2020’s Fantasy Baseball Auction Bargains

Introduction

The key to succeeding in fantasy baseball:

Maximize the value of your accumulated roster.

At the start of a draft, each fantasy owner is handed a set of draft picks. Each owner receives a 1st round selection, a 2nd round selection, a 3rd round selection, and so on. If your league chooses to hold an auction rather than a more traditional serpentine draft – each team is handed $260 at the auction start. Players are then purchased throughout the auction with the use of these finite funds.

The key to gainfully drafting is not to draft a 3rd round player in the 3rd round, or a 9th round player in the 9th round, etc. The key is to draft a 3rd round player in the 10th round, and a 9th round player in the 20th round.

In an auction, if you purchase every player at his projected value, you will have paid $260 of auction dollars for $260 of value. What you will have is an average team. You won’t finish last, but you won’t finish first. Instead, with your $260 – you need to buy some $290 or $300 or $310+ of total value.

The key is to make a “profit” on as many roster spots as you can. The goal is to purchase players at bargain prices.

I have asked this question before – but it is worth asking every now and again. Suppose that you competed in an NFBC fantasy baseball auction back in July this season.

Which player was the better purchase?

Bryce Harper (OF, PHI)

OR

Andrew McCutchen (OF, PHI)

Before opining on the better Philly outfield purchase of 2020, let’s take a look at their final 2020 stat lines:

Player Comparison
Player R HR RBI SB AVG
Bryce Harper 41 13 33 8 .268
Andrew McCutchen 32 10 34 4 .253

On the surface, it seems like a pretty obvious answer. Harper had more HR, SB, R and a better batting average than McCutchen. He had just one fewer RBI.

Still, before you answer the question, let me first reveal the 2020 returned rotisserie dollar accumulated values for the two in question:

Value Comparison
Player $ Value
Bryce Harper $30.6
Andrew McCutchen $19.3

Bryce Harper’s $30.6 is objectifiably higher than McCutchen’s $19.3. It seems that the answer should easily be, “Bryce Harper.”

But the correct answer to the above question is … Andrew McCutchen.

What? How? Why?

What is key is not the raw value of the player in question. It is the value of the player relative to what you had to pay for him.

At NFBC auctions in July, Andrew McCutchen cost owners an average of $6 to roster. On average, he would have earned his owners $13 (= $19 – $6) of fantasy profit. On the other hand, Bryce Harper was purchased for a hefty $33 to the average NFBC fantasy team in July. As Harper only earned $31 of roto value this year, he was a value drainer, losing $2 to his average owner.

Bargain Comparison
Player $ Value $AAV $Bargain
Bryce Harper $30.6 $33.00 ($2.40)
Andrew McCutchen $19.3 $6.00 $13.30

Be aware that although McCutchen was the better player selection, it does not imply that a $33 Bryce Harper purchase was a poor one. Earning roughly par value of the price paid is in fact an excellent purchase. Harper finished as the thirteenth best hitter, yet he had only the twelfth highest average auction value of all offensive players.

Herein also lies a large difference between snake drafts and auctions. Bryce Harper’s NFBC ADP was 19 for July drafts. At that pick in the draft, if available, Harper would unquestionably have been the better selection over McCutchen. You should NOT pass on Harper at that time in favor of McCutchen.

However, in an auction – you were far better off passing on Harper at the auction price of $33. Instead, a $6 McCutchen would have been more accretive – and for with the remaining $27, you could have additionally purchased … say … Marcell Ozuna for $21. In an auction, you do not have to buy a 1st round (equivalent) player. You may purchase two 1st round players, or none at all. In an auction, you can distribute your team’s $260 budget purchases in any way that you choose – in an effort to amass the largest aggregate team value.

Before we take a look at 2020’s largest player bargains, let’s first go through a few definitions.

Definitions & Methodology

Let’s define three quantities:

  • $Value – The full season 5×5 roto value of each player. For this, I am using the FanGraphs auction calculator on YTD 2020 stats, with NFBC standard settings (15 teams, Mixed AL/NL, $260 budget and positions – 9 P, 2 C, 1B, 2B, 3B, SS, CI, MI, 5 OF, U). This represents what a player was worth for the full season of 2020.
  • $AAV – The average auction value for each player from all auctions conducted by the NFBC during the month of July 2020. This will represent the cost that it would have taken to acquire a player. For the players who were not drafted, or who were only drafted as a reserve, we will set a nominal price for them of $0.10. Please note that NFBC only provides rounded AAV data; all amounts are whole dollars.
  • $Bargain – The difference between the $Value and $AAV. This represents the profit that each player had provided over the 2020 season, relative to his initial pre-season draft price.

