Injury-Prone Players (Fantasy Baseball)
Way back in 2011, when I was writing for Bleacher Report, I dubbed the term “Ian Kinsler Syndrome” to describe my proclivity for drafting injury-prone players in standard 10- and 12-team mixed leagues.
Kinsler has remarkably missed fewer games per year as he’s gotten older, but the rationale for drafting injury-prone players is as strong today as it was then. We just need a different name for it. Let’s go with “Adrian Beltre Syndrome.”
Now that I’ve renamed my disease, let me try to spread it to you. In mixed leagues of 12 teams or fewer, there are bound to be plenty of useful players available on the waiver wire at just about every position. So if one of your starters gets hurt, the “replacement level” player you can add to take their place will probably be a pretty decent option.
That means that you should prioritize elite per-game performers in your drafts, even if they are players who are likely to miss some time during the season. This is particularly true in rotisserie leagues, where there are no playoffs and there tend to be caps on innings pitched and games played.
To illustrate the point, let’s go back to Adrian Beltre. Last season, Beltre missed the first two months of the season, ultimately playing in 94 games and hitting .312 with 47 runs scored, 17 home runs, 71 RBIs, and one stolen base in 340 at-bats. If you drafted him and paired him with a replacement-level third baseman like Eugenio Suarez, you probably did quite well for yourself.
On the year, Suarez hit .260 with 87 runs, 26 home runs, 82 RBIs, and four steals in 534 at-bats over 156 games. If you pro-rate that to cover the 68 games that Beltre missed, it results in a line of .260/38/11/36/2 over 233 at-bats.
Add that to Beltre’s numbers and you are getting a line of .290/85/28/107/3 out of your third basemen. The stats produced by the Beltre/Suarez duo look a lot like those of Anthony Rendon (.301/81/25/100/7) or even Kris Bryant (.296/111/29/73/7), and at a fraction of the draft-day cost.
As I mentioned in my Bleacher Report piece, the one big caveat here is that you need to make sure you are actually getting a Draft-Day discount on injury-prone players. At the time, the poster boy for overdrafted injury risks was Josh Hamilton; now, it could be Bryce Harper or Giancarlo Stanton, who we’ll get to in a bit.
Now that I’ve attempted to infect you with “Adrian Beltre Syndrome,” let’s take a look at some injury-prone players available in the early and middle portions of drafts, and try to figure out which ones might be major bargains — and which ones aren’t worth the risk at their average draft position.
Early Round Picks
Bryce Harper (OF – WSH) and Giancarlo Stanton (OF – NYY): Harper and Stanton are both going in the top-10 picks in drafts so far, but I have both of them just outside of my top 12 because they are significant injury risks. As I’ve mentioned before, I try to avoid riskier players in the early rounds of fantasy drafts, because I want to build a solid foundation that allows me to gain an edge by making smart picks in the later rounds.
Yes, either Harper or Stanton could easily be the number one player in fantasy baseball if they stay healthy, but that is a massive “if.” Even when accounting for minor league games played during their rookie seasons, Harper has topped 140 games just three times in six seasons, while Stanton has done it three times in eight seasons. Simply put, you’re unlikely to get any injury discount on Harper or Stanton, so the “Adrian Beltre Syndrome” doesn’t apply here.
Clayton Kershaw (SP – LAD): We’ve reached the point where Kershaw’s chronic back issues have to put him into the injury-prone bucket. After throwing at least 198 innings for six straight seasons, he has tossed just 149 and 175 innings over the last two years, respectively.
But unlike Harper or Stanton, Kershaw has made such a huge impact when healthy that he’s still finished as a top-10 player and top-four pitcher each of those two injury-shortened seasons (Harper and Stanton have come nowhere near first-round value in any of their injury-shortened seasons). Moreover, Kershaw’s injury concerns are not arm-related, so he remains a good bet to be healthy for most of the year even if he does miss a few weeks with back soreness. And that makes the best pitcher on the planet well worth an early-to-mid-first round pick.
Stephen Strasburg (SP – WSH) and Noah Syndergaard (SP – NYM): Strasburg and Syndergaard are probably the two starting pitchers with the most plausible upside to compete with the “big four” at the position (Kershaw, Max Scherzer, Corey Kluber, and Chris Sale), but they both also come with major injury risk. Strasburg has only thrown over 183 innings once in his six full Major League seasons, and he’s averaged just 150 innings over the last three years. Syndergaard, meanwhile, has never thrown over 184 innings in a professional season at any level, and is coming off a lost year where he threw just 30 1/3 innings due to a torn lat muscle.
