What a time to be a fantasy baseball fan! Here we are in mid-January, we’ve had some 2021 projections for nearly three months, drafts of various types have been taking place on multiple sites since October, and there is more content than we’ve ever had available at this time of year being released by the day! From podcasts to articles, mocks to rankings, and best balls to online championships, fantasy baseball is no longer year-round only for those looking to gain a bit of an edge in the offseason, but for anyone eager to participate, and in some cases, for those just hoping to keep up.
The fact that there are more drafts taking place earlier in the offseason than ever before results in us having ADPs to take a gander at earlier as well. We are most likely looking at the most volatile and variant ADPs we’ve seen in a long time, maybe ever, as we prepare and draft for the 2021 season. With so many differing opinions on the relevance, or degree of relevance, that should be placed on the shortened 2020 season, and some placing more stock on postseason performances than we have in the past, the range of draft positions and auction prices will presumably be wider than ever before.
As of this writing, drafts for 34 15-team leagues for the 2021 season have been completed by NFBC participants since December 1st. We’ll concentrate on the 15-team drafts because they are rotisserie leagues; therefore, they may be more indicative of what we may expect to see in 12-team roto leagues than the 12-teamers being drafted by NFBC drafters at this point. The 12-team leagues drafted thus far are best-ball points leagues that value players differently, devaluing saves and stolen bases for example. Let’s examine how the ADPs of those drafts compare to the current Steamer projections of a few hitters for the 2021 fantasy baseball season. Utilizing the auction calculator available at Fangraphs with a 64%/36% hitter/pitcher split, the 2020 NFBC ratio according to Ariel Cohen of Rotographs, we are able to form an overall 5×5 Rotisserie ranking based on Steamer’s projections.
More Popular than Projections
I typically don’t spend too much time analyzing the first round or two in these types of exercises. Early round draft selections boil down to personal preferences of the types of players we choose to begin forming our rosters with, the risks we’re willing to take, the “upside vs floor” debates we’ll hear and read about for the next couple of months, and the foundations we choose to build upon as we progress through the later rounds of our drafts. However, while 11 hitters on average have been taken in the first round of drafts thus far, the third of those 11 – Mookie Betts – is intriguingly just the 11th ranked hitter (a late first/early second-round pick overall) per the auction calculator utilizing Steamer’s projections.
Without even comparing Betts’ projected 5×5 stat line to those of the other top-drafted players, it appears this is due to his .271 projected BA. Now, I fully expect him to hit .290 or better (he’s hit .291+ in six of seven career seasons), but the hitting category I am least likely to adjust when tweaking projections is BA. Derek Carty’s The Bat and The Bat X projections were recently released – they indeed have Betts pegged for a .295 and .302 BA respectively, along with over 40 additional PA – and he becomes the top hitter he’s being drafted as per those projections. However, for this exercise, I’m utilizing Steamer’s projections, so I’m not inclined to cherry-pick another system’s projections to confirm my bias.
Nearly everyone loves DJ LeMahieu, even those of us that had uttered the words, “Damn Yankees,” many times long before Tommy Shaw and Jack Blades collaborated for the first time, but Steamer has much more tempered expectations than early drafters. The offensive savior of the Yankees’ 2019 season, LeMahieu was even better in 2020. His 9.7 K% was a full five percentage points below his career average leading to a 150-game pace of 30 HR and over 120 R, and his .364 BA was the highest of his 10-year career. That 216 PA performance in 50 games has skyrocketed the 32-year-old from an ADP of 88 in the 38 NFBC Main Event drafts completed in 2020 to the 19th hitter and 31st overall player off of the board for 2021.
As with Betts, his .294 BA projection will seem to be on the low side to many as he’s hit over .300 in five of his past six seasons; however, Steamer is typically conservative in the BA category, only four players are projected to hit over .300 in 2021, and LeMahieu’s .294 ranks sixth for full-time players. There will probably be some pushback to his other 5×5 category projections as well, but the 19 HR and 72 RBI would be the second-highest totals of his career, 92 R would be the fourth-best he’s achieved, and seven SB would be his most since 2016. Can he outperform the projections? Absolutely! But the auction calculator using Steamer’s projections values him as an end-of-the-fifth-round pick (50th hitter, 73rd overall player), a full round higher than he was being drafted just 216 PA ago but nearly three rounds later than he’s currently being chosen.
