I bid $5 on Craig Kimbrel

My name is Nick Fleder, and I’m a new contributor to THT Fantasy. I’ve been playing fantasy baseball all my life, really (it’s been a short life so far), and it’s no less than an obsession. This is all very exciting for me, and I’d love to see feedback, comments, criticism, quips, love/hate mail in the comment section and via e-mail. Hit me up at nick DOT fleder AT gmail DOT com.

Drafting is where the magic happens. Yes, it’s important to hit, and hit big, on your first few selections. Whether it be a first round pick in a snake draft or a big $40 stud in an auction, it’s important to get your core right. But it’s not enough to assemble a few superstars and mid-round sleepers if you waste your late picks on middling and dwindling veterans.

Much like the GMs in actual baseball, smart owners will search for the market inefficiencies. They will try to avoid the overvalued and assemble a winning team in whatever way they see fit, even if some of the decisions are instinctive.

One approach I often use is nabbing bullpen arms with good WHIP and ERA stats. While I supplement the one or two aces (Cliff Lee, for example) on my staff with a bunch of crappy NL-only level starters to chase wins (Chris Narveson), I might be able to undo any collateral damage by picking up three or four good bullpen arms in my 10-player supplemental draft. After all, a Mike Adams or three can be as valuable as an ace.

But the most glaring fantasy baseball market inefficiency is the rookie player. Here are some offensive rookie stats from the last two years you may be familiar with:

Name (Year)                HR        RBI      Runs     Batting Average   Stolen Bases
F. Freeman (2011)          21         76        67               0.282              4
D. Espinosa (2011)         21         66        72               0.236             17
J. Heyward (2010)          18         72        83               0.277             11
G. Sanchez (2010)          19         85        72               0.273              5
I. Desmond (2010)          10         65        59               0.269             17

*Note: Eric Hosmer, Starlin Castro, and other midseason pickups were omitted because owners in re-draft leagues couldn’t have reasonably expected a midseason call-up.

Things you may have observed:

1) This is a stellar crop of rookies from the last two years, who…
2) All had opening day jobs at the beginning of the 2010 or 2011 season…

Things you may not have observed:

1) How low their average draft positions were…
2) Who was selected near our rookies at hand in a snake draft:

Name (Rookie Year)               ADP*      Drafted Within Five Spots
F. Freeman (2011)                213             Daniel Bard
D. Espinosa (2011)               308             Jose Lopez
J. Heyward  (2010)               222             Joba Chamberlain
G. Sanchez (2010)                N/A             N/A
I. Desmond (2010)                320             Jason Marquis

*ADP taken from Mock Draft Central for 2010 numbers, and The Fantasy Fix for 2011 numbers

The same trend holds true for pitchers, too. Their stats are useful at worst…:

Name (Year)                     Wins           ERA          WHIP    Strikeouts
J. Hellickson (2011)              13          2.95          1.15           117
M. Pineda (2011)                   9          3.74          1.10           173
I. Nova (2011)                    16          3.70          1.33            98
W. Davis (2010)                   12          4.07          1.35           113
B. Matusz  (2010)                 10          4.30          1.34           143

…but their Average Draft Position reflects very little to no cost on Draft Day.

Name (Rookie Year)              ADP     Drafted Within Five Spots
J. Hellickson (2011)            165           Phil Hughes
I. Nova (2011)                  N/A           N/A
M. Pineda (2011)                342           Miguel Olivo
W. Davis (2010)                 232           Aaron Harang
B. Matusz (2010)                243           Jason Frasor

There are, of course, a couple of things to note:

1) Hellickson is an example of a rarity: A hyped rookie pitcher with a job wrapped up since the previous September who shot up the ADP rankings and was picked in the 16th round (at the earliest). Compared to the ADP of the other rookie pitchers examined here, this may seem high. But the 16th round isn’t exactly full of stars. Guys picked in the same vicinity included Joe Nathan, Rajai Davis, Brad Lidge, Ryan Franklin, Matt Thornton, Ian Stewart, and Brett Myers. Play the upside here, but especially…
2) …In the 23rd and 24th rounds, and so on (if you even have that many rounds). The ESPN Player Rater is imperfect but sheds some light as to actual production in comparison to draft position. (Unfortunately, ESPN seems to be lax about archiving Average Draft Position and Player Rater tools, so we’ll examine 2011 rookies drafted whose Player Rater totals are still readily avaliable.)

