It’s easy to find lists of the best players in fantasy baseball. Lots of people have opinions on the matter, and plenty use formulas and models to rank players. Clayton Kershaw is baseball’s best starter, and was likely the most valuable pitcher in almost any format. Mike Trout was also outstanding, and while not clearly the best position player for 2014 (in some formats, Jose Altuve or Victor Martinez might be worth a little more), he’s a top 3 pick in any draft format.
Today I want to highlight players who exceeded expectations the most. Sure, Trout and Kershaw are great players, but to own them you needed to have a top draft pick, or spend an awful lot of your salary cap at auction, or make an overwhelming trade offer to their owners. Owning a player expected to earn $10 but who winds up earning $20 or more has a much bigger impact on winning your league.
So the most valuable fantasy players are those who produce much more than expected, providing first round value with a mid or late round pick. To highlight such players in 2014, I’m comparing RotoValue prices computed using 2014 actual statistics with those computed using preseason projections, and for this article, I’m using Steamer’s highly regarded projections as input. For dollar values, I’m using a 12-team 5×5 mixed league with an active roster of 8 pitchers and 10 batters. The full description of that league is here, and I describe the basic model to convert statistics to prices given the configuration of a league here.
Diff is the lesser of the player’s actual RotoValue based on his 2014 stats and his RotoValue based on 2014 minus his RotoValue based on the preseason Steamer forecasts: after all, if you forecast a player to have negative value, you wouldn’t start him. So his actual value is that above 0, not whatever negative price a forecast might imply. My table shows all players who earned at least $20 more than their Steamer projected stats were worth.
Michael Brantley is the fantasy MVP by this calculation, as he earned $40.50 this year despite being projected to be below replacement by Steamer (-$1.80). Steamer projected a mediocre line of .272, 8 HR, 61 R, 55 RBI, and 13 SB, which ranked 68th among players who eventually qualified at outfield. For a league with 36 starting outfielders, an 24 starters at “any” position, that’s below replacement level. But Brantley, who turned 27 in May, posted career bests across the board, batting .327 with 20 HR, 94 R, 97 RBI, and 23 SB (with just 1 CS). Brantley was the second-best position player outright, behind Mike Trout.
Not far behind is Tigers’ DH Victor Martinez (.332, 32, 87, 103, 3 actual, .289, 13, 66, 69, 2 projected). Steamer projected a continuing decline for the 35-year old former catcher, but he instead posted career bests in average and HR. Martinez was the third most valuable batter, period. Steamer was less optimistic on Martinez than my RotoValue projections, which had him worth $16.26 (.295, 16, 69, 88, 1), but Martinez still had a much better year than any projections.
Johnny Cueto was the best pitcher by this metric, and second-best behind Clayton Kershaw overall, as he earned $46.35. Cueto led the NL in innings pitched and strikeouts (242), and ranked second to Kershaw in ERA (2.25), WHIP (0.960), and wins (20). His Steamer projections (1.251, 3.74, 146 K, 11 W) were worth just $11.28. Cueto not only stayed healthy all year after missing most of 2013, he also struck out nearly a batter an inning, by far his highest rate in the big leagues.
Indians’ starter Corey Kluber was almost as big a surprise to Steamer as Cueto. Projected for 1.299, 4.07, 7 W, 146 K, Kluber had a breakout year, boosting his strikeout rate over 10 per 9 IP while posting career best percentages of 1.095 and 2.44. His 18 wins tied the more heralded Max Scherzer and Jered Weaver for the AL lead, while his 269 strikeouts trailed only David Price in all of MLB. While his WHIP far behind Cueto’s, resulting in a lover overall RotoValue, the two pitchers beat their Steamer projected prices by about $35 each, by far the biggest pitching surprises.
Before this season Nelson Cruz only had one season where he played more than 130 games, or had more than 500 AB. While he had always shown great power, he had not put together the monster season he seemed capable of. He was on pace last season before a drug suspension ended his year 50 games early. Steamer projected .253, 24 HR, 63 R, 71 RBI in 466 AB, while my RotoValue projections were quite similar: .258, 21, 56, 71 in 433 AB. And while the per AB rates were good, Cruz was projected to miss at least a quarter of the season, depressing his value because of lower cumulative category totals.
