. Become an expert on your league's settings

I see it EVERY year. The draft room is filling up, the countdown reaches 10 minutes, and someone in the chat asks a question about the League scoring or categories. Welp, that's one less guy you have to worry about this season. If you can't recite the league's settings as if you were the commissioner, you aren't ready to draft. This is why you see so many commissioners win leagues in less-competitive leagues. They created the league's settings, the other guys learn it as they go.

Let me try a real-life metaphor. I play softball and flag football year-round. There is one quick way to tell if a player is good/experienced when you ask them if they want to play on your team. Player A says, "Sure I'd love to play, I played ball in high school." Then in the first game, they get six consecutive penalties for flag guarding, illegal contact, and not fastening their flags on correctly. Player B, on the other hand, replies to your question with five other questions, "Is it 7-on-7 or 8-on-8? Is it contact blocking or screening? USFTL rules?" You see the difference?

Serious fantasy players know that an entire draft strategy revolves around the league settings. Points leagues, H2H, Roto, they all should make you draft differently. Even breaking that down further, what point value does the league award each statistic? Plug those numbers into Mike Trout and Max Scherzer's projections real quick. Does the league favor hitting or pitching? Is it an H2H Categories overall record or One-Win league? Will you need to win as many categories as possible or can you stack up on 60% of the categories to ensure the W each week? Does the league have a weekly transaction limit that will prevent you from streaming SP every day? STUDY YOUR LEAGUE'S SETTINGS BEFORE DRAFT DAY!

2. Know your opponents

Rarely in this day and age does your average fantasy baseball manager join a random draft filled with completely random people. The league is either filled with your friends, or you are invited by a friend to join a league that is filled with his/her friends. This can and should be used to your advantage. If this is your league of friends, you probably already have all the data you need; who values RP higher than any other human on the planet, who tries to draft a full squad from their favorite team, who ends up letting the timer run out to auto-draft every other pick because they are too cheap to upgrade their internet package. If this is a league you were invited to, make sure you ask your mutual connection for a manager rundown.

All of this seemingly useless data, if in the right hands, can be used and analyzed to form a draft strategy. I understand this tip will not be applicable in every league. If you join a DC on NFBC, chances are you won't know anyone you are drafting with. But even if that is the case, do some investigative research on the manager names and Twitter handles. You might be surprised how much you will learn. Hell, you might even find that manager's public rankings available. Now you know your late-round sleeper target won't make it past Team 4 in the 6th round. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER.

3. Have a hand-picked rankings list

This is a fairly obvious tip. But it is probably my most OCD-driven task for my draft set up. First, building off Tip #1, make sure the rankings you choose/build are specific to the league type. Standard rankings won't be of much use in a Points League draft. For the majority of managers who do not have time to make their own rankings, find a set of public expert rankings that match your thoughts the closest. THESE RANKINGS WILL PREVENT REGRETFUL PANIC PICKS with the clock winding down, so while searching through sites to find a set that resembles how you would want to draft, make sure you filter by position to ensure they won't cause you to take any guys you don't like over some guys you are high on for the season.

During my drafts, I use split-screen with half my screen showing the draft board and half showing my exported rankings on an excel spreadsheet. Having a printout to follow along is just as good as long as you are able to keep your friends at your draft party from seeing who you have circled and teed up as your next target.

4. Stay focused....and sober?

I know this may hurt some feelings, because alcohol and fantasy drafts seemingly go so well together, especially if you have an active trash-talking league. But if you have money on the line, why would you be willing to throw that away for a few drinks that can be reserved for celebrating immediately following a great draft? Thoughts on adult beverage use aside, remaining focused throughout the entire draft is a necessity.

DO NOT WAIT UNTIL YOU ARE ON THE CLOCK TO DETERMINE WHO YOU ARE DRAFTING.

The second I have made my pick, I instantly move on to my next set of targets. I am looking at my roster to determine positional leagues, I am looking at my projections to determine statistical needs, I am looking at each manager that stands in the way of my next pick and analyzing what they need and who they may take away from my queue. Continuously updating your rankings list by removing drafted players is a great forcing-function to stay focused and up to the second during your draft. I simply delete the players from my excel spreadsheet. You could also cross them off your printed out list.

In order to execute this tip flawlessly, you also need to have some emergency scenario prep-time before the draft starts. Have snacks and drinks readily accessible. Have your phone ready with the draft app pulled up, just in case you lose wifi with your laptop or in case you need to go mobile and make a run to the bathroom. Make sure your significant other is fully aware that you are unavailable for the next X hours so you are not called away to let the dog out or put the kids to bed. Every second counts.

5. Don't let site ADP and rankings control you, let them pace you

If you follow Tip #3, you are already ahead of the curve on not drafting based off the draft board rankings provided by the site. But what is important to realize here is that I am not telling you to ignore the site's list, because it is very easy to use it to your advantage. Rarely in life do you get to see what your opponents see. In a fantasy draft, you are all looking at the same board, you know who is at the top and what players someone would have to scroll four times to even find. So instead of using the draft board to decide who to choose, use it to decide when to choose your guys. I knew I was drafting Chris Paddack in every draft last season, but I never went into a draft with a specific round I would target him. Instead, I analyzed the league and draft board to determine when to draft him while maximizing the value.

This is when Tip #2 really comes into play as well. NFL teams do this all the time during the draft. They may have a "projected third-round player" rated much higher than other teams and have them as the best available player when they are picking late in the first round. But for the most part, even though I know there are some terrible GMs in NFL, you don't see them making the reach. Because they know he will still be available at their next pick based on, I don't know, Mel Kiper's board, and knowing the other teams in between their next pick don't need a player at that position or didn't even bring in that player for a workout. DON'T REACH UNTIL YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO.

I always use the term, take what the league gives you. This is exactly what I mean by that. Go in with a strategy, and use your opponent's tendencies and the draft board to fine-tune it as you go. Lastly, don't forget reverse psychology. That chat function in drafts can be a gnarly tool for PSYOPS. You don't want to let a player you label as a huge bust drop far enough for an opponent to actually still get value out of him. So once that player is near the top of the board, maybe drop a little "I can't believe player X is still available". Poof! The player is drafted within the next three picks.

6. Understand team needs vs. best player available

This is a hard one to force during a draft, and is probably pretty unpopular. But I will say this, fantasy leagues are not won by the best players, they are won by the best team. Do not be the team that has a stud on the bench every week because you decided to draft three first basemen because they were the best players available. But also don't be the team that passes on a great bench bat to draft a catcher that is going to ultimately hurt your overall stat lines because you don't have one yet. It has to be a perfect balance (foreshadowing Tip #7!) that unfortunately can only come with experience. In order to gain/refresh that experience for each season, MOCK DRAFT YOUR BUTT OFF. But even if you have zero available time to mock, at least go into the draft cognizant of this understanding.

7. Balance, balance, balance

This is my bread and butter right here and it really shows in Roto leagues where, obviously, balance across all statistics is crucial for those points in the standings. If a player does not benefit my team in over 50% of the hitting/pitching categories, I don't want them. Punting categories, even in a H2H cats league is a dangerous and high-risk operation. When you willingly accept a weakness on your team, you are guaranteeing an L in a certain category, while subsequently needing everything to go right over a full season to overcome the guaranteed weakness.

As we all know, nothing in fantasy ever goes right over a full season. So you punt steals as a team, and then Joey Gallo gets hurt for a month. Now your team is mediocre on power and still has nothing for speed. Let's say that team is in a H2H cats league and avoids injury somehow, but there are still the ebbs and flows that go with the law of averages. So your team will go on a power cold-streak at some point, and they aren't stealing bases still, so you lose four match-ups in a row and miss the playoffs by one win. So statistical balance not only benefits Roto leagues, it acts as a safety net that will keep you from plummeting in any league. Let's take a look at hitters I drafted in one of my winning Roto Leagues last year; RotoBaller Experts League - Standard Roto Auction:

Starling Marte (23 HR/25 SB), Xander Bogaerts (great in 4 of 5 cats), Tim Anderson (18/17), JT Realmuto (25/9 at my Catcher position), Yasiel Puig (24/19). Cody Bellinger (47/15), Marcell Ozuna (29/12), Ryan Braun (22/11), Austin Meadows (33/12), Fernando Tatis (22/16)... sure I probably wouldn't have been able to pull that off in a snake draft, but you get the point of the skill balance I target. Even when it gets late in drafts when these kinds of players no longer exist, you can still keep the balance with off-setting one-dimensional hitters. After I drafted the above hitters, I then grabbed Franmil Reyes (37 HR) and Jose Peraza (23 SB....in 2018).

Since my pillars (players) are all spread out and balanced throughout my building (team), when Starling Marte goes down or gets cold, the building still stands. When Fernando Tatis Jr. goes down, the building still stands. Even when Cody freakin' Bellinger goes down, the building still stands. When you build a team solely on skillset and punt others, and one of your pillars goes down, the building starts to sway because all the pillars are on one side of the building. If two pillars go down at the same time, it's probably going to collapse. This tip obviously does not just apply to hitting categories, but I will save my spiel on pitchers for Tip #10.

8. Start the trends, don't join them

"If your friends jumped off a bridge, would you do it too?" Well, then why are you drafting a lower-tiered closer in the eighth round just because everyone else is? Joining a run can destroy any chance at a player returning value, it throws you off your strategy, and frankly just makes you look silly. Back to the TAKE WHAT THE LEAGUE GIVES YOU, bob when the others weave. Everyone is frantically trying to get a closer? That opens up an opportunity to snag your SP3. You're in a points league and the top-five picks are SP because the league favors pitching? SP6 or Ronald Acuna.....thanks for the money folks.

9. Use the queue for "off the page" players

My draft queue is always loaded with my late-round flyers/sleepers/targets. I don't want to forget them. Even if I am following along with my rankings, sometimes stuff happens. Also if I were to lose connection exactly as my pick came up, at least I would know that the impending auto-pick would be one of MY guys. Using the queue in conjunction with the site rankings board is also a fun strategy I like to utilize it to time my picks. Once one of my guys I have "starred" rolls up into visibility on the draft board, I know everyone in the league was just reminded of their existence. I try to keep them "off the page", aka snag them just before that moment.

10. *JB's Special Advice* 

For the most part, these last nine draft tips were fairly general, not even geared specifically to baseball. But Draft Tip #10 is a strategy I use in baseball every single year and kills Roto/H2H Category leagues. I call it JB's Bullpen method.

Back in Tip #7, I spoke about the importance of balance on a team. For your pitching staff, I find this even more important. You need steady, solid, balance and to be frank with you, that is not possible with a bunch of SP on your roster. Yeah, you can attack W and K, but your ERA and WHIP have no chance. There are like 10 SP in all of baseball I would trust with my team's ERA and WHIP all season and you want to fill your roster with them? In a standard league, I will roster ~13 pitchers. Of the 13 pitchers, I will NOT have more than five SP. That means the other eight are RP - and I don't care if they are closers right now or not. For years, Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller were my anchors, then Josh Hader emerged, and every year a new crop of setup studs emerge like Giovany Gallegos.

Let's look at some examples, shall we? The eight RP I ended the season with in that Roto league I mentioned previously were:

Take Brandon Workman and Emilio Pagan. Both were for the most part undrafted in leagues, or late stashes because Boston's bullpen situation was sketchy. Combine their end of season stats and you have 14 W, 36 SV, 200 K, 2.10 ERA, 0.93 WHIP. I just created a bonafide ace that also acts as his team's closer - created from two under-the-radar RP - and I can do this three more times with my other guys!

How hard do you think it was to draft this group of relievers last season? Extremely easy, and very cheap. All below 2.80 ERA and all below 1.09 WHIP. Sprinkle in all the saves you pick up along the way as they change roles in the bullpen and you've just won three of five pitching categories. Now you just grab some SP to get over IP Minimums and get mid-range points in W and K. They don't even have to be studs, because like I said your ERA and WHIP are nailed to the top of the standings already. Take some chances on some young flyers. Enjoy the flexibility and the relief from the stress of seeing your starters get blown up all week. Go ahead, make that call to the bullpen.

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Don't Doubt Mike Trout: Why He's Still #1

It has become fashionable for fantasy owners to suggest that perhaps this is the year that Mike Trout should be supplanted as the consensus first overall draft pick. Not one, but two other players - Ronald Acuna and Christian Yelich - are being regularly selected in early NFBC drafts ahead of the 28-year-old Trout, who would be considered one of the greatest to ever play the game and a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame, even if he chose to retire tomorrow.

Truth be told, though, a certain subset of owners have been beating this drum for half a decade at this point. In 2016, it was Bryce Harper, coming off an absurd MVP season in which he hit .330/.469/.649. In 2017, it was Clayton Kershaw, whose worst ERA in the four seasons prior (2.13) was still better than anyone else's in that span outside of Jake Arrieta and Zack Greinke's 2015 campaigns. In 2018, it was Jose Altuve, who had hit at least .338 in three of the four previous years, averaged 39 stolen bases during that time, and added 20+ HR power in the back half of that timeframe while also easily clearing 100 runs scored. Last season, it was Mookie Betts, who in 2018 had won a batting title, led the leagues in runs scored, and (along with Jose Ramirez) recorded the first 30/30 season in MLB since 2012.

Precisely none of these players followed up the seasons that launched them into the #1 pick debate with performances that deserved that distinction. Frankly, none of them have even come close to out-earning Trout in the years since. And yet here we are.

 

Going Fishing

To be fair, the arguments for either Acuna or Yelich aren't without merit. Chiefly, they center on the advantage they're likely to hold over Trout in one category: stolen bases. It is a truth universally acknowledged that speed is at more of a premium today than at any point in the history of the sport. Steals simply don't happen as often as they used to, a consequence of the sports' analytics movement. Outs are simply too precious to gamble against the potential reward of successfully swiping a bag; the research shows that anything less than a success rate in the range of 75 - 80% is actively harming your club's chances of winning. Acuna and Yelich both meet or exceed that threshold, and were two of just eight players to rack up at least 30 steals (only 13 other players even managed 20 thefts). They also both cleared 40 home runs, which only eight other players accomplished. Trout was one of them, and he also eclipsed the century mark in both runs and RBI despite missing time with injury. But he stole only 11 bases, after averaging 25 in his previous three seasons.

Health is another plank in the anti-Trout platform. After successfully avoiding the injured list in his first six MLB seasons, Trout has averaged 129 games played in the last three. That he has still managed to put up numbers that eclipse the vast majority of his competitors' full-season outputs is a testament to his greatness, but Acuna has yet to suffer any significant bodily harm at the age of 22. Yelich's health-based case is a little shakier, given that he missed time with back issues last season and then broke his kneecap after fouling a ball off of it, but he's still been on the field more often than Trout over the last few years.

These are compelling points, and because there are multiple viable alternatives to Trout at 1.1 instead of just one, it's more likely than in years past that someone else seizes the crown. In addition to the two players already discussed, you could make credible cases for Cody Bellinger, Trea Turner, Francisco Lindor, Gerrit Cole, and maybe even Juan Soto or Trevor Story. Furthermore, time being undefeated means that each successive season carries a higher probability of Trout failing to maintain his status as top dog, particular if the injuries continue to mount. It won't be a shock if, after so many years of fantasy owners trying to be too cute or clever by half, 2020 winds up being the year that one of the other studs identified as a potential usurper to the throne is a better choice. After all, Trout hasn't actually finished a season as the top player since 2014.

 

Consistency Matters

What's important to note that Trout also has only finished outside of the top 10 once, in 2017, when he only played 114 games and still finished 19th. The early rounds, especially the first, are about minimizing risk and maximizing return on investment. That the gap between Trout's ceiling and his floor is so small is what keeps him the best bet if you find yourself picking first overall.

Acuna fell three stolen bases short of a 40/40 season at 21 years old. That's insane, but he has to prove he can do it again. Only four players have ever achieved a 40/40 campaign, and only a handful of others have even come close. Trout put up a 30/49 campaign at age 20, and then spent the rest of the decade proving how much better he is at baseball than anyone else, but he's never sniffed 40/40.

Yelich is the same age as Trout, but has only performed at his level for the last season and a half. Prior to that, he was more good than great, and there were plenty in the game who were skeptical that he would ever hit enough balls in the air to be a big-time power bat. Both players possess much more downside risk than Trout, even if their fantasy ceilings are arguably higher.

Trout won't be the best forever. But we've got half a decade of evidence that suggests picking someone else before him is a bad idea.

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball: An Introduction

Hello, fellow RotoBallers! Sabermetrics have become an integral tool for fantasy baseball draft prep, but a concise resource for understanding the basics can be difficult to find.

Over the next two months, this series will attempt to define and explain all of the metrics fantasy owners may find useful, citing examples of how to use them in the process. Multiple degrees in applied mathematics are not required to use advanced metrics effectively, and this will be a no-math zone. We also won't bring in some of the metrics that don't have as much fantasy relevance, most notably the fantasy-useless WAR, or Wins Above Replacement.

Instead, the focus will be on sabermetric statistics and ideas that are useful for predicting the standard stats the vast majority of fantasy leagues care about, such as batting average and home runs for hitters, and ERA and strikeouts for pitchers. If you're tired of finishing in the bottom half of your fantasy leagues, using these tools can give you a significant advantage on draft day and beyond. Here is a brief look at some of the concepts we'll be covering, as well as one central question we'll try to answer:

 

The Basics

Concepts in this category are relatively common knowledge in the fantasy baseball community, so it's safe to assume that at least some of your rivals are using them. That said, you have to learn how to walk before you start running. If you're just getting into fantasy baseball, these articles represent a great entry point.

BABIP

What can a player do to influence his batted ball "luck?"

HR/FB

What is the best way to determine if a power breakout was real or a fluke?

Batted Ball Distribution

Grounders, fly balls, line drives: which one is the best for fantasy production?

Plate Discipline

Why should I care about plate discipline if I play in a standard 5x5 roto league?

FIP/xFIP

Is it possible to measure a pitcher's performance on his own merits, separate from his teammates?

BABIP (Pitchers)

Can we quantify the support a pitcher's fantasy production receives from his teammates?

Trickier Concepts

Concepts in this category seem easy enough, but involve some nuance that can trip newcomers up. Considering that interpreting advanced stats incorrectly is often worse than not using them at all, some fantasy owners limit themselves to just the concepts above. Of course, that means that you can start to gain a competitive advantage by reading the articles below.

Pull%

Are all pulled batted balls the same?

Batting Order

Which role is more valuable: the Yankees 8th hitter or Baltimore's cleanup man?

Pitch Info

How can we tell if a pitcher's repertoire shift supports his breakout?

Ballpark Factors

How much do ballparks really affect a player's fantasy stats?

MiLB Stats

Is my team's top prospect the next big fantasy contributor?

 

Statcast

If you've watched a baseball game recently, you've probably heard announcers waxing poetic on the exit velocity of a home run or an outfielder's route efficiency to a ball. Those singular events don't have much value in fantasy baseball, but Baseball Savant also compiles average statistics that give fantasy owners more info to work with than they have ever had before. This category is where you'll find most of the innovation in the space, as well as the biggest competitive advantages.

Exit Velocity

Who hits the ball with the most authority on a consistent basis?

Barrels

Why does adding launch angle make exit velocity into a more effective predictive tool?

Pitcher Statcast

Can pitchers really influence what happens once a ball is put in play?

Spin Rate

Do fantasy owners prefer to see a high spin rate or a lower one?

xStats

What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of Baseball Savant's projected BA and SLG?

 

Conclusion

Advanced stats can do a lot more than what's listed above, but these concepts are more than enough to help you start using analytics to make smart fantasy baseball decisions. You'll see Rotoballer analysts using the metrics above on a regular basis, so read some articles and get a feel for how to do your own analysis. Our site's live chat is also a great place to ask questions and solicit opinions from the fantasy community at large. Use the information above to dominate your leagues in 2020!

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Is Mike Trout Still the #1 Pick in 2020?

Is it time to talk ADP already? Affectionately known as Mike Trout Doubting-Season, this is the time of year when some touts stick out sorely in declaring that the best player of this - and possibly any - generation should not be chosen first overall in fantasy. Instead, they have declared that it should be Mookie Betts or Jose Altuve or Bryce Harper. Or even Paul Goldschmidt, for Trout's sake!

However, besides these few yearly dissenters, Trout has still remained on top on draft day, with his ADP in NFBC holding the number-one spot in every year since 2015, with things likely to stay the same in 2020. But should he be?

Ending up with Trout on draft day is like draping yourself in layers of the finest chinchilla. both keeping your roster warm and soft while also giving it a rock-solid foundation upon which to build a contender. If it's the safest fantasy-floor in baseball that you desire, then Trout is your certainly your man at number-one. However, if it's the biggest catch in the fantasy pond that you most desire and don't mind gambling away his warm security, then 2020 might be the right time to fish elsewhere.

 

Elite Cruising Speed But Losing Top Gear

Let's get one thing out of the way; Mike Trout is the best baseball player on the planet, unequivocally. This year, next year and every year, for only Trout knows how long. This makes saying that he lacks upside sound ludicrous. But this isn't real life, this is fantasy. In terms of fantasy-dollars*, Trout hasn't led the league in earnings in any year since he took over that top-drafted spot from Miguel Cabrera in 2015.

*Earnings for this article were calculated using the Fangraphs auction calculator. This is not to say that it is necessarily the best method for calculating earnings, as there are many, but it is widely respected and freely available. 

2015 PA $-Earned $_Rank  S/PA  $/PA_Rank
Josh Donaldson 711  $    42.80 1  $   0.060 2
Bryce Harper 654  $    42.30 2  $   0.065 1
Paul Goldschmidt 695  $    41.10 3  $   0.059 3
Mike Trout 682  $    34.90 6  $   0.051 6
2016
Mookie Betts 730  $    41.70 1  $   0.057 1
Mike Trout 681  $    38.50 2  $   0.057 2
Jose Altuve 717  $    37.70 3  $   0.053 3
2017
Charlie Blackmon 725  $    46.30 1  $   0.064 1
Giancarlo Stanton 692  $    44.40 2  $   0.064 2
Aaron Judge 678  $    42.40 3  $   0.063 3
Mike Trout 507  $    26.50 13  $   0.052 7
2018
J.D. Martinez 649  $    45.80 1  $   0.071 2
Christian Yelich 651  $    45.70 2  $   0.070 3
Mookie Betts 614  $    45.40 3  $   0.074 1
Mike Trout 608  $    35.50 9  $   0.058 4
2019
Ronald Acuna 715  $    41.20 1  $   0.058 3
Christian Yelich 580  $    40.30 2  $   0.069 1
Cody Bellinger 660  $    40.10 3  $   0.061 2
Mike Trout 600  $    32.10 7  $   0.054 5

The beauty of Trout lies in his consistency from year to year, with his dollars-earned per plate-appearance always making his floor in any given year a top-five hitter, assuming good health. Knowing your first pick in the draft has a worst-case scenario of top-five value is exactly what it means to drape your roster in the aforementioned chinchilla, but it also doesn't change the fact that Trout seems to be losing the part of his real-life game that made him once be able to fly so high in the fantasy world.

