The Z Files: Top 350 Hitting Outliers

The Z Files: Top 350 Hitting Outliers

This article is part of our The Z Files series.

One of my favorite site contributions is being part of the roundtable rankings that generate the Top-350 Rotowire Fantasy Baseball Composite Rankings. Along with Jeff Erickson, Derek Van Riper, Clay Link and Tim Heaney, we recently posted our initial rankings for the 2017 season.

Not only do I contribute to the list, I use it in my personal draft prep. The first thing I do is find the players where my rank is an outlier, in either direction. These players are now re-examined to see if something was missed. Sometimes an adjustment is necessary, while in other cases a buying opportunity presents itself when the initial placement is confirmed. Today we'll review some players that appear higher or lower on my rankings, after I subjected them to further review.

To put things in perspective, here's a brief outline of the approach I take with the rankings. As most of you know, I get intimate with spreadsheets, generating numbers-driven projections and rankings. However, my cheat sheet is not just ranking the players by auction dollars and taking one from the top. Yeah, that's the foundation, but there are two critical additions that shape the list: game theory and market comparison.

Game theory involves looking at the overall landscape and identifying clusters of positions or types of players to maximize drafting efficiency. This topic will be covered in detail in future episodes of the Z Files as well as the podcast but in brief, it's what most recognize as tier drafting.

One of my favorite site contributions is being part of the roundtable rankings that generate the Top-350 Rotowire Fantasy Baseball Composite Rankings. Along with Jeff Erickson, Derek Van Riper, Clay Link and Tim Heaney, we recently posted our initial rankings for the 2017 season.

Not only do I contribute to the list, I use it in my personal draft prep. The first thing I do is find the players where my rank is an outlier, in either direction. These players are now re-examined to see if something was missed. Sometimes an adjustment is necessary, while in other cases a buying opportunity presents itself when the initial placement is confirmed. Today we'll review some players that appear higher or lower on my rankings, after I subjected them to further review.

To put things in perspective, here's a brief outline of the approach I take with the rankings. As most of you know, I get intimate with spreadsheets, generating numbers-driven projections and rankings. However, my cheat sheet is not just ranking the players by auction dollars and taking one from the top. Yeah, that's the foundation, but there are two critical additions that shape the list: game theory and market comparison.

Game theory involves looking at the overall landscape and identifying clusters of positions or types of players to maximize drafting efficiency. This topic will be covered in detail in future episodes of the Z Files as well as the podcast but in brief, it's what most recognize as tier drafting. For example, if there are several second baseman ranked closely together in your rankings you can focus on other positions as that cluster approaches, secure in the knowledge you'll get a keystone sacker in a good spot later.

Market comparison is the impetus for having a player being considered "my guy". Every year, there's someone I gravitate towards because I have them ranked ahead of the market. Recent examples are Kole Calhoun, A.J. Pollock and Ketel Marte. Usually the reason is playing time based as opposed to skills oriented. In short, I expect "my guy" to play more than you do. There are exceptions; sometimes my guy is boring and under the radar. I have a feeling 2017's mancrush will be of that ilk (to be discussed below).

Weaving this all together, I'll alter my objective rankings based on player or categorical tiers as well as positioning "my guys" somewhere between my raw rank and where the market is likely to grab the player. Obviously, all draft lists are fluid, but it's my best approximation of the earliest I'll take a player if available, incorporating global knowledge of the player inventory and anticipating draft flow.

As mentioned, this process will be discussed ad nauseum in the coming weeks and months, so let's jump into some of the sticks I like more or less than my esteemed colleagues. Next week we'll look at some of the arms.

Bryce Harper, OF, Washington Nationals (average rank 14.2, my rank 21): There's no doubt Harper's ceiling is the top player in fantasy. Maybe this is wrong, but I don't feel I need Harper at his best to win. Others approach this differently, especially in high-stakes contests, and that's fine. I see an inventory that's stacked at the top but thins very quickly, and I don't want to sacrifice an early pick or a large chunk of my auction budget on potential. There will be plenty of chances to throw darts later. From a more practical angle, many see Harper's increased running last season as a parachute, whereas I'm skeptical he'll continue to rack up the steals, at least to that degree.

