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Fantasy Baseball Draft Arbitrage (2021)

by Dan Harris | @danharris80 | Featured Writer
Feb 18, 2021

 
There comes a point in almost any fantasy baseball draft where you think to yourself, “How did that player last so long?” or “Ugh, I wouldn’t have wasted a pick on [Player X] if I knew I could get [Player Y] five rounds later.”

Practicing as many mock drafts as you can is an excellent way to get a sense of where and when you need to strike on a given player and where perhaps you can afford to wait for similar production. Here, we’ll look at players from each position whose expert consensus ranking and average draft position differ significantly but whose projections suggest perhaps shouldn’t be.

Note: I’ll be using FantasyPros Zeile Projections, which aggregates multiple projection systems.

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Starting Pitcher

Kenta Maeda (SP – MIN)  (Positional ECR: 17, Overall ADP: 52.8).  Projected Stats: 4.05  ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 181 Ks, 12 wins, 170 innings

v.

Jose Berrios (SP – MIN)  (Positional ECR: 28, Overall ADP: 85.3) Projected Stats: 4.05 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 188 Ks, 13 wins, 186 1/3 innings

The great Nick Pollack of PitcherList waxed poetic about Maeda on a recent episode of the FantasyPros Baseball Podcast, and with good reason. Maeda went 6-1 with a 2.70 ERA, a 0.73 WHIP, and a 32.3% strikeout rate last year and made a tangible change to his pitch mix, throwing far fewer fastball and more sliders and changeups (though his fastball was as effective as it had ever been last year, too).

But as much as he should be in for another very solid season, there’s going to be regression. He allowed just a .208 BABIP, had an 80.2% LOB rate and benefited from being able to feast on solely the NL and AL Central lineups. And his slider became more hittable as the season went on, likely in part to batters adjusting to his new pitch mix. So his projections are fair and what you should expect when drafting the veteran.

And they look a lot like the projections and past performance for his teammate Berrios. In fact, they’re nearly identical. The shortened season offered little to change Berrios’s outlook. His walk rate and strikeout rate both went up a tad, and he gave up a little harder contact, but overall, he was very much himself, with the vagaries of a small sample size.

Ignoring his awful cup of coffee in the majors in 2016, Berrios has pitched to a 3.89 ERA, a 1.21 WHIP, and a strikeout per inning in his career. There’s every reason to expect similar numbers this year from Maeda and Berrios, but the latter can be had more than 30 picks later.

Stephen Strasburg (SP – WAS) (Positional ECR: 19, Overall ADP: 66.8). Projected Stats: 3.87 ERA, 1.22 WHIP, 172 Ks, 11 wins, 161 innings

v.

Charlie Morton (SP – ATL) (Positional ECR: 34, Overall ADP: 118.8).  Projected Stats: 3.80 ERA, 1.25 WHIP, 174 Ks, 12 wins, 161 1/3 innings

The difference between Strasburg’s and Morton’s ADP is confusing. Both are veteran, high-strikeout pitchers. Both are coming off injury-plagued seasons that wiped out any measure of productivity (for Morton, at least until the playoffs). Both are likely to pitch around 160 innings.

Morton’s age is a concern to fantasy owners but look under the hood a bit. His velocity was way down early in the season (when he got hit hard) and trickled up after he returned, but he got back to his normal 95 MPH fastball in the postseason and totaled a 2.70 ERA. And he now moves out of the AL East to the more favorable National League. Strasburg is coming off carpal tunnel surgery, which is generally minor but for which we have little data about recovery for a major league pitcher.

In short, their projections are not only fair but actually favor Morton in every area but WHIP. With a 60-pick delta between the two, there’s every reason to pass on Strasburg at his ADP and instead take Morton in the double-digit rounds.

Relief Pitcher

Brad Hand (RP – WAS) (Positional ECR: 9, Overall ADP: 117.3)Projected Stats: 3.67 ERA, 1.18 WHIP, 77 Ks, 21 saves, 3 wins

v.