Trout had 11 stolen bases in 600 plate-appearances this season, after stealing 24 in 608 PA last year and 22 in 507 PA in 2017.  Given the recent track record of new manager Joe Maddon, it's hard to be optimistic that Trout's ceiling on the basepaths will be going up any time soon. You may remember Maddon's Rays as being fun and free-running but may not recall that he sped them way down towards the end of his tenure in Tampa Bay and then kept his foot off the gas when he went to Chicago.

From 2009 - 2012, Maddon's Rays finished either first or second in stolen bases but since 2013 only one of Maddon's teams has finished higher than 20th for the season. When taken together with Trout's already-declining stolen base numbers, the hire of Maddon doesn't seem to bode well for the prospect of Trout suddenly becoming more aggressive in his thefts.

This doesn't change Trout's level of general awesomeness and please remember that Trout is a magical unicorn who could probably wake up and just decide to steal 50 bags if he wanted to, but it might also be prudent to lower expectations of what you can expect from him in 2020. The loss of the stolen bases is a drag on his fantasy bottom-line but that drag is compounded further by declining in a category that's becoming more and more of a scarce resource in the MLB, with total stolen bases and attempts in baseball dropping in each of the past four years.

Gone are the days when easy speed could be found cheaply in drafts and seemingly everyone drafted in the first 10 rounds came included with a dozen free bags. Even if it's true that Trout's ceiling is relatively limited by his lack of future on the basepaths, does it even matter? It's easy to say that Trout won't be the top earner but that's not actionable advice unless you can pair it with whoever will be. In other words, if you pass on Trout to take a shot at bigger game, you had better not miss the bear.

 

The Other Half of the Equation

Using NFBC ADP data, there are a handful of players every year who have been taken at number-one over Trout, but only a few were drafted as legitimate contenders for top billing. In 2015, for example, Carlos Correa's minimum pick was one, but his 8.3 ADP says that people picking him first were outliers. In 2015, Trout had no real competition for number-one but from 2016-18, at least one player in each year had an ADP of less than three, along with being picked first. Here are those chosen few, along with their numbers before and after their elevation to the first-pick overall.

Player ADP (2019) Rank ('19) Rank ('18) PA ('19) $$ ('19) PA ('18) $$ ('18)
Mike Trout 1.2 7 9 600 $32.10 608 $35.50
Mookie Betts 2 11 3 706 $29.60 614 $45.40
ADP (2018) Rank ('18) Rank ('17) PA ('18) $$ ('18) PA ('17) $$ ('17)
Mike Trout 1.1 9 13 608 $35.50 507 $26.50
Jose Altuve 2.2 45 4 599 $17.60 662 $37.90
ADP (2017) Rank ('17) Rank ('16) PA ('17) $$ ('17) PA ('16) $$ ('16)
Mike Trout 1.2 13 2 507 $26.50 681 $38.50
Mookie Betts 2.7 12 1 712 $26.80 730 $41.70
ADP (2016) Rank ('16) Rank ('15) PA ('16) $$ ('16) PA ('15) $$ ('15)
Mike Trout 1.7 2 6 681 $38.50 682 $34.90
Paul Goldschmidt 2.3 6 3 705 $31.12 695 $41.10
Bryce Harper 2.9 54 2 627 $15.70 654 $42.30

 Trying to correctly anticipate the value of other players can involve evaluating a myriad of different variables, necessarily increasing your likelihood of failure. Anticipating the value of Trout involves just one variable; how many times will he get to bat? On the flip side, it's also easy to see how dangerous it is to gamble and lose. Drafting Trout first won't necessarily win your league, but passing on him can definitely lose it for you. Those that drafted Betts and Goldschmidt may have survived with their eventual earnings; those that drafted Altuve and Harper probably didn't. In other words, you had better be sure about who you're aiming for.

 

Two Rise to the Challenge

As stated prior, just saying that Trout won't finish first, isn't enough to not pick him first. And just because Trout hasn't finished first in earning since 2014, doesn't mean there are players worth taking over him in any given year. In order to pass on Trout and live to tell the tale, the conditions must be perfectly ripe. In 2020, we have not one, but two contenders to the throne.

Run Ronald, Run

The top-earner in 2019, Ronald Acuna Jr. is 21 years old and coming off of a near 40/40 season, making him less and less of a controversial choice at number one. While his overall line of 41 HR, 127 R, 101 RBI, 37 SB with a .280 AVG was certainly impressive, Acuna was much less fantasy-friendly serving as the Braves cleanup hitter for his first 157 PA, stealing only two bases through May 9. After moving to leadoff, Acuna not only stole 35 bases in his next 558 plate-appearances but his power didn't suffer either, with his home run-rate increasing from 0.46 HR/10 PA to 0.60 HR/10 PA.

The exciting thing about Acuna, in both fantasy and real life, is that 2019 isn't necessarily his high watermark because Acuna is young, fun, and doesn't look like he'll stop running anytime soon. That is, unless the Braves go off and sign a leadoff hitter, moving Acuna (and his stolen bases, presumably) back down to fourth. As things stand now, the Braves' cleanup options in 2020 are Austin Riley and Nick Markakis, with the Braves playing Riley at third and pairing Ender Inciarte with Acuna and Markakis in the outfield.

With only $89 million on the books in 2020, will Atlanta stand pat with this arrangement until top-prospects Christian Pache and Drew Waters arrive to reinforce the outfield, spending their money on pitching instead? Or could they sign someone to play third base or outfield; and if so, where would that person bat? Surely, the Braves will leave well enough alone and leave Acuna at leadoff, but those drafting before Atlanta has made their free-agent decisions need to be aware of how much his value could change if he drops in the lineup.

Brother Christian Keeps Motoring

While taking Acuna over Trout may be a popular pick this year, taking Christian Yelich likely won't be. Unlike Acuna, it's harder to project more production than the $40.30 that Yelich earned in 2019, but does he even need to improve to be worth a pick over Trout? Remember that Yelich was earning at virtually the same rate prior to missing the last 17 games of the season with a knee injury and was arguably a better baseball player in 2019 than he was in 2018 when he ended the year as fantasy baseball's second-highest earner.

Season $$ PA  $/PA  HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG K% BB% wOBA
2018 45.7 651 0.070 36 118 110 22 0.326 0.402 0.598 20.7% 10.4% 0.422
2019 40.3 580 0.069 44 100 97 30 0.329 0.429 0.671 20.3% 13.8% 0.442

A pessimist could point to impending regression due to a 32.8% HR/FB and a .355 BABIP but an optimist would point out that while high, both numbers are lower than 2018's marks and that a change in approach may help sustain both rates. Yelich not only had career-highs in launch-angle, Barrel%, Pull%, and Hard%, he also had a top-3% barrel-rate and a career-low groundball-rate. And a visit to Baseball Savant shows that maybe this isn't just a two-year mirage, with Yelich posting an exit velocity in the top-3% of the league and x-stats that were all in the top 2% or better.

Season Brl% EV LA xBA xSLG wOBA xwOBA xwOBAc
2018 12.9 92.3 4.7 0.327 0.572 0.422 0.418 0.500
2019 15.8 93.1 11.2 0.314 0.623 0.442 0.421 0.501

There may have been deserved trepidation after Yelich's breakout in 2018 but after putting up virtually identical production in 2019, at what point do we accept that this is what Yelich is and that there are few reasons to expect significant regression in his age-27 season? Just how elite has Yelich's production per plate-appearance been over the last two years? Since 2013, just five players have posted rates over $0.069/PA and Yelich has two of them.

 

To Trout, Or Not to Trout

That is the question, with a wrong answer bringing you not only fantasy hardships but also the immense shame your league-mates will inevitably cast down upon you. And with the increasing popularity of a Kentucky Derby Style draft lottery system, players have more control of where they will pick, thereby increasing their chances of having to answer this question in the first place. If your league is using a KDS system and if you're confident in valuing Acuna and Yelich at or above Trout, then why set your preference to pick number one, when you can get a guy you want at number-three and get to pick sooner coming back around?

Or, just pick Trout first, wrap yourself in that sweet chinchilla and be confident that there's almost zero chance that it'll blow up in your face. Will you take the safest path and bank the straight-cash that Trout virtually guarantees?  Or forego safety and blaze a gambling trail, reaching instead for the heights of $45 and beyond? Whatever the choice, here's hoping your trail ends in Oregon and the Willamette Valley, not in dysentery and death.

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Using Sabermetrics For Fantasy Baseball Part 15 - Ballpark Factors

If you have ever selected a streamable pitcher based on home park or benched an otherwise must-start arm at Coors Field, you already know how much a stadium can impact a player's bottom line.

Ballpark Factors quantify the influence each stadium has, allowing you to make the most of your fantasy team's real-life schedule.

Today, we continue our journey through baseball sabermetrics with a look at how each team's home stadium can play a factor in the fantasy baseball world.

 

How to Interpret Ballpark Factors

Ballpark factors are generally set to a base of 100 (or 1.000, which doesn't actually change anything), meaning that a park factor of 100 plays perfectly neutral. Factors greater than 100 signify that a given park allows more of that outcome, while numbers below 100 represent less of those outcomes.

There are multiple sources of ballpark factors, including FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, ESPN, and Statcorner. Each calculates their numbers a little bit differently, but they all use the base-100 scale listed above. There is no "correct" factor to use, as each system has its own merits. Just make sure you stick to a single source for any analysis to control for the variance.

The source you choose also dictates how much each point above or below 100 is "worth." A player only plays 50% of his games at home, with the rest of his schedule comprised of road games. Some sources such as Fangraphs halve all of their factors to accommodate this, making each point above or below 100 represent a one percent increase or decrease over a full season of stats. Other sources leave that job to you, making every point worth two percentage points in a player's final line.

If that's too confusing, it's fine to forget it. The only thing you need to know is that a park factor of 110 is considerably higher than a 105 mark.

When most fantasy owners think of ballpark factors, they think of homers. A park allowing plenty of bombs is viewed as a hitter's park, while parks allowing fewer dingers are more pitcher-friendly. Let's consider Yankee Stadium as an example.

Yankee Stadium is known as a home run haven for good reason. In 2018, the stadium had a Baseball Prospectus HR factor of 104 for right-handed batters and 114 for left-handed swingers. This makes intuitive sense, as the short porch in right field helps left-handed hitters more than right-handed hitters, creating a meaningful platoon split in how the park plays. Of course, a right-handed hitter with an opposite field power stroke could benefit like a lefty, and a HR factor of 104 is nothing to sneeze at. The point is that all ballpark factors should be considered with nuance.

While most fantasy owners are familiar with certain ballparks allowing more or less homers than others, BABIP is an under-appreciated component of ballpark factors. Altitude, infield conditions, foul territory, batter's eye, and the size of the stadium can all influence how a ballpark plays beyond just home runs.

 

Coors Canaveral

For example, the Colorado Rockies managed a league-leading .334 BABIP at home last season against a league-worst road BABIP of .274. Likewise, they posted a .351 mark at home versus a .311 mark on the road in 2017, .348 mark at home vs. .302 on the road in 2016, .346 against .276 in 2015, and similar differences in every other season at Coors Field. Players tend to perform a little better at home, but Colorado's splits seem indicative of more than that.

Indeed, Coors Field promoted more singles (105 for RHB, 104 for LHB per Baseball Prospectus), doubles (124, 115), triples (153, 135), and homers (112, 111) than the average park in 2018. The sample size of triples is usually too small to mean anything, but Coors Field has many quirks to help explain its extreme offensive environment.

It's a gigantic ballpark, offering plenty of real estate for balls to find grass. Pitchers claim that breaking balls behave differently due to the elevation of the Mile High City, removing some of their weapons. Fatigue may set in faster for the same reason. The introduction of the humidor has decreased the ballpark's HR rates compared to the complete bandbox it was at the height of the Steroid Era, but it still consistently posts the highest BABIPs in baseball. For this reason, fantasy owners should generally be skeptical of Colorado hurlers.

Colorado is the most extreme example, but every stadium has some quirk that makes it unique. Fenway's Green Monster, the Trop's artificial surface, and the miles of foul territory in Oakland all affect a player's fantasy stats.

That said, sometimes ballpark factors can lie. Eighty-one games is a relatively small sample size, so a park could play dramatically differently in a given season than it has in the past or should be expected to moving forward. FanGraphs offers a five-year average park factor for overall scoring environment that eliminates much of this noise, though unfortunately they haven't been updated with 2018 data yet at time of writing.

Using 2017 data, Coors Field was well above other offensive parks with a five-year average factor of 116. Second-place Arizona and Texas are tied with 105, though the introduction of a humidor in the desert probably takes Arizona out of this conversation. Petco Park and Citi Field (95) are tied for most pitcher-friendly stadium. Obviously, you should pay more attention to the current year's data if there is a reason to believe the park changed.

Finally, it's worth noting that any ballpark factor worth looking at has a procedure in place to avoid being influenced by the home team's standout performers. For example, we have previously seen that Lorenzo Cain of the Milwaukee Brewers is an outstanding defensive outfielder. This fact does not slant Milwaukee's ballpark toward pitchers because the performance of visiting teams in Milwaukee is compared to their performance against Milwaukee, not the league at large. Thus, a player like Cain is not a variable.

 

Conclusion

Ballpark factors quantify how much influence a player's environment has on his final totals. A 100 factor is league average, with numbers above or below that indicative of more or less of whatever it is a factor for. Most fantasy owners think of homers when considering park factors, but singles, line drives, and even strikeouts have park factors as well. Platoon splits can also dictate where a given player is most likely to succeed.

The final article in this series will address minor league numbers and how you can use them to determine if that hot-new callup will play more like Rhys Hoskins or Byron Buxton.

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Why You Should Target Injury-Prone Pitchers (Sometimes)

To some fantasy owners, there’s nothing more frustrating than the good but oft-injured starting pitcher. It makes owners just want to wash their hands entirely of pitchers like Rich Hill, James Paxton, and Stephen Strasburg in favor of sub-par innings-eaters and often pushes these fragile hurlers down draft boards.

However, in certain league formats, targeting these pitchers at their discounted prices can actually be a solid strategy in building an outstanding pitching staff on a budget. With a little hard work, we can maximize the value of these training table regulars.

In this piece, we will look at the scenarios in which this may be profitable while identifying potential targets to draft late or buy-low once the season begins.

 

When to Pull the Trigger

First, and this goes without saying, is that we’re only looking to target the injury-prone pitchers that put up above average or better numbers when healthy. We’re not trying to maximize the innings of Jason Vargas here. We’re also not looking at pitchers like Michael Wacha or Anthony DeSclafani, both merely capable starting pitchers that have dealt with injury troubles throughout their career. For this strategy to work, owners need to target pitchers that are downright dominant when healthy.

Second, this strategy is quite dependent on league format and depth. In an AL or NL-only league targeting injury-prone pitchers is a bad idea, otherwise you’ll end up relying on the likes of the aforementioned Jason Vargas. The same is true in deeper leagues, and this writer wouldn’t consider this strategy in leagues with more than 12 teams. The number of injured list (IL) spots is important as well. If the league has just one or even none then it’s hard to build a pitching staff around oft-injured pitchers because it may reach a point where one can’t hold multiple injured guys.

And finally, while this is not a necessity, targeting injury-prone pitchers works best in weekly leagues. While this is certainly doable in daily leagues and season-long Roto, in weekly leagues we’re focusing on our team in smaller slices. We’re just trying to build the best team for one week, and it’s easiest to judge the streaming help we’ll need.

 

Pros and Cons

The main benefit in drafting pitchers like this is that they are awesome when healthy. Rich Hill has been one of the league’s best strikeout pitchers thanks to his signature curveball, James Paxton can look like a Cy Young candidate at times when healthy, and even lower-priced pitchers like Hyun-Jin Ryu, Kenta Maeda, and Tyler Skaggs have shown flashes of brilliance relative to the pitchers going around them on draft day.

The biggest drawback, of course, is that we aren’t getting the volume from these pitchers, and in order to compete for a fantasy title, volume from roster spots is almost as important as quality of play. It’s what makes pitchers like Rick Porcello and Jose Quintana appealing; their overall numbers will probably underwhelm, but they take the ball every fifth day and pitch deep into games. If Rich Hill only pitches around 130-140 innings, like he has the last two years, his fantasy owner needs to cobble together an extra 40-50 innings through streaming and waivers. The question then becomes, just how much do those innings hurt your bottom line?

In 2018, the average MLB starter posted a 4.19 ERA, 1.29 WHIP, and 8.25 K/9. Those numbers certainly aren’t winning anyone a championship; that’s why they’re average. But, to make up for the lost innings of our injured pitchers, we’ll have to dip into some league-average pitchers off waivers. To make a rough projection of where we’ll stand after adding these supplemental innings, I’ve calculated what adding X number of league average innings to a few pitchers' 2018 numbers would do to their overall line.

This is, of course, an imprecise measurement, but there are far too many variables to calculate exactly how streaming will work out in every circumstance. The purpose of this is to provide a rough guideline of what to expect, not to bank on these stats when projecting your team’s end of year numbers. I am going to start this exercise by supplementing Hyun-Jin Ryu’s stats, which were amazing when healthy last season, with the innings of a league-average starter.

 

Case Studies

Hyun-Jin Ryu was awesome last season when on the mound. He posted a 1.97 ERA, 5.93 K/BB ratio, and 11.6% SwStr rate, all career bests. The ERA will regress, but maintaining an ERA under 3.00 would be a reasonable expectation for Ryu. The only problem was that he logged just 82.1 innings last season. That means we need almost 100 innings of streaming to make up for lost time. If we add 100 league-average innings to Ryu’s stats we wind up with 182.1 innings, a 3.16 ERA, 1.17 WHIP, and 8.95 K/9. That season compares similarly to Zach Wheeler’s 2018, since Wheeler posted a 3.31 ERA, 1.12 WHIP, and 8.84 K/9. Wheeler is going at pick 87 while Ryu is going at pick 176 in NFBC leagues.

Another good example of how to use a pitcher of this ilk is Tyler Skaggs. Skaggs’ 2018 shows us how injury prone pitchers need to be managed individually throughout the season in order to obtain the best results. His overall numbers weren’t that impressive; Skaggs finished 2018 with a 4.02 ERA, 1.33 WHIP, and 3.23 K/BB ratio. His underlying stats paint a much prettier picture, but from a results perspective, Skaggs hardly seems like a candidate for the great-when-healthy-but-when-are-you-healthy strategy. However, sharper and more experienced owners would’ve avoided (most of) Skaggs’ bad outings and gotten the best value out of him.

Ultimately, a right adductor strain ruined Skaggs’ season, and in case you aren’t sure what the adductor muscle does, it’s apparently the muscle that helps one pitch well. Skaggs was a disaster on the mound after suffering this injury. In 33.1 innings following his adductor strain, he pitched to a 7.83 ERA and 1.65 WHIP. He also served up six home runs over that stretch after giving up just eight in the previous 92 innings. Those 33.1 innings were split between three separate trips to the injured list for the same injury. Technically, the Angels marked it as a right and left adductor strain, but this writer thinks he strained the left one after spinning around too fast to watch another home run fly over the fence.

Since Skaggs’ poor performances were separated by pre- and post-injury it would have been easy to avoid most of the bad he put out last season. The trouble began for Skaggs on July 31, when he served up 10 earned runs in 3.1 innings to the Rays in Tampa Bay. He hit the injured list immediately after that start and dealt with injuries and poor performance for the rest of the year. Experienced fantasy owners would not have eaten another bad start after the 10 earned run disaster against the Rays, because experienced fantasy owners know not to start sub-elite pitchers straight off the IL. This is why most people likely avoided his 3.1 inning, seven earned run nightmare against Oakland after a minimum stay on the injured list, and after missing another month owners would have cut bait on Skaggs before absorbing any more bad outings. So, even if we factor in the Tampa Bay start Skaggs gave us a 3.34 ERA, 1.25 ERA, and 9.4 K/9 in 113.1 innings. Those numbers aren’t nearly as bad, but he left us with about 70 innings to fill on waivers. If we add 70 innings of a league average starter the overall line ends up being a 3.66 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, and 8.96 K/9 over 183 innings. That isn’t too different from what J.A. Happ and Cole Hamels did in 2018, and both of those pitchers are going over 75 spots ahead of Skaggs on draft day.

Now, simply adding on league-average innings to a pitcher who lacks volume may seem like an overly simple way to project potential streaming results, and it is, but it’s also the most straightforward way to outline how the necessary supplemental innings affect that pitcher’s bottom line. There are too many variables on a week-to-week basis with a streaming-heavy approach like this to project with more precision.

There is one kicker with this strategy that may make it more enticing, and it’s that you, yes you, dear reader, are likely going to get better than league-average innings off waivers in 10- and 12-team mixed leagues.  This is for two reasons: First, is that if you’re sharp and well-informed (and since you’re reading RotoBaller, you are clearly both of those things) you’ll have a good idea of who is worth streaming off waivers and who should be ignored. Second, is that league-average numbers are dragged down by yucky, unusable pitchers like Matt Moore and Yovani Gallardo. Pitchers like that will never sniff your lineup, but their stats count towards league average. Of course, you’ll wind up absorbing bad starts here and there, it’s unavoidable, but personally, this writer expects to get better than league average results when streaming starting pitchers.

 

Conclusion

To conclude, I have two key tenants to keep in mind for those following the injury-prone pitcher strategy.

  • Be Diligent: For this to work, one needs to be on top of the waiver wire and managing their bench and IL spots. This doesn’t work for those who like to set-it and forget-it. You will be checking your lineup nearly every day and you will be planning out streaming targets a week in advance when necessary. You will need to be tight with the FAAB dollars in case of emergency. It’s work, but it’s fun work because it’s fantasy baseball.
  • Accept the Risk: If you fill your rotation with 3-5 of these injury prone pitchers, there may be a time in the year when three are already on the IL, one gets scratched from his start the day of, and one only makes it through an inning before a blister pops up. This is part of the strategy; it’s the downside. It’s unlikely that all of these pitchers would experience their injuries at the exact same moment, but possible.This strategy is for risk takers. It’s for the kind of people that cross the street, even when there’s no painted crosswalk. The kind of people that eat a yogurt two days after its expiration date. The kind of people that see a stoplight turn yellow and hit the gas on their certified pre-owned Hyundai Sonata, zooming through the light just before it hits red. If that’s too much for you then stay in your cocoon and fill your rotation with the Rick Porcellos of the world. Personally, this writer prefers to shoot for the moon in every league, consequences be damned. For those who like to go all-out in fantasy, targeting injury-prone pitchers may be the right path.

Some Possible Targets: James Paxton, Stephen Strasburg, Luis Severino, Noah Syndergaard, Tyler Skaggs, Andrew Heaney, Anyone on the Dodgers, Carlos Martinez, Yu Darvish, Matt Strahm, Michael Pineda, Jimmy Nelson.

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Where Are The Elite Starters? Looking for 2019’s deGrom

Researching elite starters has taught me a number of things about pitcher development. One of the most valuable has been the reminder that progress is never linear.

Blake Snell and Justin Verlander present recent examples of that. Verlander has been in “obvious decline” on two occasions now, and both times he’s bounced back. 2016 Blake Snell displayed impressive talent but limited control. He was then relegated to AAA for portions of 2017, lost strikeouts, and saw his ERA increase, but we all know what he did in 2018.

