Hear ye, hear ye. We have again assembled the Knights of Lord Zola's Round Table for another year of fantasy baseball discussion. Before we begin, here is the ensemble that will be gracing this space every Wednesday:
- Ryan Carey: Mastersball Columnist
- Don Drooker: Mastersball Columnist
- Tim Heaney: KFFL Managing Editor
- Christopher Kreush: Mastersball Columnist
- Rob Leibowitz: Mastersball Columnist
- Lawr Michaels: Mastersball Managing Partner
- Nick Minnix: KFFL Baseball Editor
- Greg Morgan: Mastersball Columnist
- Zach Steinhorn: Mastersball Editor
- Perry Van Hook: Mastersball Columnist
- Brian Walton: Mastersball Managing Partner
- Todd Zola: Mastersball Managing Partner
Max effort helps, hurts
From time to time, we will be inviting a guest Knight to participate in the debauchery. This week, we are privileged to have Cory Schwartz, Vice President, Stats, MLB Advanced Media, join our merry band of men.
Lost in the Mike Trout hysteria is another young phenom, Bryce Harper. Let's use the Mastersball Platinum projection as a starting point: .268 with 22 HR, 55 RBI, 84 runs, 20 SB in 593 AB.
Are you taking the over or under for average, power and speed? How high are you willing to draft him in a 15 team mixed league? What would you pay in a 15-team mixed auction? What about NL Tout Wars or NL LABR - what's your price?
Tim Heaney: Over on the power, slightly over on the speed; he really found his zone near the end of last year, especially with 13 homers over the final two months. His swing is more readily designed for immediate thump gains. Harper's issues versus lefties will hold back his clip. I actually projected him at .268, as well, but that's generous and I think he could fall a bit below that this year. He and Jason Heyward will have quite similar lines this year with their across-the-board contributions, and despite their BA hindrances are going to have many suitors.
Holding the 13th pick out of 13 teams in the Fantasy Sports Trade Association draft, I considered Harper with one of my first two but passed; that's the top end of my wheelhouse for him, though. I'd drop around $25 in any of those formats, but I probably won't stay in most bidding wars.
Perry Van Hook: Put me down for over on power, speed and batting average.
Look at his numbers from August and September, and while I wouldn't triple them - he will have some minor slumps next year - he is also a year more experienced and will react very well to changes in how they are pitching him. I would easily bet on 25+/25+ and think the average will be over .275 and it could be well over. As one who saw him play in high school and college - okay JC - he is still developing and that is a scary thought. I would take him in the third round in a 15-team mixed and I think he may well be in the second round IF he has a really good spring training. I haven't done any pricing yet but again for 15-team mixed suggest he will earn mid-twenties and I would be comfortable paying all of that because there is upside.
Cory Schwartz: I'll take the over, across the board, assuming that number of at-bats. Consider that Harper posted 22 homers, 59 RBI's, 98 runs and 18 steals last season in only 139 games... prorating those numbers up to a full season, even given the same level of play as in 2012, would allow him to surpass all of your projections for 2013. However, I expect him to improve upon those numbers, for several reasons.
First, all of his rate stats last year were comparable to – and in a few cases better than - what he produced in his brief minor league career, which suggests to me that he has been able to maintain his skills as he's moved up the ladder to the big leagues. Harper's 2012 stats appear to me to be a baseline for 2013, not a ceiling.
Second, consider Harper's fantastic finish to last season, in which he hit .287 with 13 homers after August 1 after a July slump... he made adjustments to Major League pitching and was dominant for an extended period of the season, which suggests to me that any slumps or struggles this season will be minimal, unlike many other young, inexperienced players. A quick review of Harper's minor league career shows that he did struggle upon his initial exposure to each level, but figured out each one very quickly and began to dominate.
Third, Harper will most likely drop down into the #3 spot in the order this year, which – all other things being equal – should provide considerably more RBI opportunities than he saw in 2012. He hit second for most of last year, behind a group of Nationals leadoff hitters that combined for only a .325 OBP, 18th in the Majors. This year he'll probably have Denard Span (.357 career OBP) and Jayson Werth (.362) setting the table for him, which makes 85 or more RBIs much more likely than something in the 50s or 60s.
Finally, consider Harper's pedigree. It's not fair to call him a once-in-a-generation talent, not when we have Ryan Braun and Mike Trout active too, just to name two. But Harper has been viewed as an elite prospect since he was in junior high, and has not done anything at any point to indicate those scouting reports are more hyperbole than reality. And when a player reaches the Major Leagues at the age of 19 and does what Harper did last year, well, you can pretty much assume superstardom is in his not-too-distant future.