There are a few important notes for this year:

In terms of $AAV (average auction values) – The question arises as to what the most appropriate timeframe should be for the draft data. Due to COVID, the 2020 draft season was a bit unusual.  The NFBC started running drafts all the way back to November of 2019 and its final contest was held in July of 2020. That is a 9-month span of baseball drafting!

For excess value comparisons, I typically draw figures from the final 3 weeks or so of March drafting. The final March dates coincide with the heaviest volume of NFBC auction drafting, and it is also as close to the start of the season as possible. Those two factors lend the March dates as an easy choice for data capture.

For 2020, NFBC auctions were most abundant in the first couple of weeks of March (before the season was officially suspended). Then, there were a number of additional auctions run in the first three weeks of July. I debated using the March data alone, using the July data alone, and even combining the two in some way.

Before deciding, let’s take a look at the biggest movers in AAV between March and July auctions:

2020 Average Auction Value Faders
Player March AAV July AAV Difference
Syndergaard, Noah 24 0 -24
Sale, Chris 24 0 -24
Severino, Luis 16 0 -16
Price, David 12 0 -12
Mancini, Trey 11 0 -11
Alvarez, Yordan 24 15 -9
Trout, Mike 48 40 -8
Wheeler, Zack 14 7 -7
Meadows, Austin 27 21 -6
deGrom, Jacob 42 38 -4
Blackmon, Charlie 23 19 -4
Rizzo, Anthony 20 16 -4
Chapman, Aroldis 17 13 -4
Luzardo, Jesus 15 11 -4
Kela, Keone 8 4 -4
Urquidy, Jose 6 2 -4
SOURCE: NFBC
March 2020 to July 2020

The largest faders appear due to season ending injuries (Syndergaard, Sale, Severino, etc.). David Price’s fade was due to his decision on opting out of the season. There were also several injuries and COVID cases. Zack Wheeler’s decline was due to uncertainty of return following the birth of his baby.

2020 Average Auction Value Risers
Player March AAV July AAV Difference
Paxton, James 10 16 6
Clevinger, Mike 27 32 5
Montas, Frankie 15 20 5
Davis, J.D. 7 12 5
Stripling, Ross 2 7 5
Kluber, Corey 14 18 4
McCullers Jr., Lance 6 10 4
Melancon, Mark 4 8 4
Helsley, Ryan 1 5 4
Betts, Mookie 40 43 3
Kershaw, Clayton 26 29 3
Lynn, Lance 14 17 3
Lamet, Dinelson 12 15 3
Garver, Mitch 11 14 3
Maeda, Kenta 9 12 3
Polanco, Jorge 8 11 3
Odorizzi, Jake 6 9 3
Hill, Rich 4 7 3
Verdugo, Alex 2 5 3
Cespedes, Yoenis 2 5 3
SOURCE: NFBC
March 2020 to July 2020

Many of the AAV risers were due to injury comebacks. Rich Hill, James Paxton and Yoenis Cespedes all had a few more months to recover from injuries, thereby attracting a higher auction price.

Back to the question of which time frame to use, to which I ultimately decided to only use the July drafts. It would have been completely valid to compare March auction values to 2020 season valuations. There were a larger number of drafts conducted, thereby making March ADP/AAV data more robust than July data.

However, the July data was ultimately more relevant with its proximity to the official season. There were too many large player values that had changed since March. For today, $AAV will refer to July auctions alone.

There is one other important note. The empirical hitter/pitcher split based on NFBC $AAV data was roughly 63%/37%, which has a pitcher tilt. As for the full season values – the FanGraphs auction calculator (which is a Z-Score based method of valuation) inherently determines the hitter/pitcher split of the auction dollars, and the result came close to 69%/31%. I have decided not to make any adjustments to the final value hitter/pitcher split in this analysis. This will make hitters seem a bit more profitable and pitchers a bit less profitable.

