The Next Big Thing: One Man’s Tenets for Fantasy Success
I have been playing fantasy baseball for approximately 15 years. Since the beginning, I have been a prospect and MLB youth hunter, always keeping an eye peeled for the next big thing.
You’re not likely to see me fawn much over scout ratings/grades, launch angles, or exit velocities. Some may say that means that I place emphasis on highly polished youngsters, who in turn have lower ceilings – the logic being that if a player excels at a young age relative to his peers, he is closer to his peak. Simply put, I don’t believe that this is accurate.
It is certainly true that players mature and develop on different planes. I have not been right about every player. In some instances, top prospects I have identified as having high bust potential have blossomed into serious talents. At other times, players that have shown almost no signs of greatness, show and then become great, and by the time they are great I have already lost my chance to land them, having expected them to come back down to earth during their ascent. Occasionally, a player I like a lot doesn’t turn out the way I had hoped or expected.
However, fantasy baseball is more about the players you do get right than it is about the players you don’t get right. My approach has allowed me to sniff out impact players to pick up or trade for at discounted prices, helping me build powerhouses in both leagues I have played in across my career. I am currently working on building a new powerhouse from the ground up using the same approach. Using my approach may not get you every star player that you want, but if you do it right it will help assure that you don’t miss out on the rare generational talents; the guys who turn out to be perennial MVP candidates rather than just perennial All-Stars (and it will help you collect plenty of stars too).
1- Value Performance over “Talent”
Sometimes the most tantalizing packages produce the biggest duds. Likewise, some of the most productive players come in less than ideal shapes and sizes or have a significant ability in one regard that outsizes a deficiency in another regard. Take Jose Altuve and Paul Goldschmidt as examples. One of my favorite baseball websites, Baseball America, recently ate some crow on these two, penning an article explaining how neither were ranked as top 100 prospects and what lessons they learned from it. Perceptions of size and how well a swing would translate against big leaguers led them to errors in judgment. But they really didn’t need to look any further than gaudy numbers put up by the two along the way – once I saw Altuve’s near .390 minor league batting average after consistently putting together solid walk-to-strikeout ratios against older competition, or Goldschmidt’s third-straight minor league seasons slugging over .600, I knew I had to have them. Baseball America overlooked them, but my team did not.
2- Analyze Performance Compared to Age and Level
This can be looked at in many ways. Occasionally you may come across a player that is of average age for the level he is playing in. If he is putting up eye-popping numbers, that is still worth taking a look at. If he’s 28 and putting up Triple Crown numbers in Double-A, the chances of that translating to Major League success is much lower. If he is young for the level, particularly if it is by a couple of years, good numbers mean a lot more, and sometimes average or mediocre numbers can even mean something. Adalberto Mondesi is a good example of this. Mondesi was consistently challenged at higher levels. His numbers were never particularly impressive, but it did look like it started clicking for him when his age started catching up to the level. The same routine has occurred in the Major Leagues. Mondesi was a hot commodity in our league until he didn’t demonstrate immediate success at the Major League level at age 20, despite showing significant improvement in the minors at about that time. He became a relatively forgotten player in my league until his age once again began to catch up to his level and he started displaying his power and speed skills in the Major Leagues.
3- Find Statistical Comparisons
In baseball, no two players ever progress the same or perform anywhere close to identical. However, humans are pattern-seeking creatures, and there is no better way to get an idea of how a player you are looking at could perform than by looking at how other players with similar profiles have performed. While Mike Trout was coming up, I thought his profile resembled Willie Mays a little bit. Obviously, that isn’t true in every regard or across the board, but Trout certainly has shared some similar traits with the legendary Mays in his equally legendary early career. The problem with harkening back to the legends of the past is that minor league records are hard to equate to today’s minor leagues. In my opinion, this becomes a bigger problem the better the player you are looking at is – if the only comp you can think of is a guy that played baseball 60 years ago, he is probably a rare type indeed.
[Another system that may be useful is the TDG Major League Equivalency Calculator, debuting later this week – Ed.]