This year, however, he put it all together, leading the majors with 40 HR in 613 AB, and ranking 4th with 108 RBI, while batting .271 with 87 runs and 4 SB. His fantasy year basically matched Miguel Cabrera, as he hit 15 more HR to compensate for fewer runs scored and a lower batting average.
As with Cruz, projections for Anthony Rendon did not anticipate a full season: Steamer projected 448 AB, 11 HR, 55 R, 52 RBI, and 3 SB, numbers which resulted in a negative RotoValue in this format. Rendon matched Cruz’s 613 AB while hitting .287 with an NL-leading 111 runs scored, 21 HR, 83 RBI, and 17 SB. His $32.11 RotoValue was highest among regular third basemen (Miguel Cabrera played 10 games at 3B this year, and might have qualified there in some leagues), while he also likely qualified at 2B. He had little minor league track record, playing just 101 games for 6 teams in parts of 2 seasons, but in that small sample size of 337 AB he showed excellent offensive potential, with a .407 cumulative wOBA. 2014 was probably the last chance to get Rendon cheaply for quite some time.
Todd Frazier had shown power but struggled with getting on base before this season. Steamer projected those trends to continue: .241, 18 HR, 55 R, 61 RBI, 6 SB, numbers which, like Rendon, did not project to be worth owning in this format. Instead, Frazier had a stellar year, posting career bests in all five fantasy categories: .273, 29 HR, 88 R, 80 RBI, and 20 SB. Perhaps much of Frazier’s breakout was bad luck reversing itself, as his BABIP rose from .269 last year to .309 in 2014. But he also added value in steals. While he hadn’t run much in the majors before, Frazier did go 17-21 in steal attempts in just 90 games at Louisville in 2011. His fantasy owners surely appreciated the attempts.
Charlie Blackmon was not even expected to start in the crowded Rockies outfield last spring. Steamer projected him to hit .270 in just 162 AB, with 3 HR, 20 R, 18 RBI and 4 SB. Instead, a torrid April turned him into an every day player, with an expected rise in his cumulative totals. Blackmon hit .389 in April, with 5 HR, 23 RBI, and 7 SB, good for a $54.03 RotoValue for the month, the best in baseball. He cooled off considerably after that, but his year-end totals of .288, 19 HR, 82 R, 72 RBI, and 28 SB were still worth $26.48. Quite nice for someone who wasn’t expected to start! But in practice, I doubt too many owners actually had him in their lineup for all of his hot start. From May 1st onward, he hit .271, 14 HR, 59 R, 54 RBI, 21 SB in 494 AB, good for a $17.63 RotoValue. That’s still a nice return for a player probably unowned after most drafts last year.
Steamer expected Jose Altuve to be a good player: .281, 8 HR, 74 R, 59 RBI, 29 SB, numbers worth $13.87. That’s a solid, productive middle infielder. Instead, Altuve had a huge fatasy year. He led the majors in average at .341, and added 7 HR, 85 R, 59 RBI, and an AL-leading 56 SB, making his year worth $38.84. In some formats, Altuve was worth more than Mike Trout. While he doesn’t have much home run power, Altuve did hit 47 doubles this year. One mild caution sign on an otherwise stellar year: he probably got a little lucky on balls in play. His 2014 BABIP was .360, about 40 points higher than his 2012/2013 averages. If he reverts to those values, his batting average would drop back, which would also reduce his opportunities to steal.
Brian Dozier’s line is perhaps the most surprising of all in this list. Steamer projected .245 with 11 HR, 58 R, 50 RBI, and 12 SB in 481 AB, numbers which would give a slightly negative RotoValue. That forecast actually was spot on in batting average, as Dozier hit .242. But instead of 481 AB, he nearly reached 600, and he posted much better cumulative stats: 23 HR, 71 RBI, 21 SB, and an amazing 112 runs scored, second only to Mike Trout in all of MLB. So he showed more power than projected, and ran more, but the bigger change was in his walks. Steamer projected just 38 BB, and a .303 OBP, numbers in line with his first two big-league campaigns. But Dozier actually walked 89 times, giving him a good .344 OBP despite the low batting average. He still scored more runs than I’d expect just from his OBP, but those extra walks made the run total less shocking. Dozier hadn’t shown much power in the minors (just 19 HR in over 1500 AB over four seasons), but he’s now got 41 HRs over his last two big league seasons. He’s become a much better fantasy player than his minor league numbers would have suggested.