Craig Kimbrel (RP – CHC) (Positional ECR: 13, Overall ADP: 188.5)Projected Stats: 3.62 ERA, 1.21 WHIP, 80 Ks, 25 saves, 3 wins

First, kudos to the experts who have contributed their rankings to the ECR for ranking Kimbrel 13th at the position because my guess is the casual fantasy manager wants nothing to do with him. And, that’s not all that unfair based on Kimbrel’s numbers the past two seasons (6.00 ERA, 1.72 WHIP).

But look at his projections, and especially how they compare with Hand’s. And before you take issue with Kimbrel’s projected stats after his last two seasons, feel free to look at any projection system you’d like – they’re all in line. Kimbrel’s strong finish (1.42 ERA, 0.87 WHIP over his final 12 2/3 innings) is reason for optimism.

Even if you buy the performance, perhaps you’re concerned with Kimbrel’s projected saves total, given the Cubs’ likely struggles this year and Kimbrel being in the last year of his deal. That’s all well and good, but Hand is hardly a guarantee to rack up save totals. Indeed, he’s the only viable left-hander currently in the Nationals’ pen and almost certainly won’t see every save chance.

The fact is, there’s little separating the outlook for Hand and Kimbrel, but the latter is going more than 70 picks later in drafts. Passing on Hand in the 10th round will allow you to bolster the rest of your team.

Catcher

Willson Contreras (C – CHC)  (Positional ECR: 3, Overall ADP: 120.8)Projected Stats: .255, 61 runs, 18 home runs, 63 RBI, 3 steals)

v.

Christian Vazquez (C – BOS) (Positional ECR: 7, Overall ADP: 157)Projected Stats: .263, 55 runs, 15 home runs, 56 RBI, 6 steals)

Admittedly, there aren’t many places to take advantage of arbitrage at the catcher position. Once you get past J.T. Realmuto, there might be tiers, but the differences between them are incredibly small. There are also only about 13 startable catchers in single-catcher leagues, so the opportunity to bypass certain options in favor of late-round values is small.

But there’s little reason for Contreras to be drafted nearly 40 spots before Vazquez. Over their last 162 games played, their statistics compare as follows:

  • Contreras: .262, 31 home runs, 94 runs, 90 RBI, 2 steals
  • Vazquez: .284, 26 home runs, 78 runs, 82 RBI, 7 steals

Putting aside that no catcher is going to play 162 games per season, the difference between Contreras’s and Vazquez’s production is negligible. You can and should draft Contreras first, but there’s little reason to take Contreras at his spot when you can wait several rounds for Vazquez.

First Base

Matt Olson (1B – OAK) (Positional ECR: 9, Overall ADP: 86.3)Projected Stats: .242, 81 runs, 37 home runs, 98 RBI, 2 steals)

v.

Miguel Sano (1B – MIN) (Positional ECR: 20, Overall ADP: 185.3)Projected Stats: .235, 84 runs, 36 home runs, 93 RBI, 1 steal)

Insert the Spiderman meme where two identical versions are pointing at each other, and you have Olson and Sano. Both hit the ball extremely hard consistently. Both strike out so much that their batting averages are almost always going to be held in check and have a high variance. And both are a threat to hit 50 home runs over the course of a full season.

There’s admittedly more risk with Sano, of course. He’s been sent down to the minors on more than one occasion to address either his production or his weight. His already abysmal strikeout rate ballooned to a ridiculous 43.9% last season. And his career-high in games played is just 116.

But Sano ranked second in MLB in average exit velocity last year (95.2 MPH), second in hard-hit rate (57.3%), and first in barrel rate (22.9%). And although there’s always risk, Sano’s three-year deal with the Twins shows they’re committed to him, which should give him some safety from being relegated to the minors.

Olson is a fine pick in fantasy this year, particularly given that MLB will be “deadening” the ball, such that hitters who have massive power potential should gain a bit of an advantage. But unless Sano’s average draft position begins to rise, there’s almost no benefit to taking Olson where he’s going rather than waiting 100 picks to scoop up Sano.

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Second Base

Jeff McNeil (2B – NYM) (Positional ECR: 9, Overall ADP: 96.8)Projected Stats: .292, 82 runs, 18 home runs, 72 RBI, 6 steals)

v.

