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How to Win 2014: Home Runs

Home runs are why we play fantasy baseball. You see whenever baseball has been on the brink of death, homers have been there to resurrect it. After the Black Sox scandal in 1919, there was Babe Ruth. After a decade of Yankee pennants, there was Bill Mazeroski in 1960. Amid two decades of pitcher-dominance, Reggie Jackson became Mr. October in 1977. After the strike, Cal Ripken, Jr. homered in his 2131st consecutive game in 1995 (played...not homered in...but that would have been awesome), and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa chased and shattered the home run record in 1998.*

*Hey, not every story has a happy epilogue.

Homers keep things interesting; they change the game in an instant; their very threat keeps pitchers on their toes and out of the upper half of the strike zone; they keep four-run leads within reach. And they completely dominate fantasy baseball.

See, homers are three categories in one, score this one and you get two more for free. Homers are the most important category in standard fantasy leagues, and in plenty of non-standards as well. Homers are why Nelson Cruz and Mark Trumbo are studs (and they are, we'll soon see) and Chris Carter is relevant at all in our fake game, instead of the lead-footed strikeout artists they are on a real baseball field.

And home runs are a breath of fresh air. After weeks of heavily luck-dependent categories (there's a reason some states consider this gambling), homers are a highly repeatable, predictable skill. The biggest luck factor, home park, is easy to see and account for. Homers are not too hard to evaluate.

But they are very, very hard to win.* Because, you see, this ain't the '90's anymore, and it sure ain't the 2001 of Barry Bonds and Luis Gonzalez. Only two players hit over 40 homers last year, and only two (the same guys) slugged over .600 and qualified for the batting title. Consider that the league slugging was over .600 in 1996** and you'll see my point: homers are a lot scarcer now than they used to be.

*Okay, in a 12-team league, you've got a one-in-12 shot just like every other category. Technically.

**No, no it wasn't. Not even close.

We aren't quite back to the days when you could get called "Home Run Baker" just by hitting  three or four inside the park homers in a season, but we're pretty much back in the '80's, back to the days before Prince Fielder's dad (Cecil) smacked 50 homers and inaugurated the Golden Age of Power Hitting...

Get to the point!

...screamed the readers. Fair enough.

Point of the introduction:

1) Homers are an extremely scarce commodity, somewhat like steals were in the '90's and '00's.

2) But they are more important than steals ever were, because they directly impact two more categories.

There, hopefully that’s more direct. Those on a time crunch or with extremely short attention spans are invited to distill the rest of my analysis into the following concise statement:

Invest in homers. Pay extra in auction dollars and draft rounds for the very best home run hitters.

Also, if you're on a time crunch or have an extremely short attention span, I'd love for you to join one of my money leagues....

2013 Home Run Leaders

 

Name

PA

HR

R

RBI

SLG

                                     

1

Chris Davis

673

53

103

138

0.634

                                     

2

Miguel Cabrera

652

44

103

137

0.636

                                     

3

Paul Goldschmidt

710

36

103

125

0.551

                                     

4

Edwin Encarnacion

621

36

90

104

0.534

                                     

5

Pedro Alvarez

614

36

70

100

0.473

                                     

6

Alfonso Soriano

626

34

84

101

0.489

                                     

7

Mark Trumbo

678

34

85

100

0.453

                                     

8

Adam Dunn

607

34

60

86

0.442

                                     

9

Adam Jones

689

33

100

108

0.493

                                     

10

Evan Longoria

693

32

91

88

0.498

                                     

11

David Ortiz

600

30

84

103

0.564

                                     

12

Brandon Moss

505

30

73

87

0.522

                                     

13

Adrian Beltre

690

30

88

92

0.509

                                     

14

Jay Bruce

697

30

89

109

0.478

                                     

You definitely want a couple of these guys on your team next year. The best will help in batting average too, but they'll be gone in the first round or two...except for David Ortiz, who gets the DH discount (but he's 1B eligible in Yahoo! leagues). At the other end of the spectrum, we've got some guys who won't just hurt your average, they'll kill it. I'm looking at you, Adam Dunn.

