Baseball Draft Kit: Early Draft Pool Observations

Baseball Draft Kit: Early Draft Pool Observations

This article is part of our Baseball Draft Kit series.

As you may have heard, power is up in baseball - significantly so. 2016 featured a whopping 5,610 homers hit over 4,860 games, good for 1.16 per game. Only the 2000 season saw more homers hit in a single year. Led by Mark Trumbo's 47 homers, eight players hit 40-plus and 38 hit 30 or more round-trippers. This upward trend started late in the 2015 season, arresting a drought where homers dipped in 2014 all the way down to 4,186, or 0.86 per game.

What has caused this latest, seemingly abrupt power surge, and is it sustainable? It's a fascinating topic and one that affects everything I do in projecting and valuing hitters. The most obvious yet least likely to prove with a smoking gun explanation is that the balls are livelier (and how's that for a less charged term than 'juiced'?). I'm not the first to speculate on that possibility - Eno Sarris in particular has spent a lot of time and detail investigating it. Another possibility is that players are consciously changing their swing path to hit more homers, as the risk/reward calculations in today's game has changed. Paul Sporer from FanGraphs discussed this hypothesis on our XM show, and I've had discussions about it with Sammy Reid from Fantasy Insiders as well. It's also possible that as velocity in the game has increased, so has the exit velocity whenever a batter makes solid contact. There are other good explanations I'm sure, but I don't think we'll

As you may have heard, power is up in baseball - significantly so. 2016 featured a whopping 5,610 homers hit over 4,860 games, good for 1.16 per game. Only the 2000 season saw more homers hit in a single year. Led by Mark Trumbo's 47 homers, eight players hit 40-plus and 38 hit 30 or more round-trippers. This upward trend started late in the 2015 season, arresting a drought where homers dipped in 2014 all the way down to 4,186, or 0.86 per game.

What has caused this latest, seemingly abrupt power surge, and is it sustainable? It's a fascinating topic and one that affects everything I do in projecting and valuing hitters. The most obvious yet least likely to prove with a smoking gun explanation is that the balls are livelier (and how's that for a less charged term than 'juiced'?). I'm not the first to speculate on that possibility - Eno Sarris in particular has spent a lot of time and detail investigating it. Another possibility is that players are consciously changing their swing path to hit more homers, as the risk/reward calculations in today's game has changed. Paul Sporer from FanGraphs discussed this hypothesis on our XM show, and I've had discussions about it with Sammy Reid from Fantasy Insiders as well. It's also possible that as velocity in the game has increased, so has the exit velocity whenever a batter makes solid contact. There are other good explanations I'm sure, but I don't think we'll ever fully isolate a reason, absent a major league executive or baseball manufacturer admitting that the ball specifications were changed.

Meanwhile stolen bases have remained extremely low, at only 0.52 per game, the same rate as 2015. What should our response be to this trend? Last year I thought it might be valuable to push up the elite stolen base players, but I'm not so sure that was proper advice. As Chris Liss and I have discussed on-air, when fewer stolen bases are available in the pool, it takes much less to compete in the category, and even fewer still to at least steal (pun intended) a few points there, as it's the offensive category most likely to be punted by one or two teams in your league. Moreover, stolen bases are a stand-alone category. Getting them has very little correlation with our other roto stats - runs alone get helped, and that tie isn't as strong as you might think. Unless the room as a whole is going to give rabbits like Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton a wholesale discount, I'm less inclined to buy or draft them.

Instead, I think it makes more sense to hoard the plentiful categories, as articulated by Chris. Attack the homer and RBI categories, as you need more of them to gain a standings point than you have in a long time. In recent years we had seen pitcher-heavy strategies become more in vogue, and fewer overall auction dollars spent on hitters. That's almost certainly going to reverse in our 2017 leagues - too many of the top starting pitchers flopped, just as too many of the top wide receivers did in fantasy football.

One thing us fantasy leaguers do quite well is to follow the herd, and I'm sure the herd will migrate in that direction.

However, I'm curious to see whether that translates into the top sluggers fetching more dollars, or whether the second or third tier hitters will get chased up instead? When I ran the dollar values for the magazine, I found that even with accounting for the pool spending more as a whole on hitting, the top tier of hitters was flatter than previous years. It makes sense - if you have just 11 hitters knock out 30 homers (2014), as opposed to 38, a 30-homer season is worth a helluva lot more. However, what I think will happen is that my league mates will prefer to go hard after the elite sluggers with the extra dollar, and hope that they can find the next Freddy Galvis or Brad Miller on the cheap to complement their star purchase. As always, reading the room on how your competition is acting will be a critical skill.

