Building a Balanced Team: Outfield
Over the last several weeks, we have identified catchers, first basemen, second basemen, third basemen, and shortstops who have the potential to contribute to three or more hitting categories. Today we conclude our quest to build a balanced team and turn to the outfield. As a reminder on the methodology behind this series, I began this exercise by gathering data for each position over the past decade (plus a bonus year because why not?) to determine the average production for each hitting category. In order to eliminate outliers resulting from limited sample sizes, I used a 400-plate appearance qualifier for all positions with the exception of catcher, for which I set the threshold at 300 plate appearances. I also wanted to control for lost playing time resulting from unforeseeable injuries, so rather than calculate the average counting stat totals for each category, I calculated the ratio of plate appearances to each counting stat (e.g. 30 plate appearances per home run as opposed to an average of 20 home runs).
After calculating the baseline for each category and year, I tallied the number of players who met three or more category thresholds as a measure of positional scarcity. Finally, I calculated the average for each category and position over the 11-year period to reduce the noise and determine the baselines we will use to identify multi-category contributors in our draft. For those who have the time, I highl1y recommend creating your own player projections and comparing them against the following baseline calculations, but for this article, I am going to use the Steamer 600 projections provided by Fangraphs. For reference, current NFBC ADP figures for each player are listed in parenthesis.
Last but not least, the outfielders:
The outfield has endured modest declines across the board relative to the 11-year average, with the greatest being a nine percent dip in RBI production. However, the rest of the categories are not far off of the average, and even with the diminished overall returns, the outfield provides the most valuable average production when we calculate the composite z-scores for each position (we’ll dig into that a little bit later). Since each major league team fields three outfielders, I have calculated the adjusted measures of scarcity so that we can compare them to the rest of the positions. Based on this positional adjustment, on average, the outfield historically offers the fewest number of five-category contributors. This is likely due to the fact that the position is occupied by a group of players with diverse skill sets, which in turn buoy each of the categorical averages. So while your corner infielders’ strongest attributes are typically power and run production, and your middle infielders’ strongest attribute is typically speed, the outfield provides a range of profiles, including low average sluggers, speedsters, and high average lead-off hitters, just to name a few. As a result, it is very difficult to find players who can meet or exceed each of the benchmarks for the position.
If we convert the 11-year average ratios back to counting stats based on 600 plate appearances, we can compare the values to the Steamer 600 projections to identify players that meet each of our target thresholds.
For the first time since he became a regular, Mike Trout (1.84) missed one of our benchmarks in 2015, falling three stolen bases short of contributing to all five categories. His transition from a lead-off hitter to a middle-of-the-order run producer has likely contributed to the steady decline in stolen base production, but regardless of the reason, Mike Trout wants to steal more bases. And Mike Trout can do anything that he wants.
You know it’s a good time to be a baseball fan when Bryce Harper (2.65) is your consolation prize. He avoided the trainer’s room and put together his first complete season in 2015, and it ended (perhaps not coincidentally) with an MVP award. He led all of baseball in on-base and slugging percentages, and he posted his best homerun, run, and RBI totals. Owners can expect Harper to easily exceed four out of the five benchmarks, but he is unlikely to meet our stolen base threshold. He hasn’t posted double-digit steals since 2013, and even then he fell three bags shy of the 11-year average. Even with the speed deficiency, he is the second most valuable dynasty asset, and at 23, can carry your team in four categories for the next decade. Giancarlo Stanton (10.00) has struggled to stay on the field over the course of his six-year career, but when he has, he has been the most prodigious homerun hitter of his generation. His HR/FB rate has never dipped below 21 percent, almost double the league average. That number ballooned to 32 percent in 2015, when he improved his hard contact rate to 50 percent. Yes, you read that right: half of the balls he hit, he hit hard. He was on pace to hit 55 homeruns and drive in 136 runs last season before he was bitten by the injury bug. Ultimately, while he offers some tantalizing potential, he probably isn’t worth the price that he will command in dynasty leagues until he actually achieves those numbers. Andrew McCutchen (13.79) had a slow start to his 2015, which likely explains the slide in his ADP relative to previous seasons. However, after batting .194 over the first month of the season, he recovered to hit .306 the rest of the way while demonstrating his signature power and speed skills. He had been a five-category contributor for three straight seasons until last year, when he failed to meet the stolen base benchmark. His production in that category has been on the decline for the last three seasons, and entering his age-30 campaign, it may not recover to previous levels. At a minimum, he should continue to contribute to the remaining categories for the foreseeable future, so he offers a very high floor in dynasty leagues. Just don’t pay for the old Andrew McCutchen. George Springer (25.04) lost two months of his season to a fractured wrist, but when he returned he demonstrated the same power and speed combination that led Steamer to project him to meet