4- Search for Evidence of Improvement Throughout, Across, and Within Seasons/Levels
There is a concept known as the Peter Principle. The Peter Principle essentially states that everyone rises to his or her level of incompetence. The same is true in baseball. For a great number of players on the cusp, that level is the major leagues. For others, it happens much earlier. However, there are typically signs that help indicate whether a player is going to succeed or fail at the next level rooted within his current performance. If your player is on the ascent, it’s a good indicator that he may be ready to take a shot at the next level of talent.
All players handle this differently. The truly remarkable players will breeze through all levels of the minors, maybe having a brief statistical dip from their career numbers as they move up (Mike Trout in Double-A), or, in some cases, it will be nothing but improvement all the way through (Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.). The majority of players will have to take time to adapt to the new challenge. Some players handle this well and after a time prove themselves (see how Fernando Tatis, Jr. adjusted after a very rough start last year and how Giancarlo Stanton realized his talents in 2010). Others fail to prove dominance (see Byron Buxton, so far).
5- Have an Eye Out for Statistical Absurdity but Remain Neutral
I must admit that I have a penchant to fall for eye-popping numbers more than I probably should. It worked out well for me when I sniffed out Mike Trout, Jose Altuve, and Paul Goldschmidt. It also sometimes leads me to hang on to guys that evidence is suggesting I should move away from. This list includes guys like Jay Bruce, Brandon Wood, and Billy Hamilton. When I followed the chronicles of Billy Hamilton stealing 155 bases, I had dreams of Vince Coleman dancing around in my head. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to keep Vince Coleman’s bat in my lineup for too long either. As Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro’s character) said in Heat, “don’t let yourself get attached to anything you are not willing to walk out on in 30 seconds flat if you feel the heat around the corner.”
Players that perform considerably above their peers have a greater chance of becoming legends; it’s just common sense. However, make sure you know what you’re getting into. Allow yourself to have your fandom, but don’t let your biases lead you to make bad decisions and recognize when it’s time to cut ties.
PERENNIAL MVP CANDIDATES
So, what has this approach led me to believe the next set of generational talents are? Without further ado, here is my list of the “Next Big Things” in Major League Baseball.
I am a Soto fanboy, there is no doubt about it. Outside of some injury issues in his first two seasons in the minors, Soto checks all the boxes of what I look for. Across three minor league seasons, Soto put up a rarely seen, statistically-ridiculous career minor league slash line of .362/.434/.609 while walking nearly as often as striking out. Soto stepped it up in the minors last year, boasting an OBP nearly 30 points above his career minor league mark and slugging over .750 before getting his call to the major leagues.
As for performance compared to peers – all Soto did was put together the best season we have ever seen by a teenager against Major League competition. He set records in walks and OBP for teenagers. When players show that kind of depth of knowledge about the strike zone, I take note. What Soto did just doesn’t happen. In fact, it has never happened. Seriously, even our current modern-day living legend Mike Trout was over-matched in the big leagues at age 19 – look it up!
The best comparison that I have mustered for Juan Soto so far is, wait for it…Mickey Mantle. It may sound preposterous to compare him to a Hall of Fame legend and 3-time MVP, but that is honestly the best I have found. The early power, the ability to hit for average and draw walks, there simply isn’t another player who resembles Juan Soto to me as much. The only thing that kept Mantle from even greater heights in his career was nagging injuries, which is hopefully something Soto can avoid.
While it’s common-enough for players to experience the dreaded sophomore slump, outside of Tony Conigliaro, I could not actually find any instances of 19-year-olds sharing a similar profile that didn’t dramatically improve their performance in their age-20 season. Considering that Soto’s remarkably good rookie year slash line (.292/.406/.517) is still significantly below his minor league track record, I think he has plenty of room to grow. This year we will see an even better performance.
If you are in a dynasty league and have any chance of landing him, throw everything you have at getting him on your squad (unless it will cost you Mike Trout). After missing on him in our draft, I traded a trio of extremely talented potential all-stars to land Soto on my squad last year as he was on his ascent and do not regret it in the least. If he turns out to be the generational talent that I think he is, it will have been a good deal for me.
Vladimir Guerrero, Jr.
This list is probably sounding a little obvious at this point, but bear with me. My point is to emphasize how good I think that these guys are going to be, not just that they will be good.