Jean Segura (2B – PHI)  (Positional ECR: 22, Overall ADP: 198)Projected Stats: .282, 74 runs, 14 home runs, 65 RBI, 11 steals)

There’s little doubt that every fantasy manager would prefer McNeil to Segura. McNeil is projected to best Segura in every category other than steals, has never hit below .311 in his career, is eligible at multiple positions, and will bat near the top of a strong Mets lineup.

But is it worth it to take McNeil at pick 97 when you can wait more than 100 spots for Segura? Yes, there’s some risk for Segura as he enters his age-31 season, and his strikeout rate (20.7%) jumped last year. But McNeil hit just four home runs in 2020, went 0-for-2 in stolen base attempts, and ranked near the bottom of the league in quality of contact last year.

In other words, although there’s risk for Segura, there’s plenty of reason to be concerned with McNeil’s potential power output. And although Segura ran less last year, he still ranks in the 87th percentile in sprint speed, so he should likely return to double digits in steals this season.

McNeil’s ADP is fair, as is Segura’s, given where they are in their careers, their lineup positions, and their surrounding cast. But there’s no reason to reach for McNeil if you see second base getting thin when you can get a similar player like Segura 100 picks later.

Third Base

Matt Chapman (3B – OAK) (Positional ECR: 11, Overall ADP: 112)Projected Stats: .249, 88 runs, 34 home runs, 90 RBI, 2 steals)

v.

Austin Riley (3B – ATL) (Positional ECR: 23, Overall ADP: 246.8)Projected Stats: .252, 73 runs, 28 home runs, 85 RBI, 1 steal)

Chapman is certainly the better option to start at third base for your fantasy team, even after suffering through a torn labrum in his hip that cut his 2020 campaign short and which ultimately required surgery. For the most part, there’s every reason to throw out his 2020 season in its entirety, given his severe jump in strikeout rate and decline in walk rate, and buy that he’ll put up numbers closer to his 2019 output. As such, he’s a fine pick where he’s being drafted.

Chapman’s projected numbers, however, are not that much better than Riley’s. Fantasy managers are likely still punishing Riley for how far he fell during the end of the 2019 season, but he made tangible changes last year that look sticky – notably, trading some power for contact. Riley swung less (dropping his swing percentage from 56.3% to 54.1%), made contact more (contact rate from 63.2% to 72.5%, swinging strike rate from 20.5% to 14.8%), and saw corresponding improvements in his walk and strikeout rates.

The biggest reason Riley’s ADP is so low is that it appears to bake in the risk that the Braves are going to sign someone to start at third base over him. But there has been no indication from Atlanta that the team has any interest in doing so, and Riley should be the everyday starter. If so, his new approach should yield positive enough results (he had a .262 xBA and .471 xSLG last year) that he’ll be a startable option for your fantasy team. Certainly, with him going more than 135 picks after Chapman, there’s plenty of value.

Shortstop

Carlos Correa (SS – HOU) (Positional ECR: 14, Overall ADP: 126.5)Projected Stats: .267, 76 runs, 26 home runs, 89 RBI, 2 steals)

v.

Didi Gregorius (SS – PHI) (Positional ECR: 17, Overall ADP: 162.5)Projected Stats: .265, 75 runs, 24 home runs, 87 RBI, 6 steals)

When I first started this exercise, I expected there to be more of a gap between Correa’s and Gregorius’s ADP. Kudos to fantasy managers. But still, a 38-spot delta between two players who are identical in nearly every way offers a chance to make a profit.

The reason Correa is being drafted so far ahead of Gregorius is obvious, in that he offers the upside that Gregorius does not (as evidenced by Correa’s 21-homer, 59-RBI 2019 campaign in just 75 games). But the bottom line is that Correa hasn’t topped 109 games or stolen more than three bases since 2016.

Gregorius, too, is not without his warts. Despite solid production last year, his Statcast data was incredibly poor, and he’s often lost games to injury, like Correa. But he rarely strikes out and, more importantly, will continue to play in an extreme hitter’s park in Philadelphia. There’s an incredibly high floor with Gregorius, if not the monstrous ceiling.

