Passing Judgment: The Unpredictability of Fantasy Baseball
So you think you know all there is to know about fantasy baseball? I’ll bet that you think all of the days, weeks and months you invested absorbing information and preparing for your draft was well worth it. There are dozens upon dozens of industry experts who proclaim to have “inside” information to be disseminated to the public via magazines, draft kits, TV shows, podcasts, webisodes, the SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Channel, blogs, Facebook and Twitter. But, at the end of the day, fantasy baseball is an art – not a science.
Every year there are some players that emerge from obscurity and ascend into fantasy baseball relevance seemingly out of nowhere (Jose Bautista in 2010). The inverse is also true as some fantasy studs end up fading into oblivion (Jason Bay in 2010). The point is that no matter how much you think you know, you don’t know everything. All the preparing and mock drafting you do cannot forecast everything. That is the beauty of fantasy baseball. As much as we all like to make predictions, the fact remains that most of it is unpredictable.
With the calendar now turned to May, let’s take a look at some of the most unpredictably successful fantasy baseball performances for April 2013 (in no particular order).
1. John Buck (C-NYM). During the offseason, the Mets and Blue Jays made a blockbuster trade with NL Cy Young winner R.A. Dickey getting shipped to Toronto in exchange for top catching prospect Travis d’Arnaud and Single-A pitching prospect Noah Syndergaard. But there were more pieces involved in this trade as the Blue Jays also acquired Josh Thole and Mike Nickeas, the two catchers who were most used to catching Dickey’s knuckleball. In turn, Toronto included John Buck in the deal after he had just been re-obtained in the blockbuster trade with Miami. Buck was simply viewed as a stopgap catcher who would don the tools of ignorance until d’Arnaud was ready to take over. While his defensive skills and ability to handle a pitching staff were lauded, no one expected much from Buck offensively as he failed to reach the Mendoza line in 2012. However, all Buck has done is finish April leading the National League in RBI with 25 and second overall in homeruns with nine. He became the 3rd player in Mets history to hit nine homeruns in April and quickly ascended the batting order to become the team’s cleanup hitter on several occasions. For a catcher who was probably not drafted in many fantasy leagues, Buck has provided enormous value beyond what could have ever been imagined.
2. Yuniesky Betancourt (2B-MIL). Raise your hand if you knew that Yuniesky Betancourt was still in the league. After a rash of injuries ravaged the Brewers’ infield, they brought back Betancourt who had been released twice prior to the season. Amazingly, Betancourt finished April batting .280 with six homeruns and 21 RBI. Why is that so impressive? Betancourt’s career-high for homeruns in a season was 16 in 2010. Never known for his power or run production, Betancourt’s six homeruns match the combined total for Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton during April. If you bet on that before the season, then you are probably reading this from an island that you just purchased.
3. Chris Davis (OF-BAL). It took awhile, but Chris Davis finally fulfilled his potential in 2012. It took a change of scenery for that to happen as he thrived in Baltimore compared to his many failures in Texas. However, fantasy baseball players were not completely ready to buy into Davis as a legitimate stud. Then the season started. Davis hit a homerun in each of the Orioles’ first four games and had 16 RBI by the end of the first week. He cooled off a bit but picked it up again at the end of April finishing the month with a .347 batting average, nine homeruns and 28 RBI. He won’t be able to sustain that batting average all year because there are too many flaws in his approach. But he should have no trouble reaching the mid-30’s again in homeruns and should exceed 100 RBI at this pace.
4. Vernon Wells (OF-NYY). He has gone from a contractual albatross in Anaheim to a savior of sorts in the Bronx. For the past several years, Vernon Wells has been a shell of the player he once was. His days as a starting outfielder were over with the Angels who finally found a taker for part of his awful contract. The Yankees were in desperate need of bodies with all of their injuries, so they acquired Wells and it has paid off thus far. The fact he hit .300 with six homeruns and 13 RBI in April was completely unexpected. He provided great value as a waiver wire acquisition but expectations should be tempered from here on out. With Curtis Granderson set to return soon, Wells will likely be relegated to a platoon role. But no one can take away what he did in April because no one ever could have expected such an extreme turnaround compared to where he was last year.