I recently took Harper 16th overall – first pick of the second round – in a 15-team mock draft featuring industry experts such as Jason Collette, Ray Flowers, Steve Gardner and of course Lord Zola, among many others. That's not to say I would definitely take him there in a "real" draft in March – not with Justin Upton, Josh Hamilton and Jason Heyward on the board – but it does clearly indicate that I am very bullish on his prospects for this season. I'm a buyer. I'll play the over.
Greg Morgan: I'll take the over on BA, R, HR, RBI and SB's. My expectations are to see 30-35 HRs, 20+ SBs, and a slash line of .290/.360/.510 or better. His ceiling is higher than that; the question is whether or not it comes this year. In early drafts with savvy players (NFBC format), he's been going mid-third round I'd draft him there without hesitation. Unfortunately, come late March in Vegas, in all likelihood that won't be an option. The latest you'll be able to get him is mid second round, early second round more common, with occasional appearances late in the first. I have no specific limit to how high I'll draft him, but it's more about fitting together the pieces of a puzzle than pure value. It all depends who is on board each round and who I expect to be there in the 2nd or 3rd based on draft flow. There are so many upside OFs available late this year that I'd rather take an infielder or an elite ace early.
Don Drooker: While every projection put forward seems reasonable, from a strictly Fantasy perspective, Harper won't be on my team. Not because the player isn't good, but because he'll be over-valued by both experts and home game team owners. In a NL-only re-draft auction league, he'll probably earn $25-$30 but someone at the table will pay more. In a 15-team mixed snake format, there are at least six (6) OF I'd take first, so he's only a top twenty pick if all the others go early.
Todd Zola: Wow, this is interesting. I'm taking the under on average and steals but would not be surprised if the power is a tad light.
First off, any time one is asked the question will a player be better or worse than last season, you'll be correct 70 percent of the time if you say worse. Granted, I need to do more work on this to see if there is anything tell-tale about the 30 percent, but strictly on probability, I'm taking the under on every player compared to last season.
Next, it is very possible for a player's skills to improve but not have that reflected in their performance (which will happen to Mike Trout this season but that's for another day). The luck-related metric that worries me with Harper is his 23 percent line drive rate. I see this coming down, lowering his batting average and reducing steals, regardless where he sits in the order.
But what really concerns me is his K/BB and this is what I feel will make or break his season. While neither were bad, in fact an argument can be made that both were very good for a then 20-year old, I'm not willing to take the leap of faith both get appreciably better this season. I think there's a decent chance both take a step back before improving down the line, which will negatively impact Harper's average and stolen base opportunities. And if this leads to a slump or two, it will be interesting to see how he reacts.
CS: He slumped all of last July and responded pretty well after that, I'd say.
TZ: Very true - let's see what happens when it occurs while hitting 3rd or 4th for a team under immense pressure and scrutiny after the manner they handled Stephen Strasburg last season.
Gotta love it, two stat guys talking psychology.
CS: He wasn't under pressure last year, in a pennant race as a 19-year-old rookie? And being, ya know, Bryce Harper?
TZ: I just think it's more this season. There actually wasn't much of a race and the Strasburg stuff, not to mention the Mike Trout stuff, deflected some of the being Bryce Harper stuff. The microscope will be on the team from the first pitch until they win the World Series, with anything less a failure.
GM: I certainly don't diminish the significance of psychology, pressure, and their impacts on performance, but I think the notion that there's more or less pressure based on certain lineup slots is a largely a myth. Baseball is a mental game, but when entering the batter's box you think about the opposing pitcher's repertoire, pitch sequence, the game situation, perhaps bunting, hitting a sac fly, any number of things, but not sure why lineup slot would ever enter the hitter's mind at that point in time. It's not that lineup slot doesn't have effects. One might see more fastballs with a burner on first as opposed to Paul Konerko. Hitting in front of Barry Bonds in his prime, J.T. Snow probably saw better pitches to hit. Hitting 8th in the NL, it makes sense that you'll see more pitches out of the zone, but the pressure to perform is always there whether hitting 1st or 9th. A 100 mph fastball is still a 100 mph fastball no matter where you are in the lineup.
Will other factors create more pressure on Bryce Harper? Perhaps, I dunno. However, when I think of Harper, he reminds me of a young Josh Beckett in the World Series. Too young and cocky to even realize that he should be feeling pressure. Obviously I could be wrong as I don't know him personally, just my two cents.