Anyone who follows baseball even a little bit knows about Vladimir Guerrero, Jr. at this point. Guerrero cemented himself as the (nearly/should be) universal Number 1 prospect in baseball after threatening to hit over .400 across Double-A and Triple-A last season as a 19-year-old. Guerrero fell short of that goal, but clearly put together one of the best seasons we’ve seen in the minor leagues for a kid not even 20 years old. His talent and pedigree were never really in question, but with a keen eye, the super-stardom in him was apparent from age 17.
At 17, Guerrero played in the Appalachian Rookie league, putting together a respectable .271/.359/.449. This was a time when you still probably could have gotten Guerrero. You may be thinking that his slash line doesn’t sound so absurd to you, and on its face, it isn’t. But for a 17-year-old competing at that level, it is. Guerrero’s most absurd statistic, and the perhaps the biggest indicator that Guerrero was something special was his walk-to-strikeout ratio, 33 walks to 35 strikeouts. You just don’t see that kind of advanced plate approach for someone that young. It was enough for me to draft him well ahead of what people expected when he finally became available to us in our league.
Since that time, Guerrero’s numbers have been on a serious incline, culminating in last season’s otherworldly performance. As for comparisons, I see a combination of Frank Thomas and Vladimir Guerrero, Sr. in Jr.’s profile. Those are Hall of Fame comparisons and I think Vlad Jr. will be better than both of them when it’s all said and done.
We’re finally getting to someone that is slightly more speculative. But only slightly. I highlighted Guerrero, Jr.’s stats in the Appalachian League at age 17, but Franco’s performance at the same level and at the same age makes Guerrero’s look small. Franco put up a MVP-worthy slash line of .351/.418/.587 while also sporting a superior walk-to-strikeout ratio to Guerrero (27 BB/19 K).
I waited until Franco started playing some in the minors before picking him up in my league. Curiously, I remember reading about how Franco was not cut from the same cloth as the amazing Kevin Maitan – it seems those opinions have changed pretty dramatically over the last year. As I watched him perform for the first couple weeks he was up, I was sweating bullets every day that I did not own him, fearful that someone in the league would pick up on his scent. I was competing for a playoff spot and needed every available roster spot I could have. But finally the day came that I couldn’t take it any longer and took the plunge, using one of those precious roster slots to stash him away. Now Franco has established himself as a top 10 prospect at only 18 years old, and barring injury I believe he will soon be #1.
In my estimation, Franco has the highest offensive upside of anyone in the league not named Guerrero. He will hit for average and for power while showing a superior command of the strike zone.
There really isn’t a great comparison for Franco out there at this point, a testament to just how good his season was last year. Speaking purely on offensive profile alone, let’s say either Stan Musial or Joe DiMaggio, though it is still early for me to say with any confidence that I think he will gather over 3,600 hits or that his career will be in the same stratosphere as those legends. Still, the talent is clearly there. If you missed on your chance to get Soto and Guerrero, make sure you get this guy before it’s too late.
Perennial MVP Candidates vs. Perennial All-Stars
You will probably notice that there are some big names in that Big 3 that are missing. There is no Ronald Acuna, Eloy Jimenez, Fernando Tatis, Jr., Royce Lewis, or your other favorite prospect. There are no young stars about to enter peak seasons like Corey Seager, Carlos Correa, or Alex Bregman. I am by no means putting those guys down. I believe there are going to be incredible seasons by some of those guys – MVP years even – but I also see there being a difference between a perennial MVP candidate and a perennial All-Star – and sometimes – MVP candidate.
I always say that anyone in dynasty baseball can be had for the right price, and that is true with few exceptions. The generational talents are those few exceptions. The “Big Thing” of our peak-age generation is Mike Trout. Behind him are a bunch of really good perennial All-Stars and occasional MVP-contenders like Mookie Betts, Jose Ramirez, Kris Bryant, and Bryce Harper. Before Trout, there was Albert Pujols and Miguel Cabrera, and before him there was Barry Bonds.
In the next wave, there will be Soto, Guerrero, and Franco. These are the exceptions – the next perennial MVP contenders and generational talents. Perennial All-Stars are expendable at the right price, but generational talents you do not trade! I have collected all three of these talents on my team, and you should too.