“That’s what speed do,” is a quote most baseball fans, definitely Kansas City Royals fans, attribute to Jarrod Dyson following the 2014 AL Wild Card game in which the Royals stole seven bases in their 9-8 comeback victory over the Oakland Athletics. Interestingly, the phrase actually appeared as the title of a Rob Neyer piece two seasons earlier in which Neyer wrote, “It’s how management justifies Jarrod Dyson’s continuing presence on the 25-man roster.” What speed does, in the fantasy baseball world, is drive up draft prices and justify players’ presences on our 30-man to 50-man rosters.
Throw in a hall of fame father, some prospect excitement, and a little bit of power with that speed, and we find Cavan Biggio being drafted in the mid-fourth round on average and as early as the first pick of the fourth round in NFBC drafts. That position may indeed turn out to be justifiable, but when ranking by Steamer’s projections he’s well outside of the top 100 hitters and a 12th round selection overall. He was a 9th rounder (132 ADP) just a few months ago, and while there is comfort and optimism in him cementing himself in the Blue Jays’ exciting young lineup and lowering his K% from 28.6% in 2019 to 23.0% in 2020, his 2020 stats prorated to 150 games are nearly identical to the projections that place him three rounds later than last season’s ADP, not five rounds earlier.
Luke Voit was a major contributor to more than a few fantasy baseball championships in 2020. Leading MLB with 22 HR, finishing fourth with 52 RBI and 12th with 41 R, and hitting .277 in the shortened 60-game season – all with a 2020 Main Event ADP of 191 (13th round) – will definitely pay huge dividends. Now admittedly, regression, small sample size, and recency bias may be the three most overused terms in fantasy baseball. It’s not that they aren’t real, that they don’t exist, or that they are not important to consider, but they are often thrown around flippantly without context as rationales for performances we can’t explain or just don’t believe in. However, all three may be playing a role in Voit currently being drafted an average of eight and a half rounds higher than he was in July.
A projection of a .251 BA with 31 HR, 87 RBI, and 86 R, while possibly on the conservative side at first glance, may be more realistic than what beneficiaries and observers of his spectacular 2020 expect. That projection places him as the 98th ranked hitter and towards the end of the tenth round overall, not the mid-fifth and as early as the third round as he’s being drafted. Bumping his projection to .270 BA / 40 HR / 90 RBI / 90 R places him in the range he’s being drafted – numbers that are definitely attainable for the talented first baseman in a potent Yankees lineup, but also numbers that are very difficult to slap on a player as an expectation.
Enough negativity! Just as there are hitters that Steamer’s projections value less than early NFBC drafters, there are those who are being chosen later than those projections suggest they should be. Rafael Devers came into 2020 as the fourth third baseman off of the board on average, a firm second-rounder who was taken as high as 17th overall in at least one Main Event. He was a bit disappointing as his K% ballooned from 17.0% in 2019 to a concerning 27.0% in 2020. The uncertainty of how much credence to give to 2020 performances definitely comes into play here.
It appears Devers’ projection of a 20.3 K% for 2021 splits his outstanding 2019 and his 24.7 K% of 2018. His exit velocity and barrel rate numbers improved in 2020 over 2019 so, at just 24 years old, a rebound to his 2021 projections (.288 BA / 35 HR / 104 RBI / 100 R / 7 SB) seems reasonable. That would make him the 13th ranked hitter and 21st overall player, matching last season’s ADP but a round and a half earlier than he has been chosen on average thus far, a significant difference at that point of drafts.
Vlad Guerrero Jr.
We all know about the ground ball issues that seem to have plagued Vlad Guerrero Jr. for the first two seasons of his career. Actually, it’s barely been one season – after the service time manipulations in 2019 and the pandemic-shortened 2020, he has played in just 183 MLB games. Just 183 MLB games. He’s still 21 years old, nearly five months younger than Juan Soto – more on that in a moment. Yes, his GB% increased from 49.6% in 2019 (514 PA) to 54.6% in 2020 (243 PA), but as Matt Wallach of PitcherList wrote in a recent Going Deep article, it may not be as much about the ground ball rates for Guerrero as it appears at first glance.
