WHAT THEY HAVE DONE
As we approach the start of the regular season there is a lot of looking forward. Lists of Sleepers, My Guys, the Overrated, Hidden Treasures, Likely Busts, Late Round Finds, whatever, are everywhere. Peering into the future and seeing the unlikely and the surprising is fun, I know I read those stories looking for tidbits of insight that might help me identify players to target late in the draft.
But what they miss is the way our game is shaped by the rumble of predictability, which before the season starts we see with 20/20 vision, and when it was over we analyze with the newly-found wisdom of hindsight. If only X didn’t get hurt, didn’t keep playing, hit lower in the order, our look back often works to justify what we thought would happen when we looked forward. Both of those lenses distort the hard fact at hand, which is that stuff happened.
That’s why I publish the Historical Charts on the position pages in The Fantasy Baseball Guide each year, and why we’re visiting them today. They report one fairly indisputable fact: What each player earned each of the last three years playing 5x5 rotisserie baseball in AL or NL-only leagues. (Indisputable insofar as they reflect my valuation formula. Other formulas will vary a little depending on the baselines, the methodologies, the way the pool is selected. They’re all close enough, unless they’re done wrong, to demonstrate that we’re all measuring the same thing and valuing it similarly.)
We’re visiting them now because they are not a surprising look into the future, but because in contemplating the past you may find a new way to approach your draft, based on the topsy-turvey tumble of results from year to year that nonetheless sort out from the best to the less best.
These are all the players with six or more games played at Catcher in 2020 and their earnings each of the last three years. Yellow is Top 5 finish, though ties are included.
The chart illustrates the dominance of JT Realmuto, the highest earner each of those three years, but also let’s us see the rather rich supporting cast that hovers closely behind him.
Ian D'Andrea from Philadelphia, PA, CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons
As a fantasy player do you reward Realmuto’s consistency and elevate him? Or do you diminish him because he is yet to have an explosive season? How you answer that question will help shape your approach to the category on draft day.
Can you look at the other top finishers and find reasons to think they might do better? And do recent high-earning catchers who had off years scare you away? Or are there reasons to think they might come back?
I’m on the side of Realmuto, maybe not flashy and explosive but a solid contributor in all five categories considering his position. The other big earners in 2020 are more exceptions than harbingers of a future breakout.
For excitement I look down the list, at Will Smith and Sean Murphy and maybe Austin Nola, two young and talented, the last old, hurt, but a wonderful surprise the last two years.
I should note that those negative values are often because a player didn’t play much. My formula starts with a -$4 opportunity cost that a player works off with more playing time or extraordinary production.
The first line of this chart illustrates that the top first baseman earned more than twice as much in the last three years as the top two catchers.
The second-ranked first baseman earned more than twice as much in the last three years as the second and third highest earning catchers.
Position scarcity is a thing, but there is a lot that isn’t totally understood about it.
My take has been that in deep leagues, 12-team AL and NL only leagues, leagues in which nearly every hitter is rostered, the replacement value at all positions is the worst catcher taken. This doesn’t mean it isn’t good to have a good catcher, but that it isn’t worth overpaying him, giving him more in salary for a home run than you would give an outfielder.
When the pandemic hit last year Ron Shandler and Todd Zola put together a series of retro fantasy drafts. We chose a year, most of them in the roto age of the last forty years, and then draft the actual players’ actual stats. These were 12-team mixed leagues for the most part and almost invariably the winner is someone who grabbed the best catcher surprisingly early. In shallow mixed leagues having the best catchers is an advantage, even if Realmuto is no Mike Piazza.
That’s the rest of the first base chart. No yellow ink there. For all the freakishness of the short 2020 season, the earnings chart roughly aligns with our expectations. The chart illustrates the decline years of Paul Goldschmidt and Anthony Rizzo (as well as Albert Pujols), and maybe shows the emergence of Dominic Smith and Alex Bohm.
But what about Jeimer Candelario? He’ll be 28 this coming November. Not too old to sustain a new level, but was that inflated BABIP because of hitting the ball harder or just getting lucky? The chart doesn’t say, but it’s a good place to come up with the question.
The chart reminds me that there might have been an interesting discussion about the relative merits of Bobby Dalbac and Edwin Rios if the Dodgers had chosen not to re-sign Justin Turner during the offseason.
Instead let’s turn to the Gold Glove winner Evan White, who hit the ball incredibly hard when he hit it, but he struck out more than 40 percent of his plate appearances. His homers and RBIs earned him out of the hole his .176 batting average dug for him. Can he do that over a full season? Or can he learn to lay bat on ball in the majors the way he did in the minors? And will that mean spending more time in the minors first, or swinging a little less hard in the majors? It isn’t going to cost a lot to find out the answers.
Finally, back up to the top, the yellow for Cody Bellinger in 2020 disguises just how out of the ordinary his 2019 season was. Go back to 2017 and he earned $23 that year, too. It isn’t that the yellow lies outright, but there are shades to be considered.
I’ll leave you with the second base chart, and thoughts of your own. And more charts to come on Monday. Have a great weekend.
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