Dee Gordon has long tantalized fantasy owners with the promise of lots of steals from the middle infield. In 2011 he seemed a budding star, batting .304 with 24 SB in just 56 games, but he struggled the next two years, spending more time in AAA Albuquerque than in the majors. So his 2014 projections were weighted down by those two poor years of MLB performance. Steamer projected Gordon for 250 AB, a .247 average, and 21 SB, well below a replacement level fantasy player. But in 2014, Gordon won the starting SS job in the spring and fulfilled his long-expected promise, batting .289 with 2 HR, 94 R, 34 RBI, and an MLB-best 64 SB. His BABIP, which was under .300 in the past two seasons, was .346 this year, so while his fantasy owners greatly enjoyed 2014, if the BABIP regresses, he might not be so fun to own next year. Also, despite an average more than 50 points higher than Brian Dozier’s, Gordon’s OBP of .325 was lower, as he walked just 31 times.
While Charlie Blackmon got the early-season attention for flirting with a .400 average last April, Corey Dickerson rather quietly had a fine season himself in the Rockies outfield. Steamer projected Dickerson for more playing time, but still not a full regular job: .278, 10 HR, 40 RBI, 37 R, 7 SB in 281 AB, not enough playing time to have positive RotoValue in this league. Dickerson didn’t play as much as Blackmon, but he was almost as valuable, batting .312 with 24 HR, 74 R, 76 RBI, and 8 SB in 436 AB. Given that Dickerson is three years younger, hit better in the minors, and on a per-AB basis had a better year in 2014, I’d rather own him next season than Blackmon. Depending, of course, on the price!
The final player on the list is Jon Lester. Prior to this season, it seemed like the now-30 year old Lester’s best years were behind him. He had bounced back from a career-worst year in 2012 to a little worse than his early career averages – a good, but not great, starter. Steamer projected him for a 4.01 ERA, 1.323 WHIP, 13 wins, and 156 Ks in 192 IP, numbers a little worse than 2013, but much better than 2012. That seemed reasonable (my own projections were eerily similar: 4.04, 1.335, 12, 170 Ks in 205 IP). Instead, seemingly out of nowhere, Lester pitched like an ace this year: 2.46, 1.102, 220 Ks, 16 W, earning $29.76. His was the 7th best season among MLB pitchers in this fantasy format – for all practical purposes tied for 6th with David Price ($29.82; 3.26, 1.079, 271 K, 15 W). The big change, it seems, was improved control: in past years Lester walked 3-3.5 batters per 9 innings; in 2014, he cut that to 2, the lowest rate by far of his career. His strikeout rate got back above 9 for the first time since 2010. The trade to Oakland has him in a better pitchers’ park, although if anything he was a little more effective before the trade than after it this year. In any event, Lester projected to be an $8 pitcher, but wound up as a $30 pitcher.
In compiling this list I was at first surprised that there were no relievers at the top. Every year someone projected as a middle reliever or set-up guy winds up as a closer and racks up plenty of saves, and I initially thought such a player would make the list. But I’m used to playing a 4×4 format, where saves is one of just 4 pitching categories. These rankings are based on a 5×5 format with strikeouts, and relievers simply don’t pitch often enough to rack up high strikeout totals. So relievers are worth less in this format than in 4×4. Francisco Rodriguez was projected to be not worth owning by Steamer in this league (3.57, 1.242, 4 W, 5 SV, -$9.07), but wound up with the Brewers’ closing job, earning $14.87 (3.04, 0.985, 5 W, 44 SV). His season ranked 3rd among relievers behind only Greg Holland and Craig Kimbrel.
The other positions not represented in the table above were first base and catcher. Mets 1B Lucas Duda just missed the list, as his year earned $19.91 despite being projected to be unowned, while Devin Mesoraco earned $19.21 while projecting to be a bench player.
If you had several of these players on your fantasy team, you probably had a very good year overall.
By contrast, if you had Prince Fielder, Cliff Lee, or Carlos Gonzalez you probably had a tough year.
Thanks to Jared Cross for making Steamer data available on RotoValue. I still believe that projections, and Steamer is among the best at it, are the best way to value talent for an upcoming fantasy season. It’s inevitable that some players will outperform projections by quite a bit. If you knew in advance who would do that, you’d be win win your league!