Fantasy Baseball, Fantasy Drafts, Season Diagnosis

Season Diagnosis: 2016 Fantasy Baseball Part 1: The Draft

There’s one thing that even the biggest fan of baseball or Fantasy Baseball can’t deny: the season is long. Very long.

If you’re a fan of a team, you have months of suffering every day until the point when all of your favorite players are traded away to contending teams. It’s brutal, and as a Cubs fan, I used to know that pain for a long time.

As a fantasy owner, it’s just as much of a slog. It’s not fun to be losing every single week, to feel helpless that you can’t do anything to improve your lineup when all of your best players are slumping or sitting in your DL slot. That’s because baseball, and fantasy by extension, are games of waiting, of patience. If it’s April or May, all the analysts are telling you to sit and wait, and when nothing improves, it feels even worse that you didn’t do anything sooner.

With this year’s regular season over and my team losing yet again in the final week, keeping me out of the playoffs and with a record of just 6-17, it’s hard to remember a time when I felt good about this team, and yet there was a point when it all started to go wrong. It’s a long time ago, but I needed to look back and figure out what was bad luck and what was bad judgment.

The Draft

Let’s start way at the beginning.

In fact, let’s start even before then. The first decision of the season came before the draft when I selected my three keepers. Among players who I had on my team at the end of 2015 and were eligible and worth being frozen, Dee Gordon in the 2nd Round, Sonny Gray in the 9th Round, Xander Bogaerts in the 15th Round, Jose Bautista in the 1st Round, Matt Kemp in the 5th Round, and Taijuan Walker or Aaron Nola both in the last rounds as 2015 waiver adds.

I chose Gordon, Gray and Bogaerts. Bogaerts would’ve been good value in the round I froze him even if he had finished as a Top 50 player. As closer to a Top 20 player this season, he was one of my team’s MVPs. No regrets.

Gray I froze without hesitation. He finished as a borderline ace in 2015, had one of the lowest ERAs and WHIPs in baseball, and I would’ve been more likely to get him in the 7th round had I let him go. But he had been a massive let down all of this season, unable to go deep into games or get the same number of ground balls he was producing the previous year. What I should’ve paid attention to was his strikeout rate, which in 2015 was by far the lowest among the Top 20 pitchers he was a part of. Then of course was the team he played for in Oakland. His 14 wins the previous season should’ve been a give away that he was overvalued, and Oakland’s defense and run support got even worse.

Last was Dee Gordon. No one could’ve predicted that he would be suspended for half the season for PED usage. Regardless, freezing him might’ve been wrong-headed. Gordon was the league’s batting average leader with a .333 BA in 2015 and 58 steals. Steals are wildly inflated in terms of value when the CBS algorithm determines a player’s rank, but Gordon swiped 58 bags in 2015 and was the sort of player that you draft because he wins you a category week to week. As a result though, I overlooked a second baseman like Jose Altuve, who fell to me by pick 8 of the first round. It’s possible that Gordon would’ve fallen to the 3rd round as well, or he could’ve been taken even earlier. Had either outcome happened, my team would’ve looked a lot different.

I didn’t like the idea of freezing Bautista in the first round because, although I knew he could be good again, his age was catching up to him, and I could get better value. In turn, I snagged Bautista in Round 3 and felt pretty good about myself. Nola wouldn’t have been doing anything for me in the tail half of this season, but he was looking like an ace for several months at the start of the season. All the early hype around him was that he would be a solid starting pitcher with a high floor and a low ceiling. He proved to have a much higher ceiling than anyone predicted, not to mention a much lower floor late in the season.

And instead of drafting him, I actually took Taijuan Walker in Round 8, ahead of pitchers like Jose Quintana or Hector Rondon the following round. I wrote about him in my pre-draft love/hate lists that he more than anyone was the best bet to breakout, but was still going through growing pains. The breakout never happened, despite some high upside performances whenever I benched him. He also nursed a foot injury all season and barely made it out of the first few innings in several starts. But regardless of what he ended up doing in 2016, if I liked him so much, why didn’t I just freeze him? Surely taking him in the last round would’ve been better value than Round 8!

But when I’m really looking at this year’s draft, what I want to identify are any deficiencies in my strategy. Was I valuing certain high upside players over consistent and proven production? Did I overlook a certain category in favor of another? Did I reach for a player?

Early Rounds

With Kershaw as my number one pick, I can’t complain. He was by far the league MVP and having an historic season before getting injured. And yet while a single batter who mashes multiple home runs in a week can make a difference for your team, a single pitcher can throw a no hitter and you can still end up losing ERA and WHIP if your staff doesn’t deliver on the whole. I consistently lost those categories even with Kershaw in my lineup.

Pick 3 I took Bautista, and Pick 4 I traded away the previous season. That obviously would’ve made a difference, but I can’t blame that alone as the reason for my failure. Pick 5 was Adrian Gonzalez. Now, he may just finish 2016 as a .290 hitter with 20 HRs. I drafted him as a 25 homer guy and a .272 hitter, so that isn’t far off. But ALL of that production showed up in the last month and a half of the season. He was a disaster this April through July, and all season I started him desperate for a better option and waiting for his production to come back. I traded him just before the Dodgers started going crazy.

But let’s pause for a moment and look at my team. I have the number one pitcher in the league, the number one batting average guy and steals producer, and two very solid home run hitters. The runs and RBIs would work themselves out, so in this sense I hadn’t overlooked a category. At the same time, I could’ve waited three rounds and snagged Eric Hosmer, who will finish above Gonzalez unless he continues to go on a tear in September. I could’ve picked another elite pitcher like Jon Lester or Danny Salazar over Bautista.