Despite the inconsistent nature of growth, we do see patterns in those pitchers who emerge as elite starters. In parts one and two of the series, I worked to assemble a methodical approach for identifying pitchers who were more likely to emerge as elite starters. If you want to read more about the methodology, check out those articles. In this space, I want to focus on what it reveals about starters for this coming season.

 

Hunting for Upside

Looking at about twenty different stats, I saw a few baseline elements that spanned nearly every pre-elite season. In the vast majority of cases, pre-elite starters offered at least a 3.54 FIP, a 3.7 xFIP, 150 innings pitched, and a swinging-strike rate of 11.0%. There were exceptions to those, but they were statistical outliers. There were many other metrics involved, but those elements offered clear parameters for my search.

To be clear, the system would never have predicted Blake Snell’s Cy-Young performance, but it would have given far more confidence in drafting Max Scherzer in 2013 when he broke out or Aaron Nola last season. I didn’t design it to evaluate a player’s likely outcome. I designed it to indicate the possibility of whether a pitcher looked like a potential elite starter. A positive score means that a pitcher had better than average indicators for a pre-elite starter. A neutral score means the pitcher looked exactly like a pre-elite starter, and a negative score means that a pitcher had below average indicators for a pre-elite starter.

The data offers a way to gauge these players more objectively, but there are reasons not to treat the data as an absolute barometer. For instance, the system likes Alex Wood, and I think he’s undervalued, but there’s a near zero chance that he emerges as an ace. On the other hand, Zach Wheeler has a negative score, but his -1.2 score is easily explained by his return from injury.

Without further delay, here are the numbers…

Pitcher ADP Z-Score
Max Scherzer 4 14.3
Jacob deGrom 11 20.7
Chris Sale 15 15.6
Justin Verlander 22 9.4
Corey Kluber 24 9.1
Aaron Nola 25 10.9
Gerrit Cole 27 6.3
Blake Snell 29 1.9
Trevor Bauer 33 5.5
Luis Severino 34 -1.0
Carlos Carrasco 36 9.3
Walker Buehler 38 2.2
Clayton Kershaw 41 2.9
Noah Syndergaard 42 4.3
Patrick Corbin 50 9.7
James Paxton 54 4.8
Jameson Taillon 56 -1.9
Stephen Strasburg 62 -5.2
Mike Clevinger 63 -2.4
Jack Flaherty 65 -6.9
Zack Greinke 66 -3.0
Jose Berrios 74 -6.1
German Marquez 78 0.3
Alex Wood 90 -3.9
Zack Wheeler 92 -1.2
Mike Foltynewicz 93 -9.2
Miles Mikolas 96 1.9
Luis Castillo 114 -10.5
Charlie Morton 119 -5.4
Nick Pivetta 150 -9.1
Andrew Heaney 169 -5.8
Marco Gonzales 275 -7.3

 

The Obvious Candidates: Nola, Bauer, Cole, Snell

Aaron Nola, Trevor Bauer, Gerrit Cole, and Blake Snell are names that don’t surprise anyone. All four of them are getting plenty of attention as potential Cy-Young candidates for this season. Which one you prefer depends on your tendencies. There’s very little mystery around them, but I’ll address what the formula suggests about each one.

Nola and Snell are the most obvious names here because their 2018 seasons already met the definition for elite performances. Nola’s only potential weakness is his walk rate. However, there’s scant evidence of control issues, and his 69.4% first-strike rate supports that.

For Snell, the issue is a simple case of control and efficiency. Snell’s 57.1% first-strike rate and 62.2% strike rate are well below the performances of other elite starters. The only other elite starter who was close to those numbers was Dallas Keuchel who had the most pronounced drop-off after his elite season. The good news for Snell is that he improved both metrics in the second half. Plus the Rays are a pitching organization that just moved to lock in Snell with a long-term contract.

Bauer was excellent last year, but the formula’s primary issue with him was the missed time from his stress fracture and the fact that the Indians clearly limited his innings in those final two starts. Additionally, if he’s actually found a way to emulate Carlos Carrasco’s changeup – and Bauer claims that he has – he’ll be even better this season.

Gerrit Cole’s 6.3 z-score is less gaudy than Nola’s, and there’s less hype on him than Bauer, but he’s still only 28, which is right around when lanky guys finally get everything synced up. At the least, owners can look at his strikeouts, K%, and FIP and have a clear sense that Cole is a virtual lock to be a top-ten pitcher.

 

Shopping for deGrom: Picks 50 and Up

I mentioned in the previous article that most elite starters finished in the top-100 players the season before they emerged. Aside from the four pitchers above, these are the players most likely to return elite-level value.

Patrick Corbin: Z-Score 9.7 (ADP 50)

Why the Formula Likes Him: On the most basic level, Corbin employs a skillset similar to Chris Sale (they use a strong fastball and slider mix to generate swinging strikes and groundballs). Corbin’s peripheral numbers all compared favorably with those of Scherzer, Sale, and deGrom. In 2018, he ranked 6th in K%, 5th in K-BB%, 4th in FIP, 2nd in SwSt%, and 1st in O-Swing%.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Corbin’s mediocre .281 xwOBA and his 6.0 IPS were below standard for the pre-elite pitchers, who usually show more dominance based on batted-ball data and go deeper in their starts.

Final Thought: Corbin makes a perfect target for this season. His numbers compare favorably to Nola, Kluber, and Verlander, but he's available two rounds later. Corbin’s ability to induce groundballs (48.5% GB%) is among the league’s best, and it helps to account for his mediocre xwOBA. He gives up some harder contact, but it tends to be on the ground. Health is a concern, but he’s been my favorite SP target in leagues so far.

 

Zach Wheeler: Z-Score -1.2 (ADP 92)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Wheeler gets ground balls, limits fly balls, induces infield flies, generates whiffs, and provokes swings at pitches outside the zone. That’s a ton of ways to manipulate batters to sit back down.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Wheeler’s xFIP is worse than we'd expect to see, and as a player returning from injury, he also lacks volume and hasn’t shown the ability to go deep into games.

Final Thought: If you want my guess on this year’s Jacob deGrom, it’s Zach Wheeler. I wish there were a higher swinging-strike rate, but the volume should take care of itself this season.

 

Jameson Taillon: Z-Score -1.9 (ADP 56)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Taillon has already demonstrated the ability to get lots of outs and to get them late in the game. His .214 wOBA on the third time through the order was exceptional. There’s probably some noise built in there, but Taillon’s ability to limit balls in the air and induce grounders is almost identical to deGrom’s.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: Taillon’s weakest attributes were his volume (191 IP) and his xFIP (3.58). Both of those numbers fall below the thirty-third percentile for pre-elite pitchers. Given that xFIP rewards groundball pitchers like Taillon, it’s worrisome that his number is that high.

Final Thought: By my interpretation, Taillon isn’t particularly likely to provide an elite performance in 2018, but the data may be skewed by his continued recovery from the cumulative effects of cancer and Tommy John surgery. That’s a lot of physical and emotional trauma for someone who is still only 27 years old. A reasonable assessment recognizes that Jameson Taillon is an ass-kicker, and even if his 2019 is not an elite season, it should be very, very good. Like Bauer’s new changeup, Taillon’s grit isn’t baked into these numbers. The last cancer survivor with a season like Jameson Taillon was Jon Lester, who went on to be a top-10 pitcher for years.

 

German Marquez: Z-Score 0.3 (ADP 78)

Why the Formula Likes Him: Marquez leverages his strong swinging-strike rate (12.6%) with strong GB/FB ratios. His FIP (3.40) was almost exactly the average for pre-elite pitchers, and his xFIP was slightly better (3.10). Moreover, Marquez has demonstrated the ability to eat innings over the last two seasons.

Why the Formula Doesn’t Love Him: The formula doesn’t care about Coors Field, but it does care about inconsistency. Marquez’s has struggled in his third time through the batting order, and he’s failed to execute his pitches consistently. Both of those issues give us cause for concern.

Final Thought: As Paul Sporer argued a couple of weeks ago, “Coors Field is undefeated” against pitchers. However, Coors Field now has the handicap of the humidor, and I’m not sure that it’s ever met an opponent as talented as Marquez. It’s worth remembering that Marquez is only 24 and that he was a Kluber Formula candidate last year. He did not come out of nowhere. Among these four players, Marquez probably represents the greatest range of potential outcomes this season. Sometimes you throw a Hail Mary and it gets intercepted, and sometimes David Tyree makes a Helmet Catch. It’s worth noting that from June 30th on, Marquez’s performance was almost good enough to generate elite value even without the volume of a full-length season. However, the added difficulty of adjusting to Coors Field may be enough to complicate Marquez’s growth.

 

Honorable Mentions

Carlos Carrasco: Need an ace-lite? Draft Carrasco. You’re going to love his floor. I guarantee it.

James Paxton: The Yankees knew what they were doing when they acquired Paxton. In a world where only 60 pitchers reach 160 IP per season, Paxton’s health isn’t a liability. If Paxton ever reaches 200 innings in a single season, he’d either be an elite pitcher or extraordinarily close. However, I’m guessing the Yankees are planning on keeping Paxton’s IPS below 6.0, which will make it difficult for him to take the next step.

Noah Syndergaard: Among these six pitchers, he’s probably the best candidate to win the Cy Young if he can stay healthy. If…

Walker Buehler: Give him another 50 innings and two more outs per start, and he instantly becomes an elite starter. However, the news this Spring already suggests he won’t make it to 200 innings.

Mike Clevinger: Looks an awful lot like a poor man’s Walker Buehler.

Jack Flaherty: Misses the FIP cutoff and barely makes the IP cutoff. However, the rest of the numbers suggest he might be on the cusp. Managers looking for a “dark-horse” candidate to ascend to the elite level should consider him.

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 14 - Statcast Expected Stats

Statcast is a valuable tool for fantasy analysis, and it can be easy to look at a stat called "Expected Batting Average" and blindly use it as your projection moving forward. Of course, proper use of these metrics is a little bit more nuanced than that.

Our series on how to make sabermetrics more accessible to fantasy owners continues with a closer look at one of the newer Statcast metrics. To check out my previous explanation of Statcast for Pitchers, click here.

Let's begin by identifying what the Expected Metrics are and how they work.

 

How To Use Statcast's Expected Metrics In Fantasy

The first is xBA, or Expected Batting Average. This statistic is calculated using Hit Probability, itself a stat measuring how often a batted ball with a particular exit velocity and launch angle has fallen in for a hit since Statcast was introduced in 2015. For example, a line drive to the outfield that has historically fallen in for a hit 80 percent of the time counts as 80% of a hit by Hit Probability.

As of January 2019, the Hit Probability formula was modified to include the batter's Statcast Sprint Speed, more accurately representing their ability to beat out a ground ball. xBA is simply a batting average produced using Hit Probability, actual K%, and official ABs. If you play in a traditional 5X5 roto league, this is the Expected Stat you'll probably use the most.

Next up is Expected Slugging Percentage, or xSLG. It is calculated in the same manner as xBA, except that each batted ball is weighted according to its probability of being a single, double, triple, or home run instead of just a hit. If your league counts slugging percentage, you might get good use out of this stat. It can also be one tool to help you identify if a particular pitcher is getting hit hard or simply getting unlucky, though there are limits to this type of analysis.

Finally, we have Expected Weighted On Base Average, or xwOBA. It is calculated the same way xSLG is, except real-world walks and HBP are added to the equation. Each result is also assigned a linear weight with more math than the simple multiplication used to calculate slugging percentage. This is the stat with the most real-world value, but doesn't translate that well to fantasy unless you play in a realistic Points format.

The principle value of all three metrics is to take defense (and therefore actual results) out of the picture, allowing a player to be judged solely on his contact quality (or contact quality allowed in the case of pitchers).

We'll assume that you play 5x5 roto and stick with the simpler xBA from here on out. Generally speaking, a player who posts a higher xBA than actual batting average would be expected to improve his average moving forward, while the opposite is true if a player's batting average is higher than his xBA.

Baseball Savant's Leaderboards allow you to sort players by the difference between their BA and xBA, so finding some samples is easy. Willy Adames of the Tampa Bay Rays had the largest negative differential, with a BA of .278 against an xBA of just .216. A closer look at his profile reveals an unsustainable .378 BABIP, 29.4% K%, and 6-for-11 SB success rate. That's enough red flags to stash him on your "Do Not Draft" list.

Going the other way, Logan Morrison posted the best positive differential with a .238 xBA against a .186 actual mark. Unfortunately for him, he illustrates one of the biggest weaknesses of xBA: it doesn't account for shifts at all. Morrison was shifted in 209 of 226 PAs, a sound strategy considering his 69.6% Pull% on ground balls. It ate him up, limiting him to a .202 batting average overall and just .196 against a "traditional" shift. Positive regression should not be expected in this case no matter what xBA says.

Pitchers illustrate another problem with xBA. Michael Wacha of the Cardinals was the "luckiest" pitcher according to the metric, posting a .278 xBA against an actual mark of .221. However, Wacha didn't pitch in front of random defenders all season: it was always the Cardinals backing him up. The Cards played above average defense in 2018, posting 40 DRS to rank 11th in the league. It stands to reason that above average defensive support would help a pitcher "beat" his xBA, as we have seen in a previous article.

League-wide, major leaguers posted a .248 batting average and .243 xBA in 2018, a five-point differential that continues a trend of declining by exactly one point in each year of Statcast's existence. This trend suggests that the technology is getting better, but also that it isn't foolproof. It is always best to utilize Statcast Expected Stats as part of a broader analysis, rather than using them as your sole data point.

 

Conclusion

In summation, Expected Stats allow you to evaluate a player's performance based on his exit velocity and launch angle, taking variables such as the opposing defense out of the calculus. This can give you a better sense of a player's true talent level, but there are limitations on what you can do with it.

Some fantasy analysts calculate their own expected stats, such as Mike Podhorzer's xHR/FB equation. These metrics are not available on Baseball Savant and require more math than this series is intended to get into. Next time, we'll take a closer look at how to quantify the impact that ballparks have on a player's line.

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Finding Under and Overvalued 1B Using Expected Draft Values

We've been rolling out our Expected Draft Values series, starting with Nick Mariano's look yesterday into some undervalued players, and we followed it up this morning with Nick's look at overvalued playersThis afternoon, we're going to give you some undervalued and overvalued players at first base.

As a quick primer, Expected Draft Value is the value you would historically expect, on average, from a given draft slot. In other words, Expected Draft Value lets you put a stat line next to every pick in the draft... if the player you draft performs better than expected, you get positive value. If the player you draft performs worse than expected, that's negative value. As we all know, a fantasy draft is all about maximizing the potential positive value from every pick.

For example, we can say that "if you draft a power + average hitter 97th overall, your Expected Draft Value should be a line of .285-26-76-75-4. That's your 'break even point'. If you draft a player at 97 who performs better than that, you win, or at least put yourself one player closer to winning.  For a full explanation of our Expected Draft Value research, see Nick's article's from yesterday, linked above. With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive into some undervalued and overvalued first basemen!

 

Undervalued First Basemen to Target

Joey Gallo - 1B/OF, TEX

NFBC ADP: 102
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 102nd: .245-31-89-78-5
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: .220-42-100-88-6

Analysis: Gallo is projected to obliterate the return we would expect from the 102nd overall player. If he reaches his projection, he would be fair value as early as the 65th pick in your draft, so there is potentially quite a wide margin of profit to be had. RotoBaller's rankers aren't as bullish on Gallo as ATC/The Bat, mostly because of his batting average downside.

Gallo has never hit above .209 in his big-league career and has a whopping 38% career strikeout rate; both of these stats limit Gallo’s potential to reach his projected counting stats. Despite the apparent flaws in his game, Gallo is still worth reaching for several rounds ahead of his ADP given his projected value. If he can manage to cut down on his strikeout rate, even a little, then Gallo will help you dominate in three categories, which will more than offset his overall low batting average.

 

Justin Smoak - 1B, TOR

NFBC ADP: 230
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 230th: .250-29-73-58-1
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: .245-29-80-76-1

Analysis: Talk about value! Based on the projections, Smoak is projected to be a steal at pick 230. His projections value him at around pick 150, which would be significantly better than both his NFBC ADP and RotoBaller rank. Smoak’s 2018 strikeout rate of 26.1% jumped above his career mark of 23.7%, which raises concern, especially as he enters 2019 at age 32.

This concern, coupled with the current state of the Blue Jays lineup make RotoBaller slightly lower on Smoak compared to ATC/The Bat. That being said, fantasy players can feel comfortable taking Smoak as much as five rounds earlier than his ADP depending on their team needs. His profile isn’t exciting, but he is slated to provide great relative value in 2019.  

 

Overvalued First Basemen

Ian Desmond - 1B/OF, COL

NFBC ADP: 142
Expected Return for a Power+Speed Hitter Drafted 142nd: .256-18-61-75-20
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: .258-17-64-70-17

Analysis: Desmond isn’t projected to underperform his draft position by all that much, but the stats he is projected to underperform in are important ones. His batting average, RBI, and run projections place his value at around the 150 pick range for power + speed guys, but his HR and steal projections place him roughly in the pick 180 to 190 range.

Desmond has always been a decent source of steals, but he will be 33 years old entering the 2019 season. At some point, his wheels will start to slow down, so there is no guarantee he will significantly help you in this category. As for the power, Desmond is a notorious ground ball hitter (52.6% career rate), limiting his potential HR value even in Coors Field. What’s more, Desmond did hit 22 HR last season but did so at an inflated 24.7% HR/FB rate compared to a career 14.7% clip.

Negative regression can be expected, which decreases the likelihood of him contributing as much in that category. Desmond is slated to be a power and speed dual fantasy threat, but his underlying batted-ball profile coupled with his age make him overvalued in 2019. Look to take him a few rounds later than his ADP to protect yourself from getting burned.

 

Max Muncy - 1B/2B/3B, LAD

NFBC ADP: 118
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 118th: .254-32-84-74-3
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: .247-28-79-77-4

Analysis: Nick talked about Muncy yesterday, but I'm going to dive a little deeper since he's a sexy name. Max Muncy came out of nowhere in 2018 and was a fantasy All-Star, and his 2019 ADP certainly reflects that. His projections, however, slate him to finish slightly lower than his ADP, and there are some questions surrounding whether he can hit his projections. His projections place him around pick 126 to 130, which is only about a round lower than his current ADP. Let’s take a closer look at Muncy’s 2018 stats to see how likely he is to meet his 2019 expectations.

A few stats stand out from Muncy’s 2018 campaign. First, he posted an excellent walk rate (16.4%) and a lackluster strikeout rate (27.2%). Both of these stats are in line with Muncy’s career numbers (14.9% and 25.6%) and last season was his first successful one. The walk rate is great, but a high strikeout rate is always a cause for concern. Two other stats that stand out are Muncy’s HR/FB rate and average exit velocity.

His HR/FB rate was a massive 29.4%, which was third highest amongst hitters with at least 450 AB and was significantly higher than his career mark of 21.7%. He also hit the ball hard throughout the season (average exit velocity 90.1 MPH) and barrelled up the ball 16.9% of the time, which was in the top one percent in the league. Muncy excelled out of his mind in 2018, and, while he could do it again, fantasy players could protect themselves from him not meeting his projections by waiting at least a round before drafting him.

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Finding Under and Overvalued 2B Using Expected Draft Values

We've been rolling out our series on Expected Draft Values, an innovative new way to find under and overvalued players. Yesterday, we started with Nick Mariano's look into some undervalued players, we followed it up this morning with Nick's look at overvalued players and then Connelly Doan's look at some under and overvalued first basemenThis evening, we're going to keep things going and give you some undervalued and overvalued players at second base.

As a quick primer, Expected Draft Value is the value you would historically expect, on average, from a given draft slot. In other words, Expected Draft Value lets you put a stat line next to every pick in the draft... if the player you draft performs better than expected, you get positive value. If the player you draft performs worse than expected, that's negative value. As we all know, a fantasy draft is all about maximizing the potential positive value from every pick.

For example, we can say that "if you draft a power + average hitter 97th overall, your Expected Draft Value should be a line of 285-26-76-75-4. That's your 'break even point'. If you draft a player at 97 who performs better than that, you win, are at least put yourself one player closer to winning.  For a full explanation of our Expected Draft Value research, see Nick's article's from yesterday, linked above. With the introduction out of the way, let’s dive into some undervalued and overvalued first basemen!

 

Undervalued Second Basemen to Target

Daniel Murphy - 2B, COL

NFBC ADP: 72.4
Expected Return for a High Average Hitter Drafted 72nd: 320-17-80-75-3
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 308-22-85-80.5-4

Murphy is another player who will be hoping for a late career boost in Colorado. 2018 was a tough year for Murphy as he struggled to stay on the field and managed to hit just 12 home runs in his 351 PA, but did put up a more than useful .299 batting average. Murphy is projected to outperform the numbers we might expect from a predominantly batting average contributor drafted 72nd overall. When you compare Murphy's projections to the expected values, he is projected to slightly outperform the expected values in home runs, runs and RBI, but will lose a little in batting average.

A good comparison for what Murphy could do in 2019 is to look at Scooter Gennett's 2018 season. Gennett put up a 308-23-92-86-4 last season and finished ranked 35th overall on the season. Murphy is more than capable of not only matching that but possibly exceeding it if he sees a boost in Coors. Murphy will need to reverse his drop in exit velocity on fly balls and line drives from last season to get back to around the 93 mph mark. If he can do that then the change in park factors could see Murphy top 25 home runs this season.

Batting average wise Murphy has returned an xBA around the .300 mark in each of the last four seasons, so penciling that in is a fairly safe floor to his value. Additionally, the move to Coors will also see a big increase in the park factor for batting average when it comes to left-handed hitters. If Murphy can stay healthy this year he has a legitimate chance to get back to the .320 batting average he posted in 2017 with the Nationals. As a final kicker, he is also projected to hit third between Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story, which could see him blow the projection of a combined 165.5 runs and RBI out of the water this season. If Murphy does benefit from the Coors effect then he could end up being one of the steals of draft season in 2019.

 

Travis Shaw - 2B/3B, MIL

NFBC ADP: 94.6
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 95th: 241-33-90-81-3
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 255-32-91-81-5

Shaw is a hitter who very much divides opinions in 2019. However, you do not find many hitters who are eligible at second base and can give you more than 30 home runs. The biggest win when you are looking to draft Shaw is the return that his batting average offers. Shaw is currently projected to have a batting average .014 higher than what we would expect from a power hitter drafted 95th overall. To put that into context his numbers are closer to the return we would expect from a hitter who finishes in the mid-80s in fantasy rankings than the mid-90s.

The biggest concern with Shaw is the way his batting average has yo-yo'd the last four years. Twice he has hit for an average above .270 and twice he has been between .240 and .245. The slightly concerning thing is that his xBA has pretty much always been around the .245 mark throughout his four years in the majors. However, when you look at what we would expect from the 95th hitter off the board, even Shaw's worst return on average would simply present exact value for his draft position. Additionally, at this point Shaw feels almost locked in to hit around 31-32 home runs this season, having done that in each of the last two years. In both of those years, his Statcast numbers have been fairly similar, so it should be no shock to see him repeat those numbers.

