Fantasy Baseball 2014: Surveying the Outfield Position

H. Darr Beiser-USA TODAY Sports via USA TODAY Sports

If you are playing in a league with us and you haven’t begun your fantasy baseball research for 2014, you have fallen behind. Soon fantasy baseball writers will release their ranking lists [How to Choose a Rankings List] for each position, going anywhere from 10 to 25 deep. But before we get to rankings, we need to study the positions as a whole, looking for trends or changes, or anything else that will help us prepare for the upcoming season.

So in the next few weeks we will be surveying each position, pulling back and taking a bird’s eye view of each place on the diamond. We’ve already looked at catcher, first base, second base, third base, and shortstop. Today, we go to the men who patrol the gaps, the outfielders.

 

History of the Outfield Position

Like him or not, the outfield position was dominated by Barry Bonds in the Early 2000′s. It’s not likely that you’ll ever see a five-year run as what he produced from 2000-2004. Take a look at his average season in that run. 

R
HR
RBI
SB
AVG/OBP/SLG
123521099.339/535/.781

The game has stiffer drug testing better pitchers now, so you’ll never see that kind of production over a five-year window again. If Bonds came up with men on base and the game was even remotely in doubt, he was walked.

After Bonds won his last MVP in 2004, a new wave began to dominate. Vladimir Guerrero, Ichiro Suzuki, Carlos Beltran, Alfonso Soriano, Matt Holliday, Manny Ramirez, Ryan Braun, Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, Andrew McCutchen, Adam Jones, Carlos Gonzalez, Justin Upton, Torii Hunter, Jacoby Ellsbury, Jose Bautista, and Mike Trout, and many, many others have all had runs of excellence that spanned multiple seasons.

It’s a position that generally requires the speed needed to steal bases, but it’s also where your best hitters go. Fantasy wise, this is where your best overall players have been.

 

Modern Trends of the Outfield Position

The numbers have been a lot more tame recently. People aren’t putting up video game like home run numbers, threatening 60 or more home runs every year. Bonds isn’t even the most ridiculous. Sammy Sosa topped 60 home runs 3 times! Babe Ruth did that in 1927. Roger Maris topped that by 1* in 1961. Yet between 1998 and 2001, Mark McGwire topped 60 twice (70 in 1998, 65 in 1999), Sosa topped it 3 times (66 in 1998, 63 in 1999, 64 in 2001), and Bonds topped it once (73 in 2001, still the official record). Yup, the same commissioner who’s now Mr. Law & Order on PED’s was the commissioner then. I better stop.

In addition to the home runs, people aren’t stealing 100 bags a year, which Rickey Henderson and Vince Coleman each did three times in the 1980′s. Now, you’re generally looking at somewhere around 45-60 leading the league, although you’ll occasionally see a little higher. Michael Bourn led the league in 2011 with 61, Juan Pierre had 68 the year before, and Jacoby Ellsbury had 70 the year before that. Incidentally, all outfielders. The last player to pass 70 was Jose Reyes, who nabbed 78 in 2007. The last outfielder was Kenny Lofton, who had 75 in 1996.

The point of all of that wasn’t to take a trip down memory lane, but to point out that the best of the best in certain categories aren’t as inflated as they once were. Different rules have come into being since the steroid era to limit power, and pitchers found ways to limit steals. Additionally, new stats don’t exactly favor steals. So, the more those take over, the fewer steals we’ll see.

But even if the league-leading numbers aren’t quite as extravagant as they once were, outfielders are still the heart of your offense in fantasy baseball.

The best outfielder on ESPN’s Player Rater in 2012 and 2013 was Mike Trout, and that may last for a while, as Trout is only 22. Outside of him, we’re looking at a lot of the names that we saw earlier when talking about your best outfielders over the last few years, and probably over the next few. Jones, McCutchen, Gonzalez (when healthy), Ellsbury (when healthy), and to a lesser extent, names like Hunter Pence and Alex Rios.

