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Tuesday, March 12, 2013
Poor batting average can be positive

By AJ Mass
ESPN.com

It's that time of year yet again, when fantasy baseball players look at the statistics from the past few seasons in order to figure out which sluggers to rank at the top of their draft lists. It's a daunting task, especially since you never know when a veteran with a trusted track record is going to unexpectedly break down or when a longtime platoon player is suddenly going to have a career year.

However, even if we could guarantee 100 percent accuracy of statistical projections, there is a strong possibility that people would make mistakes in terms of figuring out the relative value of hitters.

Let's try a little experiment. Where would you consider drafting each of the following hypothetical players in your upcoming draft if you knew for certain they'd give you this production for the season?

Obviously, there are few people out there (if any) who would rank Mr. Y higher than Mr. X since he is less productive in each and every one of the categories in a standard 5x5 league.

However, even though there is a 10 percent drop-off in production in each category, the gap between the two players in the final rankings is not likely to be all that great. Put another way, if Mr. X is a first-round candidate, a la Robinson Cano, then perhaps Mr. Y would be a potential third- or fourth-rounder like Adrian Gonzalez. Don't you agree?

Of course, here's the catch. Mr. Y's batting average is not 10 percent less than Mr. X's. There is only a 1 percent drop from a batting average of .310, which means a 31 percent success rate to .300, or a 30 percent success rate.

In order to see a 10 percent dropoff, you would have to have a batting average projection of .210. If that were the case, then suddenly, Mr. Y is no longer a viable third-round option for most people. In a heartbeat, our poor friend is more likely to be treated like Mark Reynolds, relegated to remain a roster pariah until perhaps the 21st or 22nd rounds of drafts, if he's even selected at all.

But why is this the case? Why is such a bad batting average something that fantasy players seem so afraid to have anywhere near their roster?

Clearly batting average is different from all other standard hitting categories. After all, it is the only offensive category that is not a counting stat. You can belt a home run or steal a base and it's yours for the season. Hit .390 for the month of April, like Bryan LaHair did in 2012, however, and you can still end up with a disappointing .259 for the year.

Unless you trade him away, you never actually own a player's batting average. You're simply renting it.

Put another way, a power hitter who goes an entire month without a round-tripper doesn't help your fantasy stats, but he doesn't hurt them either. You don't lose any ground in the overall home run totals. A hitter who goes into an 0-for-50 tailspin actually impacts absolutely your fantasy team in a negative way. Batting average can provide negative value and drag your overall position in the standings down like an anchor.

However, having said that, we're not sure that you should let it factor into your draft day decisions at all. For one thing, major league hitting, as a whole, has been steadily getting worse over the past seven seasons.

Take a look at the following chart:

Not only has the average batting average been declining, but the pool of above-average hitters has remained relatively constant. What that means is that although there are still just as many players today as there were in the past that can give you "positive batting average," the amount of positive batting average you need to remain competitive has consistently dropped.

In 2008, a team batting average of .269 would have likely seen you in last place and no higher than eighth in a 10-team ESPN standard league. Last season, that same .269 likely would have had you as high as third place and probably no lower than sixth. A negative batting average simply doesn't hurt you as much in today's game as it used to.

So why worry about batting average at all? Why not take it out of the equation completely and judge the available talent that way? Let's try another "blind taste test." Which of the following three players would you want on your fantasy team for this coming season?

It seems to me that it would be a tough choice between A and C, with B very much in the rear. However, if you throw in batting averages and take a look at the ESPN Player Rater values, you suddenly get a very different perception.

The truth is that you can still field a pretty competitive team if you tanked batting average altogether, and while I'm not recommending that you actively choose this as a strategy, that very fact should go a long way towards showing you that there's no reason to avoid selecting one or two "negative batting average producers" at a point in the draft when the value of their "counting stats" merits a selection.

Take a look at a potential made up entirely of hitters below the league average in 2012:

Yes, this team would have finished dead last in batting average in nearly every league. However, the greater point to be made here is that this lineup wouldn't have been a lock to finish last overall by any means. Every league is certainly different, but this could well be a team that finishes in the top three in all of the four counting stats in a 5x5 scoring system. So this irrational urge to "have balance" in your lineup doesn't make sense and far too many people are going to chase empty batting average at the expense of the other offensive categories.

Do you really want to pass on Colby Rasmus for a hitter like Chris Denorfia because his .293 is more appealing to the eye? If you do, then perhaps you're not seeing things as they really are.