Why drafting boring players can payoff in Fantasy Baseball

Michael Salfino
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/mlb/players/9691/" data-ylk="slk:Robbie Ray">Robbie Ray</a> had a breakout 2017 and should provide solid numbers despite not being in the elite class. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)
Arizona Diamondbacks pitcher Robbie Ray had a breakout 2017 and should provide solid numbers despite not being in the elite class. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

Does it pay to be boring in Fantasy Baseball? Sometimes. A good team will typically have a foundation of players that are like what the stock is to a stew. It’s not about pizzaz here. A good team has a mix of ingredients with at least half the roster being easily projectable, most of the rest being somewhat volatile (where the hope is smaller profit and risk) and just a sprinkle of highly volatile players that you hope are big hits.

If you’re too safe, you’ll likely be sorry. But swing for the fences on too many picks and you’re far more likely to finish closer to the bottom of the standings than the top.

So let’s look at the most boring players in the early draft season. This can be very subjective so I’ve tried to put some objectivity into the process by looking at the players with an overall average draft position (ADP) of 60-plus whose ADP has the smallest differential compared with their highest pick. Data is courtesy of FantasyPros.

But there is one hitter on the list who seems more like a highly volatile player. Byron Buxton averages about overall pick 68 but no one believes enough to take him higher than 43. This is very low variance of opinion for a player in this ADP range. Buxton has never had an OPS+ of over 94 (100 is exactly a league-average hitter). He was 29-for-30 in steals last year but had a .314 OBP and it’s under .300 for his career (his career batting average is .237 but .253 last year).

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Here are the outfielders age 21-23 who are most similar to Buxton in plate appearances and career OPS (and again Buxton’s was only 94 last year): Adam Jones, Lastings Milledge, Gregory Polanco, Carlos Beltran, Dave Martinez, Corey Patterson, B.J. Surhoff. Something for everyone, believers and skeptics alike. Beltran broke out at age 24 (.306, 100+ runs and RBI, 31-for-32 steals and 24 bombs). Polanco had a smaller breakout in 2016 at age 24. Adam Jones was actually slightly better than league average (105 OPS+ at age 23). But again, you could be getting Milledge or Patterson (who were also top prospects).

That is volatility but no league has no believers and no league has even one super believer, since Buxton owners have been mostly chastened for two years. How on earth does he make this list? Buxton’s CF defense gives him a 30-ish stolen base floor and that takes away most risk, but few still believe he’s going to become the elite hitter once forecasted by scouts.

For pitchers, as my Yahoo colleague Scott Pianowski is fond of saying, being boring is a feature and not a bug. The most boring pitchers after Round 5 are Gerrit Cole (89.6 ADP, 73 highest pick), Jose Quintana (80.5, 59), Jon Lester (108.5, 87) and Robbie Ray (66.3, 43).

But Ray actually isn’t boring as people mostly believe his 2017 breakout but just not enough to put him in the elite class. According to our friends at Inside Edge, Ray gets A-pluses for both Ks in four-pitches or less and swing and miss rate. But he’s a C-minus in working ahead of hitters. That’s the rub — he’ll miss bats but also miss the plate. Let him come to you near ADP.

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Cole usually underperforms his peripherals and now goes to a park that actually suppresses runs better, but of course into a tougher league, too. Inside Edge stats analysis from 2017 rates Cole better than Lester but significantly worse than Ray, so ADP is spot-on. Quintana precipitously declined overall in Inside Edge grading and I never advise trying to catch a falling knife in the single-digit rounds.

The boring hitters, according to the draft data: Xander Bogaerts (ADP 70.2, highest 47), Andrew McCutchen (70.3, 44), Jonathan Schoop (67.6, 41), Kyle Seager (103.5, 76) and Yoenis Cespedes (70, 41).

Cespedes isn’t projectable really. But drafters aren’t going crazy either discounting his injury risk or pricing it. It seems every league is betting on about 130 games and never 100 or 155. I think it can easily be 100 though.

The true boring hitters are McCutchen and Seager. No one is excited about taking them. You’ll never hear a “good pick.” But they’re solid break-even propositions. McCutchen had a well-hit rate of .225, which is A-plus relative to the league average of .155. He was an A-minus overall hitter but goes into a terrible park/run environment.

Seager has a slightly better run environment in Seattle but grades only as a B as a hitter and had a well-hit of .185. Seager is the better value at ADP though. But McCutchen would be my pick over Cespedes unless I was already reaching for power (not an advisable draft strategy).

Bogaerts and Schoop are somewhat pricey middle-infield options that go right around the same price. Bogaerts is a B-minus hitter, according to Inside Edge. He really struggles with outside pitches and slugging generally. Bogaerts is in a great lineup and park. But his well-hit rate is a snoozy .142.

Schoop is just much better at the plate, earning an A-minus overall and generating a well-hit rate of .199. Schoop’s major weakness is chasing bad pitches (below average early and on non-competitive offerings). That limits Schoop’s ceiling even in his age 26 season. But Schoop nonetheless is more capable of being a foundational player in the sixth round, making him a solid if unspectacular value.

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