How Baseball’s Most Shockingly Good Outfield Explains This Fantasy Season

At this very moment, there are but four teams with all three starting outfielders ranking in the Top 40 among outfield WAR. When you’re done guessing — er, trying to guess — click below to find out which teams. (Hint: You might as well just click — you won’t get all four.)

Time’s up, bub.

The teams: Yankees, Rays, Astros and … Royals.

Hope you guessed at least two of those teams correctly. After all, practically every fantasy owner would have agreed prior to the season that the outfielders on the Yankees (Curtis Granderson, Nick Swisher, Brett Gardner) and the Rays (Ben Zobrist, B.J. Upton, Matt Joyce) were expected to be solid-to-great fantasy players this season. And while seeing the Astros here might be a bit of a surprise — because, ya know, it’s the Astros — it’s entirely possible that both Hunter Pence and Michael Bourn were selected before any of the Yankees or Rays outfielders in your league’s draft. And hey, Carlos Lee was at least worth a late-round gamble.

Which brings us to the Royals. That’s right: Good ol’ reliables Alex Gordon (3.3), Melky Cabrera (3.3) and Jeff Francoeur (1.7) are all among the Top 40 outfielders in WAR. Take a moment to let that little bit of tid permeate your noggin. Granted, WAR isn’t a fantasy category, but it’s still a measurable statistic that gives us some idea as to who’s playing well. If you want a more fantasy-friendly stat, how’s this? The Royals outfield is the only one in all of baseball with all three members in the top 20 in total bases. Ditto for extra-base hits. Which basically means that Gordon, Cabrera and yes, even Francoeur are getting base hits fairly often, and on more than a few of those occasions, they’re hitting balls with authority. Even better? They’re on pace to post 20 homers and 15 steals. Each. Know how many other teams can say the same about their three starting outfielders? Yep: Zero. And just for good measure, it’s worth pointing out that Cabrera (7), Francoeur (17) and Gordon (21) all rank in the top 25 on ESPN’s Player Rater. That’s all kinds of unbelievable, considering this is coming from a troika of players who not only went undrafted in the vast majority of fantasy leagues, but who were also downright avoided at all costs, as if selecting them might have actually come complete with a one-way ticket to last place. Hence, folks, we have Fantasy Baseball’s Most Shockingly Good Outfield™ of 2011.

But this isn’t your typical fantasy advice column. I’m not necessarily suggesting you should go out and trade for these three to help you the rest of this season. (Although, if you wanted to twist this piece in that direction, I think Gordon is the most legit and has the most staying power, even if he actually has the fewest home runs and steals of the trio and ranks lowest on the Player Rater.) What I do want you to take away from with this are three salient, if obvious, points, all of which relate to the Royals outfielders and deal with the state of fantasy baseball today.

1) Don’t ignore players on bad teams.
This isn’t anything groundbreaking, but it’s pertinent. Just because a team is bad in real life doesn’t mean the individual players on that team have little or no fantasy value. In fact, if you can get over any preconceived notion akin to “bad team = bad fantasy players,” I would suggest that you can actually take advantage of something of a market inefficiency in fantasy. A couple years back, I went into a draft with the predetermined just-for-fun strategy of selecting only players on teams that finished with the five worst records the previous season. You’d be surprised at how much talent was at my disposal, and how I was able to fill every position, even with such a limited pool of players. If you were doing that this year, here’s a quick list of players from 2010’s five worst teams that you could have targeted: Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen, Joel Hanrahan and Neil Walker; Seattle’s Felix Hernandez, Michael Pineda and Justin Smoak; Arizona’s Justin Upton, Chris Young, Daniel Hudson, Ian Kennedy, J.J. Putz and Kelly Johnson; Baltimore’s Adam Jones, Mark Reynolds, Matt Wieters and J.J. Hardy; and Kansas City’s Joakim Soria and Billy Butler — to say nothing of Gordon, Cabrera and Francoeur, who you could’ve gotten for free off the waiver wire a few weeks in. Point being, show me a bad real-life team without at least three starter-worthy fantasy players, and I’ll show you why you’re not winning your league.

2) Owning multiple players on the same team isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
This is a common question in fantasy circles. In fact, it came up in the comments of a recent post, and my answer was essentially: It’s not a bad thing or a good thing; it’s a talent thing. You want as many good or great players on your team as possible, and if they happen to also be on the same team in real life, so be it. Sure, if you’ve got three players from the same squad, you’re bound to suffer through a few shutouts; but you’re just as likely to enjoy the 10-run outbursts and a homer from one player that drives in your other two. That stuff tends to balance out. The players-on-the-same-team approach does become an issue, though, when that team has an off day or gets rained out, because then you’re struggling to fill out a starting lineup with legitimate backups — or missing an opportunity to simply collect stats (i.e. fantasy points). This comes into play more with hitters than pitchers, and in today’s fantasy baseball world — with the decline of offensive numbers — accumulating stats at all costs and at all times needs to be a major focus.

3) Players who play have more value than you might realize.
This sounds silly, but it’s true, and Gordon, Cabrera and Francoeur are proving it. Speaking more to the final point made in the previous bullet, missing any opportunity to get homers, steals, runs, RBIs (i.e. fantasy points) hurts much more today than it did even a few years ago when offense was plentiful. Used to be, if you didn’t set your lineup for a day or if you kept a day-to-day guy active, well, it wasn’t the end of the world. Now? It’s still not the end of the world, but it has a bigger, longer-lasting, harder-to-make-up-ground impact. There are fewer hitting stats to go around, so you can ill afford to leave Danny Valencia’s 2-for-3 with a homer and 2 RBIs on your bench while Pablo Sandoval gets an off day, just because you weren’t paying attention. And when Jose Reyes gets hurt and the Mets wait a week to decide whether or not to DL him, you best not wait that long to pick up a fill-in who can swipe 2 or 3 bases and score a few runs in his stead. All this is to say, players like the Royals outfielders, who may not come with the greatest reputations but are healthy and productive — and playing everyday — carry more value in 2011 than they did in 2005. I like to call these kind of guys “accruers” because by playing a lot, they — wait for it — accrue counting stats, even if the rate stats (average, OBP, OPS) aren’t necessarily all that shiny. Of course, in the case of Fantasy Baseball’s Most Shockingly Good Outfield™, even the rate stats are pretty good. For once.

In the wake of declining offensive statistics, we need to adjust our approach to fantasy baseball a bit. That means — and this is a scary thought — we now live in a world where Jeff Francoeur is a valuable asset.

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Jason Catania is an MLB Lead Writer for Bleacher Report who also contributes to ESPN The Magazine, ESPN Insider and MLB Rumor Central, focusing on baseball and fantasy content. When he was first introduced to fantasy baseball, Derek Jeter had 195 career hits, Jamie Moyer had 72 wins and Matt Stairs was on team No. 3. You can follow him on Twitter: @JayCat11

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Very good point about the value of a single day’s offensive stats in this day and age (post-steroid?). The owners who keep their lineup active and sub whenever possible have the most success simply because of the ability to accrue more stats by having an active player.