Anthony Rizzo, 1B, Chicago Cubs (average rank 14.2, my rank 10): The difference may not seem huge but keep in mind the delta between the players is greatest at the top, so a five or six spot difference early is equivalent to a round or two in the middle of a draft. My colleagues all have Rizzo 14th-16th. What caught my eye when reevaluating the Cubs star after noting the discrepancy in the rankings was that Wrigley Field played worse than AT&T Park for left-handed power in 2016, yet Rizzo slugged to a career-high mark. My little black box recognizes this, so when it spews out 2017 expectations, its baseline is probably higher than others. This reveals something about my philosophy. The roundtable ranks Rizzo and Harper identically, but I have the former at 10 and the latter at 21. The takeaway is we all want to find the edge. I trust my evaluation process enough not to have to draft potential, at least early.

Edwin Encarnacion, 1B, Free Agent (average rank 20.2, my rank 30): There are two forces in play, one objective, the other subjective. By the numbers, Encarnacion has put up huge stats in one of the most favorable hitting environments in the league the past several seasons. Until he signs, my projection is park and team neutral. This hurts him relative to the field. If Encarnacion were to sign into a similar situation to the one he's enjoyed, his rank would improve. Then again, it also could worsen. The other reason is game theory. I'm not afraid to fade first base. It's not that the position is extremely deep; it's not. It's more the top of the pool is loaded with younger but still reliable talent at other positions, in tandem with a handful of intriguing later speculative first base plays like Tommy Joseph, Dan Vogelbach, Tyler White, C.J. Cron and Rowdy Tellez. You can take Harper, I'll roll the dice later.

Robinson Cano, 2B, Seattle Mariners (average rank 22.8, my rank 38): Obviously, none of us expect Cano to repeat last season's spike to 39 homers. My landing point is still lower than my colleagues. In 2016, the veteran second baseman elevated more batted balls along with sporting a near career-high home run per fly ball mark. If either falls back, so will his homers. However, the most telling metric is fly ball distance. Our friends at Fangraphs have correlated home run output to fly ball distance and last season, Cano recorded his lowest fly ball distance since 2013. Sometimes calling a player lucky is lazy, hack analysis. In this case, I humbly feel it's warranted.

A.J. Pollock, OF, Arizona Diamondbacks (average rank 23, my rank 15): Here we go again: Zola loves Pollock. I guess I'm guilty. There are two differences in opinion with regards to the fly-chaser in the desert. Some see 2015 as the outlier in terms of performance. I see it as a continuation of what he did in limited playing time the previous season. Shoot, Pollock only played two weeks this summer yet still hit a pair of dingers while swiping four bags. The other concern is health. Is Pollock injury prone or accident prone? In 2014, Pollock had his hand broken by a Johnny Cueto pitch. This past spring, he fractured his elbow sliding, though to be fair he suffered a similar injury in 2011. It's not a perfect parallel, but Jeff Bagwell was once considered injury prone too, missing significant time twice early in his career after being hit in the hand with pitches. I'm not calling for Pollock to have a Hall of Fame resume, just saying I'll take him on the turn in 2017 drafts, setting up a solid power/speed combination.

Nelson Cruz, OF, Seattle Mariners (average rank 30, my rank 47): I know Cruz has been both durable and productive for five straight season, only missing time in 2013 due to a suspension. Forty homers are a lock, which is indeed exactly what I project. So why the lower rank? David Ortiz is the exception, not the rule. Hitters are supposed to start trailing off when they reach 35, and while I'm keeping Cruz's homers high, I see a drop in average to the .270 range, which in turn impacts run production.

Kevin Kiermaier, OF, Tampa Bay Rays (average rank 234.6, my rank 165): Move over Kole and Ketel, make room for Kevin. There's a good chance Kiermaier will be considered my 2017 bromance. What can I say, I have a thing for outfielders that pump up steals without giving away too much in power. The Rays love their platoons but if healthy, Kiermaier's glove keeps him in the lineup. That said, once the market better establishes Kiermaier's average draft position, I may push him down a few rounds. For example, if 235 is about his ADP, I'd look to jump at around 190.

Hopefully that wets your whistle a bit. As always, please feel free to question any player's rank in the comments and I'll be happy to reply. Next week we'll hit on some outlying hurlers.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Todd Zola
Todd has been writing about fantasy baseball since 1997. He won NL Tout Wars and Mixed LABR in 2016 as well as a multi-time league winner in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. Todd is now setting his sights even higher: The Rotowire Staff League. Lord Zola, as he's known in the industry, won the 2013 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Article of the Year award and was named the 2017 FSWA Fantasy Baseball Writer of the Year. Todd is a five-time FSWA awards finalist.
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