The death of the incomparable Stephen Hawking inspires us to reach for analogies from physics, even though we know even less about the subject than we do about, say, restoring antiques or Masters curling. Bear with us for another two paragraphs and we’ll get to the stuff you’re here for.
Thus: It seems to us that baseball stats can be divided and subdivided into particles. Blender stats like WAR, Win Shares, and our new Fangraphs colleague Jay Jaffe’s JAWS can be seen as molecules. In the right hands, these numbers are interesting and illuminating. But they are useless for our present purpose, which is to identify players who might do better than the Fantasy market expects them to.
These molecules are made up of atoms: the often-Fantasy-relevant outcome stats (ERA, Batting Average, and so on) that comprise the statistical lingua franca of baseball, known and (usually) acknowledged as meaningful by both stat geeks and non-geek fans. Hadrons, in this scheme, are the kinds of stats that reflect the things that most immediately produce the on-field events on which the outcome stats depend: hard-hit balls, “zone swings,” fly-ball distance, and so on. And at the quark level you find the stats that make up the hadrons, and that nobody could even measure until recently: barrels, tunnels, spin rate, things that we’ve probably never heard of.
In our quest for Fantasy alchemy, we, and probably you, operate at the hadron level. Using atoms gets you nowhere: while it may be accurate to say something like “Giancarlo Stanton hit a lot of home runs last year, so he should hit a lot this year,” drafting him on that basis is kind of like investing in an index fund: you’ll do as well as the market, but you won’t beat the market. Conversely, while plenty of people are out there trying to use quark-level stats to forecast unexpected Fantasy-relevant performance, as far as we know none of them has been especially successful. (We will be delighted to be instructed otherwise in the Comments section.) Whereas looking at the hadrons sometimes produces documentably useful Fantasy results, as we and many others have discovered.
End of strained analogy, almost. Last week, we descended from the attic and dusted off our favorite toy, the Quadrinity. This is—as our Fantasyland colleagues have not been bashful about telling us—a crude hadron-level device, like a primitive particle accelerator, that we use to identify undervalued pitchers by looking at how hard they get hit and how often they do and don’t throw strikes. (That’s the quickest possible summary. If you want the details, go here.)
For all its simplicity, the Quadrinity, while not infallible, has, for the past two preseasons, proven useful in identifying a handful of pitchers who look as if they’ll significantly outperform their market value, among whom a somewhat smaller handful actually do. (If you want the proof, check here and here.) Heretofore, we’ve used it only with starting pitchers, whom we will be discussing next week. Last week, we looked at relief pitchers. We’ve never tried applying it to hitters before, because we didn’t think it would work—not because it wouldn’t find good hitters, but because the criteria we use are so obvious, when applied to hitters, that we figured they wouldn’t produce anything that atom-level analysis doesn’t. But we tested the Quadrinity on last season’s numbers, and damned if it doesn’t work, so let’s try it this year too.
As to last year: the Quadrinity, when brought to bear on 2016 hitting stats, turned up about three dozen hitters who satisfied its criteria. Many of them were guys that a comatose Martian could have come up with: Trout, Rizzo, Votto, Altuve, Arenado. Some were mid-priced guys, among whom there were a few successes (e.g.Rendon, Kyle Seager, DJ LeMahieu), a few so-sos (e.g. Kole Calhoun, Brian McCann) and a few misfires (e.g. Zobrist, Adrian Gonzalez). But when it came to cheap guys—whom we’re defining as players who went for $5 or less on average in the auctions we reported on last year—it was, in the aggregate, fairly remarkable.
The players in question were: Jason Bour, Yonder Alonso, Steve Pearce, Stephen Drew, Aaron Hill, Howie Kendrick, Brandon Crawford, Seth Smith, Matt Holliday, Austin Jackson, Nick Markakis, and Victor Martinez. That group of 12 players, if purchased at auction before the 2017 season, would have cost no more than $25, and earned (according to Baseball HQ) about $100. Tossing out the guys who, at the start of the season, didn’t have regular jobs (that is, were not either everyday players or the strong side of a platoon) jettisons Hill and Drew, which is good, though it also loses Austin Jackson.
