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Once you've grown accustomed to having advanced tools to help make fantasy decisions, it can be disorientating to be without them. Prospects are increasingly becoming a focal point in both real and fantasy baseball, but the minors simply do not have all of the data available for MLB players. For example, advanced plate discipline stats, batted ball data, HR/FB, xFIP and PITCHf/x are all currently unavailable for minor league campaigns.

Does this mean we go back to looking at ERA and batting average as the only indicators of future performance? Of course not! Instead, we do our best to work with what we have. The process begins by looking at the environment.

Like MLB, each minor league and ballpark has its own quirks and tendencies, skewing the results in one way or another. For example, the Pacific Coast League is a Triple A league notorious for inflating offensive statistics. Imagine if an entire league played in Coors Field every game. That's the PCL.

For PCL players, a batting line may look good at first glance but really be only an average performance. Likewise, pitchers may put up dreadful numbers even after they are ready for the Show. For instance, a PCL pitcher put up a 9-7 record with a 4.60 ERA in 133 IP in 2014. His K% was a robust 24.9%, but none of his other stats screamed MLB ready.

However, some fantasy owners noticed that his BABIP against was a ludicrous .378, a number that would almost certainly regress in a different environment. The pitcher never ran a BABIP that high in any other minor league stop. His LOB% of 67.2% would likely climb as the BABIP dropped. We do have FIP for minor leaguers, and this pitcher's was 3.70 - still not great, but much better than his ERA.

Despite the ugly Triple-A results, this pitcher played in the majors for 150 innings last season. His 9-7 record repeated itself, but his ERA fell to 3.24, right in line with a FIP of 3.25. The K% he flashed in the PCL translated to the majors, where he posted an elite 27.5% rate. His name is Noah Syndergaard, and he definitely had owners that took his 2014 numbers as indicative of his ability kicking themselves by season's end.

If memorizing each league's tendencies is too overwhelming for you, you can look at Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+) as a shortcut. This metric sets 100 as the average offensive output, with each number higher or lower representing a one percent difference in either direction. This means that a wRC+ of 95 is five percent worse than league average, while a mark of 110 is 10% better. While the formula does not directly translate to fantasy value, park and league adjustments are already included in the calculation.

Another common problem with minor league statistics is sample size. It is easier to run an unsustainable BABIP or HR/FB in a small sample than a larger one. The minor leagues compound this problem by allowing a healthy player to be called up or demoted multiple times in one season, leaving us with two or more partial season samples instead of one full season of statistics. Astros shortstop Carlos Correa illustrates this, as he had a grant total of 246 PAs at Double A and Triple A combined before his call up last year.

Due to the small sample, Correa's BABIP cannot be trusted. In this situation, I like to examine the player's plate discipline numbers because they stabilize (or become predictive) quickly. At Double A, Correa had an 11.3% BB% against an 18.8% K%, indicating a strong knowledge of the zone. Triple A saw his BB% drop slightly to 10.6%, but a drop in K% to 12.4% made his overall profile stronger.

Correa posted a 9.3% BB% and 18.1% K% en route to his Rookie of the Year award in the majors last year. Plate discipline is harder in the majors than the minors, and we don't have the additional information provided by metrics such as O-Swing%. Still, Correa seemed to possess strong discipline in the minors and managed to take it with him as soon as he was called up to the bigs. In general, a player won't be completely overmatched in the majors if he had strong plate discipline numbers in the minors.

The minor leagues do not have scouting at anywhere near the same level the majors do, so dead pull hitters that manage to hit the ball hard every time tend to have very high BABIPs on the farm. In the majors, these players are confronted with shifts that tend to reduce their BABIPs far below their minor league history. Stealing bases is also easier in the minors, but elite success rates are still something to look for when projecting leadoff types. Age is also a factor for minor leaguers, as a 28-year-old dominating a bunch of teenagers at Rookie ball isn't really that impressive.

To conclude, the fact that we do not know a minor leaguer's LD% or BABIP on ground balls does not prevent us from analyzing minor league players for fantasy purposes. We have tools such as BABIP and BB% for hitters and FIP and LOB% for pitchers, and we can still place these numbers into context by examining any given league's tendencies. Finding rookie breakouts before they happen is still challenging, but that's what makes it a worthy endeavor.

Hopefully, this series taught you how to understand and use sabermetrics to improve your fantasy baseball rosters. I make extensive use of these metrics in my in-season Champ or Chump columns, and most of the other Rotoballer experts use them in some way as well. Of course, they don't tell us everything. If they did, there would be no reason to play the games. None of us want that!

 

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