MASTER NOTES: Team Players

The other day, I heard or read somewhere one of those fantasy baseball conventions: that better teams have better fantasy players, and that faced with a decision between two similar players, the owner should opt for the player on the better team.

It’s one of those ideas that makes intuitive sense, and that’s part of why it keeps going. It has been around for so long that we all just kinda take it for granted—it keeps hanging around, so there must be something to it. As regular Master Notes readers and listeners know, as a BaseballHQer, I like to test those kinds of obviously true ideas.

BaseballHQ is well known for its willingness to challenge the conventional wisdom. One fine example was Ron Shandler’s original LIMA Plan, which challenged the idea that non-closer relievers offered almost no value in 4x4, when in fact they offered a lot of value when suitably selected. BaseballHQ has also devised such useful metrics as PQS, xERA, and xBA, but has been willing to amend the formulas for these and other HQ metrics as new and better data became available.

So: Is there anything to the idea that better teams have better fantasy players? In the widest possible sense, it is. But as far as breaking ties between similar players, it’s far from clear—especially where hitters are concerned.

The Big Picture

The study was pretty simple. I compiled all of the hitters and pitcher value records for the 2016 and 2017 season, using the BHQ Custom Draft Guide (CDG), set to a 70-30 split in a standard 15-team mixed league. I set the CDG to balanced valuations with no scarcity adjustment.

I then sorted the hitters and pitchers separately by value, from most valuable to least. I took the Top 250 value hitters and the Top 150 value pitchers, to capture all the players who would be likely get drafted and a few spares on both sides of the ball. Using Excel, I added up and ranked each MLB team’s total hitter value and total pitcher value.

Finally, I compared where each team stood in these hitter- and pitcher-value standings with where it stood in the W-L rankings in each of the two years under examination.

There were some indicators that the top players are found on the better teams. The top teams in combined wins over the two years—CLE, CHC, LA, WAS and BOS—had 21 of the 65 top hitters ($20+ in either season), and 18 of 27 of the top pitchers ($15+).

But that doesn’t mean that all the players on a top team are necessarily top players. And since most of our tougher “which guy” questions come further down the price list, it’s important to understand the overall value results:

Hitting: In 2016, 14 of the 30 teams had hitter values within three slots of their team won-loss standings performance. The median difference was -1.5 (that is, the team’s value rank was 1.5 rank slots under its standings rank). In 2017, much the same: 14 of the 30 teams had hitter values within three slots of won-loss ranks, with a median difference of +0.5.

Pitching: In the 2016 pitching values, 15 teams were within three slots of their standings ranks. The median difference was 0.0. In 2017, 16 teams were within three slots of their standings ranks, with the median difference +0.5.

In the “big picture” sense, then, the proposition looks supportable: Half the teams’ value total ranks cluster around their standings ranks. That supports the idea that there is a connection between team performance and player value.

Upon Further Review...

The issue arises with the other half of teams, whose value ranks are different—often hugely different—from their standings ranks.

Among hitting teams, CIN was a huge positive outlier in both years. In 2016, the Reds were in a four-way tie for second-to-last overall in the standings, so 27.5th, but eighth in hitter value, a 19.5-slot difference. In 2017, similarly, the Reds were sixth in hitters’ fantasy value, 20 slots better than their 26th-place finish in the overall standings. Other notable outperformers:

  • In 2016, ARI ranked 6th in value but 24th in standings, an 18-point difference.
  • Also in 2016, COL was third in hitter value, 17 slots better than its standings rank of 18th.
  • Still in 2016, MIL was 11th in hitter value, 22nd in the standings, an 11-slot gap.
  • And DET and LAA were five or more slots better in value than in the standings.
  • In 2017, MIA ranked third in hitter value, 15 slots higher than its 8th-place standings rank.
  • SEA, KC, COL and CHW were also five or more slots better than standings rank.

Among overperforming pitchers’ value, there were fewer giant deltas. The White Sox’ 9th-best pitching value in 2016 was 10 slots better than their 19th-place standings finish, and TAM’s 19th-best pitcher value was 8.5 slots ahead of their 27.5th-place standings rank.

In 2017, no team had double-digit overperformance gaps, but PHI, TOR, NYY, and SF were five or more slots better in value rank than in standings rank.

On the hitters’ downside, NYM were 24th in hitter value but 9.5th in the standings, and that -14.5 gap was the largest hitting underperformance of the season. LA, CHC, NYY and STL were all 10 or more slots worse, while OAK was -5.5

In 2017, LA was 16th in hitting but first in the standings, a 15-point delta, while CHC’s 17th-best hitter value was 10 slots worse than standings place. CLE, SD, ARI, STL, TAM, and TOR hitter values were all five slots or worse than standings.

In 2016, COL was 29th in pitcher value, nine slots worse than their 20th-place finish, and TEX’s 10th-place finish in pitching was 7.5 slots worse than their 2.5th standings rank. In 2017, MIA was 27th in pitching value, 9.0 slots worse than their standings, while MIN was eight slots worse and OAK, COL, ATL, and TEX were all five slots or worse in pitching than in the standings.

Conclusion

We’ve seen that the better teams do indeed have more of the top players, but it’s a pretty big jump to assume that means “better teams cause better players.” It seems just as likely, if not more, that “better players cause better teams.” This seems especially applicable for pitchers, and might explain why the deltas between pitching value rank and standings ranks are narrower than the corresponding hitter vale-standings disparities.

In addition, assuming that the assessment of a player’s value includes such team-oriented counting stats as runs, RBI, and wins, surely the team expectation is baked into the projections and, thus, the valuation. Why give a good-team player the added benefit? It seems likelier that upside comes from a player with lower team expectations.

Given the weakness of the evidence, the better play is to draft or buy the best player based on skills. Baseball is at its core an individual game, and all the more in these days, when Ks, HRs, and walks are predominant and the other “team” skills have been de-emphasized.

I said earlier that BaseballHQ has long been willing to adapt, adjust, or abandon its precepts, a strength of the HQ philosophy. But one HQ mantra that should still be heeded is also one of the oldest: “Buy skills, not roles.” And no matter the conventional wisdom, player roles include their teams.


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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.