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Charging the Mound: Which Players' Breakout Potential Isn't Already Priced In?

Chris Liss

Chris Liss

Chris Liss is RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio.

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire.com and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Tuesday, March 15, 2011 12:03am
To: "Jeff Erickson"
Subject: Charging


By now most experienced fantasy owners know how to read a stat line and project reasonable growth/decline based on age, health and ballpark, but the aspect of fantasy sports that's most interesting to me is the phenomenon of explosive or unexpected growth by a player. And I'm not just talking about Jose Bautista last year or Cliff Lee in 2008, but even with top prospects you'll see it. Justin Verlander was a mediocre pitcher with a pedestrian strikeout rate in 2008, and then he struck out 268 batters to lead the majors in 2009. In 2005, Justin Morneau hit 22 homers and had a .239/.304/.437 line. In 2006, he won the AL MVP. One of the main keys to winning your league is to catch that breakout before it happens, on the cheap. Of course, the market tries to price the possibility of a breakout into the cost of the player - not only won't you get Michael Pineda, Brian Matusz or Jeremy Hellickson for cheap, but even Matt Wieters, who's had three seasons to break out, and Alex Gordon went for $15 and $9 respectively in AL LABR. Still, as was the case with Wieters and Gordon, both of whom are on my team, I'm often willing to pay that premium if I think the player's particularly likely to take that leap.

The easier question is what criteria have to be in place for a breakout to be likely, with the answers being opportunity, pedigree, experience and age, among other things. The harder one is what criteria have to be in place for a player to exceed his already priced-in breakout cost. I like Justin Upton, B.J. Upton, Wieters and Gordon and will probably (within reason) go to the mat for those guys. I don't like Mike Stanton, for example, at his likely price (he went for $27 in NL LABR). The problem with a lot of fantasy analysis is that it aims to answer the easier question (who's likely to break out?) rather than the harder one (who's worth buying given that the potential breakout is priced in?).

Of course, I'm assuming it's even possible to answer the harder question. Some would argue trying to do so amounts to pretending one has psychic abilities and that one should simply buy whatever player is trading for lower than his consensus (breakout-built-in) price in a particular draft or auction. This goes back to the genius/agnostic discussion we've had a while back. So give me a few answers: (1) Which players would you put money on to take the leap this year; (2) Which players are underpriced relative to their chances of making that leap; and (3) What's your criteria for spotting players whose chances for a breakout are typically not fully included in their price tag? Unless, you're in the camp that doesn't think it's possible to know.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: March 15, 2011 6:56 PM PDT
To: Christopher Liss


In many ways, we've gone full circle. We used to employ sabermetric tools to help us identify undervalued players against those who used traditional metrics and scouting information. Granted, those using scouting information didn't really use scouting information, but instead relied upon their own eyes, frequently on television and not in person. There's another debate about whether we, as untrained scouts, are better off tracking these players in person or using other mediums, but that's for another day. However, I almost think that the real edge is getting access to and interpreting scouting data, be it in terms of pitch f/x or in other formats. It's rare now that I play against someone in a fantasy league that thinks pitcher wins are a good predictive metric or that doesn't take park effects into account when evaluating a particular player's performance. Nearly everyone I play against not only has heard of BABIP but also knows how to use it. So while we cite it here and there, and it's still useful information to know, it doesn't really separate us from the crowd.

The type of player I like to invest in now for a potential breakout is one that has the tools that scouts love, has shown some tendencies of getting it here-and-there on the statistical side, but for whatever reason hasn't fully put it all together. On the pitching side, my favorite example is the pitcher that has already learned how to strike major league hitters out, but still has other flaws, like a high walk rate or a high home run rate. All too often I think the sabermetric crowd is too eager to find flaws with a player rather than figuring out what can go right. As a result, they'll let a pitcher like Gio Gonzalez last year go on the cheap. I got Gonzalez in multiple leagues last year, rarely for more than the minimum bid for that league. It's not a foolproof method, but when you're diving for upside, there are going to be some misses - I also had Felipe Paulino in nearly every eligible league last year. Note - I'll have him in nearly every eligible league again this year where it makes sense, now that he's been moved to the bullpen. It doesn't make sense in Yahoo! Friends & Family, where each inning matters so much, but I love that profile of a pitcher. My favorite example from this year's draft pool is the Astros' Bud Norris.

Another pitcher that's got profit potential is one whose component numbers haven't caught up with his scouting attributes. You and I have talked about this type of pitcher before, and Verlander of course is the seminal example. I think we both like his teammate, Rick Porcello, to fit that bill. And because Porcello hasn't gotten the strikeouts yet, I don't think his upside potential has been priced in just yet. Jason Grey bought him for $8 in AL LABR, which is less expensive than what I paid for him in Tout Wars last year. This despite a stronger second half after a brief demotion.

The last two examples answer your second question - which players are underpriced relative to their chances of making the leap. Pitchers - and starting pitchers in particular. Merely from a quantity aspect, there's a better chance of finding them, and there's the inclination from most of your competitors not to spend as much on those breakout pitchers. Yeah, Brian Matusz or Jeremy Hellickson might get taxed appropriately for their likelihood of breaking out (though I'm not quite sure that's the case with Matusz - I've seen some cases where he's not given that breakout star treatment), but that's only because they've hit more targets on each drafter's breakout list.

