(*) FANALYTICS: Mike Trout, 2013
I want to talk about a player who I've been writing about lately, in my column at USA Today as well as in my weekly chats. He is an amazing player having an amazing year. Let's set the mood with a question from one of those chats:
"Mike Trout has been unbelievable. What stats should we thinking about for him next year? Should there be some regression? He is clearly gonna be a top 5 pick in non-keeper leagues."
Absolutely 100% correct. His average draft position next year will most certainly be in the top 5. And anyone who drafts him that high has to be absolutely crazy.
I know, I know, it's human nature to put inflated emphasis on current performance. We call it the recency bias. You look at Trout's current numbers and how can you conceive of him not being a top 5 pick? At minimum, he's a first-rounder, right? How can that not be guaranteed with numbers like these?
How about a little history lesson?
In 2005, Derrek Lee put up a monster season. He hit 46 HR and batted .335, making him the #1 player in all of fantasy that year. This was an 8-year veteran who had never hit more than 32 HRs or batted higher than .282. The next spring, he rose to an ADP of 7. He hasn't cracked the first round since.
In 2006, Ryan Howard hit 58 HRs and batted .313 in his first full major league season, ranking him 4th among all players. For the next four years, Howard entered the season with a first round ADP but he hasn't finished among the game's top 15 players since that first year.
In 2009, Joe Mauer hit 28 HRs—more than double any previous season's output—and batted a career high .365. That was 7th best in all of baseball that year. The following spring, we warned everyone of the coming regression, but those 2009 numbers and position scarcity elevated him to an ADP of 13. He hasn't finished anywhere in the top five rounds since.
In 2010, it was Carlos Gonzalez, hitting 34 HRs, stealing 26 bases and batting .336 in his first full major league season. He was the #1 player in baseball that year and opened the 2011 ADPs at #6. Regression pulled him out of the first round last year, though he is back in the top 10 so far in 2012.
Last year there were all sorts of breakout performances. Matt Kemp and Jacoby Ellsbury finished #1 and #2, respectively. Curtis Granderson was #6 and Adrian Gonzalez was #7. The latter two were first-timers to finishing in the top 15. All four will be finishing nowhere near first round value this year.
In each of these years, we could not conceive of those players failing. But regression and gravity are the two strongest forces known to man. They are unforgiving.
Who is returning first round value this year so far? Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton and David Wright—players who have been consistent first-rounders before. Andrew McCutchen and Edwin Encarnacion—players with a skills track record that has been improving moderately over time, not spiking. Justin Verlander and Felix Hernandez—players with a long-term track record of exemplary skills.
These are the players I would be looking towards as returning first round value next year. I'd also be looking towards players with excellent skills who might have had an off-year in 2012. By that token, I'd probably be more likely to draft a Justin Upton in the first round than a Mike Trout.
For me, Trout is more likely to be next year's Eric Hosmer.