In real baseball, hacking is a bad skill to have. Hackers are generally worse baseball players (save for the lucky few, like Josh Hamilton) who carry low on-base percentages and diminished offensive value.
But fantasy baseball is called “fantasy” for a reason. We don’t care about real-life production. Sure, it’s nice to say that your team is full of .400 OBP guys, but Daric Barton’s .393 OBP in 2010 was worthless to virtually all of you—even if you were in an OBP league.
This time of year, especially, its important to keep this in mind. Every spring, it seems like there are a dozen or so players who are set for a “big year” because they’ve revamped their plate approach and are now more disciplined hitters. While this will make them better real-life players, it isn’t guaranteed to make them better fantasy players.
In fact, improved plate discipline can actually hurt your player’s value—significantly. I repeat: in fantasy, patience is NOT a virtue.
Take talented hacker Josh Hamilton for example.
Going in the third to fourth round in mixed leagues, Hamilton never gets enough credit for how much he hacks—and how much it helps his counting stats, batting average, and your team.
A prolific free-swinger, in 2011, he had the fourth highest swing percentage (57.1 percent), 11th highest O-Swing percentage (41.0 percent), and the highest Z-Swing percentage in the league (81.7 percent).
Regressing Hamilton’s plate discipline characteristics and batted ball profile, the outfielder carried an expected line of .288/.357/.526 with 28 home runs over 650 plate appearances in 2011.
While conventional wisdom states that he would be more valuable if he could tone down that approach and get more selective, the opposite is true. If Hamilton were to instead adopt merely league average discipline at the plate (30.6 O-Swing percentage and 65.0 Z-Swing percentage), he would carry an expected .269/.376/.508 line with just 24.5 home runs. That’s a drop of 3.5 home runs and almost 20 points in batting average.
Sure, his OBP improves and his walk rate goes up by almost five percent (7.0 percent to 11.8 percent), but that doesn’t matter in fantasy. Though he will earn a few extra runs from the OBP, that will be completely washed out—and then some—with the drop in home runs and batting average… and RBI as well.
Plugging the two Josh Hamiltons into the cleanup slot in Texas’ 2011 lineup, we regress the following overall lines:
Hacking Josh Hamilton: 98.5 R, 28.0 HR, 106.5 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2877 AVG
Disciplined Josh Hamilton: 101.5R, 24.5 HR, 93.7 RBI, 9.5 SB, .2694 AVG
Valuewise, these are two vastly different players. Hamilton the Hacker grades out at 4.77 points above average (12-team leagues) at FantasyPlayerRater.com, while Hamilton the Patient is worth 2.90 points. Both players are excellent, but that two-point difference is about the same as moving from Justin Upton (5.23 points as per Rotochamp projections) to Hunter Pence (3.35 points as per Rotochamp).
So, to all fantasy players, I say this:
LET ‘EM HACK!
LET THEM HACK!
Before I ignite the fury of commenters everywhere, I would like to lay down one caveat: yes, it is a reasonable assumption that improved pitch selectivity will lead to a more efficient player—i.e. higher BABIP and higher HR/FB, which will even out the fewer balls in play.
However, for Hamilton to reach 28 home runs with his new approach, he would have to raise his HR/FB ratio from 16.4 percent to 19.3 percent—a huge gain. To get the batting average back, he would have to gain 40 points on his BABIP. Those are colossal improvements. And that doesn’t take into account that he may merely lose out on power or BABIP because he’s moving away from his natural tendencies and becoming a less aggressive hitter.
So, if your favorite manager starts talking about improve plate discipline leading to a breakout season for one of your players, think again—and get ready to use it against your competition.