2020’s Largest Bargains

Below are the top 40 most profitable hitters for 2020:

2020 Top 40 Hitter Bargains
No. Player R HR RBI SB AVG $Value $AAV $Bargain
1 Luke Voit 41 22 52 0 .277 $36.40 $6.0 $30.40
2 Teoscar Hernandez 33 16 34 6 .289 $30.50 $1.0 $29.50
3 Trent Grisham 42 10 26 10 .251 $25.80 $1.0 $24.80
4 Jose Abreu 43 19 60 0 .317 $42.70 $19.0 $23.70
5 Wil Myers 34 15 40 2 .288 $28.40 $5.0 $23.40
6 AJ Pollock 30 16 34 2 .276 $24.20 $1.0 $23.20
7 Mike Yastrzemski 39 10 35 2 .297 $25.00 $2.0 $23.00
8 Dominic Smith 27 10 42 0 .316 $22.50 $0.1 $22.40
9 Marcell Ozuna 38 18 56 0 .338 $42.90 $21.0 $21.90
10 Kole Calhoun 35 16 40 1 .226 $22.50 $1.0 $21.50
11 Kyle Tucker 33 9 42 8 .268 $27.20 $6.0 $21.20
12 Randal Grichuk 38 12 35 1 .273 $23.10 $2.0 $21.10
13 Dansby Swanson 49 10 35 5 .274 $26.00 $5.0 $21.00
14 Travis d’Arnaud 19 9 34 1 .321 $24.90 $4.0 $20.90
15 Kyle Lewis 37 11 28 5 .262 $21.90 $1.0 $20.90
16 Salvador Perez 22 11 32 1 .333 $27.50 $7.0 $20.50
17 Adam Duvall 34 16 33 0 .237 $19.60 $0.1 $19.50
18 Manny Machado 44 16 47 6 .304 $39.10 $20.0 $19.10
19 Brandon Lowe 36 14 37 3 .269 $23.90 $5.0 $18.90
20 Wilmer Flores 30 12 32 1 .268 $18.20 $0.1 $18.10
21 Didi Gregorius 34 10 40 3 .284 $21.00 $3.0 $18.00
22 Austin Nola 24 7 28 0 .273 $17.80 $0.1 $17.70
23 Kevin Pillar 34 6 26 5 .288 $18.50 $1.0 $17.50
24 Dylan Moore 26 8 17 12 .255 $17.20 $0.1 $17.10
25 Kyle Seager 35 9 40 5 .241 $18.90 $2.0 $16.90
26 Corey Seager 38 15 41 1 .307 $27.80 $11.0 $16.80
27 Jurickson Profar 28 7 25 7 .278 $17.20 $1.0 $16.20
28 Jackie Bradley Jr. 32 7 22 5 .283 $16.30 $0.1 $16.20
29 Alex Dickerson 28 10 27 0 .298 $15.20 $0.1 $15.10
30 Christian Vazquez 22 7 23 4 .283 $19.90 $6.0 $13.90
31 Andrew McCutchen 32 10 34 4 .253 $19.30 $6.0 $13.30
32 Jeimer Candelario 30 7 29 1 .297 $13.30 $0.1 $13.20
33 Freddie Freeman 51 13 53 2 .341 $42.10 $29.0 $13.10
34 Chris Taylor 30 8 32 3 .270 $13.10 $0.1 $13.00
35 Miguel Cabrera 28 10 35 1 .250 $14.90 $2.0 $12.90
36 Robbie Grossman 23 8 23 8 .241 $13.00 $0.1 $12.90
37 Brandon Belt 25 9 30 0 .309 $12.80 $0.1 $12.70
38 Ian Happ 27 12 28 1 .258 $14.50 $2.0 $12.50
39 Jesus Aguilar 31 8 34 0 .277 $13.50 $1.0 $12.50
40 Eric Hosmer 23 9 36 4 .287 $16.30 $4.0 $12.30

Here are the top 35 most profitable pitchers for 2020:

2020 Top 35 Pitcher Bargains
No. Player K W SV ERA WHIP $Value $AAV $Bargain
1 Devin Williams 53 4 0 0.33 0.63 $24.80 $0.1 $24.70
2 Zach Plesac 57 4 0 2.28 0.80 $21.40 $1.0 $20.40
3 Trevor Bauer 100 5 0 1.73 0.79 $37.70 $19.0 $18.70
4 Jeremy Jeffress 17 4 8 1.54 0.94 $17.40 $0.1 $17.30
5 Marco Gonzales 64 7 0 3.10 0.95 $17.20 $0.1 $17.10
6 Kenta Maeda 80 6 0 2.70 0.75 $28.90 $12.0 $16.90
7 Trevor Rosenthal 38 1 11 1.90 0.85 $17.70 $1.0 $16.70
8 Corbin Burnes 88 4 0 2.11 1.02 $19.00 $3.0 $16.00
9 Matt Foster 31 6 0 2.20 0.87 $15.30 $0.1 $15.20
10 Greg Holland 31 3 6 1.91 0.95 $15.00 $0.1 $14.90
11 Zach Davies 63 7 0 2.73 1.07 $15.20 $1.0 $14.20
12 Shane Bieber 122 8 0 1.63 0.87 $45.00 $31.0 $14.00
13 Dallas Keuchel 42 6 0 1.99 1.09 $15.20 $2.0 $13.20
14 Tony Gonsolin 46 2 0 2.31 0.84 $12.70 $0.1 $12.60
15 Liam Hendriks 37 3 14 1.78 0.67 $28.00 $16.0 $12.00
16 Richard Rodriguez 34 3 4 2.70 0.86 $12.00 $0.1 $11.90
17 Mike Mayers 43 2 2 2.10 0.90 $11.60 $0.1 $11.50
18 Darren O’Day 22 4 0 1.10 0.80 $11.50 $0.1 $11.40
19 Dinelson Lamet 93 3 0 2.09 0.86 $26.20 $15.0 $11.20
20 Victor Gonzalez 23 3 0 1.33 0.74 $11.20 $0.1 $11.10
21 Brad Keller 35 5 0 2.47 1.02 $10.80 $0.1 $10.70
22 Jesse Hahn 19 1 3 0.52 0.69 $10.80 $0.1 $10.70
23 Adam Kolarek 13 3 1 0.95 0.79 $10.70 $0.1 $10.60
24 Codi Heuer 25 3 1 1.52 0.89 $10.60 $0.1 $10.50
25 Jake Diekman 31 2 0 0.42 0.94 $10.30 $0.1 $10.20
26 John Curtiss 25 3 2 1.80 0.96 $10.30 $0.1 $10.20
27 Tanner Houck 21 3 0 0.53 0.88 $10.10 $0.1 $10.00
28 Brad Hand 29 2 16 2.05 0.77 $23.90 $14.0 $9.90
29 Yimi Garcia 19 3 1 0.60 0.93 $9.50 $0.1 $9.40
30 Chris Martin 20 1 1 1.00 0.61 $9.40 $0.1 $9.30
31 Diego Castillo 23 3 4 1.66 1.06 $10.00 $1.0 $9.00
32 Kwang Hyun Kim 24 3 1 1.62 1.03 $10.40 $2.0 $8.40
33 Jonathan Hernandez 31 5 0 2.90 1.03 $8.50 $0.1 $8.40
34 Rafael Dolis 31 2 5 1.50 1.25 $8.50 $0.1 $8.40
35 Chris Bassitt 55 5 0 2.29 1.16 $10.30 $2.0 $8.30