our homerun and stolen base thresholds in 2016. A reduction in his strike out rate and increase in line drive rate resulted in a 45 point improvement in his batting average. Steamer projects him to maintain these gains, but dynasty league owners should take note that the changes to his batted ball profile and contact rates are a departure from the skills he demonstrated throughout his minor league career. Only time will tell if this is just natural variance or growth. Entering his age-27 season, he will be a valuable dynasty asset nonetheless, and can be expected to contribute to at least three of our categories moving forward. If you’re skeptical about the prospects of a 31-year-old who has struggled with injuries in recent years repeating a 20/20 season, you’re not the only one. Ryan Braun (44.33) achieved those feats in only 140 games, as his season was cut short due to a back issue. He had surgery in October to relieve the problem, but now entering his age-32 season, you have to wonder what impact it will have on his playing time. The one thing we can say about Braun is that he has a track record of performing well in the face of adversity, whether it was self-imposed or beyond his control. Dynasty-leaguers will want to account for the questions surrounding Braun when pricing him. Carlos Gonzalez (57.94) is our next injury-prone outfielder who is projected to meet four of our category benchmarks. Like Braun, 2015 was his best season in a few years, although the stolen base numbers did not rebound to previous levels. He will play 2016 at the age of 30, and his home/away splits indicate that much of his production can be credited to Coors Field, so if the Rockies decide to move their aging superstar, it could significantly impact his value. Even without a trade, his contract will expire at the end of the 2017 season, so there is a chance he only has a couple of years left of this level of production. Yasiel Puig (85.83) entered 2015 as one of the most valuable dynasty assets, but failed to deliver on his potential. He spent significant time on the disabled list due to hamstring problems, but even when he was on the field, he regressed in almost every facet of the game. He swung at more pitches outside of the zone, and set a career low in hard contact rate. He also saw a decline in his stolen base production, but that may be related to the aforementioned hamstring injuries. He’s only 25, so there’s still plenty of time to right the ship, and his struggles last season may give dynasty league owners an opportunity to acquire him at a discounted rate.
Mookie Betts (18.21) failed to meet all five benchmarks by one homerun and four RBI, so while he only qualifies as a three-category contributor based on Steamer’s projections, we’re really splitting hairs here. In 2015, he once again demonstrated the impressive power, speed, and contact skills that made him a fantasy darling entering the 2015 season. At 23, there’s still plenty of room for growth, but even if last year was his ceiling, he’s one of the few at the position who can contribute to all five categories for the next five years. He will not come cheap in dynasty, but considering the lack of five-category options at the position, and his potential to exceed last season’s totals, owners should not hesitate to pay a premium to acquire him. Jose Bautista (25.88) eclipsed the 150 game mark for the second straight year last season, which allowed him to easily exceed the homerun, run, and RBI thresholds. While he stole eight bags last season, he shouldn’t be counted upon to contribute to the category entering his age-35 season. His fly ball-heavy batted ball profile does wonders for his power numbers, but it also drains his batting average, so you’ll need to make up for that deficiency elsewhere. Still, he is a valuable piece for dynasty teams that are contending in the next couple of years. At 29, Charlie Blackmon (35.64) stole a career-high 43 bases in 2015 while contributing 17 homeruns. His position atop Colorado’s lineup and the lack of talent around him will likely limit his RBI potential, and some regression can be expected in the stolen base numbers in 2016 as he enters his thirties, but he is still easily a three category contributor, and could become a four category contributor with some growth in the power department. He’s not as young as some of the other players at this position with similar skill sets, which gives savvy dynasty league owners an opportunity to buy AJ Pollock-type production at a discount. If it feels like Justin Upton (48.53) has been around forever, it’s because he has. He made his major league debut all the way back in 2007 at the age of 20, and has been hitting homeruns and stealing bases ever since. So while he may seem old, he’s only entering his age-28 season, adding to his value in dynasty leagues. Steamer has projected some regression from the 19 steals he produced last season, but he should still easily contribute to three categories for the foreseeable future. Jason Heyward (68.40) is another player who seems older than he is, but he doesn’t come with the same resume as Upton. He is somewhat of an unknown, alternating between strong contact, speed, and power outputs, but never sustaining all three for any extended period of time. He’s moving to a more formidable lineup this season, so he’s safe bet to continue to contribute to at least three categories. Which three categories they will be, however, is another question, which makes roster construction more difficult. In between the DL stints, Hanley Ramirez (127.14) had one of the worst seasons of his career in 2015. However, he looked like the slugger the Red Sox were hoping to add to their lineup through the first month, before he injured his shoulder running into the outfield wall. He’s moving to first base this season, which may help him avoid running into walls, but will also depress his value in dynasty leagues once he loses outfield eligibility. Much like Heyward before him, it’s difficult to forecast what he’ll ultimately give you, but for the price you will likely have to pay to acquire him, the upside is worth the risk.
