What You Can Learn From Last Year’s Team (2020 Fantasy Baseball)
Win or lose, every season uncovers a handful of lessons for fantasy gamers to carry over into the next year.
January is typically a time when everyone takes themselves to task in hopes of self-improvement. Maybe you skipped the gym too many times or gorged on too many midnight snacks. Or perhaps you neglected pitching early and reached for Nick Pivetta.
Nobody is perfect, and no amount of research and reflection will make that goal attainable. We’re all bound to be one year late on a 2019 sleeper and a year too early on a 2020 target. Injuries and bad luck will strike. Even when reviewing a championship squad, one will find a handful of whiffs. (I may have been one of those fools who drafted Pivetta. Let’s move on.)
We can only do our best, and what better way to begin than by examining past successes and shortcomings? Looking back on a power-laden 2019, here are some general takeaways to carry over into the upcoming season.
Home Runs Aren’t Enough
Do you want to know the terrifying truth about baseball’s power surge, or do you want to see them sock a few dingers? As just about every fantasy player knows, the MLB as a whole clobbered its home run record in 2019.
This made power easier to find in 2019. Unfortunately, that was the case for everyone in your league. A high supply thus made it tougher than ever to lead the way in home runs. It also made pedestrian performers out of some mashers despite their ability to knock ample balls into the bleachers. Hunter Renfroe, Gary Sanchez, Mitch Garver, Renato Nunez, Kole Calhoun, Randal Grichuk, Rougned Odor, and Daniel Vogelbach all finished outside the top-95 hitters in FantasyPros’ Value Based Rank despite smacking at least 30 long balls.
So far, NFBC drafters want no part of these one-dimensional sluggers. Only Sanchez and Garver — NFBC is a two-catcher format — are going inside the top-225 picks. Drafters appear to be deprioritizing power, arguably too much so. Edwin Encarnacion (87th in VBR) has a 202 ADP despite taking his long pedigree of 30-homer, 100-RBI campaigns to a refurbished White Sox lineup.
If last year’s trends stick, gamers will need more to stay competitive. Don’t avoid Miguel Sano or Kyle Schwarber in the middle of the draft because “anyone can hit 30 homers these days.” Those two bring easy 40-bomb upside to the table at an understated entry point. Their hefty hard-hit rates and keen batting eyes also distinguish them from the bland one-category sluggers unlikely to help any team, real or fantasy.
Searching for the new market inefficiency, MLB teams are diverting their focus to more well-rounded, versatile position players. As a result, home runs aren’t enough to lock down a role. In fact, few of those hitters listed above are guaranteed full-time jobs in 2020. This could finally be the year the Rangers give up on Odor; I’m inclined to beat them to the punch.
Don’t Be Afraid of Rookies
My biggest 2020 shortcoming was shying away from unknown hotshots. In the ultimate quest for value, I feared overpaying for rookies who lacked guaranteed playing time, or even a roster spot.
This hesitation proved wise when passing on Vladimir Guerrero Jr., who often went higher than Eugenio Suarez despite starting 2019 in the minors. If Luis Robert ends up costing a premium pick, don’t feel obligated to take the plunge.
The real profit came on spring standouts who forced their way onto the Opening Day roster. Prices quickly soared on Pete Alonso, Chris Paddack, and Fernando Tatis Jr. when they played their way to big league gigs. Once that happened, I feared paying a shiny new toy tariff. Big mistake. Even leaping a few rounds too early in late March for any of these neophytes would have paid handsomely. Throwing salt into the wound, a handful of my perceived high-floor value picks (Justin Smoak, Andrelton Simmons, or J.A. Happ) sunk into the abyss.
My main New Year’s Resolution for 2020 drafts is to exude some more guts in the late rounds (and on the waiver wire) when it comes to young talent. As teams continue to cut costs, more and more newcomers are getting the chance to play. In these circumstances, the rewards of snagging a star exceed the risk of dropping a late-round pick who flounders or stays stuck in the minors. Candidates for stock spikes this spring include Nick Madrigal, Dylan Carlson, and Michael Kopech.
In the case of major midseason call-ups a la Yordan Alvarez, the takeaway is to monitor the farm carefully and react before an impact prospect is promoted. Procrastinators, meanwhile, shouldn’t be shy about spending FAAB for a top-shelf player capable of winning a league if he reaches his peak abilities. The key is to not get blinded by middling newcomers a la Nicky Lopez and Cole Tucker.