Assorted Hitter Notes

  • Luke Voit was the most profitable fantasy player purchase in 2020. For the second year in a row, a Yankee was the top hitter bargain in baseball. He was purchased at NFBC auctions for an AAV of just $6. After hitting just 21 HRs in 2019, Voit was a breakout player in ’20. In a 60-game season, it is possible that the Yankee first baseman experienced a frontloaded season. Voit is likely not a 60 HR type player, but his fantasy owners well appreciated his 2020 efforts.
  • Dominic Smith was the most profitable hitter who was not drafted, making him the best full-season waiver pickup of 2020. Smith was not drafted this season as he was not initially a full-time player. Once Yoenis Cespedes officially opted out of the season, and after a fantastic start to the season for the Mets OF/1B, Smith had a clearer path to at-bats.
  • The other non-drafted hitter bargains in the top 25 were: Adam Duvall, Wilmer Flores, Austin Nola and Dylan Moore.
  • Trent Grisham and Dylan Moore were the only players on this list that had more than 10 SB this season. Grisham was purchased for just $1 at NFBC auctions, and Moore was undrafted. Speed continues to be purchased at a premium at the draft table each year.
  • Of the top 40 most profitable hitters, Freddie Freeman was the most expensive player to buy, with an $AAV of $29. Marcell Ozuna and Manny Machado were the other highly profitable players who cost at least $20 in pre-season auctions.
  • This year yielded a large number of profitable players from the $1-2 range of auction bids. 7 out of the most profitable 15 players were purchased exactly in that range. In last few seasons, we have seen the huge bargains come more from the $2-8 range. This year’s result was likely due to its short-season nature. Assuming the above was a 2020 issue, one would benefit from having an extra $1-3 dollars to spend on each of their final few hitters at the end of auctions (as opposed to buying the single dollar players).
  • The average cost of the top 40 hitter bargains (including undrafted players at $0.10) was $4.4. The average returned value was $22.8. These levels are both incredibly close to the 2019 levels.
  • This previous bullet might help to suggest that the distribution of the price points of hitter bargains were largely unchanged in the short season. We will see below that for pitchers, that was definitely not the case.

Assorted Pitcher Notes

  • The most profitable pitcher of 2019 was Devin Williams, who was undrafted in NFBC auctions. For a FAAB pickup, Devin earned owners a full season value of close to $25. The most incredible thing about Williams was that he did not save a single game this season as a relief pitcher. He amassed an incredible 53 strikeouts in just 27 innings of relief work, pitching to an almost impossible 0.33 ERA and 0.63 WHIP. xFIP though says he was on the lucky side – an xFIP of 1.09!
  • Zach Plesac was the most profitable starting pitcher this season, despite missing some time with a team suspension for violating COVID-19 protocols. Plesac was the overall 9th most valuable starting pitcher in 2020.
  • Of the top 20 above, only about half of them were drafted. Only five were drafted for more than $3. This signals to me that in the short season, less money should have been allocated to expensive or even mid-level pitchers than in a typical season. Draft funds were better spent elsewhere.
  • Gerrit Cole earned a -$20 profit (i.e. a $20 loss) despite finishing as the 10th highest earning pitcher. He amassed $24 of value but cost $44 at auctions. Jacob deGrom was similar in that regard, earning $23 of value, but with a high $38 auction cost.
  • Shane Bieber and Yu Darvish were the only profitable pitchers who cost as least $20 at the pre-season auction. Trevor Bauer was also highly profitable, with a $19 $AAV. The two other profitable pitchers in excess of a $15 $AAV were Liam Hendricks and Dinelson Lamet.
  • About half of the pitcher bargains earned saves during the season (i.e. were relief pitchers). This is typical.
  • The average cost of the top 35 pitcher bargains (including undrafted players at $0.10) was $3.5. The average returned value was $16.2. The return on investment for the group was higher than in most seasons. The returned values were similar, but the costs were lower. This further reinforces that the appropriate short-season pitcher strategy should have tilted towards rostering more lower-cost pitchers.





Ariel is the 2019 FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year. He is the creator of the ATC (Average Total Cost) Projection System. Ariel was ranked by FantasyPros as the #1 fantasy baseball expert in 2019. His ATC Projections were ranked as the #1 most accurate projection system in 2019. Ariel also writes for CBS Sports, SportsLine, RotoBaller, and is the host of the Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational - Beat the Shift Podcast (@TGFBI). Ariel is a member of the inaugural Tout Wars Draft & Hold league, a member of the inaugural Mixed LABR Auction league and plays high stakes contests in the NFBC. Ariel is the 2020 Tout Wars Head to Head League Champion. Ariel Cohen is a fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA). He is a Vice President of Risk Management for a large international insurance and reinsurance company. Follow Ariel on Twitter at @ATCNY.

newest oldest most voted
Alex
Member
Alex

Thanks Ariel for compiling this list. What do you make of the fact that all of the 12 most-profitable hitters were 1B and OFs?

frank
Member
Member
frank

We shouldn’t make too much of this, because taking the first 12 is an arbitrary endpoint. The vast majority of those ranked 13-27 are not 1B or OFs. I’m not saying that there is no trend, but it appears exaggerated with this data set.