Should You Pay Attention to Fall League or Winter Ball? (Fantasy Baseball)
To answer the question posed in the title of this piece, of course! Player evaluations, especially for prospects such as those playing in the Arizona Fall League (AFL), are ever changing with new data. Winter ball is a different animal and includes a wide mix of younger players looking to gain more experience, others in the middle of their careers trying to reinvent themselves, and veterans near the end of the line who are attempting to showcase they have something left in the tank. Simply following box scores isn’t the best way to approach paying attention to the AFL and winter leagues. Since the AFL and winter leagues are so different, I’ll address both separately below. However, the idea that box-score scouting isn’t digging deep enough applies to both.
Arizona Fall League (AFL)
The AFL features prospects from every MLB team annually. It’s a hot spot for scouting due to the sheer volume of talented players squaring off in one spot. It’s a six-team league, and, as MLB’s offseason leagues landing page describes it, it’s “the ‘finishing school’ for the game’s elite prospects.” The Baseball Cube provides some background on the AFL, and it also has a list of alumni from 1999-2018. As you’ve probably guessed, the list is a star-studded collection of players. In addition to featuring the top prospects, the leagues also features lower-tier prospects who are on the cusp of playing in “The Show.” The latter collection of prospects doesn’t do much to get the juices flowing, but they are players who could play their way into deep-league consideration in dynasty, keeper, and even re-draft formats.
Though the AFL is bursting at the seams with talent, it’s important to note the prospects competing against each other might be at different points in their development. Furthermore, prospects are often tasked with improving weaknesses in their game along their developmental path, and playing in the AFL is no exception. Using an example, a pitcher might be asked to throw their weakest offering more often than their comfortable in an effort to speed up the pitch’s development. With that in mind, it’s important to keep tabs on scouting reports from reputable outlets instead of just relying on box-score scouting. For bookmarking purposes, some of my favorite outlets for prospect news and scouting report updates are 2080 Baseball, Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, FanGraphs, and MLB Pipeline. Some of the content at the linked sites is behind a paywall, but a lot of the content is free. Each of those outlets routinely provides updates on AFL happenings, and keeping tabs of velocity increases/decreases for pitchers, new pitch usage, increased power from hitters, or better base running/stealing acumen displayed by hitters can help savvy gamers get ahead of the curve on re-evaluating prospects for dynasty league purposes.
There are a number of winter leagues, including the Australian Baseball League, Dominican Winter League, Mexican Pacific League, Puerto Rican League, and Venezuelan Winter League. The talent level in those leagues vary wildly from top to bottom, making box-score scouting even more futile. Having said that, something like a power outburst from a player could be a harbinger of things to come.
Perhaps the most noteworthy example of a player teasing a previously unseen talent level in a winter league is J.D. Martinez‘s offseason following the 2013 season. Martinez raked on his way up the minor-league ladder, but after 975 plate appearances from 2011-2013 to begin his big-league career, he was only a .251/.300/.387 hitter. Adjusting for park factors and offensive environment, his work was 13% below league average, as represented by his 87 wRC+, per FanGraphs.
He needed to do something to turn his career around. He did. Martinez completely reworked his swing. Brian McTaggart of MLB.com wrote about Martinez’s revamped swing back in February, 2014. A few years later, Scott Lauber of ESPN wrote an in-depth article diving further into Martinez’s changed swing and approach that helped turn him into a stud. In 106 plate appearances in the Venezuelan Winter League in 2013-2014, Martinez hit .312/.387/.570 with six homers, according to Baseball-Reference. The power output was unlike anything previously showcased by Martinez. Without context, it could have been deemed fluky and the product of playing against soft competition. However, those who followed his offseason and were aware of the swing changes (or those who kept tabs on him in the spring after his big winter league showing and saw McTaggart’s piece, for instance) were likely more inclined to buy into him being a different hitter worth adding or tracking in 2014. Martinez is a unique and extreme success story, but he’s not alone.
Hunter Pence made swing changes and running style changes, and Alex Pavlovic of NBC Sports Bay Area wrote about them at the end of November, 2018. Pence didn’t light the world on fire, but he hit respectably when accounting for the league average in the Dominican Winter League, as Kenny Kelly discussed in a piece for McCovey Chronicles at SB Nation. Interestingly, Kelly pointed out that San Diego slugger Franmil Reyes led the Dominican Winter League in OPS. Reyes smacked 16 homers with a .280/.340/.498 slash in 285 plate appearances for the Padres as a rookie in 2018, so the power outburst didn’t come out of nowhere. However, perhaps in retrospect, the Dominican Winter League showing should have helped generate even more buzz when coupled with his rookie campaign. Getting back to Pence, his work in the Dominican Winter League was good enough to help land him a minor-league deal with the Rangers. Perhaps as a result of becoming more comfortable with his swing changes, he raked in the spring to the tune of a .315/.383/.574 line with three homers in 60 plate appearances. His strong spring helped him earn a job on the active roster, and the 36-year-old veteran has enjoyed an outstanding and surprising season at the dish.
Paying attention to the AFL and winter leagues isn’t guaranteed to pay off immediately. As I’ve illustrated with some examples, being in the loop on AFL and winter league happenings can pave the way to unearthing some fantasy gems.