Name                            ADP    Player Rater by Position
J. Hellickson (2011)            165               25th
I. Nova (2011)                  N/A               66th
M. Pineda (2011)                342               37th
F. Freeman (2011)               213               18th
D. Espinosa (2011)              308               13th

As you see, starting pitching and first base were deep this year. But every league I’ve ever seen has, at a minimum, nine pitchers spots and room for at least three first basemen (First Base, Corner Infield, Utility). If you can identify rookies over the winter and in March who will have full-time jobs in April, do yourself a favor and spend a late pick on them.

The Hellicksons of the world are few and far between (the ultra-hyped Heyward went in the 22nd round on average in all drafts conducted before April 2010), but have the potential to pay off substantially, and the Freemans and Espinosas of the world only further illustrate that point.

Craig Kimbrel is another glowing example. A quick look at ESPN Standard League Live Draft Results will leave you with this of mind-blowing number: Kimbrel went for $4.1 in the average league. Yes, Jonny Venters was on the horizon (Kimbrel, the righty, should have been seen as the clear favorite for save oppurtunities), but the kid was in line for at least a share of the saves in Atlanta and had a 17.4 K/9 in 20 innings the previous September.

His low draft position is rookie bias, and it’s heartbreaking for those who missed on him. Sure, some rookies flop, but considering risk versus reward, it’s silly to ignore first-year talent that has ample playing time. We study the past to learn from our mistakes at times, so don’t make the mistake of passing up the $4 rookie to spend your money on a lower upside Vladimir Guerrero ($4.1 on ESPN). Take a chance on the rook.

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  1. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Hey Nick,

    Good first piece and glad to have you on board.

    Two points to note in relation to your assertions.

    1. The question of whether rookies can be bargains, and to the extent to which this can hold as a general trend, is probably dependent on the composition of your league’s GMs. The more sharp GMs there are who do their homework, the higher above their ADP some of these guys tend to go. That said, many of these guys were still bargains in my leagues, and I was lucky to land a few, but that brings me to point two…

    2. There’s a little confirmation bias here. For example, in one of my leagues I was considering Freeman at a point where he would have proved a tremendous bargain. Unfortunately, we went with Brandon Belt instead. So, on rookies that perform, at least well enough to retain their jobs the full season, this strategy can prove quite effective, but there are a bunch of instances of pulling zeros using this approach too.

    All that said, you’re probably better off gambling on a rookie prospect with upside late in the draft than you are grabbing a near replacement level player at the same slot. There’s really very little downside if those picks don’t pan out because replacement level players abound. That’s why my general draft strategy is to protect against loss early and swing for the fences late.

  2. Nick Fleder said...

    I agree totally that it depends on the league you play in. If you’re playing in a money league, a dynasty league, or a NL/AL-only league, the chance is there’s stiffer competition, more studying, and reaching on players like Belt. I played in an NL-only league, for example, that had a lot of money involved this year and has up to 10 keepers per team. The catch is that minor leaguers can’t be kept (only 25-man roster members). Belt went for $19, Espinosa $14, Sanchez $13 his rookie year, Desmond $9. The league dictates the bargain, but in a standard one where it’s a bit loose, take the risk, of course.

    And yes, I see that I did leave out the rookie failures. I say if you whiff on three or four of your rookies late in the draft (unlikely scenario), you’ll still prove successful, because a guy like Kimbrel could single-handedly be the difference between first place and second place (or even more).

  3. johnnycuff said...

    I’d be interested to see an expansion on your two aces, NL-only scrubs and bullpen arms strategy.  If not by itself, perhaps a comparison of different strategies for drafting pitchers.

  4. Dave Cameron said...

    i traded a minor leaguer Kimbrel and rookie Dan Hudson for Kelly johnson and C. McGeeHee in the off-season and my trading partner was vilified as getting “raped” by me.
    Now, it looks like me who was savaged in the deal. 9 times out of 10, i would trade pitcher for position players; especially when the salaries are no issue.

  5. Nick Fleder said...

    For every dedicated league, which I’m guessing describes all the ones you’re in, Brad, there are five more ghostly leagues. Average Draft Position stats are never perfect, but they paint a pretty good picture, I think.

    I play in two competitive NL-Only leagues with specific and strict keeper rules, and Kimbrel was kept for $5 in one and drafted for $17 in another. But in standard 10 team leagues, I noticed guys like JJ Putz went, on average, for like $7 bucks. How that happens with inflation factored in is beyond me..

    @johnny I plan to do that. Stay tuned.

  6. Fenderbelly said...

    One caveat about the rookie SP’s is that they are often on an innings limit. This matters less in roto leagues, but in H2H leagues it is quite a bummer to lose a couple of key pieces in September.

    I like the point about making sure that the rookies have starting jobs to open the season. When counting stats are key, you (generally) can’t afford to draft June call-ups.