TZ: In the moment, sure.
But I'm talking more about the cumulative impact of post game interviews and press conferences; the spot in the order is associated with importance to the team. You now have the Bryce Harper effect plus the guy expected to carry the team, regardless of the name on the back of the uniform.
Lawr Michaels: Well, I loved Cory's pick at the time. I had Harper penciled (note, not penned) in for around .275-25-80 which are really great numbers. It would be great if he exceeded, but just that baseline for a 20-/21-year-old is pretty good (note if he does drive in 100 before age 22 he is in pretty rare company as a future HOF'er, as that stat bodes pretty well for young hitters).
I refuse to plug into the controversy of good or bad picks over the first three rounds. Generally good players abound every pick and the real crapshoot is whether they stay healthy or the bottom drops off.
Where you win is between picks 8-15 I believe. Just like in an auction, you win with surprise bargains, like Trevor Plouffe and Fernando Rodney.
Nick Minnix: First, I'd be pretty surprised if Davey Johnson batted Harper third or fourth for any significant stretch of the season, and certainly not from the beginning of it. I could picture that coming about as a matter of circumstance, or after the break, if Harper has another incredible growth stretch like we saw from Aug. 1 on but the lineup overall isn't producing as the skipper expects.
Second, I'll take the over on home runs and stolen bases, but I'll leave the average be. I agree with Todd that the line-drive rate is likely to come down, but I think this lasts for only a relatively short period (a couple of months, or something like that). He drove the ball hard throughout the minors, too.
I think what is most incredible about Harper is the rate at which he processes and applies information. He's all-in on every plate appearance, and I believe this is where his brashness or whatever you want to call it serves him extremely well. He has the courage "to fail" in one at-bat or a series of them, so there are almost certainly going to be difficult stretches in 2013. But I don't think those kinds of failures phase him like they do others because he already assumes them - not failures, but trials and errors. I wouldn't take the over on BA, but it wouldn't surprise me at all if it hit.
Zach Steinhorn: Though I wouldn't be shocked if Harper bats .275 with 25 homers and 25 steals, I'm of the same opinion as Don in that I'm not planning on owning him this year just because I won't be willing to spend $25 or more for the possibility that he puts up those numbers. When it comes to "upside" guys, I prefer to pick among players in the $10-15 range and hope they can return me $20 value. As talented as Harper might be, I need to see more before I can feel comfortable making such a costly investment. The room for profit will be too tight.
TZ: Anyone else with me or do I need to re-evaluate my projection?
NM: I like the over on both HR and SB, but not by much. Perhaps you crowd-source some minor tweaks, at most - ultimately you determine whether any of us has convinced you, not whether any of us is calling you a coward, haha, and I wouldn't blame you one bit for sticking with what you have. I think 35 HR or SB would be a ludicrous projection. One or the other, or both, might happen, of course, but it would be silly to project and recommend to pay for it because of the very good possibility that he falls well short. Year 2 doesn't automatically get better for any prospect, and they're probably worse more often than that of the player pool as a whole, although there's usually at least one bidder in every draft who seems to think some of them are on a schedule. I just think his learning curve is shorter than that of most prospects, perhaps any other before him, so, for my money, I do believe he's a fairly safe investment, as far as young players go. I would consider taking him in the second half of an NFBC-style second round, but he wouldn't be my only target. I could see myself paying $20-$25 for him in Mixed Tout, but I'm not putting that or his name on my roster in pen or anything.
CS: Whether or not I agree with the projection is irrelevant Todd, it's your projection so you should have conviction and stand by it! Good to be contrarian sometimes.
Lord Zola's Wrap-Up: I honestly feel we are applying some subjective bias and ignoring the history of the game.
There is no way I am taking a guy like this in the third round, let alone the second. I realize you need players to perform better than their draft spot to win, and I may be overall too conservative, but I'll still throw my speculative darts elsewhere.
It comes down to this for me. I'm willing to be wrong and am sticking to my contention that Harper has endless potential but needs demonstrate it's more than potential, just like any other prospect, regardless of the pedigree. For every time I'm wrong, I'm right at least ten times - I'll take those odds. I perfectly understand why others would want to find the needle in the haystack; it's just not my style.
The thing we have not even mentioned yet is if Harper can meet the playing time portion of the projection. The ability to stay healthy and pace oneself is a skill. Harper may have it, but he has not proven it yet.
I may rethink the power, but I'm not at all convinced Harper will match, let alone beat last season's .270 average. This will be fun to follow as the 2013 season plays itself out.
Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.
Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.