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Stathead Sagas: Opportunity Cost Heroes

Jack Moore

Jack Moore is a freelance sports writer based in Minneapolis who appears regularly at VICE Sports, The Guardian and Baseball Prospectus Milwaukee, among others. Follow him on Twitter @jh_moore.

Teams don't win baseball games in the first inning. Fantasy owners definitely don't win a fantasy league in the first round.

Yahoo publishes a list of fantasy MVPs as part of their fantasy game. These MVPs aren't necessarily the best players – that's measured in the column they call “Rank” on their player listings. Alternatively, there's our Actual Dollar Values page. Josh Hamilton leads at $60, followed by Adam Jones at $44 and Ryan Braun at $41 among hitters. Gio Gonzalez and Cole Hamels tie for the lead at $29 among pitchers, with $25 Justin Verlander and Lance Lynn running up.

The list that Yahoo presents as MVPs isn't so much a list of the players that have performed the best so far this season but instead a demonstration of the economics of fantasy baseball. To be specific, it demonstrates how important opportunity cost is when it comes to winning fantasy baseball leagues.

These MVPs are actually a list of the players that appear the most often on the top 500 Yahoo Public League teams. For this exercise, we'll look at Rotisserie leagues.14 players appear on at least 100 of these 500 teams:

PlayerPercent Teams
Josh Hamilton (Tex - OF)32.8
Edwin Encarnacion (Tor - 1B,3B)25.6
Fernando Rodney (TB - RP)25.2
Santiago Casilla (SF - RP)24.8
Jake Peavy (CWS - SP)24
Aroldis Chapman (Cin - RP)23
Adam Jones (Bal - OF)22.6
Jason Kipnis (Cle - 2B)22.2
Mike Aviles (Bos - 2B,3B,SS)22
Carlos Beltran (StL - OF)21.8
Carlos Ruiz (Phi - C)21.2
Brett Myers (Hou - SP,RP)21.2
Ryan Braun (Mil - OF)21
Gio Gonzalez (Was - SP)20.6

There are a few different types of players on this list. Let’s break it down.

Stars With Issues: Josh Hamilton, Ryan Braun, Carlos Beltran

Braun had an ADP essentially of 1 in drafts completed after his PED suspension was overturned. In drafts before that, he was falling at least to the third or fourth round, and he’s given top-5 performance easily.

Hamilton’s ability was never in doubt either, but his health has always been a concern. His games played totals as a Ranger: 89, 133, 121, 46.

Beltran has a similar problem. He was healthy for much of his career, but he’s now 35 years old and played just 145 games combined in 2010 and 2011 before playing in 142 last season. Still, his ADP should have been much higher than 127.5 – that’s a 10th-round pick to get a guy who posted the following OPS+ marks in the past five seasons: 125, 130, 144, 109, 155.

Surprise Closers: Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla, Aroldis Chapman, Brett Myers

Getting saves has been extremely difficult this year. Over half of the league has changed its closer from Opening Day and we’re only a little more than 25% of the way through the year. That makes guys like Jonathan Papelbon and Craig Kimbrel as valuable as advertised – those two were taken in the first eight to ten rounds in most standard mixed league drafts.

But you’ve been able to get that same value from Rodney and Casilla – completely undrafted according to Mock Draft Central ADP. Chapman and Myers, who were going in later rounds and even then only in leagues that are extremely hawkish with relievers, have been fantastic as well. Teams grabbing these guys off waivers have the same kind of saves production as Kimbrel and Papelbon and have the mid-round hitter or starter to go with it – little surprise, then, that they're performing so well.

Overachieving Starters: Jake Peavy, Gio Gonzalez

You don’t see Justin Verlander on this list, nor Roy Halladay nor Felix Hernandez nor Clayton Kershaw nor any of the top-flight aces. Cole Hamels is the highest of all the ace-types, at 19.4%, and then it goes all the way down to 14.2% for Verlander and Kershaw.

Peavy had an average draft position of 296.66 – undrafted in a large amount of standard mixed leagues – and he’s been nothing short of fantastic, posting a 3.07 ERA, 64 strikeouts, six wins and a ridiculous 0.92 WHIP. But those numbers aren’t significantly better than Verlander and Kershaw, and Hamels is significantly better in ERA (2.43) and comparable everywhere else. The difference is the opportunity cost necessary to get a guy like Peavy – in many cases, nothing, or maybe a draft pick in a round in the 20s.

Gonzalez is the rare pitcher who was taking in a single-digit round but still making a huge difference – he’s actually giving first round value at this point. He’s ranked 4th according to Yahoo and tied for 12th according to our dollar values. Gonzalez’s 11.53 K/9 is a clear leader among starters and the real reason for his success so far this year.

Breakout Kings: Edwin Encarnacion, Adam Jones, Jason Kipnis

Encarnacion has changed up his swing, following through with both hands on the handle. The result? His 17th home run Wednesday night tied his mark for the entire season. People were on him as a source of cheap power at third base, but nobody imagined this – he's looking like the new Jose Bautista in Toronto, always known as a right-handed power hitters' paradise.

Jones parlayed his early-season performance into a six-year contract extension this season. He was already something of a known commodity, with a 68.6 ADP indicating sixth or seventh round status. But he's been the #2 fantasy player by both Yahoo's measure and our own, and getting top-2 value out of even a pick as early as the fifth round can be a fast track to the top.

Kipnis was a guy keeper league players probably have had an eye on for a couple of years now, and he's been huge for the Indians in his first full season. He's hitting .280 with power, but the real kicker? 11 steals. Kipnis is providing five categories from essentially out of nowhere (157.4 ADP), an even bigger value in rotisserie style leagues.

(Mostly) Undrafted Heroes: Mike Aviles, Carlos Ruiz

Aviles's comes particularly from his multi-position eligibility – second base, third base and shortstop – and he's been a much better fantasy player than a real-life player. Despite a .286 OBP, Aviles has a decent .268 average and has been a counting stat monster: eight homers, 30 runs, 32 RBI and six steals. He was undrafted in most 12-team Yahoo leagues, making his four-category domination essentially free points for those who were prescient enough to pick him up.

Ruiz has played his way into what should be an all-star bid with the Phillies, with a .371/.422/.615 line through Wednesday's action. Like Aviles, Ruiz was undrafted in most leagues, and it's easy to see why. Never a homer total above 10. Never more than 55 RBI, or 50 runs, or six steals. One .300 average. He's exactly the kind of player whose value is killed by the 5x5 format. But this year he's given third or fourth round value off the waiver wire.

So what's the pattern here? Seasons aren't won by first round picks having first round years. They're won by supplementing those players with breakouts from elsewhere in the draft – particularly, off the waiver wire. Remember that as the season goes on, and most importantly, remember that when you head into your drafts next year. Don't lose focus as the draft slogs on, you might just win the league with that 19th round pick.