Middle Rounds

Moving on. Round 6, Matt Kemp. As currently the 17th best OF in our categories scoring, he’s give or take a few spots just about right at his 2016 draft value. But Kemp being healthy does not a team make, and he lost some of his value following his mid-season trade to the Braves.

Round 7: Hunter Pence. Another solid pick, and now I’ve shored up my outfield. Looking back, I don’t feel bad for having not taken a pitcher. Other Round 7 picks? Trevor Rosenthal, Tyson Ross, Patrick Corbin, Francisco Liriano. I dodged a bullet, even though I got unlucky with Pence hitting the DL for over half the season. Until that point, he was a Top 20 outfielder who I got in a solid spot.

Round 8: Walker. Should’ve never trusted him as my #3 pitcher, even if I did think he could breakout. #9 was Gray frozen. #10 was Yordano Ventura. All three at this point are mid-tier strikeout pitchers, but both Ventura and Walker finished 2015 with 4.00+ ERAs and a 1.3 and 1.2 WHIP respectively. Neither could be considered elite, and both are upside, breakout plays when I should’ve combined one upside play with a more consistent player. Now we’re starting to see some flaws.

Round 11 was Travis D’Arnaud, who not only was terrible in the few weeks before he went on the DL for much of the season, but who I likely still reached for at Round 11. He was projected as a power guy (12 HRs in a partial season in 2015) who could finish as a Top 5 catcher, IF he stayed healthy. And that was a big IF. Catcher was a mess this year, but I liked guys like J.T. Realmuto and Blake Swihart in the preseason too. Realmuto, who I own now, went undrafted, and Swihart went in Round 17.

Mid-to-late Flyers

Round 12: Drew Smyly. Yikes. Another high upside guy pegged as a breakout. The analysts were very cavalier in saying that they “expected him to have a high HR rate” when they drafted him, to which I say NO YOU DIDN’T!!! He’s turned his season around somewhat and had flashes of greatness in April, but brought me down miserably with his horrendous May.

Round 13: Jung Ho Kang. This I knew was a risk at the time, in that he started the season on the DL but was projected to have elite upside at either 3B or SS. But even once he got back, playing time was a major issue, and production became an issue much later. But because he was on the DL, I technically still did not have a third baseman even more than halfway through the draft, nor did I have a closer.

Finally I pulled the trigger on a closer in Round 14 with Santiago Casilla. I specifically remember during the draft wanting to take a closer far earlier, but once one went, the whole tier started to get depleted, and it forced me to wait several rounds later than I had intended. And yet Casilla was actually one of the few consistent closers this season. Following the trade deadline, only Casilla, Kenley Jansen and Zach Britton had remained the closer from the start of the season. And while Casilla didn’t have near their upside and had several of implosions, he got saves and stayed healthy. That’s all I could ask.

#15 was Bogie, and #16 was Jake McGee. Aaron Nola got taken one spot beforehand, and I might’ve pulled the trigger on Nola had he still been available. Instead I took Jake McGee, who likewise was consistent for the first half of the season before landing on the DL and losing his job.

Late Rounds

This late in the draft, they say there are no wrong picks. But it’s incredible the number of studs who came off the waivers and the number of total busts who got drafted this late in the draft. At #17 I took Yangervis Solarte, who ended up on the DL after just one week, and suddenly I needed yet another 3B fill-in. He ended up back on my team once he returned to the Padres lineup and started putting up major counting stats, but it ultimately wasn’t much of a pick.

I’ll quickly rattle off the rest: #18 Mike Fiers, #19 minor leaguer Tyler Glasnow, #20 Andrew Cashner, #21 Michael Conforto, #22 Jason Grilli and #23 Gerardo Parra. The quickest way to say it might be that all of these players, I ended up dropping and/or ended up on the DL. I’m done with Fiers. He doesn’t have near enough upside to be useful beyond maybe a two-start week. Glasnow I had high hopes for, but the most hyped minor league prospect didn’t get his start until much later in the season, and then he immediately landed on the DL once he did. Cashner had roughly one solid month as a Padre, and it came far too late for anyone to care. Conforto was incredible in April, terrible in May and June and found himself in the minors by July. Grilli it didn’t take long until it was clear he wasn’t going to be the Braves closer. And Parra was putting up numbers equivalent to Matt Kemp early in the season, but found himself on the DL and never regained his step.

Lessons Learned

2000 words later, I have a few takeaways from this experience:

Lesson #1: Don’t freeze a player who hasn’t gone up in value. I got burned with Dee Gordon and Sonny Gray and would’ve been better suited freezing in the late rounds.

Lesson #2: Don’t overdo it with upside plays, especially pitchers. If one busts, you can survive. If they all bust, you’re screwed. Mix it up with consistent players as well as breakout candidates.

Lesson #3: Pay attention to all the categories. By only looking at upside plays, I overlooked serious red flags in ERA and WHIP, and I didn’t have enough pitchers with high strikeout rates. And while my home run potential on paper looked promising, it helps to make sure the counting stats are there to back it up.

Lesson #4: Wait on catcher. Unless it’s Buster Posey, just don’t do it.

Lesson #5: Position players are deep this year, especially the infield. So while you could wait at a position like 3B like I did, what you risk is that everyone else in the league has an elite position player and by extension no good reason to trade.

Lesson #6: Don’t overvalue closers. It helps to have a good one, and you don’t want to get stuck without one, two or three to start the season, but there’s too much volatility at the position to pay too much.

Next week I’ll look at my regular season moves, including roster choices, add/drops and my mid-season trades. I’ll ask whether my problem was really bad luck, bad choices, or a combination of the two. I’ll finish up the regular season looking ahead to 2016 and what choices I should make with my players to freeze.

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