However, given that 2019 is likely to see Shaw remain at third base for the majority of the season, that stability could mean we see a slight increase in performance at the plate. When playing third base last season, Shaw hit for a .255 batting average, as opposed to a .223 batting average when he was at second base. The upside here is not huge, but the eligibility at one of the weakest positions in fantasy baseball makes Shaw worth the reach a round earlier than his current ADP might suggest.

 

Overvalued Second Basemen to Avoid

Whit Merrifield - 2B KC

NFBC ADP: 30.20
Expected Return for a Speed & High Batting Average Hitter Drafted 30th: 302-7-54-95-47
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 282-13-66-79.5-32

The desperation for steals in fantasy baseball has led to what appears to be an extreme overvaluing of Merrifield. In 2018, Merrifield stole 45 bases, while hitting 12 home runs at a .304 batting average. In order for Merrifield to return his current draft day value, based on our draft valuation numbers, he would essentially need to repeat the numbers he put up in 2018. However, the majority of projection systems do not believe that Merrifield will repeat either his batting average or steals prowess in 2019.

In terms of stolen bases, it simply comes down to opportunities. Last season, Merrifield was successful on 45 of his 55 stolen base attempts, while in 2017, it was 34 of 42. Merrifield ranked 51st in sprint speed in 2018 (92nd percentile), a number which suggests that if they let him run 55 times again, then he should steal 40 or more bases. However, just stealing the bases is not enough, as Merrifield needs the batting average to go with it, because 13 home runs is not a significant enough number to boost any value lost through batting average.

The entirety of the value question comes down to whether Merrifield can repeat his batting average numbers from last year, which most projection systems do not believe. The Statcast data backs up the projection systems, as Merrifield has never had an xBA above .278 in three-year major league career. His speed does mean that he should be able to outperform that xBA once again in 2019, but to do it by the same extent that he did in 2018 is a stretch to expect. In 2017, Merrifield had a batting average of .288 with an xBA of .277, which is closer to the difference between the two values that you would expect to see. Hypothetically, if Merrifield stole 40 bases, hit around 13 home runs and hit for a .280 batting average, then his comparative value would be to Jose Reyes in 2012 and Starling Marte in 2013. Both of those hitters finished outside the top-50 overall in fantasy value, suggesting that Merrifield is going a round or two too earlier in 2019 fantasy drafts.

 

Ozzie Albies - 2B ATL

NFBC ADP: 59.15
Expected Return for an All-Around Hitter Drafted 59th: 285-20-72-85-21.5
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 274-20-76.5-88-16.5

Albies is one of the hottest names in baseball right now. The young Atlanta hitter broke out last season with 24 home runs, 16 stolen bases and a .261 batting average. Those numbers have seen Albies become a hot commodity in drafts this year, but his price has now reached a point where there is no value left, and if anything drafters are overvaluing him. At a 59 ADP, you need a studly 5-category line to justify the cost.  Of the five categories above, arguably the two most important for Albies to not fall below are batting average and steals. Unfortunately, he does not make the grade at either of those.

Albies hit just .261 last season, but his Statcast xBA was just .247. That presents a big reason for concern. Now the positive is that Albies is likely to return expected numbers at R, RBI, and HR, but BA and SB will be a struggle.It is the combination of the power, average and speed that makes Albies worth drafting, along with solid R+RBI totals he should see in a good Atlanta lineup. However, you don't want to just break even at 59th overall, you want to have some room for profit. It's a shame his ADP isn't closer to 90, because that's about the point where he would represent solid value.

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Intro: Finding Overvalued Players Using Expected Draft Values

Yesterday we introduced the concept of Expected Draft Values and looked at four undervalued players that are prime targets in 2019.

Today, we'll look at four overvalued players. Stay tuned the next few days as we bring you a deeper look at undervalued and overvalued players from each position using Expected Draft Values.

Generally, what we are trying to do here is identify players who will return negative value, based on their ADP, the average stat line typically produced at that ADP, and the player's projection. Here's how it works.

 

Our Methodology

First, let's explain what Expected Draft Value is. It is the value you would historically expect, on average, from a given draft slot. In other words, Expected Draft Value lets you put a stat line next to every pick in the draft... if the player you draft performs better than expected, you get positive value. If the player you draft performs worse than expected, that's negative value. As we all know, a fantasy draft is all about maximizing the potential positive value from every pick. Expected Draft Values help us do that.

As you'll note, this analysis only pertains to hitters and will focus around batting average, home runs and stolen bases. Runs and RBI do enter the equation, but they are more products of circumstance and of HR and BA.

We took every player-season from the past 10 years and classified them into one of seven cohorts: 1) BA+HR+SB, 2) BA+HR, 3) HR+SB, 4) BA+SB, 5) BA, 6) HR, 7) SB. The minimum bar for entry into each cohort is:

1) BA+HR+SB: .270, 15 HR, 12 SB
2) BA+HR: .275, 25 HR
3) BA+SB: .270, 15 SB
4) HR+SB: 12 HR, 12 SB
5) BA: .300
6) HR: 27 HR
7) SB: 15 SB

The cohorts were defined to have roughly the same amount of players (150-170 each), and we chose these cohorts to reflect the types of players we frequently target in drafts, i.e. 5-category guys (cohort 1), pure power guys (cohort 6), speedsters (cohort 7), etc.

We then took each cohort and created rolling averages of the stat lines and player rankigs to smooth things out from the top to the bottom of each cohort.  The end result was a smooth dataset that allowed us to set Expected Draft Values for any draft pick. This allowed us to say "If you draft a power + average hitter 97th overall, your Expected Draft Value should be a line of 285-26-76-75-4. That's your 'break even point'. If you draft a player at 97 who performs better than that, you win, are at least put yourself one player closer to winning. 

 

How Expected Draft Values Help You Win Your League

It may be clear by this point already, but if you know the expected break-even point of every draft slot, you can identify which players are projected to return positive or negative value. Below, we look at four overvalued based on their NFBC ADP, ATC + THE BAT projection averages, and Expected Draft Values.

Without further ado, here are some players that stand to return negative value at their current cost in 2019 drafts. 

 

Jonathan Villar - 2B/SS, BAL

NFBC ADP: 78
Expected Return for a Power+Speed Hitter Drafted 78th: 89-18-73-23-.261
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 67-15-50-38-.251

Analysis: Villar won championships in 2016 and caused great pain in 2017 as a first-round flop. His 2018 started without much fanfare but he received a much-needed change of scenery in July after being dealt to Baltimore. Even though the Orioles offense is a big step down from the Brew Crew, he was allowed to run and mustered enough pop to be useful. Was that two-month spurt for real? Or will he revert closer to the 1.5 years’ worth of hitting from 2017 to the deadline in ‘18? The projection systems that strip emotion away aren’t forgetting the bad times so easily, which is a good lesson for us all. If Villar reaches his projection, he'll be returning significantly less value than you would need to justify at 78 ADP.

 

Carlos Correa - SS, HOU

NFBC ADP: 49
Expected Return for a Power+Average Hitter Drafted 49th: 83-29-91-5-.292
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 87-25-90-5-.276

Analysis: Correa enters his fifth Major League season at the ripe age of 24, though he’s failed to eclipse 500 PAs in the last two seasons. These projections aren’t splitting hairs over playing time, though it’s worth mentioning. After stealing 27 bases in his first 252 games, Correa has only attempted six steals in his last 219 games. It’s possible that returns but impossible to bank on it. Mix in a strikeout rate that jumped nearly five percentage points in ‘18 and the weaker contact (13.9% HR/FB rate compared to a 19% career mark) and it’s hard to push the power projections up. However, Correa would need to do just that, and raise his batting average back towards the .315 mark from ‘17, in order to meet expectations here. If you're relying on the projections, there are better options with less risk at an ADP of 49.

 

Max Muncy - 1B/2B/3B, LAD

NFBC ADP: 117
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 117th: 74-32-84-3-.254
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 77-28-79-4-.247

Analysis: Muncy swings a powerful stick, but is still at risk of not being an everyday player when all are healthy. Now that Chris Taylor got designated as the utility player, Muncy has a better lock on PAs, but Dave Roberts still likes to mix his lineups up frequently. That said, Muncy should still top last year’s 481 plate appearances after he rode the bench for most of April, which should help offset regression sucking down the 29.4% HR/FB rate. While the expected return at Muncy's ADP is pretty close to his projection, it doesn't offer a ton of room for profit, and if he doesn’t top 30 homers or a .250 average, you might be left needing profits elsewhere to break even.

 

Billy Hamilton - OF, KC

NFBC ADP: 154
Expected Return for a Speed Hitter Drafted 154th: 69-9-53-32-.260
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 68-4-34-42-.242

Analysis: Hamilton, much like Dee Gordon before him, is also returning poor value on his one-category contribution. We said how Gordon’s barrel rate was the lowest, but Hamilton is in the bottom-five (he had two on 376 BBEs) alongside a 79.3 MPH average exit velocity -- the worst out of all qualified hitters. Maybe a move to Kauffman Stadium’s power-suppressing park will help dissuade him from that ugly 35.2% fly-ball rate that he posted in ‘18. His value comes on the grounders that he can beat out and not much else. His RBI count will continue to stink at the bottom of KC’s order and you’ll need him to swipe 50 bags in order to turn any sort of profit, and still love yourself come October.

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Intro: Finding Undervalued Players Using Expected Draft Values

At RotoBaller, we are all about bringing you the best analysis in the fantasy sports universe. We’re proud to unveil a draft-season project that looks at the past 10 years of draft data to find undervalued and overvalued players based on Expected Draft Values. 

This series introduction will briefly break down our methodology and then present four players that this exercise has painted as undervalued targets. 

Using recent history, we should be able to identify players presenting positive expected value (+EV) and negative alike.Tomorrow will bring a general overvalued piece, before each individual position (sans catcher) is analyzed.

 

Our Methodology

First, let's explain what Expected Draft Value is. It is the value you would historically expect, on average, from a given draft slot. In other words, Expected Draft Value lets you put a stat line next to every pick in the draft... if the player you draft performs better than expected, you get positive value. If the player you draft performs worse than expected, that's negative value. As we all know, a fantasy draft is all about maximizing the potential positive value from every pick. Expected Draft Values help us do that.

As you'll note, this analysis only pertains to hitters and will focus around batting average, home runs and stolen bases. Runs and RBI do enter the equation, but they are more products of circumstance and of HR and BA.

We took every player-season from the past 10 years and classified them into one of seven cohorts: 1) BA+HR+SB, 2) BA+HR, 3) HR+SB, 4) BA+SB, 5) BA, 6) HR, 7) SB. The minimum bar for entry into each cohort is:

1) BA+HR+SB: .270, 15 HR, 12 SB
2) BA+HR: .275, 25 HR
3) BA+SB: .270, 15 SB
4) HR+SB: 12 HR, 12 SB
5) BA: .300
6) HR: 27 HR
7) SB: 15 SB

The cohorts were defined to have roughly the same amount of players (150-170 each), and we chose these cohorts to reflect the types of players we frequently target in drafts, i.e. 5-category guys (cohort 1), pure power guys (cohort 6), speedsters (cohort 7), etc.

We then took each cohort and created rolling averages of the stat lines and player rankigs to smooth things out from the top to the bottom of each cohort.  The end result was a smooth dataset that allowed us to set Expected Draft Values for any draft pick. This allowed us to say "If you draft a power + average hitter 97th overall, your Expected Draft Value should be a line of 285-26-76-75-4. That's your 'break even point'. If you draft a player at 97 who performs better than that, you win, are at least put yourself one player closer to winning. 

 

How Expected Draft Values Help You Win Your League

It may be clear by this point already, but if you know the expected break-even point of every draft slot, you can identify which players are projected to return positive or negative value. Below, I look at four players that are being undervalued in drafts based on their NFBC ADP, ATC + THE BAT projection averages, and Expected Draft Values. (Yes, THE BAT is part of ATC’s aggregate equation, but it was the most accurate non-aggregate projection system in ‘18 per FantasyPros and deserves the spotlight.)  

Without further ado, here are some players that stand to return substantial profits to fantasy owners at their current cost in 2019 drafts. 

 

Nelson Cruz - DH, MIN

NFBC ADP: 97
Expected Return for a Power+Average Hitter Drafted 97th: 75-26-76-4-.285
2019 The Bat + ATC Nelson Cruz Projection: 81-34-95-2-.275

Yeah, that’s quite the power gap. Cruz continues to produce as he ages gracefully whilst protected from playing the field, yet fantasy owners are shying away in ‘19 (unless they’re wise and using our ranks that have Cruz at 66). This likely has more to do with his DH/UTIL designation, but your roster’s flexibility can handle this crazy discount. Only Aaron Judge had a higher average exit velocity than Cruz’s 93.9 MPH mark in 2018 (min. 200 batted-ball events) while his average homer distance and Barrels/PA rate were both in the top-15. Minnesota’s ballpark is nothing to be afraid of, few things are for a man’s of Cruz’s caliber. If Cruz hits his projection, he would be fair value around 50th overall, so lean into this discount and enjoy your profits. 

 

Rougned Odor - 2B, TEX

NFBC ADP: 130
Expected Return for a Power+Speed Hitter Drafted 130th: 80-17-62-21-.259
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 85-28-81-16-.254

Odor had hit 63 homers with 29 steals between 2016-17 before going 18 HR/12 SB over 535 PAs in ‘18. He started cold but wound up with a .253 average and career-best .326 OBP, though the optimism is shackled to a 50% success rate on the basepaths. Systems won’t over-penalize one rough year there, nor will it overweigh the sudden ability to take a walk, but Odor is just 25 and calls Arlington home. Baseball Prospectus has a handy Park Factors by Handedness stat, where Texas LHBs enjoyed the 10th-best HR Factor and fifth-best overall runs factor in ‘18. Odor's projection implies fair value around 75-80th overall, so there is substantial room to profit here.

 

Ryan Braun - 1B/OF, MIL

NFBC ADP: 199
Expected Return for a Power+Speed Hitter Drafted 199th: 73-19-62-15-.237
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 69-21-69-13-.267

Braun has plenty of health questions, but one has to consider the possibilities here.  You’ll either get a guy knocking on five-category contribution in a plus hitter’s park and stacked lineup all season long, or you get that for a while and then combine his output with a waiver-wire pickup for an above-average composite. You can see that most power-speed hitters near this point of the draft will cost you in batting average, yet Braun won’t. No one, including the projections, are touting Braun as a 600-PA lock set to regain his superstar form, but his modest output across the board is worth much more than a pick near 200. In fact, his projection becomes profitable to draft anywhere below 125 overall. 

 

Mike Moustakas - 3B, MIL

NFBC ADP: 142
Expected Return for a Power Hitter Drafted 142nd: 68-29-80-3-.255
2019 The Bat + ATC Projection: 74-32-90-3-.260

Like Braun, Moustakas gets to tee off at Miller Park while likely hitting around sixth in a crowded lineup. The PA limitations push his ceiling down, but he could easily outperform Travis Shaw or Jesus Aguilar and earn the cleanup spot. It makes little sense that his HR/FB rate dipped after coming from pitcher-friendly Kauffman Stadium, so look for regression to pay off in ‘19. His exit velocity rose two full ticks alongside a 1.3-degree gain in launch angle and six-percentage-point climb in hard-hit rate compared to 2017 per Statcast data, so consider me in.  Mous's projection becomes profitable anywhere after ~80th overall.

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 13 - Statcast for Pitchers

Previously, we looked at Barrels, a stat combining exit velocity and launch angle to measure how often a batter makes quality hard contact. As much as batters want to hit a Barrel every time, pitchers want to avoid them at all costs. Yet there is some evidence that pitchers do not have the same influence over Barrels as a batter does.

While Khris Davis and J.D. Martinez tied for the league-lead with 69 Barrels hit last year, Mike Fiers led all pitchers by coughing up 55. Neither performance was an outlier, so it seems to take fewer Barrels to lead pitchers in Barrels given up than it does to lead hitters in Barrels hit. This fits well with DIPS theory, which states that batters can do more to influence batted balls than pitchers can.

It's also not fantasy-relevant, as Mike Fiers just isn't that appealing a fantasy option. The rest of the leaderboard consists of names such as James Shields (52), Mike Minor (50), and Jacob Junis (46), all of whom have low-end appeal in our game if they have any at all. Even if a good pitcher finds their way on this list, it doesn't mean what you might think.

 

How to Interpret Batted Ball Statistics

Let's look at a hypothetical pitcher we'll call "Pitcher X." Pitcher X had a great 2015 season (2.60 ERA, 3.16 xFIP) allowing 26 Barrels. He only allowed 11 Barrels in 2016, but his numbers regressed to a 3.88 ERA and 4.02 xFIP in roughly half the IP. Pitcher X got rocked in 2017, allowing 45 Barrels en route to a 4.26 ERA and 3.81 xFIP. If you took that as a red flag and avoided Pitcher X in last season's fantasy drafts, you missed out on Gerrit Cole's 2.88 ERA and 3.04 xFIP in 2018. Clearly, there's nothing predictive here.

The rate stat, Brls/BBE, might seem like a better option. The 2018 Brls/BBE leaderboard is full of boring names (Matt Koch 12.8%, Jarlin Garcia 11%, Mike Minor/Mike Magill 10.8%, etc.), so let's look at 2017 data for an interesting example. Jered Weaver tied for the league-lead in rate of Barrels allowed with 11.8%, and he was obviously terrible. The person he tied with was Craig Kimbrel, one of the best relievers in baseball.

The Barrels hardly hurt Kimbrel's final stat line, as he posted an elite 1.43 ERA (1.50 xFIP) with 35 saves in 2017. Kimbrel had previously been great by Brls/BBE, posting a 5.8% mark in 2016 and 4.7% in 2015, so nothing in his track record should have raised a red flag. Indeed, there was no need for a red flag even in retrospect. Kimbrel was great again last season (2.74 ERA, 3.13 xFIP).

Maybe we need to simplify this and just use average airborne exit velocity? Clayton Richard and Mike Koch posted the highest average airborne exit velocity allowed last season with 95.8 mph. The rookie Koch doesn't have any kind of track record, but Richard had never been this bad before (93 mph in 2017, 92.9 in 2016, 91.9 in 2015). Again, there is nothing predictive about these Statcast metrics.

An earlier version of this article explored the same ideas with the examples of Chris Archer and Justin Verlander. Archer is notorious for underperforming his peripherals, but his Statcast metrics have fluctuated enough that they cannot be cited as the reason why. Verlander looks like a clear regression candidate if you trust Statcast, but he's coming off one of the finest seasons of his Hall of Fame career. Both cases argue against the value of Statcast metrics for pitchers.

 

Conclusion

Ultimately, Statcast metrics such as Barrels and average airborne exit velocity should probably just be ignored for pitcher analysis. These metrics are great for evaluating batters, but I can't get anything out of them for pitchers even with the benefit of hindsight.

That conclusion may make this seem like a worthless article, but it isn't. Every fantasy analyst uses contact quality to credit or penalize pitchers, either through the Statcast numbers above or an approximation such as the Hard% posted on FanGraphs. This type of analysis may explain a pitcher's performance after the fact, but it seems to have zero predictive value. Therefore, there may be a competitive advantage to be gained by ignoring this type of analysis completely. Score it as a win for DIPS theory.

We'll keep exploring Statcast metrics in our next article, centered on Baseball Savant's xStats.

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ADP Draft Sleepers Tool - Quickly Find Draft Day Gems

RotoBaller Premium Subscribers can click here to access the ADP Draft Sleepers Tool.

RotoBaller’s ADP Draft Sleepers Tool is a powerful yet simple tool that can help you unearth fantasy baseball gems on draft day. It's a sleek tool that's easy to use, and will have a huge effect on your draft selections and help you make great picks.

Just select a player from the drop-downs, and boom! We’ll quickly show you a bunch of other MLB players at that position who are projected to produce similar fantasy values in 2019, but will be much easier and cheaper to scoop up in your fantasy drafts. Use this along with our Draft Kit, and you'll be crushing  your competition on draft day. But pictures are easier than words, so let's take a look at how this all works.

 

Show Me the Draft Day Money

Only one person in your draft got Chris Sale last year, and they paid a lot to get him with an early round draft pick or big auction dollars. But you could have drafted similar players for much cheaper, and later in your drafts, while getting similar fantasy production. Guys like Blake Snell and Trevor Bauer.

This is what we call ADP arbitrage - paying less to get a similar amount, and making a draft day profit on your picks. And this is one great critical factor to winning your fantasy baseball leagues.

So who are these secret value players and draft day sleepers? Take a look at an example below from this year and see for yourself. After missing out on Cody Bellinger in the draft, you may still want a corner infielder. But didn't sweat it. You simply select Bellinger from the drop-down list, and the tool displays other similar options for you to consider instead.

 

 Your secret weapon on draft day

As you can see, Eugenio Suarez, Joey Votto, Jose Abreu, Joey Gallo, Justin Turner and Mike Moustakas all have lower ADPs than Bellinger, so they are generally available later in your drafts. And while they may not fully reach Bellinger's projected production, most will provide a decent amount of it - if not the same amount, or more.

Moustakas can be drafted ~five to 10 rounds later on average, and provide 80-90% of Bellinger's projected production - if not the same amount, or more.

Our premium ADP Draft Sleepers tool makes this decision making process fast and easy for you, helping you identify other viable options quickly.
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Importance of Draft Day Sleepers

Many fantasy baseball drafts are won in the middle and later rounds, and this applies to standard, head-to-head, auction and other league formats. These middle and late rounds are where we can draft MLB players that others aren't as high on, but can return a great fantasy values for the amount we spend on them.

We're talking about rookies/prospects, 2nd year players, players on new teams, veterans returning from injuries, and guys who have generally been making progress in their careers and may be on the verge of a breakout season.

Remember Blake Snell, Trevor Bauer, Patrick Corbin, David Peralta, Gleyber Torres and Mitch Haniger from last year? Those guys produced much more value for fantasy owners than the investments made on draft day, and helped people win leagues. Just ask people who drafted Bauer for $2 in their auction draft, or Snell in the 15th round of their snake draft, and ended up with a top-10 starting pitcher for the year.

Find those players with our premium tool, draft them, and thank us later.

 

Start Preparing to Crush Your Draft

Our ADP Draft Sleepers tool is a Premium Tool, and is only available for RotoBaller's Premium Subscribers. Don't forget that the tool is built and available for all positions, so you can use it for any draft day situation for hitters or starting pitchers.

It also comes bundled with our Premium Draft Kit (including premium tiered rankings), powered by RotoBaller's best and brightest staff including the #1 overall accuracy expert Nick Mariano. As always, if you aren't satisfied, just let us know and we'll give you a refund.

Crushing  your competition on draft day will increase your chances significantly of making a run at the league title. So let's win some leagues!

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Where Do Elite Starters Come From?

Among expert drafts, starting pitchers are coming off the board earlier and more rapidly than in previous years. For instance, the LABR mixed league saw nine starters drafted in the first two rounds in comparison to just six in 2018 and five in 2017.