It's harder to find the breakout bargain among hitters, power hitters in particular. That's why Jose Bautista was so special. But I remember his days as a Pirate-then-Royal-then-Pirate again, and at that time there were a lot of people talking about his potential. That more frequently came from team personnel than from analysts, and maybe that's why he got discounted. I think it's probably easier to find the speed breakout guys, but the problem with that is unless those guys also hit for high average, there's a limit to the profit side of the equation. We're no longer in an era where a guy like Vince Coleman exists I doubt we'll have more than a handful of 80-plus steal guys over the next decade or so.

I think if you want to find the right price for a breakout star, you also need to find a flaw that gives us the discount on that player. Keep talking up Justin Upton's bloodlines, his strikeouts and his bad shoulder. He's the type of guy that could just explode, and if that happens, there's no way to price in the likelihood of the breakout.

-----Original Message-----
From: "Christopher Liss"
Sent: Wednesday, March 16, 2011 12:34am
To: jeff@rotowire.com
Subject: Re: Charging

I was pretty close to going $9 on Porcello but had a lot of pitching and needed to save for hitting at that juncture in the auction. I don't think there are any hidden players as most of the LABR crowd has graduated from religious high BABIP targeting or assuming someone's K rate is somehow permanent. The more I play this game, the more I realize that past performance is only 70 percent or so of the equation, and the sheer unknown is the other 30 percent. That's why it's possible to win by spending 90 percent of your budget on hitting and simply rolling with nine pitchers who have jobs. In AL LABR you could have bought Nick Blackburn, Kyle Gibson, Jake Arrieta, Marc Rzepczynski, Doug Fister and Bobby Jenks for $1, and Joaquin Benoit, Kevin Jepsen and Grant Balfour for $2 and spent $248 on hitting. All you need are two of the starters to break out, one of the relievers to find some saves, and you could FAAB, use reserves and trade your way to a title.

I think the general answer to finding an underpriced breakout then is betting on the unknown, a divergence from past performance. Because one error many people make is assuming past performance is everything, simply because it's all we have to go on. But we shouldn't be paying for last year's stats - even the best, most predictive ones are merely indicators - they don't count toward this year. Of course, expecting Willie Bloomquist to hit 50 homers simply because it diverges from his past performance and is not priced in is insanity. But once you know the player pool well, you know which players could get better if they figure something out, or alter their approach. Bautista hit more than 40 percent of his batted balls on the ground every year of his career until last year when he hit just 31 percent grounders and 55 percent fly balls. The idea that Billy Butler will never hit 30 homers because of his high-40s ground ball rate assumes Butler won't hit more balls in the air going forward. And it's worth noting Butler's 34 percent fly ball rate wasn't much different than Joey Votto's 34.8 percent or Ryan Braun's 34.9. Maybe Butler will hit the ball harder as he reaches his prime, and he'll have a better HR/FB rate like Votto did last year. Or maybe he'll hit more fly balls like Bautista, get luckier or some combination of the three. But I don't think he's at the stage of his career where we can simply look at past performance and say what his ceiling is.

Maybe this is similar to the point you made about pitchers with good K rates improving their command. But in my experience K rate is one of the more priced-in stats. In expert leagues I'd rather go in the other direction and pay for "lucky" pitchers like Clay Buchholz and Trevor Cahill. Either one could take the peripherals leap to match his cosmetic stats from last year.

-----Original Message-----
From: Jeff Erickson
Subject: Re: Charging
Date: March 16, 2011 4:15:30 PM PDT
To: Christopher Liss


Doug Dennis from BaseballHQ.com actually put together a $30 pitching staff in NL LABR, and I sort of like the end result. He bought one closer (Leo Nunez), two young starters with breakout potential for a combined $11 (Bud Norris and Jonathon Niese), and then spent $8 on the other seven pitching spots (NL LABR has 10 pitching slots). He then used all six of his reserve picks on pitchers. The end result is that he has 14 starting players (maybe 13, depending on what happens with Geoff Blum) at the offensive slots, which is pretty tricky to pull off in a 13-team NL-only league. Going on the theory that finding pitchers with jobs and hoping some of them break out, it's not a bad plan. He'll have to trade and FAAB, but I think it's a viable plan.

But I think you're right on the value of past stats. They are helpful at interpreting what a player will do but are incomplete at best about what they can predict. Which is why the scouting info is so important. Pedigree matters to a certain extent - not only are former first-round picks more likely to have the necessary "tools" to do the job, but their franchises are also more likely to give them second, third and fourth chances to get the job done, more so than their 10th round diamond in the rough.

I'll leave with this question for both you and for the readers to answer in the comments. Ron Shandler first posed the question at the Los Angeles presentation of his First Pitch Forum. Where are you most likely to look for breakouts? That is, what category of player are you more willing to spend a few bucks going for the riskier breakout player and which categories are you going to choose to spend "safe" dollars in? Is it more likely to find a power breakout, a speed breakout, or a pitching breakout? Or are you more agnostic in your attempt to find that guy?

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