When you first start playing Fantasy sports, it's easy to be confident. You are the smartest guy in the draft room and everyone knows it. Every pick you make blinds your opponents with its brilliance. Every move they make is self-evidently foolish from the start.
Once you actually play Fantasy sports, of course, you realize very quickly how humbling the game is. All the research in the world isn't going to save you from an awkward step out of the box costing your best player three months of the season. No number of intricately prepared spreadsheets is going to prepare you for the breakout star nobody sees coming.
As much as we know about baseball, there is inherent risk in every pick. And no picks are riskier than those in the first round. Championships are rarely won in the first round, but they can be easily lost by one bad early pick. When you head into your draft, you need to know all about the risk involved in each elite player, and now you can.
What follows is an attempt to quantify something that is probably unquantifiable: risk. The Risk Assessment Chart is an attempt to make the ineffable, well, effable. What I have tried to do is make the arbitrary business of gauging risk a little less arbitrary.
Here is how I went about this:
First, I went to FantasyPros.com and looked at their consensus rankings to figure out every player who is rated as at least a first-round value in a 12-team league around the Fantasy industry. That came out to 18 players total, a solid number given the disparity in a lot of the later picks in the draft.
Then, I tried to come up with a way to judge risk without just saying, "Ooooh, I wouldn't touch him." We've all got our own personal level of risk-aversion -- and which factors are most worrisome -- but I settled on three criteria to judge: Performance, health and age. Here is how each is scored -- the higher the scorer, the more risk a player has for each criteria:
PERF Y1: Player receives 0 points for top-12 finish in Fantasy points per game rankings in 2015; 1 point for 12-25; 2 points for 26-50; 3 points for 51-75; 4 points for 76-100; 5 points for 100-plus; full penalty for any player who did not play in the majors that season
PERF Y2: 0 points for top-25 finish in Fantasy points per game rankings in 2014; 1 point for 26-50; 2 points for 51-75; 3 points for 76-100; 4 points for 101-125; 5 points for 125-plus; full penalty for any player who did not play in the majors that season
PERF Y3: 0 points for top-50 finish in Fantasy points per game rankings in 2013; 1 point for 51-100; 2 points for 101-150; 3 points for 151-plus; full penalty for any player who did not play in the majors that season
INJ Y1: 1 point for every 10 games missed in 2015
INJ Y2: 1 point for every 25 games missed in 2014
INJ Y3: 1 point for every 25 games missed in 2014
AGE: 0 points for every year below 29; 5 points for every year older than 29
I put the info for those 18 players in a chart and added it all up. Here are the results from most risky to Trout:
|Player Name||PERF Y1||PERF Y2||PERF Y3||INJ Y1||INJ Y2||INJ Y3||AGE||RISK||RISK-AGE|
The Safest Choice: Mike Trout
At least 27 homers in each of the last three seasons. At least 104 runs. At least 90 RBI. No worse than a .287 batting average. Never missed more than five games in a season.
At the risk of stating the obvious, Trout is the definition of a safe pick. There is no guarantee he will finish as the No. 1 overall player in Fantasy, but no player puts together a track record of elite production together with a spot-free medical bill like Trout. And he is only 24 years old. He may not be your No. 1 pick, but if you want the most guaranteed return on your investment, he is the obvious pick.
The Prove-It Choice: Bryce Harper
And here's the wild card.
Harper's 2015 wasn't just the best season by any player in baseball -- it was one of the best individual seasons in the history of the game. Harper put it all together and ended up leading the league in homers, while scoring 118 runs, driving in 99 and posting an outrageous 1.109 OPS. In terms of upside, no player can touch what Harper just showed and there is no guarantee he won't improve. He is just 23, after all.
Of course, Harper's 2015 season was also a massive outlier for his career in almost every way. He played a full season for the first time since 2012 and posted his first OPS above .854. Given that Harper missed 106 games between 2013 and 2014, it's a wonder he doesn't come in higher on the risk rankings. He won't go any lower than third in any draft this season, but Harper is clearly the riskiest among that elite trio.
The Next-Best Thing Choices: Clayton Kershaw, Paul Goldschmidt, Anthony Rizzo, Andrew McCutchen
- If not for one back injury that cost him about a month in 2014, Kershaw would join Harper as the only perfect score. And, frankly, given his otherwise impeccable track record, there is no reason to think Kershaw is risky in any way. There's a reason he's the only pitcher on this list.
- Paul Goldschmidt suffered one injury in 2014 as well, and like Kershaw, that is the only thing keeping him from a perfect score. He has been a top-10 hitter in each of the past three seasons on a per-game basis, and there is a reasonable argument to be made that he is worth consideration for No. 1 overall. In fact, I made that argument.