Pitcher selection in expert drafts has been somewhat more aggressive than general fantasy draft trends, and it is clearly more aggressive than industry-wide rankings. We seem to be shifting away from avoiding pitchers in the opening rounds. There’s a definite division between owners looking to acquire a top-tier starter in the first three rounds and owners continuing to eschew pitchers in favor of hitters. When I finished Part 1 in this series, it appeared that elite pitchers were becoming increasingly valuable because they are less subject to the trend of curtailing pitcher usage.

The problem, of course, is that trying to draft an elite starter and getting one are entirely different things. Additionally, that prompted the question, what even constitutes an elite starting pitcher and how can we identify pitchers likely to generate elite seasons?

 

Trying to Define an Elite Starter: Methodology

As part of my research for the previous article, I set out to chart the auction value of each starter for both from the last six seasons. If you’re not interested in an account of how I came up with my dollar values, skip down to the next section.

For this article, I’ve combined quality starts and wins by weighting them at 50% each. Other than that, I’ve used the same approach as my previous article: 12-team setup with 5x5 scoring, standard positions with a corner infield spot, middle infield spot, and a utility spot, five starters, three relievers, and a 70/30 offense/pitching split for a $260 league.

After looking at the data for six seasons, I defined an elite starter as a pitcher whose value is two standard deviations higher than the average fantasy starter. The average fantasy relevant pitcher averages around eight dollars in value. Depending on settings, league size, and year, there are usually 60 to 80 starting pitchers with neutral or positive value. Those starters were the population used to calculate the average and standard deviation. That approach gave me a definition of elite starters as pitchers who generated $26.88 or more in a single season. The average elite pitcher was worth $35.80, meaning that elite starting pitchers were worth about four times as much as the average starting pitcher in a 12-team league.

 

What Is an Elite Starter?

Based on my approach, there have been 22 elite pitching seasons since 2013. Twelve of those seasons have come from three pitchers: Clayton Kershaw (5), Max Scherzer (5), and Chris Sale (2). Some of the numbers below are traditional fantasy categories. Some of them are more advanced numbers generally used to gauge if a player’s performance is legitimate.

Year Value Name IP W QS ERA FIP WHIP K K%
2015 $45.30 Jake Arrieta 229 22 29 1.77 2.35 0.84 236 27.1%
2015 $41.90 Zack Greinke 222.2 19 30 1.66 2.76 0.84 200 33.8%
2015 $41.80 Clayton Kershaw 232.2 16 27 2.13 1.99 0.88 301 23.7%
2014 $41.40 Clayton Kershaw 198.1 21 24 1.77 1.81 0.86 239 31.9%
2017 $41.20 Corey Kluber 203.2 18 22 2.25 2.50 0.87 265 34.1%
2018 $40.70 Jacob deGrom 217 10 28 1.7 1.99 0.91 269 32.2%
2013 $39.10 Clayton Kershaw 236 16 27 1.83 2.39 0.92 232 25.6%
2017 $36.00 Max Scherzer 200.2 16 22 2.51 2.90 0.9 268 34.4%
2018 $35.90 Max Scherzer 220.2 18 28 2.53 2.65 0.91 300 34.6%
2018 $35.20 Justin Verlander 214 16 26 2.52 2.78 1.05 246 34.8%
2017 $34.90 Chris Sale 214.1 17 23 2.90 2.45 0.97 308 36.2%
2014 $34.50 Johnny Cueto 243.2 20 29 2.25 3.30 0.96 242 25.2%
2016 $34.30 Clayton Kershaw 149 12 17 1.69 1.80 0.72 172 31.6%
2014 $34.30 Felix Hernandez 236 15 27 2.14 2.56 0.92 248 27.2%
2018 $33.50 Blake Snell 180.2 21 19 1.89 2.95 0.97 221 31.6%
2016 $33.20 Max Scherzer 228.1 20 26 2.96 3.24 0.97 284 31.5%
2015 $31.70 Max Scherzer 228.2 14 23 2.79 2.77 0.92 276 30.7%
2017 $31.60 Clayton Kershaw 175 18 20 2.31 3.07 0.95 202 29.8%
2018 $31.10 Aaron Nola 212 17 25 2.37 3.01 0.97 224 27.0%
2018 $31.00 Chris Sale 158 12 17 2.11 1.98 0.86 237 38.4%
2013 $29.52 Max Scherzer 214.1 21 25 2.90 2.74 0.97 240 28.7%
2015 $28.90 Dallas Keuchel 232 20 27 2.48 2.91 1.02 216 23.7%

 

Sticking with the advanced stats, here’s how the average 2013-2018 elite starter stacked up against the average fantasy starter from 2018:

FIP xFIP K% K/B% IP IPS
Elite Starters 2.56 2.80 30.6 6.15 211 6.2
2018 Avg. Starter 3.63 3.74 24.2 3.66 164.1 5.2

Aside from improved performance, there were a few notable differences between fantasy relevant pitchers AND elite pitching seasons. Most elite pitchers generated additional value in the same way as elite leadoff or two-spot hitters: through high-quality volume. They tend to throw more innings in total, average more innings per start, and have a dramatically higher quality-start rate at 78.5% which helps lead to higher win totals. The exceptions were seasons like Chris Sale in 2018 or Clayton Kershaw in 2016 and 2017: seasons when the player generated outlier ratio stats that overcame the reduced number of innings.

In 2018, six starters fit that definition of an elite pitcher: Jacob deGrom ($40.70), Max Scherzer ($35.90), Justin Verlander ($35.20), Blake Snell ($33.50), Aaron Nola ($31.10), and Chris Sale ($31.00). Those are uninflated values based on a player’s Z-score. Sale’s value in this sequence is depressed by his lower number of innings and lower IPS. In my simulated league, deGrom’s calculated value would have ranked fourth overall. Sale would have been 15th.

Perhaps, it’s obvious, but 2018 was the only year to have six elite pitchers. Maybe fantasy baseball pitchers are becoming more stratified across the spectrum, but I haven’t done the research for that. For reference, 2015 had five elite-level pitchers plus another one who just barely missed the cutoff. For 2019, Steamer projects Sale, Scherzer, deGrom, and Verlander as the pitchers likely to have an elite season.

 

Where Do Elite Pitchers Come From?

The four pitchers above are familiar faces. For all of the discussion about pitchers being more volatile than hitters, the best indicator that a pitcher would have an elite season was if he was coming off an elite season the year before. At the very least, he needed to have already been quite good. In the numbers I examined, pitching an elite season before had the highest correlation to whether a pitcher would have an elite season the next year. While that’s not revolutionary information, it should reassure fantasy managers who have been taught that starter values are erratic. Pitchers may be more erratic than hitters, but elite starters tend to produce very good results as a floor. I’ll follow up on this in the final section.

Of the 22 elite seasons, only three pitchers had finished outside the top-100 in the previous season. Max Scherzer was ranked 126 in 2012 while suffering from bad luck on balls in play and managing only 5.2 innings per start. Johnny Cueto finished at 110 in 2013 after missing most of the season with a lat injury. Cueto had already provided two near-elite seasons in 2011 and 2012 before his injury. Blake Snell is the only true anomaly on the list: after finishing outside the top 300 in 2017, he threw 180 IP with a 2.95 FIP last season.

To some extent, the consistency made looking for markers for pre-elite pitchers easier. The patterns are what we might expect from a top-end starter: high strikeouts, weak contact, high-pitch count success, and consistent effectiveness on the third time through the batting order. There are outliers like Dallas Keuchel, but when pitchers strayed too far from the formula, their success was less sustainable. The combination has tended to allow pitchers to produce excellent to elite results.

To better identify where elite pitchers came from, I pulled discrete, focused statistics which were both descriptive (e.g., wOBA) and reliable (e.g., contact rate). I assembled bases and standard deviations from both the 22 elite pitching performances AND the seasons that preceded them. Then I summed the z-scores of those categories to see how last year’s pitchers compared. Here are the base results for the top five pitchers in baseball, plus a pair of pitchers for context.

ADP Elite Z-Score
Jacob deGrom 11 20.7
Chris Sale 15 15.6
Max Scherzer 4 15.3
Justin Verlander 22 9.4
Corey Kluber 24 9.1
Luis Severino 34 -1.0
Jameson Taillon 56 -1.9

I chose Taillon and Severino for comparison because I wanted a pitcher currently being drafted in the third round and one being drafted in the fifth round. They aren’t necessarily bad options for owners hunting for an ace, but they illustrate the difference between the peripherals of those five players at the top and strong candidates available a round or two later. On some level, all these players are pitchers primed to have an elite season in 2019. The primary difference between Jacob deGrom and Jameson Taillon is that Taillon’s 2018 statistics are closer to the pre-elite levels rather than deGrom who was legitimately elite in 2018. I’ll cover those pitchers available after Kluber in the final article for this series. For now, let’s look at the top five arms.

Jacob deGrom has every mark of a pitcher who will generate another elite performance in 2019. He forces batters to swing and miss, keeps the ball on the ground when hitters do make contact, limits hitters to weak contact, and provided enough volume to maximize on those abilities. By my account, Jacob deGrom is a no doubt top-five pick. I’ll be taking him at number three in a standard 5x5. Before I started my research, I’d had Max Scherzer and Chris Sale as my top two pitchers. Disclaimer: This writer currently owns no stock in Jacob deGrom, Max Scherzer, or Chris Sale. However, he is hoping to buy quite a bit by the end of draft season.

Chris Sale’s big drawback is the number of innings he is expected to throw. However, his 15.6 score would match deGrom in terms of overall dominance except that he lacks the volume and the ability to go deep into ball games. Sale’s fastball-slider combination is one of the most potent in all of baseball, and it generates swinging strikes, bad contact, and ground balls.

The formula’s major issue with Scherzer was based on balls in play. Scherzer’s tendency to give up fly balls (47.6%) and his modest ground ball rate (34.3%) positions him outside the norm for elite starters. Those factors don’t make Scherzer less likely to repeat as an elite starter, but tendencies like that eat into the margin of error. If a few more of those outfield flies carry another 15 feet, Scherzer’s ERA could slip along with his win total and innings. Based on his ability to get swings and misses last year (16.2%), that doesn’t seem likely to happen, but it is a factor to consider.

Verlander has the same basic pattern as Scherzer but with slightly more pronounced numbers. The Astros ace owned a 51.4% fly-ball rate and a mere 29.1% ground-ball rate. Those numbers have become more exaggerated in recent years, but Verlander’s .236 xwOBA and 14.6% infield-flyball rate should reassure owners. One point of concern is that consistency in the two prior years was a significant indicator for elite seasons, so Verlander’s rocky 2017 season suggests that he is more susceptible to falling outside the top-fifty player than the other names on this list. He’s also 36 years old, and there are signs of struggling to pitch later into games. Since 2013, there have been only ten pitchers to throw more than 200 innings after they turned 36 years old. None of them generated an elite season.

Kluber’s score is still excellent, but he gave up a little too much hard contact in 2018, and his pitches seemed to be less effective at inducing swinging strikes and poor contact. However, those concerns did not make it difficult for him to get deep into games. Furthermore, Kluber had the best wOBA of any starter on the third time through the batting order, and his ability to get hitters to swing at bad pitches should provide him a high floor.

 

What You Get For Your Money: The Season After an Elite Performance

The two major arguments against increasing the target values or draft slots for deGrom, Sale, and Scherzer is pitcher volatility and the ability to find value among pitchers later in the draft. To some extent, I dealt with the difference between getting mid-round profit in the last article and with the issue that elite seasons are likely to come from pitchers who have had an elite season previously. The idea here isn’t about pitcher versus pitcher value. It’s about where the elite pitchers belong on the draft board.

Pitcher volatility is its own concern. No manager wants to draft a pitcher in the first or second round and have him peter out into mediocrity, so I went and pulled the data for what happened after a pitcher delivered an elite season. I used the standard scoring data instead of more advanced metrics because at this point we don’t care about predictive measures. Predictive numbers might be more accurate for future performance, but what matters is what actually happened.

W QS ERA WHIP K Value
Average Post-Elite Season 15.5 21 2.86 1.00 220 $28.2
20th Percentile Post-Elite 12 17 3.44 1.13 176  $12.3
2018 Average Pitcher 12.4 17.1 3.68 1.19 181  $8.1

There are three samples above: the average post-elite season, which is itself another elite season, the 20th percentile outcome, which means that 80% of elite pitchers performed better than the season after their elite performance, and the 2018 Average Pitcher, which was the average performance of positive or neutral-value starters last season.

Fantasy owners are obviously trying to draft the average post-elite season, or better. If owners select Jacob deGrom with the sixth pick in the draft, and he produces that line, they’ve gotten their value out of that pick. As for the 20th percentile performance, that value is a comfortably top-100 player. We would all be disappointed in the performance, but it would not be a total loss that sinks a fantasy season.

 

Conclusion

Each league is different, and it’s important to account for not just league settings but also the habit and strategies of your league members. However, fantasy owners should feel more comfortable than ever drafting elite starters with the same aggressiveness as those fantasy experts who are snagging pitchers earlier and earlier this season.

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 12 - Spin Rate

Spin rate has become one of the most recognizable Statcast metrics, with supporters of a given pitcher highlighting his spin rates to make their case.

Unfortunately, the baseball world has done a lousy job conveying what spin rate really means. The result has been a ton of owners who know that spin rate exists, but very few who can use it to improve their fantasy rosters.

This article will teach you everything you need to know to fold spin rate into your pitcher evaluations. We'll also illustrate the efficacy of spin rate using Pitch Info data from actual pitchers. Let's get started!

 

How to Interpret Spin Rate

Spin rate is measured in RPMs, or Rotations Per Minute. Each pitch type has its own baseline numbers, so a high-spin fastball might have an average spin rate for a curve. Comparing different types of pitches by spin rate is rather pointless, so try to focus on how any given pitcher's offering compares to the same pitch type thrown by other arms.

So, are higher or lower spin rates better? The answer is that it depends on the type of pitch you're looking at. Let's start with fastballs.

The average spin rate for fastballs ranges from 2,100 RPM to 2,400 RPM. Heaters with spin rates above this range tend to have "late life" and induce more whiffs than your average heater. They usually have backspin, or spin against gravity, that guides the ball weakly into the air if contact is made. This allows them to post elevated pop-up rates to compliment their whiffs.

For example, Max Scherzer's 4-seam fastball averaged 2,486 RPM in 2018. Its 14% SwStr% was elite for a heater, so he got the whiffs we would expect from a high spin rate. It also had a distinct fly ball tendency when put into play (43.5% FB%) and a very high IFFB% (41.7%), suggesting that it produces pop-ups as expected as well.

It's worth noting that fastball spin rate is positively correlated with velocity, meaning that a pitcher with a velocity spike may also experience a spin rate jump.

If you're looking for a contact manager instead of a strikeout artist, you want a spin rate below the average range above. Low-spin fastballs produce weakly-hit ground balls and a lower slugging percentage against than their high-spin counterparts.

There are fewer examples of this type of arm, but Mike Montgomery's 2017 season provides a good illustration. His 4-seamer averaged 1,841 RPM that year, producing a GB% of 59.8%. Montgomery's ERA (3.38) was significantly better than his xFIP (4.35), but his low spin rate suggests that he can continue to beat his traditional indicators and be a nice volume arm in fantasy.

Unfortunately, this is a dangerous way to live. Montgomery largely repeated his fastball spin rate last season (1,899 RPM), but its ground ball rate declined by over 10 points (49.3%). As a result, his 3.99 ERA was much closer to his 4.29 xFIP than it was the season prior.

You especially want to avoid pitchers with average fastball spin rates, as they lend themselves to neither strikeouts nor weak ground balls. However, contact management can be a risky game to play, so fantasy owners should look for high spin rates on fastballs wherever possible.

Unlike fastballs, changeups usually want a low spin rate to maximize how much they move. For instance, a changeup is Brad Boxberger's out pitch. Last season, it posted a 13.7% SwStr%, 38.2%% chase rate, and .173/.215/.400 triple slash against--all strong numbers.

The reason why is spin rate: It averaged 1,288 RPM last year. To put that number into perspective, Steven Wright's knuckleball--a pitch defined by its lack of spin-averaged 1,441 RPM last year. This low spin rate helps Boxberger's change move so much that batters can't follow it, often making them look foolish at the plate.

Breaking pitches usually want high spin rates. Unlike fastballs, breaking offerings have topspin, or spin toward the ground, that can help guide the ball downward if contact is made. Breaking pitches tend to be a given pitcher's strikeout pitch though, so owners generally aren't looking for any kind of contact on them. Breaking ball spin rates are therefore the least important to look at, but may provide interesting information at times.

Finally, we have to consider "gyrospin," alternatively called "useless spin." If you've ever seen a bullet in slow-motion, it rotates slightly while flying straight to its target. That rotation is gyrospin, and it has no impact on where the bullet or the baseball ends up. Sadly, there is currently no way to separate this useless spin from useful backspin or topspin, meaning that spin rate can lie to you.

This means that spin rate should never be considered on its own. Instead, start with Pitch Info and then use spin rate to confirm if a given pitch can sustain its elite performance (Scherzer's 4-seamer, Boxberger's change) or if it was probably a fluke.

 

Conclusion

To sum up, spin rate is measured in RPM. Fastballs are good with high or low spin rates, but higher spin rates tend to translate better to fantasy. Changeups want as little spin as possible to maximize their movement. Breaking pitches typically benefit from higher spin rates, but it's not as clear-cut as it is for fastballs and changeups. Finally, useless spin can distort spin rate readings, meaning that you should always combine spin rate with other metrics in your analysis.

Next time, we'll take a look at what Statcast metrics such as Barrels and average exit velocity mean for pitchers.

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When and How Do You Target Sleepers on Draft Day?

If you're the type of fantasy baseball enthusiast who enjoys the preparation as much as the draft itself, chances are you've been filing away names as potential under-the-radar breakout candidates. Maybe you've got your eye on a young utility player who is one injury away from regular playing time (not that anyone should be rooting for injuries). Maybe you're intrigued by that underrated hitter who changed teams in the winter and figures to put up better numbers in his new lineup. Maybe you noticed a trend in one team's bullpen use last season that indicates their setup man could take over ninth-inning duties this year.

Additionally, if you've done this kind of homework leading up to your draft, you know the three hypothetical players above all fall into the category of "sleeper." We all have that secret list of rankings or tiers we don't want anyone else to catch a glimpse of on draft day; the players for whom we believe ourselves to have significantly higher expectations than our league mates. The only question we need to ask ourselves regarding our sleepers is not if we are going to nab these guys up, but when?

Allow me to help with that. For the purposes of this article, we will outline snake-draft sleeper strategies for 12-team redraft leagues with 25-man rosters comprised of both AL and NL players, using ADP information from NFBC.  Note: Every draft is going to have different twists and turns, so the players and draft-slot scenarios we are about to discuss should not be interpreted as concrete examples of what to expect at any given point in a draft.

 

Don't Go Rogue Early

First and foremost, we never want to look back on the first few rounds of our draft and see unknown quantities on our roster. We should spend, at minimum, the first three rounds targeting players whose floors are higher than the average player's ceiling.

For instance, let's say we have the eighth pick in a 12-team league. We could theoretically be looking at Ronald Acuna, Aaron Judge and Kris Bryant as our first three picks. We've obviously elected to take our chances on mid-tier pitching in this scenario, but we come away with three hitters who can reasonably be expected to meet or exceed 30/100/100 thresholds. Barring injury troubles, we feel very comfortable with our offense after three rounds.

Regardless of whether our first three rounds yield elite quality in hitting, pitching or both, we should be able to feel at ease about the players we've chosen without any second-guessing. Additionally, depending on what we may have sacrificed by going heavy on pitching or hitting, it's my contention that we should continue to target high-floor players all the way through Round Six.

 

How Has the Draft Unfolded?

Depending on the format of your draft, the early rounds can pass by in a whirlwind and leave you with little time to evaluate your roster (or anyone else's). That said, it's important to at least try to take stock of how the draft is unfolding. The seventh round is a good place to start, as the talent pool starts to thin slightly around the 70-85 ADP range.

I believe it was the legendary John Steinbeck who once wrote, "The best-laid plans of mice and fantasy baseball managers often go awry." Maybe the first quarter of our draft has gone exactly as we'd hoped, or maybe, despite all our preparation, our league mates keep plucking away our targeted players right before we have a chance to take them and we're scrambling just to piece each round together.

In either case, we're going to find ourselves facing a decision. If we're satisfied with our draft after six rounds, we can choose to stay the course. On the other hand, we may feel we have the luxury to start taking chances on somewhat risky, high-upside players. If the draft has spiraled wildly out of control, however, we may feel forced to take chances on those players.

Here is where we should begin to take stock of our mid-round sleepers; players we may have to reach for in order to land, but more importantly are comfortable doing so.

 

Luxury or Sacrifice?

Here is an illustration of a potential mid-round crossroads we might face.

Imagine we're drafting out of the 12th slot, meaning we'd have back-to-back selections in the seventh and eighth rounds. We scoop up Mitch Haniger (ADP 89), but we're not particularly enamored with the next few pitching options. Moreover, we're already happy enough with our home run projections that Nicholas Castellanos (ADP 88) and Scooter Gennett (ADP 90) aren't on our radar. So we scroll down and see Nationals prospect Victor Robles (ADP 101) sitting there for the taking. It's nearly 20 selections "too early," but there's a high likelihood he'll be gone by the time we pick again at 108, so we reach for him on account of his stolen base upside and his potential to earn a spot near the top of a dangerous Nationals lineup.

Now, as we come to this decision, we should be asking ourselves a question: Is this a "luxury reach" or a "sacrifice reach"? It's a luxury reach if we have padded our roster with as many multi-category players as possible in the first six rounds, and can thus afford to roll the dice on an unknown quantity with a high ceiling. It's a sacrifice reach if we feel we've been backed into a corner, and are thus "sacrificing" some elements of our roster with the intent of gaining a non-guaranteed advantage in another. In the example above, we're passing up the relatively predictable production of Gennett and Castellanos in favor of Robles, who could just as easily be this year's Lewis Brinson.

The reason it's important to differentiate between the two is that we don't want to find ourselves consistently sacrificing just for upside. A few sacrifice reaches here and there are fine in the middle rounds, but too many in a row could leave us with a bunch of players who may excel in one or two categories while providing little to nothing in the rest.

 

Anything Goes After Round 18 (Pick 216)

By the time we've made our 18th selection, we should have a pretty good idea who our go-to guys are at most positions. We should have a solid mix of hitters, starting pitchers, and even if we didn't spend big on saves, we should have rostered at least a couple of relievers by this point. With our final seven picks we can identify and address perceived weaknesses at certain positions by drafting for depth, but we can also truly start to throw caution to the wind as we try to round up all of our coveted late-round sleepers.

In keeping with the theme of this article, here are a few examples:

Atlanta's Johan Camargo is currently sitting at ADP 329. In a 12-team league with 25-man rosters, that means he's largely going undrafted. This is, of course, due to the fact that Josh Donaldson now occupies his position of third base. That said, Camargo has seen time at shortstop in the past, and the Braves plan to use him in something of an everyday utility role in 2019. With Donaldson coming off an injury-plagued 2018 season and Dansby Swanson having struggled mightily at the plate in his young career, Camargo isn't very far removed from regular playing time. He's well worth a flier in Rounds 19-25 considering his solid numbers from last year.

