Why I’m Drafting Harper over Betts
Yes, I have Bryce Harper over Mookie Betts in my recently released top 100 outfielder rankings, diverging from nearly every set of rankings around. Fantasy ‘big boards’ among the leading sites in the industry based on popularity (ESPN, Yahoo, even CBS, whom I mock draft with all the time and respect greatly) tend to take on a relatively monotonous tone. Similar players, in similar spots, with some variations coming past the 150-200 overall mark, but by that time, it’s hard to strongly criticize anybody for reaching when differences between spots are so miniscule.
Very simply, we’re looking at two players with projections for 2017 that are heading in opposite directions from their prior seasons.
Betts and How to Use Rankings
Mookie Betts isn’t going to hit 30+ home runs again, and Bryce Harper isn’t going to bat .243. Betts probably isn’t going to combine for 235 in total counting stats, while I would venture to guess that Harper’s 85R/25HR/85RBI 2016 season is a good depiction of the floor for the best offensive force on one the National League’s best teams. In no way am I saying the phases of these two individuals careers are heading in opposite directions, they are in fact, two of the best young players in the game. Rankings as a whole, take on a very reflective tone when projecting out the following season’s finishers. Much of this is warranted – prior year data is all we really have to work with – but some of it produces outcomes that are too strongly tied to the prior year. We see this all the time in players who the industry considers ‘over-drafted’ yet rarely do ADPs adjust enough to take this into account (Rick Porcello, J.A. Happ, etc). Why? A lot of the ADP is driven off of the popular rankings. It’s a circular process that brings to life why it is so important to utilize the niche fantasy baseball sites around the web and understand why one expert is higher on player a than another.
Sites like Razzball, who I have actually started producing content for (shameless plug), have invaluable rankings due to the fact that they often strongly diverge from the consensus. Grey has Trevor Story and Ian Desmond in his top 20 overall. Seems insane, sure, but his points are clear and are much more convincing than arguing simply that Player A is a top 20 player because he was good last year and popular sites have him drafted as such.
I fall prey to this all the time too honestly, it’s a common issue in creating personal rankings that actually feel like personal rankings and no regurgitations of ADP. Did I force Bryce Harper above Mookie Betts simply to stand out? No. I genuinely sat on this ranking for a few weeks, and detail below my thought process.
Betts and his ADP of 2.5 overall is buoyed by the expectation that his discovered power continues to flourish.
He hit 25 of his 31 home runs between two ballparks (Fenway, Camden), and while he plays the exact same amount of games in those parks again, with any stat that is tied to a non player independent factor, caution needs to be exerted. Coors is an extreme example, but this is why when players leave, skepticism ensues (Corey Dickerson comes to mind). Let’s even give Mookie the 17 HRs he hit in Fenway back, but turn the 8 he hit in in Camden alone, to 6 in the coming year for all other parks. The majority of his line drive power will play in Fenway, and my 23 total homers is actually more generous than the 20 HR PECOTA is giving Betts for his 50th percentile outcome.
Now what about the counting stats? Even as the Red Sox historically great lineup loses David Ortiz, I don’t exactly expect them to be much worse, just not so far above the rest of the pack. The Red Sox scored 70 more runs than the Chicago Cubs, with a total of 878 runs and 836 RBIs. In a very simple statistical exercise, we can say Mookie Betts was involved in 13.7% of the total counting stats the team produced. If the Red Sox fall back to what the Cubs did last year, which would still be extremely impressive, Betts and his total counting stats would fall to somewhere around a total of 215. If this insane pace of offense we’ve seen falls even a bit, and the Red Sox produce more so at the rate of the 2016 St. Louis Cardinals (3rd in all of baseball in terms of total runs), his counting stats will fall closer to the 200 total mark – this assumes Mookie’s production doesn’t fall past the 13.5% too. Betts is looking like an extremely productive near 100/100 player, but the insane stats he posted from last season shouldn’t surprise anybody if they fall off.
So what regression brings for Mookie is something along the lines of a .305 average, with 23 HR, 95R/90RBI and 23 stolen bases (I defer on debating that Mookie is anything better or worse than a 20-25 player, no qualms there). If you hide the average on that line, you know what looks very similar? Bryce Harper’s 2016 campaign. 24 homers, 21 bags, 84 runs, and 86 RBIs.
