Ageism in Fantasy Baseball and How it Can Work for You

In the (very, very early) Rotographs mockdraft on Sunday night, Bryce Harper went in the third round. Dustin Ackley went in the fourth. Neither of these players has a Major League track record – Harper doesn’t even have a strong track record in Double-A – yet they went before Matt Holliday or Ben Zobrist, both of whom have solid track records and seem quite likely to outperform the youngsters this year.

Now, this is a dynasty league draft, and clearly having that youth on your roster will pay off in future seasons. But the focus on youth in these drafts leaves some great values on the board much later than you’d expect.

The examples above are just two great examples of youth trumping value. Holliday is only 31 (he turns 32 in January) and put up a .913 OPS last year. Harper is much younger, but his Double-AA OPS was .724. Holliday will be a more valuable fantasy player this year. He will probably be more valuable next year. If Harper lives up to his potential, he and Holliday will probably be similarly valuable in 2014. After that, Harper will likely be the more valuable player. Again, if he lives up to his potential.

The story with Zobrist and Ackley is much the same, although the case for Ackley is stronger. Ackley put up an OPS of .765 with six home runs and six stolen bases in 90 games this year. Not bad for a 23-year-old rookie. Zobrist, however, had an OPS of .822, hit 20 HR and stole 19 bases. Ackley MAY be more valuable than Zobrist this year – but the smart money is on Zorilla. In 2013, the case is much the same. Can you justify taking Ackley earlier? Sure. But he went two rounds earlier.

A couple years ago, I grabbed Paul Konerko for $3 in the original ottoneu league. No one was interested in a 34-year-old first basemen. Yet he was the 4th highest rated 1B by FanGraphs Linear Weights Points in 2010, and 6th highest rated in 2011. Will this keep up forever? Of course not. Konerko, though, shows little sign of falling off in 2012, yet he came off the board in round 8 of the mock draft, while Eric Hosmer came off in the 4th.

Along the same lines, Victor Martinez stayed available until the 10th round, while a litany of catchers went before him – Carlos Santana, Mike Napoli, Brian McCann, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, Matt Wieters, Alex Avila, J.P. Arencibia, Chris Iannetta, and Miguel Montero. Last year, Martinez was the second most valuable catcher by FanGraphs Linear Weights Points. There seems to be an impression of Martinez as old and past his prime – and this is probably fair. He won’t be a full-time catcher anymore, but he will play enough for your fantasy team, and that should be all that matters.

This is not to say that youth doesn’t matter – a balance has to be struck. But keep in mind that winning in 2012 has value, too.

You win championships by finding players who outperform their draft position, and older players can be a great source of value in keeper and dynasty drafts. A team that starts Martinez at catcher, Konerko at first, Zobrist at second, and Holliday in the outfield will almost certainly be better (at those positions) that starts Arencibia at catcher, Hosmer at first, Ackley at second, and Harper in the outfield, especially when you consider the picks you would have to use.

The older team will have more re-building to do in a couple years when those players enter their decline phase, but it will have a much better shot to win in 2012 and, as the saying goes, flags fly forever.

A long-time fantasy baseball veteran and one of the creators of ottoneu, Chad Young's writes for RotoGraphs and PitcherList, and can be heard on the ottobot podcast. You can follow him on Twitter @chadyoung.

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12 years ago

Agree with your general point and I typically land one or two older bargain players in my A.L.-only auction league at prices at or below younger players less likely to produce.

I do think, though, that Konerko is an outlier and not the best example of this tendency. When you picked him before 2010 he was coming off three middling years in-a-row, with offensive numbers only 11% above average, which is isn’t really much for a first-basemen. The two years since he’s put up the best numbers of his career, which is clearly an outlier for aging players.

Konerko’s numbers the three years just before you picked him are actually a tick below what 21-year-od Hosmer did last year, and objectively speaking, the chance of substantial improvement is far higher for Hosmer in 2012 than it was for Konerko in 2010.

I benefited from a similar windfall anomaly a few years back with Melvin Mora.

None of that detracts from your broader strategy.