  7. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I agree totally that it depends on the league you play in. If you’re playing in a money league, a dynasty league, or a NL/AL-only league, the chance is there’s stiffer competition, more studying, and reaching on players like Belt.

    That can be the case too. And, how about this – though its not the first time I said it – in expert leagues with publicly lasted draft results, you see the highest freqeuency and most egregious reaches of all. And, this is because of the flashbulb effect. We will all remember the great calls and forget everything else.

    Each guy wants to be the guy who got it right on megaprospect X. People read the draft results, but nobody follows the leagues, so getting that pick right is more important to that guy’s career than his performance in the league itself. One guy can swing for the fences 10 times, miss on 8 of them, finish in last place, but be remembered as the guy who knew that Craig Kimbrel was going to be most valuable reliever in baseball. …Frankly, political commentators work largely the same way.

    . I say if you whiff on three or four of your rookies late in the draft (unlikely scenario), you’ll still prove successful, because a guy like Kimbrel could single-handedly be the difference between first place and second place (or even more)

    This is the flipside, on which I agree – provided these picks are indeed late/cheap investments. If out of the last 5 picks in your draft, you get 1 guy who emerges as top 10 at his position and 4 busts, you still win out overall. The value above replacement of the one hit laps the value relative to replacement lost when you have to replace your other $2 players from he waiver wire. The language of the auction league makes this dynamic much more clear to any participant than that of the draft. It’s easy to understand, if you make one $2 bet that wins $20, and then four more that only return $1, you’re still way ahead. Less savvy managers don’t get this concept as well in draft leagues because they just see the failure of picking four guys who end up not deserving a roster spot.

    Another argument in favor of the boom/bust late pick is that in a certain respect, the worst thing you can be saddled with is mediocrity – the limbo of the player who is quite middling, yet (seemingly) clearly better than the WW option, but only slightly. That creates tough decisions, because you have to decide whether to hold the small value you have in that player or dump him for the young kid who is 4-1 with a 1.80 ERA through his first 5 starts. Often, there’s no reason to think those numbers will continue, but every year there are unlikely jackpots struck on the waiver wire. In 2010, for example, I’m certain there were people for whom their commitment to David DeJesus precluded them from adding Jose Bautista.

  8. Brad Johnson said...

    This is the second “Kimbrel was cheap” article I’ve seen. I tried like hell to acquire him in all my leagues and couldn’t.

  9. Injunsteve said...

    It seems like this article could make the opposite point about rookie bias by switching the list of 5 names to

    Pedro Alvarez
    Alcides Escobar
    Kyle Drabek
    Domonic Brown
    Brandon Belt

  10. Nick Fleder said...

    That’s really interesting, and while you may be right, Derek explains it perfectly:

    “he language of the auction league makes this dynamic much more clear to any participant than that of the draft. It’s easy to understand, if you make one $2 bet that wins $20, and then four more that only return $1, you’re still way ahead. “

    Yes, that one $2 bet could be Brandon Belt and you could hang on for dear life past his ugly April and hope he turns it around, and therefore miss on someone great like Michael Morse on the WW. But my point is that if you get four out of five of those names on the “crap list”, and hit once with Craig Kimbrel for $4, you’ll end up ahead, having spent 8 bucks on 5 players, one of them worth three times that, probably.

    My point is even the ones who disappoint can be shadowed by hitting one big. No?

  11. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Alvarez definitely hurt, but largely because he was the highest priced guy of anybody in this discussion. He was projected as a borderline top 10 option at 3B, so the risk/reward curve is off there. I got burnt by him twice this year, not because I was particularly after him but actually because nobody in my leagues was either. I didn’t pay what some did, but I was relying on him to be a starting 3B for me. That’s part of the equation here too – how much are you actually relying on the rooks? I think there’s serious potential for profit on these players, but I wouldn’t want to rely on them to heavily.

  12. Nick Fleder said...

    Yeah, maybe I should’ve clarified that. I recommend grabbing the rookies in your last three rounds (not an exact # but roughly), and preferabbly as bench players, with some exceptions. In fact, i don’t hold hard and true by this strategy of trusting rookies and being patient. If you end up with an ultra-hyped rookie (I think Alvarez circa pre call-up) and can yield a fortune for him, you usually shouldnt balk. I traded a $5 Pedro (two years keepable) and a $5 Jason Castro (two years) for CarGo and Prado ($5 each for one more year.) It was before CarGo’s .380 2nd half, of course, and we were both out of it at the time. It turned out to win me the league this year when it looked like a future play for my trade partner moreso than it did for me.

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