Fantasy Baseball 2021: Why Are Former Elite Players Dropping in Drafts?

Veterans like Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado, among others, are falling down draft boards. Should we really be ignoring them?

I have two talented daughters (shoutout to mom) who are keeping me on my toes with their sports schedule. There's never a dull moment in the Kupferle house, and if we aren't running to and from soccer practice, it could be a myriad of basketball drills, individualized soccer training, pitching lessons, catching lessons, or working on our hitting. You think COVID-19 fatigue is real? Add in being a sports parent, and it's downright exhausting across the board.

As I watch my kids hone their skills, whether in a practice or game, it never ceases to amaze me with some of the things they do -- both poor and well. They are enamored with YouTube videos of the flashy moves -- not the ones necessarily that contribute positively to the team or to a basket, goal, or run, but the ones that make you say, "Oh shit. Did you see that?"

As I reflect on my 2020 fantasy baseball season and prepare myself for the 2021 slog, we are all victim, myself included, to ignoring the winning plays but get suckered into the flashy ones. The crusty old veterans who may contribute in four or five categories are ignored -- mostly because we want to regale our buddies with tales of being the first to hit on Luis Robert, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., or any other host of youngsters and their breakout seasons.

Two players who we are going to particularly focus on are Mike Trout and Nolan Arenado. Per early draft data over at the NFBC, these players' stock may never be lower, but should it be? I also talked to industry-leading players and experts to understand why they are falling in an attempt to formulate a winning strategy for 2021. Let's dig in.

Speed Kills -- And It's Becoming Harder and Harder to Find

Unless the categories significantly change, rotisserie baseball is played with five standard offensive categories -- runs, home runs, runs batted in, batting average, and stolen bases. We can see over time, stolen bases are getting more and more scarce, and drafting players like these who potentially provide a lack of speed -- Trout recorded a single stolen base in the truncated 2020 season, and Arenado has never been a speed threat -- can be detrimental to your team's overall build.

2014: 2,764 stolen bases
2015: 2,505
2016: 2,537
2017: 2,527
2018: 2,474
2019: 2,280

From 2014 to 2019, that's a precipitous drop of 17.5% in league-wide steals. And that's getting correspondingly factored into the average draft position (ADP) over at the NFBC, where we see stolen bases threats rising over time, as well as those folks who are just chipping in at the position.

Prior to the 2019 season, the following players were drafted primarily as speed threats, even if their overall performance showed they were poor otherwise:

Victor Robles (ADP: 94.07): .255 batting average, 86 runs, 17 home runs, 65 RBI, 28 stolen bases, 91 wRC+
Jose Peraza (ADP: 104.95): .239 BA, 37 R, 6 HR, 33 RBI, 7 SB, 63 wRC+
Mallex Smith (ADP: 108.02): .224 BA, 70 R, 6 HR, 37 RBI, 46 SB, 74 wRC+
Dee Gordon (ADP: 108.72): .275 BA, 36 R, 3 HR, 34 RBI, 22 SB, 77 wRC+

Now, one could argue that Robles returned value, and he is the one to make the best argument for. In a vacuum, analyzing any of these numbers is a fool's errand, as depending on your team's context, you could be overly proficient in home runs and other categories and simply need speed -- that's a fair point.

But keeping in mind the rule of 80 -- in a contest that promotes an overall winner like many over at The NFBC -- you need to average nearly 20-plus home runs per position to stake your claim to an overall prize. Power can be easier to find, as those league-wide numbers have risen dramatically, but taking a goose egg in this category like Peraza, Smith, or Gordon offer can be tough to overcome.

Digging deeper into the power and speed dynamic, looking at the 2019 season, 58 batters hit 30-plus home runs. Guess how many stole 30-plus bases? Eight. Smith (46), Adalberto Mondesi (43), Jonathan Villar (40), Ronald Acuna (37), Trea Turner (35), Elvis Andrus (31), Christian Yelich (30) and Jarrod Dyson (30). That's the list.

It's all about your team's build towards accumulating stats and balancing those numbers, both speed and power-wise, but we shouldn't value either out of context nor should we over-value the youngsters.

The Shiny Toy Always Seems to Sparkle Brightest

As a kid, we didn't grow up with a ton of money. While my dad was a litigator by training, he was always at every one of my games, including my siblings, in addition to all of the other nerdy stuff I did like band, math competitions, spelling bees, and the school newspaper. Running a sole proprietorship didn't pad his bottom line, but it did allow him to attend all of my games.