These guys don’t threaten single-season records in single categories like Henderson or Bonds used to do, but they are simply very good in every single category.

As far as minimum expectations, it’s a little tricky at this position, since leagues use different numbers of outfielders, and utility players are often outfielders. So, here’s what I did.

  1. I assumed that we’re talking about a 12-team league that uses five outfielders.
  2. I broke them down into five tiers. Tier 1: 1-12; Tier 2: 13-24; Tier 3: 25-36; Tier 4: 37-48;  49-60
  3. I took the bottom player in each tier from ESPN’s Player Rater in 2012 and 2013.
  4. I put the numbers together in each tier and averaged them out.
  5. I put the average numbers from each tier together and came up with the average.

 

R
HR
RBI
SB
AVG
75175920.273

If I confused you with the explanation to what those numbers did (I confused myself, so don’t feel bad if I did), here’s what they mean in a nutshell. If you’re in a 12-team league that uses five outfielders and they’re not giving you at least that average, you’re way behind the curve.

Not an exact science, I know. First of all, you could very well be looking for two or even three guys from the same tier. Second, this is if you have the bottom player in each tier. I’m assuming at a position like outfield, you’re looking a little higher.

But if you can’t project at least those totals from your outfielders in a 12-team league that uses five outfielders, you are way behind. If you’re way behind in outfielders, you’re not going to compete. The position is just too important.

 

The Future of the Outfield Position

We’ll get to some names momentarily, but there is one more trend that I’d like to address, and it’s one I talked about at first base.

If teams don’t have the dominant players in big offensive positions (like outfield and first base), we’re starting to see more platoons. One guy is good against lefties, another guy is good against righties, so they basically swap in and out. So, a team may get 100 runs, 30 home runs, and 100 RBI from a specific outfield position, but it would have come from two different people.

Just like at first base, I don’t think that’s going to do a heck of a lot to the top of the position. The best players at a position are going to play every day, as long as they’re healthy. But when you’re looking at the depth, especially around the 60th best outfielder, the platoon may hinder that a little more in the future as the game becomes more specialized.

As far as some names that we’ll be seeing at this position for a while:

We have to start with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. The 2012 Rookie of the Year Award winners in each league are still only 22 and 21, respectively. My initial inclination about the two was that Harper would be better than Trout over time, but Trout’s better now.

That’s half right, Trout is better now, and I do think Harper will show great improvement. But it’s going to have to be immense improvement to pass Trout, or Trout will have to drop off. He’s just been phenomenal over the last two years. But both possess all five tools and should be two of the best players (real and fantasy) for years to come.

While we’re on the subject of phenoms, Yasiel Puig and Wil Myers each made big splashes onto the scene in 2013, and will both turn 23 in December. Get used to those names. Starling Marte is a few years older, but is on his way to becoming a real force. Heck, Andrew McCutchen is only 27, Jay Bruce will turn 27 early next season, while Giancarlo Stanton  and Jason Heyward just turned 24. So, there’s plenty of young talent in the majors right now that will be there for a good long while.

Back to untapped market, Billy Hamilton may be the next dominant base stealer, as he nabbed 155 bases in the minors in 2012. 155! Between the minors and the majors this year, he grabbed 88 more. He’s not a great hitter, but he gets on base a lot and could well be someone who threatens 100 steals. Clave’s written about him in the past. If you feel like exploring more and looking at some specific estimations, read his take. It’s quite interesting and insightful.

Other names you want to look at include Byron Buxton (Twins), Oscar Taveras (Cardinals), Nick Castellanos (Tigers), George Springer (Astros), Gregory Polanco (Pirates), Jackie Bradley (Red Sox) and Jorge Soler (Cubs), are all guys who should be becoming full-timers in The Show within the next few years. As many guys as I named, there are several more who were left off. The outfield position never lacks talent.

From a fantasy point of view, it’s always been the most important position because it combines the steals you get from your middle infielders, with the hitting ability you get from the corner infielders. You need good outfielders to have good stats. That’s not about to change.

Topics: Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout

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