Or maybe we find ourselves in search of some high-upside starting pitching. We see promising Oakland prospect Jesus Luzardo (ADP 234) and Reynaldo Lopez (ADP 260) of the White Sox are still on the board. Considering we already have a solid stable of starters, neither one of these guys is going to torpedo our season this late in the draft. Luzardo in particular actually has the potential to significantly bolster our team if he gets enough innings.

This is also where there is next to no risk in nabbing up relatively anonymous players who still figure to provide value in one way or another. Cleveland's Jake Bauers (ADP 230) could wind up hitting cleanup behind a couple of All-Stars; Minnesota's C.J. Cron (ADP 253) hit 30 home runs last year and joins an improved Twins offense in 2019: Miami's Brian Anderson (ADP 277) scored 87 runs in 2018; Detroit's Niko Goodrum (ADP 288) hit 16 home runs in 131 games last year and can play multiple positions. None of these players would be the "safest" pick available to us, even in the home stretch of our draft, but we don't stand to lose anything if we take them.

These are all just examples pulled from a collection of ADP results, and the specific names are not meant to be the big takeaway here. The point is that unless we've completely blundered our way through the first 75 percent of our draft, we're not squandering our team's potential by shooting for the moon in the final rounds. Even if none of our final seven picks pan out, we can replace them quite easily with serviceable players via the waiver wire.

It is said that you can't win your league on draft day, but you can lose it on draft day. I'd like to expand on that: You can't lose your league in the final rounds of your draft, but you can win it there if you're willing to be bold.

I'm also just one person in a global community of fantasy baseball managers. You might have a different philosophy than I do. Maybe you think the seventh round is too early to consider rolling the dice, or maybe you prefer to seek out your sleepers even earlier than that. The best way to evaluate what works for you is by participating in (and staying for the duration of) mock drafts. In doing so, you'll be able to determine roughly where your sleepers need to be taken. After all, we all have that secret list, and yours might be totally different than that of your league mates.

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How to Avoid Cognitive Bias on Draft Day

Cognitive bias: whether or not we fully understand what it means or how it operates, we have all seen it at one time or another on draft day, regardless of the sport in question. It can take the form of a co-worker who insists on drafting a full roster of players from their favorite hometown team, my cousin Alex who can't help himself from spending 40% of his draft budget on LeBron James, or an overly optimistic reach for a charismatic athlete who had no business making his way on to a roster through the league draft.

It bothers us when we see it in action, because as managers of fantasy sports, we learn that it is typically wisest to not let your heart rule your head. At the same time, as vital seconds tick off the clock while you furiously attempt to distinguish between two players that could make or break your season, we constantly find ourselves relying on gut-feelings, irrelevant peripheral details, and untested preconceived expectations that we pick up from years of following sports.

The toughest part about beating an unconscious, cognitive bias is just that - the bias is unconscious, so we often times are not even aware that a bias is exercising its influence throughout each round of the draft. Like handling any other type of unconscious compulsion, recognizing that there is a problem is half of the battle towards conquering the issue. Note that if you are one of the individuals that believes that they are immune from cognitive bias on draft day, you should pay especially close attention, as this hubris may leave you all the more vulnerable to fall prey to your own devices. Now that we know that cognitive bias is present on draft day, what are some concrete methods to keep a cool head and beat the bias en route to a championship season?

 

Pick Your Poison

The first method to eliminating your draft-day cognitive bias is to identify what your triggers are. That is, what factors of an athlete's performance, personal life, personality, team, or background cause either positive or negative subconscious reaction that constitutes a "gut feeling." These triggers could come from a plethora of factors, such as hating or being a dedicated fan of a particular professional organization, a specific player having come up big (or was a massive disappointment) for your team in seasons from the past, believing that players from a particular college or conference "just don't tend to pan out," or simply liking or disliking a player's personality.

On a personal note, I would be a liar if I didn't admit to drafting players like Yasiel Puig above his appropriate draft slot while avoiding players like Alex Gordon and Eric Hosmer for these very same reasons. This step is important to avoiding draft-day cognitive bias because it forces you to come to terms with the factors that typically influence your underlying biases so that they can be actively circumvented when it comes time to select your squad.

 

Eyes on the Prize

Remember, managing a fantasy sports team and being a fan of sports are two very different activities with two very different objectives. Much like a school or work project, you don't have to be in love with every member of your team, you just have to get along in order to accomplish the task at hand. It can be a painful and reluctant process to draft and proceed through a full season of professional sports by following and relying on players that you have a genuine distaste for (as I found out through my time with DeAndre Jordan, Ezekiel Elliott, and Sidney Crosby).

Despite this, it is vital to keep your eyes on the prize and always keep in mind that you are trying to win weekly match-ups and produce the best possible results by season's end. If this is not your goal for your team on draft day, then go ahead and rock your bias to the fullest extent and have fun with your roster (while ignoring the rolling eyes of fellow league managers). However, if your goal is to win, compartmentalize your priorities as a fantasy sports manager and as a sports fan. No one is going to question your loyalty or fandom because you drafted the best available player who just happens to play for a rival team. If they would, politely ignore them as you laugh your way to the bank at year's end.

Being a sports fan is the time to kick back with our cozy biases and irrationality that make us who we are, but playing fantasy sports to win is all business, and playing favorites will get you burned.

 

Anonymity is Key

There isn't much time between each pick on draft day, so avoiding cognitive bias is easiest when you have done your homework. Be familiar enough with the true statistical figures and performance of players to be able to compare two athletes in your head from a numbers perspective while keeping their names and backgrounds out of the equation and maintaining anonymity.

Academic research in the field of workplace discrimination suggests that blind interviews are the most proven method of limiting cognitive bias, as the applicants are anonymous and therefore project no stereotypes to be received by the employers. This method should be applied to the formulation of your roster, as the only way to ensure that you were unbiased in your selection of a player is to not know anything about them besides their statistical performance. To aid in this anonymous comparison process, always try to stick to figures that isolate key factors of a player's performance and eliminate additional environmental variables such as FIP, ISO, or hard contact on batted-balls.

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The Winning Way to Draft Relief Pitchers

We've gone through each division, team by team. We've talked about the top setup men you should know about this season. We've looked at handcuffs and which closers you should have a backup for on draft day. It's a lot of information, but how does it apply to your league?

Most people play in standard 5x5 leagues, but a lot of people play in rotisserie leagues, points leagues, best-ball leagues, and custom leagues. The popularity of holds leagues and leagues that count saves and holds together (SVHD or SV+HD) is growing each season. So how do you draft a bullpen for these leagues? It's not going to make sense to use the same strategies across the board, right?

Let's take a look at some good ideas and bad ideas for some of the more common formats.

 

Standard 5x5 Leagues (Head-to-Head or Rotisserie) 

The standard 5x5 league is what you get if you start a league on any fantasy provider and don't set any custom options. Because of this, and because of everyone's general familiarity with it, it's the most common type of league around. Batters have five categories- batting average, runs scored, RBI, home runs, and stolen bases. Pitchers have five categories too- wins, ERA, strikeouts, saves, and WHIP. This kind of scoring system makes pitchers who aren't either starters or closers more or less meaningless. Even a guy like Josh Hader, who is almost guaranteed to notch a strikeout or two every time he's on the mound, will only be contributing to that one category in a significant way.

Standard scoring leagues inflate the value of closers and make even fringe talents in flimsy situations like Hunter Strickland worth picking up on draft day. Leagues like this are where you'll see guys like Kenley Jansen and Edwin Diaz come off the board even before some valuable starting pitchers and position players. With a possible maximum of 30 full-time closers (which will never happen with several teams going with the committee approach every season), a standard 12-team league ends up seeing two closers per team. I personally prefer to have three closers when I play standard scoring, but I also personally prefer not to play in standard scoring leagues.

Good ideas: Target closers early, the difference between a bullpen with Aroldis Chapman and Kenley Jansen compared to one with Wily Peralta and Drew Steckenrider is enormous in this format. Make sure you have at least two bona fide not-part-of-a-committee closers, and consider adding a third.

Bad ideas: Do not leave closer to the end of the draft. You'll end up with guys who are parts of committees or guys who are almost certain to lose their jobs by May 1. Don't waste roster space on middle relievers, no matter how good their strikeout rate might look (unless that reliever serves as a closer's handcuff)

 

Points Leagues

Points leagues can be a little trickier to draft a bullpen for, mostly because of the wide variation of points gained and lost from league to league. Still, in terms of bullpen scoring, the most common tend to be points for saves, points for holds, points for strikeouts. Pitchers lose points in points leagues for blown saves, runs allowed, and in some leagues, walks allowed. This makes for a slightly different value judgment for pitchers like Wily Peralta, who should rack up a decent number of strikeouts but will also pile up the walks. Pitchers with exceptional control end up being more sought after in points leagues, making Kenley Jansen, Ken Giles, and Sean Doolittle even more valuable. These guys will provide plenty of strikeouts and saves, and won't lose many points from walks or runs allowed.

Another strategy that tends to prove more useful in points leagues is the drafting of high strikeout middle relievers and setup men. Someone like Josh Hader, Dellin Betances, Adam Ottavino, or Brad Hand can really rack up points in the strikeout category while also picking up holds if the league counts them. Single-category contributors are much more palatable in points leagues, so the last few rounds of a points league draft should be dedicated to finding the guys with the highest K% (and ideally an acceptable BB%) still on the board.

Good ideas: Target closers early, and consider adding a few extra reliable relievers instead of filling out your staff with starting pitchers.

Bad ideas: Make sure not to leave your bullpen to the last few rounds. You'll want at least one high-strikeout guy besides your drafted closers.

 

Best-Ball Leagues

Best-ball formats have been growing in popularity in fantasy football in recent years, and they are starting to make some noise in the fantasy baseball world as well. Best ball is a less involved season-long fantasy format. Players draft their teams like they would in any other format, however after that, it's mostly hands off. There are no daily lineups to set and no transactions to make. The league will automatically count the best performances for each game day and count the best possible lineup for that matchup. For example, if a team has two shortstops on the roster and one goes 2-for-3 with a home run and three RBI while the other goes 0-for-4 with two strikeouts, the system will place the 2-hit shortstop in the lineup, then do the same for a full starting lineup, position by position.

This makes for some interesting, new strategies in drafting a bullpen. Because of the inability to make any transactions once the draft is complete, it's important to target guys who are not injury risks. If a player gets injured in a best ball league, he becomes dead weight until he returns. In a worst-case scenario, if a player gets hurt and is out for the season, you're basically stuck playing with one missing roster spot.

Since best-ball leagues somewhat protect you from the worst ball your players might play, it's a good format to go with volatile players who are high-risk/high-reward. Someone who could light the world on fire and become a star or fizzle out and spend most of the season in Triple-A is a valuable asset in a best-ball league. While you could still end up with the dead roster spot issue discussed above, you could also end up with 2019's version of Jose Leclerc. Someone like Adam Conley on the Marlins or Trevor Rosenthal on the Nationals could be a last-round pick.

Good ideas: Try to grab a closer early, but then you can wait on your second closer. Fill out the end of your roster with high-upside relievers even if they don't have a clear path to the ninth inning.

Bad ideas: Don't overspend on relievers in best ball leagues. Don't draft guys with iffy injury histories or tenuous grasps on their roster spots.

 

Holds Leagues (Including SV+HD)

Holds leagues are a whole different animal. Some leagues count holds as a separate category and some (more commonly) combine saves and holds into one category (SVHD or SV+HD) where both count the same. This is my personal favorite format to play (also replacing wins with quality starts and batting average with on-base percentage), partly because it increases the relevant player pool by quite a bit and also because it eliminates the erratic save stat. Sometimes, the pitcher who earns a hold in a game his team wins provided far more to that victory than the pitcher who earns the save. Allow me to step onto my soapbox for a moment:

Pitcher A comes into the bottom of the eighth inning with a one-run lead. The bases are loaded and there is one out. Choose your own adventure here: either Pitcher A induces a ground ball double play or strikes out two hitters in a row. Pitcher A is credited with a hold.

In the top of the ninth, the offense scores two runs.

Pitcher B comes into the game in the bottom of the ninth inning with a three-run lead. He's facing the opposing team's 7-8-9 hitters. It's a defensive-minded shortstop, a career Triple-A outfielder filling in for an injured starter, and the backup catcher pinch-hitting in the pitcher's spot. Somehow, Pitcher B allows two runs on four hits and walk, only getting three outs thanks to a baserunning mistake and two amazing defensive plays. Pitcher B is credited with a save.

Which of these pitchers performed better? Everyone would agree that it was Pitcher A, but still, in standard scoring formats, only Pitcher B would be worth owning.

Stepping off my soapbox now...

Strategies for drafting a bullpen are, as you can imagine, very different in holds leagues. In leagues that count saves and holds as different categories, closers still maintain significant value. They should be drafted before setup men because while most teams will have one closer racking up the majority of his team's saves, they'll have two or three late-inning relievers who can come in and record holds. Since there are more setup men than closers, setup men can be drafted at the end of most fantasy drafts.

In SVHD/SV+HD leagues, where saves and holds count as the same category, the strategy is a bit different. In these leagues, closers and setup men are valued the same. What matters more are their other numbers because as long as they are pitching in close and late situations, the specific inning they pitch in is insignificant. An excellent strategy to employ in SVHD leagues is to let the other owners draft all of the closers and then just swoop in near the end of the draft to snag all of the top shelf setup men. Guys like Josh Hader, Andrew Miller, Dellin Betances, Archie Bradley, Chaz Roe, and Tony Watson can be had long after the top closers and should provide equal or even better value.

Good ideas: Draft your relievers late. Target guys who will strikeout a ton of batters but not necessarily in the ninth inning. Load up on offense and starting pitching before drafting your bullpen.

Bad ideas: You don't need to reach for the Jansens and Chapmans of the world in these formats.

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RotoBaller H2H Draft Strategy Primer

Fantasy baseball, much like the sport itself, it is one of the more complex to follow closely. Compared to fantasy football, in which nearly every league was head-to-head before the advent of best-ball, fantasy baseball comes in a variety of formats. Many leagues are roto-style, 5x5 category-scoring, with cumulative season-long stats. While that is the most common format, head-to-head is quickly catching up.

In H2H formats, you have one opponent to beat by whatever guidelines your league has set out. The advantage is a greater emphasis on strategy for every portion of the season, as it may be harder to catch up from behind in a roto league after the All-Star break. This requires a different approach to weekly lineup management but also draft day strategy.

In this article, we will discuss general strategies and advise what type of players to target to give you an edge on draft day. After all, we are your secret weapon!

 

General Strategy

Fantasy baseball drafts are all about mitigating risk early and taking chances on breakouts later. In traditional redraft leagues, the first few rounds should build your foundation. High-floor players like Nolan Arenado, Anthony Rizzo, Freddie Freeman, etc. are always great picks (around their ADP), given their age and consistent production, even though they aren't flashy. High ceilings are pretty but don't let them blind you. The last thing you want to do is lose your draft in the first few rounds chasing a prospect or sleeper.

This year, in particular, players like Javier Baez and Trevor Story are being drafted insanely close to the first round. We've seen roughly a year of the first-round production that would warrant such a pick. While they could pay off and even overperform their draft position yet again, if either were to bust, as they have in the past, it could be ugly. You do not want to reach for these types of players; if they to fall to you in round two or three, then, by all means, pull the trigger.

Breakout players and overperformers pop up every year. As long as you are vigilant throughout the season, it should be easy enough to pick out a few from the waiver wire and boost your team's ceiling. Just last year, Juan Soto, Jesus Aguilar, Miles Mikolas, Adalberto Mondesi, and German Marquez were all available on the wire at one point or another in most leagues.

Rules of thumb I like to follow include:

  • Not drafting injured or suspended players
  • Finding market inefficiencies with ADP, especially in ESPN leagues where ADP's are oftentimes extremely skewed from the consensus.
  • Grabbing highly touted rookies and prospects who haven't proven themselves yet. Typically, they have reasonable ADPs later in the draft. Take them over guys who "are who they are" and don't provide much upside. Just don't hold to the prospects too long if they don't get called up.

 

Points Leagues

First off, if you're playing in a season-long points league or simply want more details, we've already got a full Points League Primer available here.

A points league is the most simple fantasy format to play in. Not to say that anyone who plays in one or prefers it is by any means lower than those in H2H categories or Roto leagues, but that the advice that could be given is much more limited. The objective at its core is to score more points than your opponent on a weekly basis. It's very bare-bones and simple and I understand why so many people enjoy it. There is a lot less to worry about (especially with pitchers) and they can definitely be more fun if the scoring format is set up to have high weekly totals.

The strategy to best navigate a points league draft is essentially Best Player Available. There is not much more to that. Either make your own spreadsheet with tiered/ranked players or find one online (we've got you covered there too) that provides you a solid list to go by come draft time.

Points leagues typically favor pitching, therefore it is best to try to grab a couple of aces early. Make sure you know your settings and aren't hurting yourself by grabbing someone who walks too many batters if walks are penalized harshly. More often than not, the best pitchers in points leagues are those that compile the most strikeouts and pitch the most innings. Make sure the Robbie Ray and Chris Archer types are boosted in your rankings because of it.

Hitters might have weird values in comparison as doubles, triples, and walks could be valuable whereas, in a standard 5x5 category league with average, none of those would necessarily matter. Players who are not typically hyped up about in fantasy articles could have a ton of value later in drafts because they compile atypical statistics that do not fit standard category formats. Strikeouts oftentimes count against you in points formats, which hurts top-100 hitters such as Giancarlo Stanton, Joey Gallo, Khris Davis, Justin Upton etc.

A few final points:

  • Know your league
  • Don't fret if a drafted player underperforms or gets hurt. Replacement value is easier to find
  • Streaming pitching is almost a must. Without having to worry about ERA or WHIP, you are free to grab as many starters as you are allowed to per week to give you a competitive advantage over your opponent

 

H2H Categories Leagues

This format offers a ton of variety. Whether it be 5x5, 6x6, 7x7, with average or OBP or OPS etc., there is something for everybody. The mix of skill required and categorical volatility per week makes it more nerve-wracking than points formats but also more rewarding when you do come out on top.

The way to play the format changes slightly if the scoring is based on one-win per week or roto scoring. If all you are seeking each week is a win, a one-category advantage is all you really need - everything else is overkill. Roto scoring in H2H formats necessitates dominating your opponents on a weekly basis and makes punting a category more damaging.

One-Win Format

This format is the more "punt-friendly" of the two and gives owners plenty of leeway per week. The best way to go about winning your draft in base 5x5 is by focusing on bats who rack up Runs, HR, RBI, SB, and high-strikeout pitchers. Focusing on having an edge in these five categories gives you an extremely high floor to work off of. You allow the percentage categories such as average/OBP/OPS, ERA, WHIP to play themselves out during the week. Streaming two-start pitchers and hitters in favorable ballparks (Coors, Great American etc.) gives you the competitive edge necessary per week.

Rotisserie Format 

You have to be a little more careful when each category matters; managing percentage categories is like walking on thin ice. Neither punting nor streaming are as viable which makes nailing the draft as important as ever. You should target players who do not hurt you anywhere while helping you as much as possible in each category. It is best to devalue a hitter like Joey Gallo if AVG matters or Adalberto Mondesi if OBP matters. You don't want tankers on your team unless they're available at an extreme discount.

 

Final Thoughts

Unless your league does not allow in-season pickups, there is one point I can not stress enough... closers don't matter! Do not pay for saves on draft day. Take discounts on saves, sure, but don't reach for Edwin Diaz, Blake Treinen, Aroldis Chapman, etc. Treinen, for example, was available in the back-end of the draft last season. This season, he's getting drafted over Joey Votto and Lorenzo Cain. Take one of those guys, and then draft one (or more) of Trevor May, Pedro Strop, or Alex Colome. If you can't find the next Treinen in any of these players, rest assured that there are always saves available on the waiver wire, they just might not come from the most attractive candidates.

Pay attention to closer situations throughout the year and pounce when the time is right or even getting near. Grabbing CLEWs (Closers en Waiting) during the season is beneficial in more ways than one. If they get the job, great! You just acquired a closer for dirt cheap and probably took saves away from an opponent. In the meantime, CLEWs typically provide excellent ratio boosts and strikeouts.

Closers are volatile and fungible. If a replacement-level outfielder struggles with his bat, he could make up for it with his play on the field (or vise-versa). If a closer struggles, he could be demoted and rendered worthless. Do not waste precious draft capital on a closer.

While leagues aren't won on draft day, they can be lost. Hitters are like real estate, keep it safe and invest most of your picks there early on. They don't get injured as often as pitchers and don't hurt you as much if they slump. If a pitcher gets his ratios blown up, that's harder to come back from than a bat in a temporary slump. Risk management is the name of the game on draft day. Take your chances with picks after the first 10 rounds where even the "safe" players often bust or end up on the wire.

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Expert Mock Draft Reactions - RotoBaller Friends & Family

On February 13, 2019, we assembled a group of industry experts to take part in the second annual RotoBaller Friends and Family Expert Mock Draft.

Our participants represented multiple sites, including:

After the dust settled, we asked these fantasy baseball experts some tough questions about how it all shook out. Check out the full draft board at RealTime Fantasy Sports: rtsports.com/rotoballer

 

The Big Board

 

My strategy for this mock was to _____

"Find a couple of aces early while building a base of high-average hitters with another plus tool (power and/or speed). However, I also wanted to venture outside my comfort zone, so I made my first two picks ones I might not normally select." -Alex Chamberlain

"Take the best fallen-value hitter and an ace starting pitcher at the 2/3 turn as my base and build a well-balanced squad. Grabbing three closers was a no-brainer, particularly in this landscape of closer committees." -Vlad Sedler

"Load up on HR and SB but address BA more urgently than usual while being flexible with pitching. I wanted one ace, though." -Tim Heaney

"Have a deep queue and order that queue in the order I wanted players. This is a smart group, and I knew I was going to get sniped often, so being prepared and having a plan mapped out was key." -Nando Di Fino

"Crush the souls of my opponents by disregarding ADP (standard practice), and drafting "my guys" where I felt it was fair and right based on personal projections." -Real Talk Raph

 

Call it a reach, but I'm glad I got _____ on my team.

