August 11, 2017
Earlier this year, I talked about how to adjust to starting pitchers not throwing nearly as many innings as they used to do. Today, I am going to look at the other change that has altered the fantasy landscape: the big spike in home runs.
All 2017 statistics in this article are for games played through Wednesday.
Table 1: Major League Baseball Hitters – 2014-2017
At the pace MLB hitters are on, they will break the home-run record, set not in 2016 but 2000, when hitters combined for 5,693 home runs. The home-run pace is amazing, but it could be argued that 2017 is the escalation of a power trend that started in 1994 and was only briefly interrupted between 2010-2014. The top nine seasons in home runs per nine innings all take place between 1996 and 2017. There have been 21 seasons with at least a home run per nine innings; all of these seasons were in 1987 or later. The spike in power this year is historic, but is part of a longer-term trend.
Even though the change is not nearly as radical as you might think, it remains a dramatic one. The impact on fantasy values has been considerable.
Table 2: AL and NL hitters – 2014 versus 2017
Nineteen cents per home run versus $0.28 per home run does not sound like much, and for the players at the bottom of the spectrum it makes little difference. Ten home runs were worth $2.80 in 2014 in the AL; they are worth $1.90 now. But as is the case with nearly anything else, there is a significant difference between the top-end producers in one context versus another.
Table 3: 2014 and 2017 Player Comparisons
Table 3 shows us Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon’s 2014 seasons, what their 2017 seasons would look like if they kept pace, and their fantasy earnings. The “Alt $” column shows us what the 2014 numbers would be worth in 2017’s context and vice versa.
Gordon barely moves much in one direction or the other in either case. His 64 stolen bases would be slightly more valuable in 2017’s context but his runs and batting average would be worth a little less. This works in the other direction for 2017 Gordon in 2014’s earnings context. Gordon’s value moves 70 cents down, but decimals hide this slight change. For a player like Gordon whose fantasy value rests mostly with his legs, his value moves little.
Stanton is another story. Put the 2017 version of Stanton into 2014’s context and he’s the best player in the National League that year. You might be wondering why the 2017 Stanton isn’t a $40+ earner in 2014’s context, but some of the same limitations that apply to him in 2017 apply in 2014 as well. He is almost worthless in stolen bases and only slightly positive in batting average. Even a three-category monster has a hard time getting to $40 in earnings in any post-1993 season.
The same differential applies in the other direction, when you place Stanton’s 2014 in 2017’s context. If everyone stays on the same home run pace for the rest of the season, Stanton’s 37 home runs would only be good for a seventh-place tie in the category. That’s very good but isn’t close to the elite power season Stanton is having in 2017. The 13 steals in 2014 are what prop Stanton up and make him almost as valuable as the actual 2017 version. Those steals are worth $4.49 in 2017 NL-only; take those out of the equation and suddenly to 2014 version of Stanton is good but nowhere close to elite.
Power is worth less but it isn’t worthless. You obviously need home runs, RBIs, and runs scored if you are going to win. It just isn’t going to propel you to the top quite so easily.
Tables 4 and 5: Top 10 AL Hitters 2014 and 2017
What you can see for the top hitters is what you would expect based on the 2014 and 2017 versions of Stanton. The best AL hitters in 2014 earn $8 per player in home runs and RBIs; in 2017, they earn six. Stolen base earnings move up $1 per player while runs and batting average stay the same. The presence of so many strong batting average players on these tables is telling. Batting average is an underrated category, but it is a category that lifts all boats. More hits lead to more runs and more RBIs, and a stolen base threat who hits .320 is more likely to get stolen base opportunities than someone who hits .280 (assuming OBP is also similar).
Overall, earnings flatten out at the top. The best hitters earned $34 per player in AL-only in 2014. In 2017, that dropped to $32. Most of this is due to the separation in home runs in 2014 for the power hitters compared to 2017,
Tables 6 and 7: Top 10 NL Hitters 2014 and 2017
The best NL hitters were also very predictable this year, relative to their salaries. No one cost less than $26 and five of the 10 most expensive NL hitters have also been the best. Even the 10 most expensive hitters who did not appear on this chart have hardly been disappointments. Ten NL hitters cost $30 or more this year. Of this group, Kris Bryant and Freddie Freeman have earned the least, at $23 apiece.
So how should all his impact your drafts or auctions in 2017?
Going forward, I want to make sure that I corner the market on batting average and steals before I worry too much about power. Stanton’s numbers are spectacular, but as you can see in the chart above, he is a three-category player. Hamilton is a two-category player, but no one is going to chase Hamilton to $35 next season. There is still an aversion to paying “too much” for speed, but the reality is the deflation of power value has impacted speed most.
The other thing to keep in mind is that this is not the steroid era. Only Stanton and Judge are on pace to hit 50 or more home runs, while 11 hitters total are on pace to hit 40 or more. It is possible that Stanton goes on a hot streak and finishes with 60, but what is happening with the power explosion is that there are a significant number of hitters in the middle or bottom of the power spectrum hitting dingers. This distribution of home runs makes it even easier not to push someone like Stanton or Judge to $40. These players already had losses built into their earning profiles; now their ceilings are even lower.