Surprisingly, the outfield is the scarcest position we have reviewed in this exercise when adjusting for the size of the player pool. The variety of skill sets at the position has bolstered the thresholds for all five categories, reducing the number of players who can exceed each benchmark. Mike Trout is the best player in baseball, and is the only one who can single-handedly carry your team in any category in any given year. There’s really no reason to discuss him any further, because if you don’t already have him on your dynasty team, you probably never will. The same can be said for Bryce Harper, who fulfilled his potential last season on his way to one of the greatest offensive campaigns since Barry Bonds broke baseball. So let’s focus on some players who you can reasonably acquire. George Springer showed some promising growth last season, cutting his strike out rate and improving his stolen base success rate. With health, he could produce a 30/30 season. Mookie Betts is a more well-rounded option, as he is one of only a few players we identified who could meet all five benchmarks. His upside could very well look a lot like Dustin Pedroia’s prime. Dynasty league owners should invest without hesitation. Entering his age-28 season, Justin Upton is still in his prime, and his track record of consistent production makes him one of the most appealing dynasty league targets for contending teams. He is unlikely to cost the premium you will have to pay for some of the other players that we have identified.
Not included in our findings, but worth mentioning, are a number of other outfielders who barely missed meeting our categorical benchmarks based on the Steamer 600 projections. A.J. Pollock has seen his stock rise after a break-out 2015 campaign. With a 29 percent fly ball rate, he’ll need to compile plate appearances in order to reach the 20 home run plateau again, but even if he doesn’t he should easily exceed the runs, stolen bases, and batting average benchmarks. Starling Marte exceeded all five of our benchmarks last season by hitting a career-high 19 home runs. However, he also posted the lowest fly ball (22.7 percent) and hard contact (28.7 percent) rates of his career, making the power surge look unsustainable. Dynasty league owners can safely project him to contribute to four categories moving forward. J.D. Martinez proved 2014 was not a fluke last season, as he doubled the home run benchmark while also exceeding three others. He’s never stolen more than 8 bases in any professional season, and there’s no evidence to suggest that will change moving forward. Adam Jones failed to meet the benchmark for three of our categories last season, which was his worst since 2011. Entering his age-30 season, it’s unlikely that the stolen bases are coming back, and his questionable plate discipline may finally put the batting average at risk. Steamer is buying a bounce-back, but dynasty league owners will want to proceed with caution. Carlos Gomez is another former five-category contributor who experienced a significant down turn in production last season. A hip injury nixed a trade deadline deal to the Mets before he was shipped to Houston, so there are questions surrounding his health and ability to bounce back. Nelson Cruz continues to defy Father Time, and he has managed to avoid the disabled list for the past two seasons. As a result, he’s posted the best counting stat totals of his career during that time, and even contributed an elite batting average last season. He should be able to meet at least three categorical benchmarks moving forward. Matt Holliday is now 36, and coming off of an injury-plagued season, his potential to contribute to four categories will be dependent upon his ability to stay on the field. With the offseason departure of Ender Inciarte, David Peralta should receive full-time at-bats this season. His groundball-heavy profile has allowed him to post excellent batting averages over his brief major league career, but they will also likely limit his power potential moving forward. His potential to contribute to three categories will be tied to his position in the Arizona lineup.
Moving forward, there are a number of prospects and young major league players who dynasty league owners should keep an eye on. Aaron Hicks and Eddie Rosario have yet to approach the categorical benchmarks, but each has demonstrated a balanced skill set and the potential to contribute to at least three categories. With opportunity and continued development, they could provide significant returns on investment in the coming years. On the farm, Lewis Brinson, David Dahl, and Jordan Patterson are excellent stashes for owners who are building for the future. If their minor league production translates to the major league level, they will provide an excellent foundation for owners striving to construct a balanced roster.
As a reminder, the players that we identified in this exercise are based upon a projection system, which relies strictly on past statistical outputs. A model can’t scout a player, or consider changes to a player’s swing when forecasting future performance. You are the last piece to the puzzle, so these benchmarks are most valuable when used to identify five-category contributors based on your personal projections. Next week, we’ll conclude this series by looking at positional value and scarcity.