"Yoan Moncada. Because he is going to hammer homers and steal 30 bases, while putting up a very good average, and nobody seems to be as in love with him as I am." -Nando Di Fino

"Kyle Hendricks, he solidifies my ratios with top-25 numbers on top of Verlander after stacking offense so that I can aggressively target K’s without caring as much about absorbing those prone to the longball." -Nick Mariano

"Archie Bradley... I believe he's got the stuff to close, and should be able to reach at least 20 saves." -Ray Flowers

"Gregory Polanco because he's being sorely undervalued now that his recovery timetable has improved. Think he still has 30-30 potential if his skills click." -Tim Heaney

"Nelson Cruz because he's the GOAT." -Alex Chamberlain

 

If I could hit the "Undo" button, I would not have taken ______

"Buxton in the 14th. I'd wait a couple rounds, but with the way the team was shaping up, I'm fine with it." -Ray Flowers

"Luke Voit. I kept thinking a decent first baseman would fall to me the next round but I quickly realized what a wasteland that position is shaping up to be in 2019 and I panicked. I should have just taken another pitcher at that point and settled for my 20th round pick of Yuli Gurriel at first base." -Pierre Camus

"Jon Lester. Because I really don't like him, but the value was too good to pass up, and I usually won't do that. I could've skipped him, gotten a bench bat, and taken Skaggs or Bundy instead later." -Nando Di Fino

"Kevin Pillar. I could’ve taken someone with more upside with so many OF available to round out that group with." -Nick Mariano

"Joey Votto. I didn't want him but he was auto-picked as my fat fingers couldn't search fast enough after my queue was exhausted leading up to the pick." -Todd Zola

 

I was shocked that _____ lasted so long!

"In a room full of sharks, I'm surprised Jesse Winker fell as far as he did." -Alex Chamberlain

"Brandon Nimmo - he's slated to lead off for the Mets this year, can contribute to four standard categories and may exceed 100 runs scored this season." -Vlad Sedler

"Peter Alonso ... the Mets' newfound urgency to win makes me think he'll be with the club from mid-April on." -Tim Heaney

"Jake Arrieta. Sure, he's in decline, but still deserves the benefit of the doubt in a relatively shallow league." -Todd Zola

"Anibal Sanchez, he’s a machine if healthy and could be a top-30 SP in the NL East with the Nats backing him." -Nick Mariano

"Jay Bruce because he's just a year removed from a 6-year run 30-100-85 average." -Ray Flowers

"Luke Weaver, considering last year's hype train!" -Real Talk Raph

 

The late-round pick that will have the biggest impact is _____

"I think my own Max Kepler will put it all together in 2019, but as for others, Luke Weaver in the final round makes for exceptional value." -Alex Chamberlain

"It’s either Chamberlain’s Ramon Laureano pick or his Trevor Cahill one. Great upside there!" -Nick Mariano

"Tyler White. He's going to be one of those batting average/power combos and he can actually play a bunch of positions, so he should be able to keep his bat in the lineup through his defensive flexibility." -Nando Di Fino

"Eric Thames in the 28th round. Nando got a guy who is one injury from a 30-HR season." -Ray Flowers

"Jake Arrieta, now that we know that he hid an injury in 2018, or my Pedro Strop, whose elite skills could keep Brandon Morrow away from closing all year." -Tim Heaney

"Keon Broxton is bound to go 30/30 in New York this year, am I right?" -Pierre Camus

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 11 - Pitch Info

One of the most fundamental questions in fantasy sports is if a player's current performance is sustainable. More than any other sport, baseball has a slew of statistical measures that can be dissected in numerous ways to analyze player performance.

Pitch Info is a publicly available pitch tracking system that provides a lot of different data to help fantasy owners make this determination for mound breakouts and busts alike.

In this article, we'll look at how to effectively use this data to give you an edge in your fantasy baseball league throughout the season.

 

How to Interpret Pitch Info Data

The first data point, and the easiest to understand, is velocity. Generally speaking, a pitcher that loses fastball velocity is losing something to either an undisclosed injury or the aging process. Pitchers that gain velocity can expect to increase their production. For example, Seth Lugo of the New York Mets shifted to a relief role and increased his average fastball velocity from 91.8 mph in 2017 to 94.3 mph last season, striking out more batters (25.1% K% vs. 19.5% in 2017) as a result. His overall effectiveness benefited immensely (2.66 ERA in 2018 vs. 4.71 the year before).

When evaluating a pitcher's velocity, you should always look at his baseline velocity as opposed to an arbitrary league average. Lugo's 94.3 mph wasn't all that impressive by modern standards, but it clearly allowed him to take his game to a new level. Other variables like movement and location also matter, but velocity is a good introduction to using Pitch Info data.

Slightly more advanced is pitch mix, or what pitches a pitcher throws and how often he throws them. A pitcher may improve his production by abandoning a poor pitch or developing a new, effective one. This is a good stat to consult if a pitcher sees a sharp change in his K%, as a change in pitch mix could represent the change in approach that supports the new number. If the change does not have a corresponding pitch mix shift, it may be less sustainable.

For example, consider Boston's Nathan Eovaldi. His K% increased last year relative to his career, 22.2% to 17.6%. Was this the result of random fluctuation, or did Eovaldi change his pitch selection to bring it about?

Eovaldi famously added a cutter to his repertoire in 2018, featuring it heavily (7.3% thrown in 2017, 32% last year) at the expense of his 4-seamer (48.1% to 39.8%), slider (17.7% to 11.8%), and split (22.9% to 13.1%). Pitch Info tracks each pitch's individual results, so any change in pitch selection can be evaluated by comparing the historical performance of the pitches in question.

At first glance, Eovaldi's cutter looks like a good fastball. It induced a decent number of whiffs (9% SwStr%) and posted an excellent 61.9% Zone%, suggesting that Eovaldi could use it effectively in the strike zone. Hitters who put it in play had middling results (.252/.299/.434). It's a solid pitch.

However, his straight fastball looked better in 2018. Its Zone% (58.3%) was comparable to the cutter's, while it was better by both SwStr% (10.7%) and results on balls in play (.206/.246/.321). You might think that Eovaldi's new cutter was nothing more than a distraction from a superior offering.

Of course, adding a new weapon is probably what made Eovaldi's fastball play up in the first place. Over his career, Eovaldi's heater has not produced many whiffs (6.8% SwStr%) and tends to get hit hard when put into play (.283/.355/.419). Adding a new weapon appears to have made Eovaldi less predictable, helping his existing pitches play up.

 

Pitch Mix

The same type of analysis may be performed for a number of other stats, including BABIP, FB%, LD%, GB%, and HR/FB. There is no point in looking at a league average pitch mix, as every pitcher owns a different arsenal. All of these variables may be considered over a pitcher's complete repertoire to determine how good he is (or should be) without relying on any conventional metrics. This can be good for identifying sleepers, as pitchers that have one or two standout pitches could break out by simply using them more often. Let's have some fun with our example and look at Max Scherzer's arsenal.

Scherzer threw five different pitches in 2018: a fastball 50% of the time, a slider 16%, a change 15.7%, a cutter 10.7%, and a curve 8%. All five are significant enough sample sizes to include in our analysis.

His fastball registered a Zone% of 61.9%, meaning that Scherzer never needs to walk a guy if he doesn't want to. It also generated an incredible 14% SwStr% en route to his 300 strikeout season, and batters who put it in play really didn't fare much better (.198/.248/.320). It's easily the best fastball in the game today for reasons that we will look at in a future article.

Still, Scherzer gets even more whiffs with his breaking stuff. His slider posted an insane 26.9% SwStr% last year, stealing strikes in the zone (50.6% Zone%) as well as outside of it (53.1% chase rate). If a hitter actually manages contact, he's still probably out (.193/.231/.364 triple slash line). Nor is his slider too predictable in pitcher-friendly counts, as Scherzer can also end a PA with his change (16.8% SwStr%, 32.4% Zone%, 40.7% chase, .126/.208/.192 line) or cutter (16.2% SwStr%, 49% Zone%, 50.8% chase, .205/.271/.466 line).

His curve isn't quite as good (6.1% SwStr%, 45% Zone%, 23.5% chase, .283/.327/.565), serving Scherzer as more of a show-me pitch than a real weapon. His arsenal is still elite though.

What is the baseline for this type of analysis? It depends on the observer, as there are almost as many ways to interpret this data as there are data points to consider. The league average O-Swing% was 30.9% in 2018, and most good wipeout-type pitches need to beat this number substantially. The overall Zone% was 43%, including pitches like splitters in the dirt and high fastballs that were never intended as strikes.

The fastball will always be inferior in results to pitches that do not need to live in the strike zone, like Scherzer's change, as pitches hit outside of the zone offer better results than offerings in the hitting zone when they are put into play. However, getting ahead in the count is necessary to make those pitches work as intended, making (sometimes) mediocre fastball results a necessity.

It is dangerous to generalize, but 2-seam fastballs and sinkers tend to stink for fantasy purposes. They're usually in the strike zone, but get hit harder than fastballs. They may post strong GB% rates, but also have high BABIPs and scary triple slash lines. Any sinker hit in the air was probably a mistake, so the HR/FB rate is usually high for the limited number of fly balls hit against them. Their SwStr% rates also tend to be poor. Overall, fantasy owners prefer a fastball or cutter to be the strike zone pitch in a pitcher's repertoire.

Personally, I like a fastball with a SwStr% of around 9% and a Zone% of at least 53%. Many pitchers succeed with a lower Zone%, but I can't stand watching walks. I then look for a wipeout pitch that offers a SwStr% of at least 15% and an O-Swing% of 40%. Ideally, there is a secondary K pitch, like Scherzer's change, that prevents the 0-2 pitch from being too predictable. Only aces really fulfill all of these criteria, but I can dream, right?

 

Conclusion

To conclude, Pitch Info tracks a lot of data of interest to fantasy owners, including average velocity, pitch mix, and individual pitch results. All of this data may be used to predict who will break out or which breakouts can sustain their current performance. The next entry in this series will discuss another variable to consider when determining the potential of a pitcher's repertoire: spin rate.

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Best-Ball Targets and Sleepers For 2019

One of the biggest challenges that fantasy baseball owners face is that they literally have to follow it every day. Unlike fantasy football, where you only need to check lineups once a week, baseball is on every single day and if you don’t pay attention your season will be in jeopardy. Most leagues are won not at the draft - but making smart decisions on the waiver wire, being the first person to jump on the rookie call-up from the minors, or sniping the player fresh off the disabled list is a huge mid-season advantage.

An increasingly popular type of fantasy format is the best-ball league. It rewards managers for how well they draft - there are no waivers, no trades, and no lineup changes. The players you draft pre-season are the ones you’ll have all year. It’s perfect for the casual fan who can’t commit to a full-year grind of checking box scores every night and setting lineups. It automatically selects the top players at every position and uses their stats for your season’s point total.

In a best-ball league, the strategy is much different than in a standard fantasy baseball draft. Taking risks on injury-prone players with depreciated value is encouraged and targeting high-ceiling players is crucial. We’ll look at four batters and four pitchers who may not be on everyone’s target list for standard drafts, but they should be on yours in a best-ball setup.

 

David Price (SP, BOS) - 97 ADP

Since going to the Boston Red Sox in 2016, David Price hasn’t found the groove that he once had in Detroit and Tampa Bay. He did, however, have his best year in Beantown last season with 16 wins, a 3.58 ERA, 1.14 WHIP and 177 strikeouts in 176 IP. Always a strikeout threat, last season he had his third-best year in terms of K% with a 24.5% mark, also good enough for a top-20 league finish.

We know the punch-outs will be there for Price, but what makes him more valuable in best-ball leagues is his potential to return to Cy Young form. He flashed this excellence in the second half of 2018 with a 2.25 ERA and 0.97 WHIP after the All-Star break. What changed for the southpaw was keeping the baseball from hitting the bleachers. He reduced his HR/9 from 1.50 to 0.93 due to generating more ground balls and producing more soft contact.

Something we've also seen Price do in the postseason was adding a changeup to his repertoire. This pitch stifled the potent Astros lineup in the ALCS as well as the Dodgers in the World Series clincher. Visually, he looked as confident as ever and with that swagger carrying over into this year it could translate into a lot of victories on a Red Sox team that won 108 games last year. At 33 years old, Price does have some bust potential as he did miss most of 2017 with an elbow injury, but it appears it’s long behind him. Going as the 28th starting pitcher off the board, he can return top-20 value with his improved metrics in the second half.

 

Wil Myers (3B/OF, SD) - 111 ADP

The main drawback with the 28-year-old is his inability to stay on the field. In his last five seasons, he’s played in more than 90 games just twice, but those two healthy years were phenomenal. Averaging a .251 AVG with 29 HR, 90 R, 84 RBI and 24 SB in these years, this could just be a baseline for his 2019 production. If he can stay on the field for 150 games this year with the much improved Padres offense, he could easily eclipse all of these totals. A bonus to Myers' profile is his dual-position eligibility, which is even more of an advantage in best-ball leagues.

Projected to bat third or fourth for the Friars this season, his R+RBI total could explode with Manny Machado, Eric Hosmer, and Hunter Renfroe all batting around him. Petco Park also jumped from 29th to 16th in park factors making it more hitter-friendly than what it was during Myers’ healthy seasons. In his 83-game sample size in 2018, he set new career-highs in Exit Velocity (90.3 MPH) and Hard Hit% 45.7%.

Although he lacks a bit in the batting average category, he has a legitimate shot at a 35 HR, 200 R+RBI season. San Diego has also finished in the top eight in two of the last three years in stolen bases attempted per game, so Myers should still get the green light on the bases. At his ADP there’s no one in that neighborhood with as high of a ceiling, but the floor is low with the health concerns, making him a poster boy for this league setup.

 

Luis Castillo (SP, CIN) - 113 ADP

After a miserable first half to his season in 2018, Luis Castillo left his fantasy owners in a state of frustration after being pegged to break out in his first full year. He finished the season going 10-12 with a 4.30 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, and 165 K over 169.2 IP. Not a lot to like there, but his 3.69 xFIP and 3.85 SIERA are encouraging. Castillo had a Jekyll/Hyde performance last year. A remarkable second half turned his season around as he improved in every category:

ERA  WHIP  K% BB%
First Half 5.49 1.38 21.5% 7.9%
Second Half  2.44 0.96 26.3% 5.3%

Castillo had difficulty keeping left-handers in the yard last year as he gave up 2.09 HR/9 against these hitters compared to 0.99 HR/9 against righties. Giving up home runs was detrimental to his first half lack of success, but he improved on this as his HR/9 fell from 1.65 to 1.22 after the break.

On the surface, pitching in the hitter-friendly confines of Great American Ballpark looks concerning as it ranks first in park factor for home runs. The 26-year-old actually fared better at home than on the road in 2018 with a 3.51 ERA at GAB and a 5.03 ERA everywhere else. With the improvements to the offense of the Reds, Castillo will benefit from more run support and should see a win total in the mid-teens. He may not completely match his second-half numbers, but even a slight regression on his ERA and WHIP will have him flirting in the top-25 pitchers.

 

Yoan Moncada (2B, CHW) - 159 ADP

Since his debut in the majors, it's been a parade of discontent for Yoan Moncada. The former number one prospect has shown flashes of his excellent offensive ability, but he’s also exposed some glaring weaknesses. His 33.4% K% in 2018 was third-worst in the majors, making it difficult for him to generate anything for a batting average. Hitting just .235 last year he popped 17 HR with 73 R, 61 RBI, and 12 SB as he showed when he did put the ball in play, it was impactful.

Building on his rookie season, he saw his Exit Velocity jump up two MPH to 90.6 MPH and his Hard Hit% went up nearly 9% to 44.1%. A very encouraging gain, this led to a top-20 finish in BABIP at .344. Of these 20 batters, Moncada was the only player with a batting average lower than .250, and he was the only one lower than .240 in the top-50. If he can limit his strikeouts to under 30%, he’s a regression candidate to improve his average to at least the .250 range. That may not be sexy, but when you factor in his power and speed, this makes him a threat. Moncada has two seasons to his credit of 45 or more thefts in the minors, and with getting on base more often, his number should exceed 20 this year.

With his power still maturing at age 23, hitting at least 25 HR is feasible especially with the improving hard contact rates. Projected to bat ahead of Jose Abreu in the two-hole, Moncada should see a wealth of run opportunities and also an improvement in RBI if the power translates. The youngster has been a letdown so far in his career making his value affordable at his ADP. He’s a perfect fit for best-ball when we don’t need to worry about the floor hurting us, just the ceiling helping us.

 

Paul DeJong (2B/SS, STL) - 186 ADP

Paul DeJong followed his rookie campaign with just as stellar sophomore season in 2018. After missing time from a hit by pitch on his hand, DeJong still managed to swat 19 HR with 68 R, 68 RBI while batting .241 in 115 games last year. What makes the 25-year-old so appealing in a best-ball league is his 162-game career-pace (.263/32 HR/89 R/97 RBI).

DeJong played in only 108 games in 2017 due to a late-May call-up, so he’s yet to eclipse the 115 game threshold. Therefore, he’s getting extremely undervalued. He’s a career .283 hitter in the minors, and he batted .285 as a rookie. DeJong's .241 average last season attributes to dealing with the lingering effects of the hand injury as he hit just .228 after his return to the lineup. His BABIP plummeted to .260 during this span as it was a .331 rate pre-injury, right in line with his previous yearly rates.

The right-hander is slated to bat third in a potent Cardinals lineup this year, and he’ll be in charge of driving in the on-base machines Matt Carpenter and Paul Goldschmidt. Barring another unfortunate injury, DeJong is set to play his first full year, and he has all the opportunity to exceed his already attractive 162-game pace. This mid-round shortstop pick is a smart choice especially if you miss out on the elite options in the first few rounds. DeJong can outproduce most players at the position in power numbers making him a best-ball beast.

 

Zack Godley (SP, ARI) - 246 ADP

Zack Godley burned many fantasy owners in 2018 after being selected just outside the top-100 in last years drafts. He produced an ugly 4.74 ERA, 1.45 WHIP, and 185 strikeouts in 178.1 IP. Not a lot to like in the ratio categories, but the strikeouts were appreciated, and he did manage to get 15 wins under his belt.

The bad with Godley was his horrid walk rate last year (10.2% BB%). This mark was a bottom-five league number and the main factor in his WHIP jumping from 1.14 in 2017 to 1.45 last year. The 28-year old was also second-last in strand-rate with a 67.5% LOB%. His above-average ability to get the strikeout should make this number regress in 2019 and his 50.5% GB% will also help him induce some double plays getting him out of jams. Godley did pitch to a 3.82 FIP last year, almost a full run lower than his actual ERA, so there is some silver lining.

Wins will be challenging to come by on a rebuilding D’Backs team, but the humidor added in 2018 turned Chase Field into a more neutral-hitting park. It dropped from third to 11th in park factor in terms of runs which is more than encouraging. If Godley can build on his 8.8% BB% from the second half, this will furthermore increase his value, and the strikeouts can reach 200 with a few more IP. Godley can return a sizeable value if everything goes right for him in 2019.

 

Trevor May (RP, MIN) - 270 ADP

With half of the league’s closer situations in flux, taking a late-round gamble on Trevor May could pay you dividends. Failed as a starting pitcher, May worked exclusively out of the bullpen in 2018 following his recovery from Tommy-John surgery. He was lights out in his 25.1 inning sample size with a 36/5 K/BB, 3.20 ERA, and 1.03 WHIP.

He finished the 2018 season with the Twins closer job sealing three games in the last week of the regular season. The 6’5” right-hander is an intimidating presence on the mound, and his 94 MPH heater mixed with his 78 MPH curveball is the perfect combination to keep batters off-balance. May generated his highest Whiff% of his career at 32.7%, also the highest of any pitcher on the Twins roster. His 2.46 xFIP and 2.17 SIERA backed up his impressive return to game action, and he's the early front-runner for the closing job in Minnesota.

The 29-year-old’s main competition this spring will be Addison Reed and Trevor Hildenberger, who both had an ERA north of 4.50 last season. May is clearly the best arm in the pen, but early drafts have him going unnoticed. This cost is a salivating buy-low opportunity as he could get upwards of 30 saves with a full season under his belt. If you miss out on the run of established closers early in your best-ball draft, May will be there in the late rounds ready to return just as much value of those going in the top 10 at the position. Act soon though; his ADP is sure to soar up once his role is ironed out in spring training.

 

Kevin Kiermaier (OF, TB) - 315 ADP

When it comes to injury-prone players, Kevin Kiermaier may be the headlining example. Playing over 110 games once in his five big league campaigns, Kiermaier has been tabbed as a breakout pick for the last two years only to leave owners disappointed by mid-season. With only 88 games played in 2018, numerous people have thrown in the towel on the soon to be 29-year-old, and his price has plunged as a result of it. Still the same player with the same skillset, it’s an excellent opportunity to take a shot on a player this late who won’t hurt you as much as he might in a re-draft league.

Kiermaier has the power and the speed to go at least 20/20, and he’ll bat at the top of the Tampa Bay Rays order to get his share of run opportunities. A .263 career batter before the start of the 2018 season, he spiraled down to a measly .217 last year due to a slow start to the season that he couldn’t recover from entirely. Whether it was his thumb injury or not, he only batted .163 before being placed on the DL, another reason for being valued so low.

It seems like a long shot, but if Kiermaier can play in 140 games, he will redeem himself for all the lost seasons of glowing potential. At his price in the draft, there’s less than a handful of options that can go 20/20 at that cost. Combine that with a R+RBI total around 160 and he could sneak into your best-ball lineup as your last outfielder.

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Are Elite Pitchers Undervalued?

After San Francisco Giants’ president Farhan Zaidi announced that the team might use an opener this season, Madison Bumgarner messaged Bruce Bochy: “If you use an opener in my game I’m walking right out of the ballpark.”

In addition to giving us the most Madison Bumgarner quote of all time, the news prompted me to reconsider for the umpteenth time if elite starting pitchers are currently undervalued in fantasy baseball. Given baseball’s adoption of the opener, it seems possible that the 34-year-old Max Scherzer is the best first-round value outside of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts.

It used to be the case that waiting on a starter was advisable in the early rounds but the dwindling amount of true aces in baseball has led to eight SP finding their way into the top 30 selections based on current ADP. Let's examine whether opening with a strong starting pitcher is, in fact, the best move.

 

The Changing Role of Starters

The opener is only the most recent development in the shrinking role of starters. While 260 innings a season is long gone, baseball may be approaching the point where even 200 innings becomes an exceptional performance. In the last decade, the game has seen a drop in complete games, innings per start, and the number of quality starts.

Although the opener came to public consciousness relatively late last season, six organizations used the strategy by the end of the season. Given its success for competitive teams, it’s easy to imagine more clubs will use it to protect young, old, and borderline pitchers.

It seems likely the Giants will also use the strategy (just not with Bumgarner). That makes sense. If a club doesn’t have to use an extra pitcher to start a game for their ace, they probably won’t. Even though he claimed to be joking, it doesn’t look like he was in any real danger of the Giants confiscating his God-given right to the opening pitch. Outside of staff aces like MadBum, many starters could benefit from the strategy, and that expansion could accentuate the value of top-tier starting pitchers.

Furthermore, as teams continue to pull starters earlier and earlier in games, it seems likely to yield fewer wins for starters. Since 2014, teams have reduced starter usage in large part because pitchers perform worse on the third time through the batting order. Health concerns, advanced analytics, and shifting bullpen strategies have curtailed the number of starters going into the seventh inning. Now, the opener adds a bookend at the start of the game as well as the sixth inning when leadoff hitters often come to the plate for the third time. If there are fewer wins available for starters and absolutely fewer quality starts, then elite starters, who pitch further into games, earn more quality starts, and earn a greater percentage of wins should be worth more this season than they have in the past. Is this true?