The other thing we all know about Vlad Jr is that he smokes the baseball. In fact, his 2020 average exit velocity was higher than Soto’s (92.5 mph to 92.3 mph), his 2020 maximum exit velocity was higher than Soto’s (116.1 mph to 113.3 mph), his 2020 HH% was less than a percentage point below Soto’s (50.8% as opposed to 51.6%), their 2020 average launch angles were identical (4.6 degrees), and Soto also had a 2020 GB% over 50%. However, Soto’s barrel rate was over double that of Guerrero’s (17.5% to 8.7%). As Matt points out, Guerrero’s hardest-hit balls are not the balls he hits in the air at the ideal launch angles, a trend that seemed to be improving late in the 2020 season. Steamer’s projections for 2021 appear to buy in, placing him as the 24th best hitter and 37th ranked overall player. In early drafts, he’s the 37th hitter being selected with an ADP at the end of the fourth round.
Anthony Rizzo began the abbreviated 2020 season with three HR in the Cubs’ first four games leading everyone to forget he had recently missed over two weeks of intrasquad games with back spasms, an issue that has intermittently popped up throughout his career. A couple of weeks later he went six for 16 over a four-day span with two more HR, and his .254 BA wasn’t a major concern as it was accompanied by a .405 OBP and .508 SLG with five HR through 18 games. Another couple of weeks later he hit three HR in two days bringing his total to eight HR in 32 games but by then a more alarming .229 BA and still-nice-but-slipping .361 OBP and .468 SLG. He stumbled to the finish hitting .222 but went deep in back-to-back games in the final week of the season to end the year on a 30 HR full-season pace.
Throughout all of that Rizzo maintained his consistently elite BB% and K%, but hit just .202 vs fastballs. In his previous five seasons his BA vs fastballs had been .305, .295, .280, .293, and .320. Steamer projects a 2021 rebound to near-career numbers with a .270 BA, 31 HR, 94 RBI, 95 R, and six SB which seems realistic if his health issues are better-monitored over a full “more normal” season leading to an improvement vs heaters. That would rank him as the 37th hitter and 55th player overall while he’s being drafted as the 60th hitter just inside the top 100.
In many 12-team and some 15-team leagues, Miguel Cabrera will go undrafted with an ADP well outside the top 400. He’ll be 38 years old in April, he’s hit over 18 HR once in the past six seasons, his K% has slipped to league average, aaaaaaand… he’ll be 38 in April. However, the most intriguing aspect of Miggy’s 2020 line to me is the 57 games played in the 60-game season, and I don’t believe it’s a coincidence that he achieved that number in the first season that he appeared in zero games as a fielder. Steamer has him projected for 143 games played in 2021 with a .272 BA, 23 HR, 82 RBI, and 76 R which places him as the 96th ranked hitter and 144th player overall, about 300 spots higher than his NFBC ADP. He still smokes the baseball with an elite average exit velocity and 91st percentile HH% per Baseball Savant. He will be UT-only eligible in most leagues, but that projection will be better than what will be expected for many fantasy teams’ fourth middle infielder, fourth corner infielder, or sixth outfielder.
|Player||Steamer Projection||NFBC ADP||Difference|
|Vlad Guerrero Jr.||37||56||19|
What do we do with this information?
Now, I’m not suggesting that we avoid the guys in the first half of this article, or that we should be targeting all of those in the second. I am suggesting that we consider that the projections are reasonable possible outcomes and that in many instances we may not realize where those outcomes would rank in 2021. I am also suggesting that for all of the “2020 was a crazy small-sample-season we shouldn’t put much stock in” talk out there, based on early ADPs and the several drafts I have participated in, drafters are placing much more stock in what occurred in 2020 than Steamer’s projections do.
Also, more and more projections are being released by the day. As mentioned with Mookie Betts earlier, I’m careful not to pick and choose projections from different systems based on whether or not I like a player. In fact, in a case like Betts’, I fully anticipate that Steamer will be the low BA outlier, and while not avoiding him, I’ll take the possibility of a lower BA than most expect into consideration. It’s all information and it can all be valuable. Let’s absorb as much of it as we can and enjoy fantasy baseball draft season! Pitchers and catchers report in less than a month!
Photos by Gerry Angus, Mark LoMoglio & Ric Tapia/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter & IG)