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Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Keeper Leagues Provide Unique Value Opportunities

Michael Clifford looks at how prospect hype leads owners to make bad decisions in fantasy baseball drafts and in keeper leagues and offers some alternative strategies.

Mike Trout
Mike Trout

If you’re hunting for the next Mike Trout in your fantasy draft, the odds are stacked against you. Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

There is a significant difference between keeper leagues and one-year (re-draft) leagues. Before we get into all those differences, here is a flood of numbers as to how first and second year players have fared in the Majors over the last four years (2010-2013):

There Have Been

  • Zero first or second year players hit 30 home runs and knock in 100 RBIs over those seasons. The last player to achieve those two milestones in his first two years of service was third baseman Evan Longoria in 2009.
  • Zero first or second year players to hit 35 home runs in any of the last four years. The last player to hit 35 long balls in his first two years of service was Ryan Braun in 2008.
  • Zero first or second year players hit .280 and knock in 90 runs.
  • Two first or second year players that have scored 80 runs and knocked in 80 runs in a season – Mike Trout (2012), Paul Goldschmidt (2012).
  • Two first or second year players that have gone 20/20 in any of the last four years – Mike Trout (2012) and Drew Stubbs (2010). I probably don’t have to tell you what Drew Stubbs has done in the three years since.
  • Two first or second year players that have hit 20 home runs and hit at least .290 over the last four years – Mike Trout (2012) and Yoenis Cespedes (2012).
  • Three first or second year players steal 40 bases in any of the last four years – Mike Trout (2012), Starling Marte (2013), Jean Segura (2013). Trout was the only one to crack 50 RBIs or 85 runs scored while also stealing 40.
  • Three first or second year players to have enough plate appearances (502) to qualify for the batting title and hit at least .300 – Mike Trout (2012), Starlin Castro (2010-2011), Jordan Pacheco (2012). In the two years since he hit .300, Castro has hit .283 and .245. The year after Pacheco cracked that milestone, he hit .239.
  • Three first or second year players to hit .280, steal 10 bases, and knock in 80 runs. Those guys were Mike Trout (2012), Yoenis Cespedes (2012), and Paul Goldschmidt (2012).

I could keep going, but what stands out is that there really aren’t a lot of hitters that have even above-average fantasy baseball seasons, and even fewer can keep having success going forward. The one recurring name here is Mike Trout and if owners in a fantasy baseball keeper draft are chasing Mike Trout II, then their leaguemates thank them for the donation.

In keeper leagues, it’s a delicate balance between winning now and being able to have sustained success. With that in mind, here is the most important piece of advice in keeper league drafts.

Don’t Chase Potential

It’s always fun to look at things in hindsight. Here are Baseball America’s Top-10 Prospects heading into the 2010 season: Jason Heyward, Stephen Strasburg, Giancarlo Stanton, Jesus Montero, Brian Matusz, Desmond Jennings, Buster Posey, Pedro Alvarez, Neftali Feliz, and Carlos Santana. A look at those names has seen players with varying levels of success; Matusz and Montero haven’t amounted to much, guys like Strasburg, Stanton, Heyward, and Posey have had some really good seasons, the others have been good at times. Here’s something none of these guys have done: Had a Top-30 fantasy season over the last two years.

In a 15-team league, per Yahoo! rankings, none of Baseball America’s Top-10 prospects of four years ago have finished among the top 30 picks. And a couple of those guys have been fantasy-irrelevant. Of the top-10 prospects of 2011, only Mike Trout and Aroldis Chapman have had top-30 fantasy seasons over the last two years. Again, it’s Mike Trout and [insert name of good player here].

I always say rankings from Yahoo! or ESPN or most sources aren’t to be taken as gospel but it does give you a good indication of a player’s value in a roto league over the course of a season relative to other players. The top ten prospects of 2010 and 2011, per Baseball America, have produced one top-20 fantasy season over 2012 and 2013 and that was, again, Mike Trout.

While it’s nice to have a bunch of guys who could be elite one day on a roster, there’s a pretty low chance that the guys who get the major hype pay off in the not-too-distant future. It’s a big (and unnecessary) gamble to take risks on potential over the security of proven players (within reason – I’m not advocating taking Derek Jeter over Javier Baez in a keeper league).

Try to win now

The mental aspects of fantasy sports beyond just knowing the players are crucial to sustained success (I encourage you to read fellow XN Writer C.D. Carter’s book “How To Think Like a Fantasy Football Winner” for more reading on subjects in this field). Part of the mental game of fantasy sports is overcoming bias. One particular type of selection bias that exists is called “survivorship bias.”

Survivorship bias, for our purposes, means that if a few rookies out of a big pile of rookies do really well, then the assumption is there is something that they are doing that is exceptional. Of the players on the list of “good” fantasy seasons at the top of this article, we see the names Drew Stubbs, Jordan Pacheco, and Starlin Castro. The first two names of that trio are nearly fantasy-irrelevant now, Castro is one more awful season away from that as well. After their respective successful fantasy seasons, there were indicators of future success. But looking back, it’s possible they were just plain lucky. Knowing this, it’s kind of crazy that names Domonic Brown and Josh Donaldson – both one-year wonders to date – are being drafted consistently among the top 100 players.

The “win now” attitude is tough to see at times in a keeper league. But given what we know about the last four fantasy seasons, it’s unlikely that both Byron Buxton and Javier Baez have a top-30 fantasy campaign sometime over the next three years. But in a keeper league, what would the trade market be on Baez or Buxton? I would wager either of those guys, especially once they get the call in May or June, would be able to attract a top-50 fantasy player.

Owners fear on missing out on Mike Trout II or Jose Fernandez II. They hope they can end up with a gem for a next-to-nothing cost. The vast majority of the time, it doesn’t work out. The focus should always be on winning this year and never looking further ahead than three years down the road. There’s no need to draft Jose Abreu over Adrian Gonzalez, just like there’s no need to draft Byron Buxton over Austin Jackson. This optimistic attitude that some fantasy owners have towards highly-touted prospects provides the realistic owner with an advantage at the draft table and on the trade market.

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