However, the initial data didn’t offer simple, actionable clarity.

For calculating value, I used a straightforward 12-team setup for 5x5 leagues. I made two sets of leagues and tables, one using wins and one using quality starts. Rosters used standard positions with a corner infield spot, middle infield spot, and a utility spot, five starters, three relievers, and a 70/30 offense/pitching split for a $260 league. Initially, I examined the top 20 starters in both formats from 2013 to 2018, which yielded these results:

Year QS% IPS CG Top-20 SP Value
(W Leagues)
Top-20 SP Value
(QS Leagues)
2013 53 5.9 124 $21.25 $23.84
2014 54 6.0 118 $20.51 $25.48
2015 50 5.8 104 $23.25 $26.42
2016 47 5.6 83 $20.66 $25.07
2017 44 5.5 59 $21.74 $25.00
2018 41 5.4 42 $22.25 $27.44

The first thing I noticed was how noisy the data was. While there appeared to be real patterns in the raw data on pitcher performance and player value, there were enough anomalies combined with the small samples that it was a challenge to find coherent patterns. A quick look at the Top-20 SP Values for both league types shows that even though starters are being pulled earlier, the value of top-20 starter hasn’t changed much in wins leagues despite earning a greater percentage of the available quality starts. Given the modest correlation between the two stats, it’s surprising that the values aren’t closer.

Another item which caught my attention was the value of the top three pitchers in 2015. That year is a bit anomalous because Jake Arrieta (8.3 bWAR, 7.3 fWAR), Zack Greinke (9.1 bWAR, 5.8 fWAR), and Clayton Kershaw (7.5 bWAR, 8.5 fWAR) all produced seasons of outstanding fantasy value. That season alone complicates the charts because the three data points significantly impact the overall trends for both wins leagues and QS leagues.

Indeed, Kershaw nearly skews (or even distorts) the 2013 to 2015 data by himself. At that time, he was the best pitcher in baseball and should have been going in the top three picks in nearly all formats. While Kershaw was sometimes selected that early, it was less common than it should have been. Frequently, he was slipping into the second half of the first round.

In 2013, pitchers in Quality Starts leagues (QS from here forward) were similarly valuable to pitchers in wins leagues, but that has changed substantially as the number of quality starts has declined. As a result, elite pitchers, who generate quality starts 80 to 90% of the time have higher value, and their value in QS leagues has migrated away from their value in wins leagues.

 

Elite Pitcher Value in QS Leagues

The table above shows that top-20 starters in QS leagues have consistently increased in value over the last six seasons. As I mentioned earlier, 2015 becomes an odd example, but even in that case, if we use head-to-head comparison rather than averaging the five pitchers, the 2018 group outperforms the 2015 group.

2015 2018
1 50.4 51.6*
2 50.2* 45.8
3 50.1* 43.5
4 36 39.6*
5 35.1 39.6*

I’m not sure yet if we should count those fourth and fifth starters as elite. In most seasons, there is a significant drop off between SP3 to SP5. For now, we’ll leave that as an issue for Part 2 of this series.

Fortunately, the charts and tables below do clarify that the increase in value has not been evenly distributed across all starters. In QS leagues, starters, in general, have not become more valuable, only top-tier starters. The two charts below show that the five best pitchers in each league have become increasingly more valuable. Again, the 2015 season make those trends a bit more complex.

Despite that historic combination of performances from Arrieta, Greinke, and Kershaw, a top-20 starter in 2018 was still worth a dollar more than in 2015 and more $2.44 more than 2017. There is no other single-year jump that significant, and the most substantial two-year change (2013 to 2015) is only slightly larger at $2.58.

 

Elite Pitcher Value in Wins Leagues

For wins, the data is more complex and frustrating than quality starts. The chart and table below illustrate how top-20 starter values have changed. Initially glancing through the numbers, it’s not actually clear that elite starters are worth more than they have been. The top-five pitchers in 2018 look like a similar value to the top-five pitchers from 2017, which is pretty similar to 2014. Meanwhile, 2015 is measurably higher than the five other seasons. There’s a general trendline upward, but given the rest of the data, the pattern is uncompelling.

I spent some time looking for reasons that pitchers in QS leagues would have been more valuable while pitchers in wins leagues might not be. I never found a clear pattern, but as I was working, I spent some time looking at the values of each pitcher over the last six years. I’ll write more about that in Part 2, but it led me to track the relative values of each pitcher within the top 20. For example, the best pitcher in baseball was worth $42.60 in 2013, $40.20 in 2014, $45.30 in 2015, $30.40 in 2016, $40.30 in 2017, and $36.30 in 2018. Initially, it seemed as though pitcher values had not changed meaningfully in wins leagues despite the change in usage trends. Once I had tabulated the data though, it seemed like a pity not to graph it, which gave me this chart.

If you drink two beers, squint, and turn your head to the side, you might notice the same things I did. Or not. I’d had more than two beers when I noticed it. Since 2016, there is a general vectoring upward for the top-five pitchers, even allowing for the phenomenal talent of Clayton Kershaw. Likewise, the bottom 10 pitchers are increasingly compacted over the last four years. The compaction could be easily explained by standard deviation within the sampling distribution, but it prompted me to sort the pitchers into quartiles.

To be profoundly scientific about the data, the lines at the end of the chart (2018) are generally higher than the lines at the beginning of the chart (2013). It’s possible that might suggest that elite pitchers are worth more in wins leagues now. Or it could be a limitation of the data. Obviously, the top-five pitchers saw the greatest increase, and pitchers from 11 to 20 saw a modest decrease, but their value is probably best described as static.

Unlike QS leagues, it’s hard to argue that elite pitchers are clearly more valuable in wins leagues. They might be, but the data for wins leagues is more complex than the data for QS leagues.

There are a number of reasons why wins leagues might not shift similarly to QS leagues. As we know, wins are less correlated with pitcher performance than quality starts. Additionally, it’s possible that starters are better protected by teams who pull them earlier. If a team pulls a starter earlier and successfully protects a lead, that pitcher may be more likely to earn a win than he was in the past.

Likewise, an opener might very well improve a starter’s chance of winning because the opener makes it less likely the starter must face the top of the lineup for a third or fourth time. Additionally, the opener allows a starter to pitch later in the game when he is more likely to earn a win. Despite the modest correlation between wins and quality starts, it’s possible that the introduction of the opener makes the two stats less correlated across the league. Ostensibly though, that shouldn’t make the stats less correlated between elite starters who are unaffected by openers.

 

Conclusion

Current projections systems don’t appear to account for further adoption of the opener strategy, and it’s not clear if we’ve reached the inflection point for openers. To be fair, there’s no easy way to account for it. Since projections systems rely entirely on methodical approaches to the data, there is no systematic way to account for the opener that doesn’t rely on speculation.

In that spirit though, let’s speculate, but conservatively and in general terms. Six teams used the opener in 2018, so let us predict that six teams will use it again (even if it’s not the same six). Remember that most of those six teams attempted the strategy only at the end of the season. If those teams use it for the entire 2019 season, whatever effect the opener has on starting pitcher values will be compounded. If the opener becomes even more commonplace, elite starters may well become more valuable than even the best offensive players, and we may need to re-evaluate the 70/30 offensive/pitching split.

Regardless of speculation though, the data suggests we might be better off moving top-tier pitchers up in our draft rankings and inflate the values of top-tier starters more than we inflate the values of top-tier hitters. The effect is basically the same.

Right now, even the most aggressive prediction and value models that I’ve seen have applied inflation evenly between pitchers and hitters. Some apply early-round inflation to hitters more aggressively than pitchers. Given the data above, offensive-tilted or even-split inflation rates seem ill-advised at this point.

If the number expands, and a total of ten teams use the opener with their two worst starters this season, then 13% of the games are guaranteed not to yield a quality start. Furthermore, as teams continue to pull starters earlier and earlier in games, it seems likely, though not guaranteed to decrease the number of wins for starters. If there are fewer wins available for starters and absolutely fewer quality starts, then elite starters, who pitch further into games, earn more quality starts, and earn a greater ratio of wins should be worth more this season than they have in the past.

2019 should provide a clearer sense of how many starters are affected by the opener strategy. Hopefully, that will provide some clarity for how to better evaluate starting pitchers. For now, top-tier starters get a boost in value in QS leagues. That’s especially true for starters like and Scherzer who own exceptional QS rates. It’s less clear in wins leagues, but a minor adjustment seems advisable for owners looking to capitalize on a potential

In future articles, I’ll look at where elite starters come from (hint: it’s not the Arizona Fall League) and where elite pitchers such as Scherzer, Sale, and deGrom should be going in drafts.

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Using Sabermetrics for Fantasy Baseball Part 10 - Pitcher Batted Ball Distribution

The league average batted ball distribution in 2018 was 21.5% liners, 43.2% grounders and 35.4% flies. We have previously seen how pitchers may specialize in either grounders or fly balls.

Fly ball pitchers have a BABIP advantage over their ground ball-inducing counterparts, since fly balls (.117 BABIP in 2018) consistently have lower BABIPs than worm killers (.236). Yet most fantasy owners prefer to roster ground ball pitchers to the point that GB% is frequently cited as a peripheral stat to determine fantasy viability. Why is this the case?

Let's get to it!

 

How to Interpret Pitcher Batted Ball Distribution

The reason is slugging percentage. Fly balls had a collective .690 slugging percentage in 2018 despite the lower BABIP, while grounders had just a .258 SLG. As Khris Davis hits more home runs than most in part by elevating the ball more frequently, fly ball pitchers are liable to give more up by allowing more airborne baseballs. Fantasy owners can live with the odd single through the infield if it means fewer homers allowed.

This line of thinking makes intuitive sense, but I feel it may be overstated at times. Good fly ball pitchers tend to post HR/FB rates a little better than the league average, somewhat limiting the long balls they allow. A pitcher's home park may also help suppress home runs allowed. Once dingers are under control, a fly ball pitcher actually offers several advantages over a ground ball specialist.

For example, fantasy owners may reap the benefits of a lower WHIP by investing in a pitcher that makes his living in the air. If the ball leaves the yard, a fly ball pitcher also has a greater probability of it being a solo shot instead of having to watch a crooked number go up on the scoreboard.

Last season, Washington's Max Scherzer was an excellent example of an effective fly ball fantasy pitcher. He posted a 2.53 ERA and 0.91 WHIP thanks in part to a .265 BABIP that seems way too low to sustain. Yet his 47.6% FB% predisposed him to limiting BABIP, and he induced pop-ups at an above average rate (16.1% IFFB% last year). His 9.7% HR/FB was significantly lower than the league's mark (12.7%). Obviously, Scherzer's fly ball game is very effective.

To be clear, pitchers in homer-happy locations such as Milwaukee's Miller Park, Yankee Stadium, and Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago should absolutely be ground ball guys if they are rostered in fantasy. It is also a useful metric to look at when trying to determine if a given pitcher should be active for a road start at these locations. Still, a high GB% alone should not make a guy fantasy relevant.

A specialty in either grounders or flies may allow a pitcher to maximize the team behind him and beat FIP. For example, we already saw how a guy like Lorenzo Cain can use his defensive prowess to help his team's pitchers suppress BABIP. Josh Hader had a 48.4% FB% in his magical 2018, giving Cain plenty of defensive opportunities that may have helped the pitcher post a microscopic .220 BABIP.

It should be noted that there are some limitations with this kind of analysis. Much like offensive support, defensive support can vary from pitcher to pitcher even if they have the same players behind them. It is a useful piece of the puzzle, but should never be the only thing you look at.

Research also indicates that extreme pitchers gain a small platoon advantage against like bats, so GB pitcher vs. GB hitter favors the pitcher. The effect isn't quite as large as the more traditional handedness platoon split, and is tough to use in weekly formats or daily leagues that cap transactions. Still, it can be useful for DFS and may be cited as a reason to avoid pitchers with an average batted ball distribution.

 

Conclusion

Both ground ball and fly ball specialists have their uses in fantasy. Ground ball specialists offer lower slugging percentages against and can take full advantage of an elite defensive infield. Fly ball specialists offer superior WHIP and make the best use of an elite defensive outfield. Both gain a minor platoon advantage against hitters that share their specialization, an advantage never enjoyed by arms with no particular tendency. Next time, we'll look at a tool that can forecast and confirm spikes in everything from GB% to K%: Pitch Info.

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Winning Strategies For Your Dynasty League Startup Draft

Some people enjoy playing fantasy baseball one season at a time, drafting a new roster every year. Others are fascinated with drafting a team and managing it year after year towards multiple championship trophies. The latter individuals are best suited to play in dynasty leagues. For rosters to be competitive annually, they have to possess players that are primed for longevity. To do that, sacrifices will need to be made at some point, and that starts at the draft.

The draft: everyone loves it. “It’s the best part of the fantasy baseball season,” many people have stated. Before you get into your full player rankings and nominate/select the players that you love, make sure you have a strategy in mind and stay mostly dedicated to it. Without an awareness of your internal fantasy manager tendencies or even a basic strategy, you will be stuck in limbo trying to figure out where to go.

Everyone wants to compete now, but most fantasy managers generally fall into one of three categories when starting a new dynasty league draft. They either want to win now, win now but pick up some young guys they like, or sacrifice immediate success for long-term dominance. Each category has its pros and cons, but one provides a better long-term approach to success than the other two. Using the recent RotoBaller Way Too Early Dynasty Draft, we will identify a couple of examples of each category.

 

Infatuated With Youth (Young'un)

This drafter builds his team with nothing but youth. We are talking about players just reaching their prime and younger. It may seem like they are fascinated with all the young stars; however, they are building for the long haul.

There are a few positives to this recommended strategy, aside from the obvious fact that you do not have to worry about getting older. The primary benefit is that you are collecting assets that some of the “Drifter” and “Old-Timer” managers will want when they realize they will not win this year. The biggest unsaid positive is that the cost to acquire increased value is quite minimal. While other managers are collecting backup pieces for their roster in the draft, you are collecting upper-tier prospects.

However, do not draft every prospect in the minors. Draft the ones likely to get the most helium, which is mostly hitters. If you have a choice between a pitcher and a hitter, go with the hitter. There are a few reasons for this.

To start, hitters can boost their stock tremendously in one season. If they have a letdown year the following season, there is just a little bit of skepticism. However, pitchers can have a great year but follow it up with a mediocre season, and 90% of the league won’t touch that player until he shows the skills again. Plus, it takes longer for the pitchers to develop into the studs you want them to be. During that time, there is always a possibility that an injury will plummet their value.

Of course, not everything is going to be rosy with this strategy. The Young’un will need to sacrifice the first or second season (depending on your activity level) to develop the team that will lead to championships every year. It will take time and require you to be more active than most. But the result will be well worth it.

Using the RotoBaller Way Too Early Dynasty Draft as a model, we see that a couple of managers came close to replicating this strategy. While, no one fully represented the concept to the fullest, JB and Troy’s drafts closely resembles the ideal approach. (Click on image for a full-sized draft board)

JB, picking from the first spot, is the closest definition of a Young’un, finishing with an average age of 23. Through the first 10 rounds, JB drafted solid young players already in the majors like Ozzie Albies (third round), Rafael Devers (fourth), and Jack Flaherty (sixth). In round 11, he started his prospect collection by selecting Pete Alonso and finished with 11 prospects, five of which were pitchers, including Touki Toussaint (15th round), Mitch Keller (16th), Triston McKenzie (20th). While it isn’t preferable to have that many prospect arms compared to bats, every single one of the pitchers he selected are very close to the majors. This gives him plenty of marketable value.

Troy built a roster with an average player age of 25. He only had nine prospects, but he did keep his team very young with selections of Eloy Jimenez (fourth round), David Dahl (sixth), and Forrest Whitley (eighth). The one intriguing decision that the strategy wouldn’t support was the selection of 30-year-old Tommy Pham in round nine. It seems like a slight miscue with so many young studs still on the board. However, it could also have been strategic to get a power/speed asset that he could trade midseason. Afterward, he got back on track with plenty of young assets in the likes of Tim Anderson (10th round), Keston Hiura (12th), and Jo Adell (23rd rd).

One cautionary note about this strategy. Without action, this drafter could fall into a false sense of eternal prospect love. Snap out of it! Prospects are assets to be used as anything else to improve your roster.

After the draft, the next step is to have a plan to market your players to continue to build up the value of your roster. Timing is an essential ingredient when obtaining value. Also, you do not have to do that in one fell swoop. Some of the assets you receive in one trade can be flipped to someone else for something of more value than your original player.

Here is a series of transactions that can get you towards something of value. You can trade one of your solid prospects to the Drifter for one of his solid starting pitchers who is just reaching 30 years of age. You don’t need this player, but you could certainly flip him to the Old-Timer who is going for the league’s first championship flag. In exchange, you might receive one of his young underperforming guys or an injured player lost for the season (Corey Seager in 2018), both of which are more valuable than the original prospect you drafted.

Whenever the other managers come to the crossroads of needing important decisions/categories answered, the Young’un will be there. He is a purveyor of required items. A tradesman, if you will.

 

Compete Now (Old-Timer)

As the title illustrates, the ultimate goal for this drafter is to build a team that can win in year one. This roster is comprised of plenty of proven players that will likely include many veterans. This owner is not distracted by the latest fad of prospects that are getting plenty of helium.

The positives of this strategy are that you have a roster filled with proven players immediately. The first few years are your prime competitive opportunities to plant a championship flag in your front yard. The only trading will be to fill blank spaces and immediate production. There is no time for speculation picks.

Unfortunately, once the old geezers run out of steam, you’ll have to transition to the bottom of the rankings and start your rebuild looking for the next young studs to use as a foundation, most of which have already been picked over by the Young’uns.

When looking at the RotoBaller Dynasty Mock Draft, there is a clear individual that fall into this category - Andy. He has a roster built to risk it all and win now.

Andy is all in. He demonstrated his determination with selections of Max Scherzer, Clayton Kershaw, Justin Verlander, and Joey Votto in the first 10 rounds. With an average player age of 29, it is no surprise that there are 14 players on the roster 30 years of age and older. There is a bit of a hiccup in this analysis in the middle rounds. Jesus Luzardo (14th round) was likely selected for his tremendous upside, and he should have a rotation spot to start the year.

If you were to play a game of ‘One of these things is not like the other one,’ you would win if Keibert Ruiz (16th round) was your selection. It is possible he gets called up, but that is speculation. That is a word Old-Timers don’t like, unless we’re gold-mining, of course. Andy finished back on track by picking players like Nelson Cruz (15th round), Justin Turner (17th round), and Michael Brantley (19th round). Once the competitive wind is removed from the sails in a couple of years, it will be tough to rebuild around Christian Yelich and Manny Machado.

 

Caught In Between (Drifter)

The ultimate goal of this drafter is to compete now, but at the same time, they want to dabble in the fountain of youth. Actually, maybe they want all the young players, but deep down they want to compete now as well. Caught in between, this drafter will forever perform in the middle class if a serious course correction isn’t initiated. Yep, downright Purgatory.

Can these drafters be saved? Yes. Say it with me now. Yes, they can. A little louder now: YES, THEY CAN!

The trick is timely recognition. I am never a fan of giving up on a season, but if halfway through the year you find yourself at the bottom, you need to start making moves before other managers have run the options dry.

This strategy, unfortunately, puts you at a point where you’ll have to make an important decision about your roster in the first year of existence if you are unable to compete for the trophy. One option is to double-down, selling off the young talent you have for assets to help with a run at the title the following year. The other option is to undergo an overhaul by trading your aging talent to the Old-Timer for any younger options they may possess (Hmmm, Keibert Ruiz comes to mind).

The problem with both of these choices is that it delays your ultimate goal. When you double-down, you’ll have one more shot at the trophy the following year. However, win or lose, your team will have to undergo an overhaul that might take a few years to recover because your players will be hanging out with the likes of Steven Tyler and Mick Jagger (OLD). On the other hand, if you initiate the overhaul, you’ve wasted a year, and it might take you a few years to acquire the talent to be competitive again as others are ahead of you in the process.

Both of these choices could be resolved at the draft table by committing to a strategy as either a Young’un or an Old-Timer.

Understand that there are various degrees of Drifters, which might also be called the gray area. There are quite a few of the RotoBaller Dynasty Mock Draft participants that fall in this category. Some might lean more Old-Timey with some young flavor while others are predominantly Young’uns with a little old-fashioned vibe. Anthony would be considered the former, while yours truly would fall into the latter category.

Aside from the elite players in the first three rounds, Anthony appeared to fully embrace the win-now mentality with selections of Dee Gordon, Chris Archer, Aroldis Chapman, Jesus Aguilar, and A.J. Pollock amongst the first twelve picks. However, he then started taking a few speculative picks in Ian Happ (13th round), Brent Honeywell (15th), and A.J. Puk (18th). Yes, these are very good dynasty choices and were likely selected for their potential upside but they deviate from the layout of the roster. Anthony returned to a more win-now strategy by taking advantage of aging late-round talent in DJ LeMahieu (20th round), Robinson Cano (23rd), and Mike Moustakas (25th).

This writer’s draft went according to the Young’un plan with selections of Vlad Guerrero Jr. (second round), Gary Sanchez (fourth), Nomar Mazara (fifth), and Yoan Moncada (sixth). There must have been a blackout, a fall, and a severe bump to the noggin in round 11. That is the only thing that can justify three straight picks on players whose average age is 33 in Zach Greinke, Blake Treinen, and David Price.

Admittedly, it was a matter of competitiveness. Everyone wants to have their cake and eat it too. Everyone wants to win. This writer is no exception. It is very tough to sacrifice the first season. However, just because you’re going younger the first season doesn’t mean that you are necessarily sacrificing the year. Stay active on the waiver wire, trade, and remain competitive.

 

Keys to Success

The Young’un is the best route to go when starting a dynasty league. Start your roster with youthful exuberance and own the market on all the prospect studs that other teams will want. Choose more bats than arms. Then you can start trading and improving the value of your team by acquiring players with top-10 round value for the price of prospects chosen in the 15th to 25th round. This will allow you to contend for the title for years with an actual dynasty squad.

If somehow I haven’t convinced you to do the right thing and start your league as a Young’un, you need to be all-in as an Old-Timer. Do not try to keep a foot in both waters; it will ultimately lead to a premature rebuild. It’s too early to think about rebuilding a dynasty team shortly after a draft. Just know that as an Old-Timer, once your players' competitive years expire, so will your team.

 

One Last Note

Many individuals will contend that dynasty leagues don’t last very long, so competing in the first two years is ideal. While that is always a possibility, it shouldn’t be the sole deciding factor on how you manage your team. If this does occur in one of your leagues, take it as a sign that the league wasn’t worth spending another year in. There are many dynasty leagues out there.

Find one and DOMINATE!

**The opinions of the author are his alone and do not attempt to represent what each manager was thinking while they were drafting their team.

**The theme song of this article is Bone Thugs-N-Harmony - Crossroads. That's right. Regardless of where you are in your draft strategy, you will encounter some crossroads. I’ll see you when you get there.

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Nick Mariano's Auction Draft Strategies and Tips (Premium Content)


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