So why take Harper ahead of Betts this year? For precisely the reason that I don’t believe the Harper we saw last year is the Harper we’ll get in 2017. For Harper to get to our regressed Mookie Betts production, he would only need to significantly outproduce his batting average from last season. Anything extra we get is gravy.
I’m mind boggled as to how he managed to hit below .250 with only a .264 BABIP. That’s below the league average and below Harper’s career average (.317). If he simply hit .273, which is what Evan Longoria managed last year, he would’ve gone from about the 95th overall player to the 55th overall player. Harper’s BABIP regressing up to his career average is really all that needs to happen for a 30 point jump. For something more in the 50 point jump, let’s say to .290, the driver would have to be a re-balancing of the batted ball profile, with line drives above 18% for 2017.
One of the major reasons his BABIP was that low in 2016 was due to that 17% line drive rate, again oddly below his career average, as we saw an uptick in Harper’s fly ball rate – fly balls are the death of BABIP. The problem with his increase in fly balls is that we didn’t see substantially more home runs, we actually saw less.
2016 brought Harper the lowest HR/FB% of his career, under 15%. I keep coming back to the peripherals simply being off from his career average, and that simply is the issue. Harper’s approach was different. He cut his swinging strike rate by 2%, made 3% more contact on pitches in the zone, and actually made contact on 6% more pitches there were outside of the strike zone. Pitchers are throwing to him more cautiously. With the addition of Adam Eaton and the emergence of Trea Turner we’re not crazy to expect a natural uptick in pitches inside the zone for Harper with runners on. He has a personal goal of 100 RBIs, and I’m starting to think that may be a bit too low.
For me, the case with Harper is really becoming whether the average fantasy owner thinks Harper can adjust to propel himself further based on what the league is giving him, which is less to hit. If we’re proponents of the slightly larger body of work Harper has (2014-2015) more accurately resembling what Harper will do along with the stabilizing lineup around him, the stock in 2016’s seemingly ‘off’ year should be looked at with a more critical eye in judging whether it accurately represents what to expect.
42 home runs in 2015, and 24 in 2016. The pure average of that is 33, Fangraph’s Steamer thinks the balance is 30 home runs, and while I won’t get over excited with expectations of 40+, anything in the low 30s has to be expected. Combining the average hike and home run uptick already would’ve pushed Harper into the top 35 players to own for 2016. Seeing how 2016 first round picks like Manny Machado and Carlos Correa couldn’t manage to finish inside the top 40, I bet many would have reluctantly settled for a 35 overall finish from a first round pick.
Converging the two worlds brings me back to a point that I have continually made this off-season and one that will either make me a lot of money or kill me.
Steals are scarce, I get it. But even with the spike in home runs, the skill set that is scarcer than speed are hitters that possess the ability to hit for a high average with power. In 2015 we had a pool of eight players who hit .290 or above with 24 or more home runs. That jumped to 22 in 2016. Clear evidence of the power uptick across the major leagues, but the interesting thing is that each year what has remained the commonality between the year-over-year lists is the high ADP of these players.
If you pass on the high average, power bats early, it’s highly unlikely that you’ll find one lurking into the later rounds. The same cannot be said for player who stole 20 or more bases over the last two years. We had 30 players steal 20+ in 2015, and 28 steal 20+ in 2015. Not surprisingly, those players ADP on average was much lower than our high average power bats.
In applying this theory to Harper and Betts, the point that sticks with me is the power potential we’re expecting to come back for Harper and expecting to regress for Betts. With all other factors considered, that is the main reason why Harper and Betts should be closer on draft boards, and from my perspective, why I’m taking Harper ahead of Betts this season. I’m rationally betting on the power possesses and has shown, along with adjustments to counter what the league has done to mitigate his impact in a game, over a gamble on counting stats and power that I don’t expect to stick from Mookie Betts. On top of my expectations below, for many of the reasons presented above, the ceiling on Harper seems even higher than his 2015 campaign.
Bryce Harper – .290 AVG/ 90 R /33 HR /110 RBI / 20 SB
Mookie Betts – .305 AVG / 95 R / 23 HR / 95 RBI / 23 SB
Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Keith Allison for the shot of Harper.
Statstics via Fangraphs.com.