Given the lack of bonafide aces in baseball these days, the questions marks surrounding other second-tier fantasy starters, and the ability for elite starting pitchers to pay off in just 175 innings or so, Strasburg and Syndergaard are both reasonable gambles after the top four starters are off the board. I currently have them ranked fifth and sixth at the position, respectively, but would hesitate to take them before the middle of the third round in 12-team mixed leagues.
J.D. Martinez (OF – BOS): Martinez isn’t generally thought of as a major injury risk, but the 30-year old outfielder has only topped 123 games at the Major League level once in his career. He has been really excellent when he’s been on the field, though. In fact, Martinez has outscored both Harper and Stanton in per game value in 5×5 roto leagues over each of the last two seasons, according to Baseball Monster. He’s going about 15 picks later than Harper and Stanton in drafts (ADP 22.7), which sounds like a solid buying opportunity.
Middle Round Picks (Besides Beltre)
James Paxton (SP – SEA): Paxton has never thrown over 172 innings at any professional level, but he sure looked like an ace in 136 innings for the Mariners last season (2.98 ERA, 1.10 WHIP, 10.3 K/9). His FIP and xFIP backed up that level of performance, too, so he looks like an excellent value in 10- and 12-team mixed leagues where the quality of replacement-level starting pitcher is relatively high. I’d rather take on Paxton’s injury risk than the performance-related concerns of starting pitchers like Robbie Ray, Carlos Martinez, Dallas Keuchel, Aaron Nola, and Jose Quintana, who are all going before him in drafts.
Rich Hill (SP – LAD): Hill is an even bigger injury risk than Paxton, and he’s not a great bet to throw even 140 innings, so he shouldn’t go quite as early in drafts. But make no mistake, Hill is an elite option when healthy. In 245 innings over the last two seasons combined, Hill has put up 24 wins with a 2.78 ERA, 1.05 WHIP, and 10.8 K/9.
So figure you are getting half a season of a dominant ace, which you can then combine with a great waiver wire pickup, a boring-but-solid innings eater, or even a bunch of streaming options. If you play your cards right, you should come out way ahead in 10- and 12-team mixed leagues.
Justin Turner (3B – LAD): Turner is a lot like Beltre; he’s unlikely to play more than 130-140 games, but his combination of solid power and elite batting average ability makes him a starting-caliber third baseman in all fantasy leagues when healthy. However, Turner is currently the ninth third baseman off the board at an ADP of 66.2. He’s not a bad pick there, but you won’t get anything close to the injury-related discount on him that you’ll get on Beltre.
Yoenis Cespedes (OF – NYM): Cespedes has only exceeded 135 games in two of his six seasons, and last year he missed considerably more time due to a quadriceps injury that limited him to just 81 games. Still, Cespedes has been a very consistent source of power and batting average when healthy, particularly over the last three seasons.
Even if he misses a couple dozen games, Cespedes could approach 30 home runs with a batting average in the .280-.290 range. He’s going around Pick 83 in drafts, so the injury discount isn’t massive, but he’s still a decent value there in leagues (especially three-outfielder leagues) where you’ll have other good options to replace him if/when he hits the DL.
Ryan Braun (OF – MIL): Braun hasn’t been the same MVP-caliber player since his 2013 PED suspension, but he’s still quite good when healthy. Interestingly, his durability has suffered at least as much as his on-field performance has since the suspension; he regularly played 150 games or more before the suspension and has yet to top 140 games in the four years since.
Like Cespedes, Braun should provide reasonably elite production on a per-game basis, perhaps with a little less power than Cespedes but more speed. He’s going a bit later than Cespedes in drafts, so he’s a pretty decent value in shallow mixed leagues.
Miguel Cabrera (1B – DET): Cabrera has been an incredibly durable player for most of his lengthy career, but he’s now missed over 30 games in two of the last three seasons. There are some performance-related concerns for Cabrera that don’t exist for Cespedes or Braun (such as declining power and contact numbers), but there’s also still elite upside, as he displayed in his 2016 season, where he finished as the 18th-most valuable player in 5×5 roto leagues. Cabrera is going in the same general portion of drafts as Cespedes and Braun, and all three could end up as significant values for fantasy managers with “Adrian Beltre Syndrome.”