You could have taken eight of the remaining nine guys, paid about $20, and gotten back somewhere between $80 and $90, depending upon which two of Bour, Pearce, and Alonso you got for 1B and CI. And then, sticking with the Quadrinity, you could have gotten the two catchers who made the cut (McCann and Posey, who’d have cost you about $35 or $40, though they didn’t earn it back), and filled out your hitting lineup with 4 high-priced players: some combination of Altuve/ Le Mahieu/Dozier at MI, Donaldson/Arenado/Seager/Rendon at 3B, and Trout/Cespedes/Polanco (regrettably) at OF. You’re short in SBs, but pretty good otherwise, and some of those combinations both keep you within your budget and quite possibly win your league.
Back to the present. Once again, about three dozen hitters qualify for the Quadrinity. There are plenty of high-priced guys: at the high end of high, Arenado, Betts, Harper, Correa, Votto, Springer, Bryant, Freeman, Martinez, Lindor, Benintendi; at the low end, Posey, Yelich, Rendon, Encarnacion, Justin Turner. Miguel Cabrera and Andrew McCutcheon make the list.
They’ll both cost you about $15, and we’re wondering if they might be bargains at that price. Among mid-priced qualifiers, you also find Ozzie Albies, Yasiel Puig, Carlos Santana, Adrian Beltre, and Justin Smoak. Chris Carpenter is at the low end of mid-priced because of his back. And then there are the cheap guys, all of whom, according to Todd Zola’s invaluable Average Auction Prices report, should cost $5 or less. Uncannilly enough, you could assemble full 14-man hitting roster from those 14 guys, who are:
C Brian McCann
C Tucker Barnhart
1B Joe Mauer
2B Chase Utley
SS Asdrubal Cabrera
3B Yandy Diaz
CI Mitch Moreland
MI Jed Lowrie
OF Dexter Fowler
OF Adam Lind
OF Shin-Soo Choo
OF Daniel Nava
OF Nick Markakis
DH Victor Martinez
Not that we’re suggesting such a policy. Let’s toss out the guys who don’t have regular jobs: Nava (who also just had back surgery), Utley (though, as previously indicated, we like him a lot), Lind, and Diaz. We’d be inclined to add Moreland to the discard pile, because we don’t see him playing regularly if (big if) Hanley Ramirez stays healthy. The remaining nine guys should cost no more than $20. It’s an extreme strategy, but that leaves you a lot of money for five elite hitters (for example, Correa, Votto, Rendon, Yelich, Springer)—and even more money if, as we’ll discuss next week, you pursue the bargain starting pitchers who attain the Quadrinity. If we can find an appropriate league—cheap, deep, mixed, auction—we will put this all-Quadrinity strategy into effect ourselves and report on the results.
And before we go, allow us to commend Tucker Barnhart to your further attention. Barnhart’s been going for a dollar or two in auctions. He’s hit a little better in each of his two full seasons. And–if we’re reading his Fangraphs interview with David Laurila correctly–Barnhart, by foregoing college and turning pro right after high school, chose to focus more intensely on honing his catching skills in the minors rather than developing his power in college.
So maybe this Quadrinitarian has developed some now: there’s precedent, among Barnhart’s Baseball Reference comparables (Sandy Alomar, Steve Yeager) for a sudden spike in home runs from single to double figures at about Barnhart’s age. If he can double last year’s home run output of seven and improve a bit on his .270 batting average rather than regressing as the various projection methods say he will, he’s worth about as much as Wilson Ramos, who’s been selling for about $10. We’ll pay an extra buck or two to find out.
The Birchwood Brothers are two guys with the improbable surname of Smirlock. Michael, the younger brother, brings his skills as a former Professor of Economics to bear on baseball statistics. Dan, the older brother, brings his skills as a former college English professor and recently-retired lawyer to bear on his brother's delphic mutterings. They seek to delight and instruct. They tweet when the spirit moves them @birchwoodbroth2.