5. Josh Donaldson (3B-OAK). Third base has arguably been the most volatile fantasy baseball position since the end of 2012. Chipper Jones retired. Alex Rodriguez underwent another hip surgery and got caught up in the Bio-Genesis mess. Chase Headley broke his thumb in spring training and missed all of April. David Wright got injured during the World Baseball Classic and was questionable to start the season. Pablo Sandoval is always one swing away from fracturing his hand. Ryan Zimmerman has struggled and already made his annual trip to the disabled list. You get the point. Then here comes Josh Donaldson from obscurity to be a vital part of the Oakland A’s surprising high-octane offense. Donaldson has never been known for his bat, but he quietly finished April batting .313 with two homeruns and 20 RBI. He made many people happy who picked him up off the waiver wire. If you drafted him, then I bow down to your psychic powers/
6. Chris Johnson (3B-ATL). Remember how relieved you were when the Diamondbacks finally traded Justin Upton to the Braves? For weeks, the rumor mill was flying with possible destinations for Upton. Rightfully so, he got all of the attention. But the Braves not only acquired the league’s leading homerun hitter in Upton, they also acquired the National League’s batting average leader in Chris Johnson. Johnson was essentially a throw-in from Arizona and has taken advantage of getting steady at bats in a very good lineup. Initially the plan was for him to platoon with Juan Francisco at third base, but when Freddie Freeman got injured Johnson took over duties at first base on most days. He finished April batting .369 with two homeruns and 9 RBI. Will he be able to sustain that batting average? Not a chance. But if you were told in spring training that Johnson would be leading the NL in batting at the end of April, you would never have believed it.
7. Matt Harvey (SP-NYM). It’s not every day that a young pitcher gets immediately compared to Tom Seaver and Dwight Gooden. That is pretty impressive company, but Mets phenom Matt Harvey sure looked like he could live up to it. Harvey was the talk of baseball during April going 4-0 with a dominating 1.56 ERA and 0.81 WHIP. Oh, he also had 46 strikeouts. Harvey looked good in 2012 for his first cup of coffee in the big leagues, but he began 2013 looking like he owned the big leagues. He has instantly become part of the conversation amongst the top fantasy pitchers despite pitching for an awful Mets team with an anemic offense and a putrid bullpen.
8. Clay Buchholz (SP-BOS). Talk about making a comeback, Clay Buchholz has quickly erased the memories of a disastrous 2012 season by coming out dominating the league with a 5-0 record in April. He was, at best, a late round pick in many fantasy baseball drafts and has paid incredible dividends based on that value. He finished April with a 1.19 ERA, 1.00 WHIP and 31 K’s leading the resurgent Red Sox into first place. As good as he was in April, he began May with yet another dominating performance picking up his league-leading sixth win. However, Jack Morris amongst others accused Buchholz of doctoring the ball as indicated by the white substance on his sweaty arm. Ok Jack, I understand you are bitter that you haven’t been elected into the Hall of Fame. But this is a bit much. It’s from the rosin bag, you douchebag. Irrespective of that, many people are surprised at the Red Sox success in April. But they must be even mote surprised that Buchholz has emerged as a staff ace and leading candidate to start the All-Star game.
9. Jason Grilli (RP-PIT). The Pirates made a gutsy move during the offseason when they traded their closer, Joel Hanrahan, to the Red Sox. That trade left a void at the back of the bullpen which was to be filled by veteran Jason Grilli who opted to re-sign with Pittsburgh over the winter. At 36-years old, Grilli had five saves in his entire career coming into 2013. So sure enough, Grilli finished April leading the National League with ten saves. On top of that, he had a dominant 0.81 ERA and a matching 0.81 WHIP. It is debatable whether Grilli can sustain that type of success the rest of the year. The Pirates have faded drastically in the second half during the past couple years, so Grilli’s value may never be higher than it is right now. But there is no disputing that he was one of the most pleasant surprises in April.
10. Jim Henderson (RP-MIL). I would be shocked if Jim Henderson was drafted by any fantasy baseball players that are not relatives or close friends of his. Coming into 2013, John Axford was once again the Brewers closer looking to rebound from a shaky 2012 season. However, Axford was a disaster right from Opening Day and was removed from closing duties shortly thereafter. Enter Jim Henderson. After making his MLB debut at 29-years old in 2012, Henderson was promoted to be the closer shortly into the 2013 season and has not disappointed. He has already racked up two wins to go along with six saves and a ridiculous 0.75 ERA and WHIP. Any thoughts of Axford regaining the closer’s role have been eliminated both by Axford continuing to be awful and Henderson continuing to be effective. There is no question that Henderson came out of nowhere to become an extremely valuable waiver wire acquisition in April.
Honorable mention: Evan Gattis, Jean Segura, Hyun-Jin Ryuby