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The Most Profitable Hitters of the Last Five Years


As you may have heard me mention on Twitter or the fantasy baseball subreddit, I recently acquired the last five seasons’ worth of average draft positon (ADP) data for NFBC and all three of the major fantasy platforms (Yahoo, ESPN, and CBS). I am terrible at Excel, so it’s taken a lot of trial and error along with a healthy dose of help and/or cribbing from others to get the data formatted well enough that I can start writing about what it says. Before we dive in, I’d like to first take a moment to thank those people.

KV Singh of PitcherList graciously troubleshooted me through what should have been a quick fix as it ballooned into a 90-minute ordeal, and helped me get a better grasp on formulas. Tanner Bell of Smart Fantasy Baseball read my rambling, possibly incoherent e-mail request for help and provided some valuable guidance on next steps, while also pointing me toward some prior work in the area by Jeff Zimmerman of RotoGraphs. I’ll make significant use of Jeff’s formula in this and probably most future articles on the subject. I’m grateful for their efforts.

To kick off this series, today we’ll look at the players who have offered fantasy owners the greatest return on investment since the 2013 season. I first generated end of season values (Actual Value/AV) using the FanGraphs auction calculator with the default settings for a 12-team league as outlined in Jeff’s piece. Then, using the formula, I converted the average ADP across all platforms for each season to auction dollars (the Expected Value/EV). The profit margin is simply the difference of the two.

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[Aside: Quite probably this is imperfect methodology, but it should be close enough for government work and capture the general gist of things. If you are better at math than me and have suggestions for how I could improve upon it, I legitimately would like to hear them.]

 

Single-Season Leaders

2013: Chris Davis, $38.54 ($47.60 AV | $9.06 EV)

Davis produced more value than any player besides Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout. Unlike those two, who were the top two players off the board in most drafts, Davis had an ADP in the 12th round. If you were wise enough to make that modest investment, your reward was Davis’ career year (literally, he had career highs in all five standard cats): .286, 53 home runs, 104 runs, 138 RBI, and four stolen bases. The following season, he was a first-round pick and one of the biggest busts in the game.

2014:  Michael Brantley, $39.83 ($43.70 AV | $3.87 EV)

Like Davis the year before, Brantley finished 2014 as the third-most valuable player in fantasy, behind Trout and Clayton Kershaw. Brantley’s counting stats weren’t as eye-popping, but he was essentially the Platonic ideal of a five-category stud. He hit .327 and put up a 20/20 season while also finishing in the top 15 hitters in both runs scored and RBI.  Brantley was also even more of a colossal bargain than Davis, because his ADP fell well outside the top 200.

2015: A.J. Pollock, $41.40 ($48.00 AV | $6.60 EV)

Pollock did essentially what Brantley had, just with his run production slanted toward scored rather than driven in plus 15 more stolen bases. Unfortunately, the parallel continues when you consider that injuries have prevented both players from coming anywhere close to those heights since. A few guys drafted ahead of Pollock that year – Joc Pederson, Matt Wieters, and Alex Rios.

2016: Mookie Betts, $29.24 ($54.80 AV | $25.56 EV)

The only single-season leader who required a substantial draft-day investment (a second-round pick), Betts had the most valuable fantasy season of any player in this sample until two players outearned him in 2017. He got there by doing his best Trout impression, putting up a .318-31-122-113-26 and finishing a close second to the genuine article in MVP voting.

2017: Aaron Judge, $51.32 ($53.60 AV | $2.28 EV)

Who else? Judge was an afterthought in drafts last year (282 ADP, 358 NFBC) and we all remember what he did in 2017. In terms of this exercise, no player in the last five years has earned a greater return. A word of caution for 2018, however: All four of the season leaders from 2013 – 16 failed to turn a profit the following season.

But what about the player who has earned the greatest profit over the entire five-year period? This was one of the early questions that inspired me to seek out this data in the first place, which in turn is why this is the first article in the series. You probably have some theories, a couple of names that leapt immediately to mind. I won’t tell you that the name at the top comes as a shock, because it doesn’t. The shock is in just how far ahead of the pack that player was, according to this method. We’ll cover the top five, counting down for maximum suspense.

 

2013 – 2017 Leaders

5. Marcell Ozuna, $41.41 ($62.70 AV | $21.29 EV)

While most of Ozuna’s surplus value results from his 2017 performance – only four players delivered more fantasy value – he also produced positive value in 2014 and 2016. The 2015 season, which memorably featured a brief demotion to the minor leagues, suffered the double whammy of being his worst season and the one that required the most significant investment to land his services on draft day. That high-water mark was only a 125 ADP; if you want him in 2018, you’ll need to grab him inside the top 50.

4. Khris Davis, $43.11 ($71.40 AV | $28.29 EV)

Davis popping up here came as a surprise, but he’s managed to turn a profit every year. One of the things that jumps out from this data is how difficult it is for a player to do that over a five-year span. Players who perform well for a sustained period of time will naturally be more expensive to acquire, making it tougher for them to exceed their expected value. Injury is also a huge obstacle, as any significant amount of missed time can make it difficult, if not impossible, to recoup the investment. To consistently outperform his draft cost for years at a time, a player must be both good and durable, with the latter being especially important once the player’s price tag begins to rise.

Back to Davis. Khrush has accrued most of his surplus value in the last two seasons, during which he trails only Giancarlo Stanton in home runs (by one), ranks third in RBI, and sits just outside the top 30 in runs scored. He came cheap in 2016 because he’d never played a full season; his profit margin in 2017 fell only slightly because he was a top-25 player with an ADP just inside the top 100. The sub-.250 average and lack of track record seemingly kept owners from opening their wallets. His 2018 NFBC ADP so far is around 70, so he’s got a great shot at keeping the profit streak alive.

3. J.D. Martinez, $58.52 ($106.40 AV | $47.88 EV)

Martinez is one of only two players to produce at least a $20.00 profit three times in this five-year sample (the other is #1 on this list). He’s suited up for more than 123 games just once in that time, and the specter of injury has kept his draft cost down most years. Other than 2016, his ADP has never risen above the sixth round. That will change this year, though.

2. Nelson Cruz, $80.57 ($157.80 AV | $77.23 EV)

Cruz has finished in the top 15 players in AV each of the last four seasons, yet his highest ADP during that time is 36. We’ve been habitually undervaluing him. Is it because of his age? What else could it be? Surely, he’s shaken the injury-prone label from his early days, seeing as he’s played at least 152 games in five of the last six years. Since 2014, Cruz leads MLB in home runs, ranks third in RBI and 12th in runs scored, while carrying a .287 average that falls just outside the top 40.  Of course, now he’s a DH entering his age-38 season, so nobody’s going to start drafting him in the first or second round at this point.

1. Charlie Blackmon, $100.48 ($162.20 AV| $61.72 EV)

Blackmon has gotten better every year, but his presence atop this list shows that it took fantasy owners a while to start treating him like a star in drafts. This will be the first year he has a first-round ADP, despite producing at that level in each of the last two years following a pair of second-round value seasons. Blackmon was on virtually no one’s radar before his 2014 breakout, and only rose to the back of the eighth round the following year. He’s turned himself into a superstar, contending for batting titles while increasing his power and trailing only Paul Goldschmidt, Mookie Betts, and teammate Nolan Arenado in R+RBI over the last two years.

 

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