Arms Race

We've documented in this space how aggressively starting pitching has been pushed up in recent years, and last year might have been the peak of that phenomenon. In my 15-team NFBC Main Event league, a whopping 16 starting pitchers were taken in the first three rounds. The previous year 11 pitches went over that same span, and the 16th starter didn't go until pick 5.6. In 2014, Clayton Kershaw didn't get taken until pick 2.3! OK - that was the year he got hurt pitching in the Australia game that took place before the Main Event draft, and his price was deflated everywhere. But no other pitcher was selected before him, and 12 starting pitchers went in the first three rounds.

If the early 2017 NFBC ADP data is any indication, there's been some pullback from this trend. Only nine pitchers have an average draft positions higher than 45 (i.e., the top three rounds), though three more are within the top 49. We don't get to the 16th starting pitcher until pick 67 on average. At least in the fantasy baseball world, the arms race appears to have cooled down. Keep in mind that the NFBC is a no-trading league, so there's a greater incentive to draft a balanced team, and thus push up starting pitching.

Problem Players

With certain players a disconnect can exist between placing a value on a player, based on his projection for the season, and ranking where you want to draft him. Usually the problem exists with a player that has a higher risk profile but also a higher ceiling, so that your projection for him comes in well below where you want him (and where he's likely to go). Take Bryce Harper, for instance.

Harper followed his 2015 MVP season by hitting .243 with 24 homers and 86 RBI, albeit with a career-high 21 stolen bases. He basically gave you the same return on investment as Gregory Polanco for three times the price. He's been in the majors for at least parts of five seasons, hit .330 in his MVP year but otherwise has never topped .274 or 24 homers. If you use any formula-based projection system, with recent history as your inputs, you're not going to get a projection that makes him a first-round guy. My current projection has him hitting .278 with 29 homers, 89 RBI, 96 runs and 14 stolen bases. Steamer is a little more optimistic, at .286/31/95/96/16. Ranking the players strictly by their projection, Harper isn't a first-rounder with either projection, though he comes in around 15-16 with Steamer's projection.

Yet there's a wealth of scouting data, his 2015 season and our own eyes that suggests that he's more than capable of having another monster year. And chances are that in every league he's going to go higher than where his projection suggests that he go. Sure enough, in the NFBC he has an ADP of 10.42, with a range from 8-to-13. The discount here is 5-10 picks, not a round or two. His ADP probably is going to rise once/if he starts launching bombs in spring training.

Harper is an extreme example, but there are others like him. Two of the most notable are Giancarlo Stanton and Kyle Schwarber. One might say with Stanton (ADP 40) that "the only problem is health," but health is always the issue with him, and it's not just the freak hit-by-pitch injuries that strike him down, either. Of course I have my own inputs on the projection - they're not formulaic, though they do draw from previous years as a starting point. But I feel a certain responsibility to not always put in what I perceive to be a player's 95th percentile projection if I like him, and of course less so when I don't trust him. So my projection on Stanton falls well short of where he'll go, and even my top 200 rank (50) that pushes him above his projection still falls short. Schwarber (71) is even tougher, as he's (still) navigating a new position, one that he wasn't cleared to play in the playoffs. He may never get catcher eligibility again, and he might still suffer setbacks playing defense.

This is just an example of the considerations we take when projecting and ranking players, and of course why roto baseball is such a great game. If it was just a case of pumping in your formula, it would be an easy game. To really succeed, you should use our outputs as a starting point. Learn what the player does, why you like or dislike him, and where he generally slots. Then you should compile your own ranks, to fit your own preferences and risk tolerance. There's nothing worse than missing out on 'your guy' because you thought you could get him later. Not everyone has time to do projections or values, but your own list is sufficient - and sometimes preferable, to block out the noise.

This article appears in the 2017 RotoWire Fantasy Baseball Guide. You can order a copy here.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Jeff Erickson
Jeff Erickson is a co-founder of RotoWire and the only two-time winner of Baseball Writer of the Year from the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. He's also in the FSWA Hall of Fame. He roots for the Reds, Bengals, Red Wings, Pacers and Northwestern University (the real NU).
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