The right prospect can help win your league. Just don’t go overboard on the kids…
The Old Folks Can Also Help
I nearly labeled this section, “Just draft Nelson Cruz already.”
Taking the mantle left behind by David Ortiz, the Twins’ designated hitter gets absurdly undervalued every year because of his age and lack of position. Every year, he offers a laughable profit. This data from FanGraphs’ Alex Chamberlain won’t shock anyone who keeps exploiting the discount:
ah, just querying who has generated the largest profit among hitters since 2014, and oh well would you look at that pic.twitter.com/SSeOU8eQeH
— Alex Chamberlain (@DolphHauldhagen) January 4, 2020
With help from 2019’s power surge, Cruz set personal highs in wRC+ (163) and wOBA (.417) with 41 homers. He finished as the 26th hitter in VBR after getting drafted well outside the top 50. Surely drafters have finally learned their lesson and … Nope. He has a ludicrously low No. 98 ADP in early NFBC drafts. Even his 62 ADP in a series of Pitcher List mock drafts represents a nice bargain.
Cruz is far from the only veteran to deliver at an age-related reduction. Zack Greinke, Hyun-Jin Ryu, Shin-Soo Choo, and Brett Gardner continued to provide immense returns to those willing to embrace the elderly. It’s far from a foolproof plan (see Joey Votto and Robinson Cano), but drafters should diversify their portfolio with some boring value to go along with their young upside plays.
Don’t Start the Closer Run, but Don’t Wait Too Long
Anyone who paid for Edwin Diaz and Blake Treinen is likely swearing to never again draft a closer in the early rounds. They would certainly be justified in not wanting to take the first or second stopper off the board.
Eschewing closers altogether, however, would be a misguided over-correction.
For the third straight season, 11 closers collected at least 30 saves in 2019. That’s down from 21 in 2015 and 16 in 2016. Furthermore, these category leaders weren’t readily available on the waiver wire. Taylor Rogers, who at least started 2019 as a committee candidate in Minnesota, was most likely the only one to go undrafted in the typical mixed league.
What can we learn from the sudden downfalls of Diaz and Treinen? When paying for saves, look for a track record to mitigate the position’s notorious fickleness. In the case of Kenley Jansen, some regression still wasn’t steep enough to cost him the ninth inning altogether.
Skip Kirby Yates and Josh Hader at their bloated prices, but carefully monitor the second grouping of potentially potent relief aces. That includes a more affordable Jansen, Ken Giles, and the best candidate for a 2018 Diaz breakout … Diaz. His NBC ADP has dropped to 132 after allowing 15 homers — he gave up as many in the past two years combined — and a 5.59 ERA last season. He maintained dominant stuff, however, with 99 strikeouts and a 17.8% swinging-strike rate. Instead of paying full freight for Yates or Hader, take the discount on a cheaper option who has already delivered elite returns.
Attaining one dependable closer will provide immense peace of mind when everyone in your league engages in a fierce, never-ending battle for saves on the waiver wire. The rise of committees could compel drafters to wait longer on the ancillary options and instead take end-of-draft fliers on players with the skills, but not a set role. This is easier to stomach when acquiring one reasonable anchor to avoid a doomsday scenario of punting the category by July.
Trust Your Gut
There are a lot of brilliant minds out there who offer indispensable fantasy advice. It’d be foolish to tune out all of those voices because you don’t always agree with their assessments.
Every decision, however, is ultimately your call. You have to live with the team. If the voice in your head — provided it’s backed by some logic — is telling you to ignore the consensus thought, trust your instincts.
Had I listened to many of my peers, I would have kept Jameson Taillon instead of Greinke in my home league last year. That decision probably would have cost me first place. For all the signs pointing upward for Taillon and downward for Greinke, I felt the former’s upside and latter’s floor were both greatly exaggerated.
While projections swayed this deliberation, I ultimately went with my gut. Of course, this could have been a different story if Taillon stayed healthy. Durability, however, was a major point working in Greinke’s favor. Maybe this is just a case of my risk aversion actually helping, but the most compelling case for Taillon was that smart people ranked him higher. That shouldn’t be enough. Unless, of course, you’re about to pass on Cruz before seeing my rankings, in which case please listen and don’t let some lucky opportunist steal him in the ninth round.