Aside from Dunn and his Black Hole of Batting Average, it's a bit surprising to see how many of these leaders can be had at relatively low price. Alvarez will certainly hurt your average, but his prodigious power is at a position without a lot of production at all. Soriano is a very consistent home run hitter, but his age, average, and reputation seem to be keeping him low on draft boards. Moss won't play against lefties...and yet made this list with 100 fewer plate appearances than most of the others, and 200 fewer than first-rounder Goldschmidt. I think you can afford to platoon him.

Shortened Season Home Run Hitters

Raw homer totals are far from the whole story, though. There were plenty of players who contributed in the category, but had their season shortened for one reason or another. I put them into a spreadsheet with cutoffs of at least 17 homers and no more than 540 PA. It’s too big to post, but you can Download Partial Season Home Run Leaders. (Note that catchers are not included—most are expected to get fewer than 540 PA.)

Some of these players ran into injuries: Albert Pujols, Giancarlo Stanton, Hanley Ramirez, and Jose Bautista are obvious enough, but don’t forget that Troy Tulowitzki, Bryce Harper, Carlos Gonzalez, David Wright, Jayson Werth, Colby Rasmus, Chase Utley, and others all gave us their production before, after, and around injuries.

Other players platooned: Nate Schierholz, Raul Ibanez, Adam Lind, Mitch Moreland, Will Venable, and Mark Reynolds all played less than full time for their teams. They may well do so again, but can provide cheap value in homers for this season’s fantasy owners.

Of course, some are young players who came to the Majors or into a starting role later in the season—or struggled and were sent down: Yasiel Puig, Will Middlebrooks, Matt Adams, and Jedd Gyorko fit that role.

Home Runs by Position

To get an idea of how good a player is relative to his competition at the same position, let’s check out last year’s average homer totals for the top 12 home run contributors at each position.

Catchers

Leader: Matt Wieters, 22

Top-12 Average: 18.66667

Top 12 Range: 15-22

Notable: A lot of guys hover just under 20—though a couple are still undraftable.

First Base

Leader: Chris Davis, 53

Top-12 Average: 30.83333

Top 12 Range: 23-53

Notable: Seven players with 29 homers or more; 17 players with 17-25.

Second Base

Leader: Robinson Cano, 27

Top-12 Average: 17.5

Top 12 Range: 12-27

Notable: Only three players with more than 20 homers—and one was Dan Uggla.

Third Base

Leader: Miguel Cabrera, 44

Top-12 Average: 25.91667

Top 12 Range: 18-44

Notable: A very top-heavy and power-heavy position, with multiple home run hitters who hurt in average.

Shortstop

Leader: Troy Tulowitzki and J.J. Hardy, 25

Top-12 Average: 16.16667

Top 12 Range: 10-25

Notable: The leaders are below average for the 3B top 12! This makes Hardy look like a great value.

Outfield (Top 36)

Leader: Alfonso Soriano, 34

Top-12 Average: 23.63889

Top 12 Range: 17-34

Notable: A lot of potential homer leaders in the OF missed significant time last year—expect OF to be a better homer source in 2014.

Rate Power Stats

There were only 16 players who qualified for the batting title and slugged over .500. Power is rare. High SLG is normal for home run hitters—so those who don’t have a high number are probably losing it by not providing extra-base power (and so losing out on RBI), or by putting up low batting averages.

Last year, 31 players (who qualified) managed an ISO of .200 or better. And just one (guess who) managed to top .300. I wouldn’t say there is time or need to dive deeply in to ISO here, but it’s a great cross-check when you see intriguing home run production, especially in players with less than a full season. Also, it excludes batting average, so it’s subject to less luck than SLG.

Worth noting: Josh Donaldson just missed both arbitrary round-number cutoffs—he slugged .499 and had an ISO of .199. Go figure.

More to Know

By the time I finish this conclusion, I’ll be up around 1500 words (which doesn’t always stop me, I know), but there’s a lot more worth examining in your pursuit of home runs. Park effects (spoiler: Colorado, Arizona, and Texas are good for homers), flyball rates, HR/FB rates, average flyball distance, “Just Over the Wall” and “No Doubt” homer data, and plenty of other stats feed meaningfully into home runs. It’s a testament to their importance in real and fantasy baseball, I suppose, that they deserve something more like a five-part series than a single episode.

Don’t forget the original, simplified version though: invest in home runs. There aren’t as many as there used to be.

Join us again next week as we tackle a bonus category: OPS. Just in time for me to have already drafted a league that counts it....



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