- If there is a clear top-four, we've already mentioned each player in that group. From there, things take a dip -- starting with Anthony Rizzo and Andrew McCutchen. Rizzo's only real blemish is a lackluster 2013 season that saw him hit .233/.323/.419 with 23 homers. He has been a 30-homer player in each of the last two seasons and led the majors in games played in 2015.
- McCutchen was among the elite tier before last season, but will be 30 in October and is one of just two players on the list to finish outside of the top 25 in Fantasy points per game. We're only talking about a one-year trend in an otherwise brilliant career, but it is still worth monitoring. On the other hand, McCutchen did post a massive .313/.425/.528 slash line in the final 131 games of last season after he overcame a nagging knee issue.
The If-Not-For-Age Choices: Joey Votto, Miguel Cabrera, Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion
- This doesn't need much explanation. As we've seen with all four of these players, production and health tend to trend downward as players age. The age of 30 is an arbitrary cutoff to punish players, but it makes a lot of sense. Players tend to peak around 26, with a slow decline that starts to accelerate in most players' 30s. One player worth pointing out here is Bautista, whose age is the absolute only knock on him. He has missed more than 10 games just once in the last three seasons and still managed to club 28 homers in 118 games in 2013. Still, Father Time is undefeated in the long run.
The Please-Just-Stay-Healthy Choices: Giancarlo Stanton, Manny Machado
- If you could guarantee 150 games from Stanton, I think every Fantasy player in the world would be thrilled to take him fifth overall. He's posted an OPS better than .950 in each of the last two seasons and was on pace for 50-plus homers and 130-plus RBI over 150 games last season. His power is nearly unparalleled, and if he manages to hit better than .280 like he did in 2012 and 2014 while staying healthy, he could challenge for the top spot.
- Machado almost fits into the following category as well, as he had a massive power breakout in 2015, clubbing 35 homers and increasing his career-best ISO from .153 in 2014 to .216. However, we've seen him be an elite overall hitter, and given that he hit 51 doubles in his age-20 season, there should be no surprise he had some more over-the-fence power to grow into. He's had serious knee issues in the very recent past, but Machado has also played 156 and 162 games in two of his last three seasons, making 2014 look like the outlier.
The Flash-In-The-Pan Choices: A.J. Pollock, Carlos Correa, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado
- Correa is going to be a very popular and trendy pick in the middle of the first round this season, but that may be a case of Fantasy players outsmarting themselves. Yes, he played at a first-round pace a year ago, but he also might have trouble replicating the power he showed in 2015, and has his own very serious injury in the recent past. Correa has top-five upside, but his limited track record, especially when it comes to hitting for power, really does make him risky.
- Much of the same can be said for Bryant, except he wasn't as good as Correa last season. However, while Correa likely outperformed reasonable expectations of his power, Bryant's 26 homers were a pretty resounding disappointment even for his rookie season. Bryant led the league in strikeouts, a risk factor that didn't make it into the chart, so there's a chance he goes the way of Adam Dunn if his contact issues worsen. Of course, there's also 50-homer potential in a great lineup, and he did manage to hit .327 in the minors even with his contact issues. He could very well become the next Stanton.
- Playing in Coors Field mitigates some of Arenado's risk, because it makes him a solid bet to continue hitting for a high average and a ton of power as long as he is there.
- As I wrote earlier this week, there is a lot to like about Pollock's skill set, and most signs point to last season not being much of a fluke. The fact that he basically replicated his per-game production from 2014 to 2015 in a full season helps mitigate the risk as well, however we're still talking about an older player (28) with only one and a half seasons of playing at this kind of level.
The Safer-Than-You-Think Choice: Josh Donaldson
- The move to Toronto and the majors' best offense helped Donaldson break out, but he has been remarkably consistent over the last few years even before joining the Blue Jays. Donaldson is one of just seven players to finish in the top 30 in Fantasy points per game in each of the three seasons we looked at. There is some risk that Donaldson will never play as well as he did in 2015, but he is actually a remarkably consistent player who probably doesn't get the credit he deserves for that aspect of his game.
The Safe, Boring Choice: Jose Altuve
- Altuve is great. He finished 12th in Fantasy points per game two years ago, and managed to avoid slipping too much in 2015 despite stealing 18 fewer bases and hitting 28 points worse. Doubling your homer output tends to help. It's difficult to see a player with a 15-homer ceiling breaking the top 10, but his speed, ability to make contact and lack of injury history -- at least 147 games in each of the last four years, and has never been on the DL -- make him a safe pick at the end of the first, even if he doesn't have the upside of some other players.