There’s no problem with taking Correa at his ADP. But the better option is to wait several rounds and nab Gregorius.

Outfield

Starling Marte (OF – MIA) (Positional ECR: 14, Overall ADP: 51.8)Projected Stats: .276, 83 runs, 18 home runs, 70 RBI, 24 steals)

v.

Tommy Pham (OF – SD) (Positional ECR: 28, Overall ADP: 133.8)Projected Stats: .268, 77 runs, 19 home runs, 68 RBI, 18 steals)

Even with reasonably close projections, it’s understandable that Pham would be drafted significantly later than Marte. Pham slashed just .211/.312/.312 last year with three home runs. He was limited to just 31 games because of a broken hamate bone in his left hand, was stabbed in the lower back during an altercation in the offseason, and is entering his age-33 season.

But in the three prior seasons, Pham had averaged roughly 22 homers, and 22 steals, with a .284 batting average. And even with last year’s disastrous output, Pham had the highest hard-hit percentage of his career and had an xBA 55 points higher than his actual batting average. There’s little reason to think last year was indicative of what fantasy managers can expect going forward.

As for Marte, he remains reliable, but there’s risk associated with his production, too. The quality of his contact declined significantly last year, and, now with Miami, the chance of him reaching 20 home runs this season is questionable at best. He’s just a year younger than Pham and carries with him similar risks of decline. And indeed, Pham’s xBA last year of .266 out-paced Marte’s, which was just .261.

There’s no reason to avoid Marte this year. But Pham should provide relatively similar production more than 80 picks later.

Randy Arozarena (OF – TB)  (Positional ECR: 16, Overall ADP: 59.3)Projected Stats: .263, 78 runs, 24 home runs, 73 RBI, 19 steals)

v.

Ramon Laureano (OF – OAK) (Positional ECR: 37, Overall ADP: 151.5)Projected Stats: .254, 83 runs, 24 home runs, 72 RBI, 12 steals)

Arozarena’s outstanding postseason (.377/.442/.831) may be inflating his ADP a bit, though his 2020 regular-season numbers (.281/.382/.641) offer plenty of reason to draft him. After adding muscle to his frame, Arozarena looks to have 25-homer power, which will play well given his 15-20 steal speed.

But Arozarena’s projected statistics are hardly significantly superior to Laureano’s. Indeed, Arozarena has a slight edge in batting average and steals, but neither is overly meaningful. That’s especially true when you consider that over 171 games in his first two seasons, Laureano batted .288 with 20 steals. And while his quality of contact declined last year, his projections properly view that as an aberration.

In other words, Laureano offers a “lite” version of Arozarena. And considering the latter’s massive jump in strikeout rate last year, fantasy managers might be better off taking the 92-pick discount.

Wil Myers (OF – SD) (Positional ECR: 31, Overall ADP: 133.5)Projected Stats: .248, 75 runs, 26 home runs, 80 RBI, 13 steals)

v.

Ian Happ (OF – CHC) (Positional ECR: 46, Overall ADP: 161)Projected Stats: .248, 83 runs, 27 home runs, 75 RBI, 8 steals)

Myers bounced back in a big way after working on a swing change in the offseason, raising his batting average nearly 50 points from the prior season and adding a ton of power. His barrel rate ranked in the top seven percent of the league, and even though he attempted just three steals, his sprint speed ranked in the 85th percentile. There’s plenty of reason to rely on him as a third outfielder.

But if you miss out on him, Happ is a fair consolation prize 38 picks later.  Over the last two seasons, Happ has batted .260 with 23 home runs, 58 RBI, and three steals over 115 games. Happ has always hit the ball hard, but over the last two years, he has cut back on his strikeout rate significantly while maintaining his excellent walk rate. Set to lead off for the Cubs, he has the speed to potentially reach double digits in stolen bases, which would essentially make him a Myers clone.

With Happ being three-round cheaper in drafts, there’s no reason to pull the trigger on Myers unless you’re getting a discount.

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Dan Harris is the Editor-in-Chief of FantasyPros. For more from Dan, check out his archive or follow him on Twitter at @danharris80.

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