When it was my birthday, it was a special day -- because as narcissistic as I am, that day was about me. I got to pick out $50 worth of presents on whatever I wanted, including lunch, dinner, and a birthday cake -- if I was extremely polite. And the boring toys were never the apple of my eye -- it was the new thing, the flashy thing that my friends had. The Starter jacket with pegs (ok, boomer) was clutch or the Sega Genesis that I finally got (belatedly, always, in my mind).

Our fantasy baseball industry (and quite frankly, most any fantasy draft) seems to over-commoditize that young player. It's key to be smarter than everyone and see that player and identify the forest through the trees. And it almost always seems to cloud our judgment unnecessarily.

Sure, there are generational talents who shift this perspective. Juan Soto led the league, despite contracting COVID-19, with a 200 wRC+. Fernando Tatis Jr. was a blur with a mark of 149, the 20th-best mark of the season.

So how many other young players populated the top-40? Cavan Biggio. Kyle Lewis and Kyle Tucker were close. Gleyber Torres (ADP: 28.57), Pete Alonso (31.16), Austin Meadows (40.74), Keston Hiura (43.86), Yordan Alvarez (50.66), and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (58.09) all didn't come anywhere close to returning that draft-day pick.

And that's just examining the top of the list -- there are many more swings and misses as we keep digging and we undervalue the proven guys like Trout and Arenado. But should we?

It's All About That Base

We love talking in terms of value -- it's used ad nauseum in fantasy sports, but the real value in your early-round picks isn't to help you win your league. Your early picks are the foundational base to make sure you don't lose it.

Want consistent? Using Razzball's Historical Player Rater for full seasons inclusive of 2015 to 2019, I examined how often players have been locked into top-50 seasons. Mind you, this spans and compares all five years for players, so hitting on this list essentially means they were a top-10 hitter in that season (numerical rank shows where they finished among the top-50):

Arenado (5): 21, 23, 32, 33, 43
Trout (4): 12, 20, 22, 37 (his lone miss: a torn thumb ligament with a .306 BA / 92R / 33HR / 72RBI / 22SB in 500 PA)
Mookie Betts (3): 3, 7, 47
Jose Altuve (3): 19, 28, 42
Paul Goldschmidt (3): 14, 48, 46
J.D. Martinez (2): 8, 50
Christian Yelich (2): 4, 11
Charlie Blackmon (2): 1, 38
Josh Donaldson (2): 15, 41

For a risk-averse player like me, that's not a very expansive list. And despite Arenado's utter dearth of speed, he's been in the top-45 of all seasons over the past five full years.

Could he leave Colorado? Absolutely, and departing that hitter-friendly gem of Coors Field would hurt him. But if he stays? Sure, and last year's dip could be explained by a clearly balky shoulder last season, potentially making him a value at his current mid-30s ADP.

For Trout? Despite the consistency, it seems to be a combination of the shiny new toy and his lack of speed puts him as the fifth or sixth player off the board presently. Trout recorded 241 plate appearances in 2020, and his numbers, pro-rated to a full year, read like a page out of R.B.I. Baseball out of the Nintendo days -- 116 runs, 46 home runs 124 RBI, and a pretty decent .281 batting average. Will he run in 2021? Time will tell.

Shut Up, Dummy -- What Do the Experts and Top Players Think?

I polled the best-of-the-best across the industry to gather their thoughts -- podcasters, industry experts, and flat-out some damn good players. What's their rationale for the drop, and do they see it continuing? Their answers are both similar and dissimilar, and I think each brings a unique perspective on the why. Take a look.

Scott Jenstad, RotoWire -- I would say it is two-fold. The first is that people are really focusing on stolen bases early on since the later steals guy suck. Arenado gets you none in a time of the draft where people are really not wanting zero. And the thought with Trout is maybe he doesn’t run very much anymore and that pushes him down a bit despite all the other elite numbers. Second, drafters love the young, sexy, and splashy names and solid, boring veterans always slip a little bit since they aren’t that -- just the way it is and always will be. I love the first- and second-rounders who slip from the year prior as sexy guys pass them.

Toby Guevin (aka BatFlip Crazy), Benched with Bubba Podcast -- I think guys like Trout and Arenado have fallen in recent seasons because speed has become more scarce. Drafters are putting a premium on players who can contribute elite SB totals in a 5-category profile. Over his last 2 seasons (more than 800 PA), Trout has 12 SB and Arenado has never been a SB threat. Drafters are prioritizing roster construction and the flexibility drafting elite SB accumulators early provides in subsequent picks. You can make up HRs, RBI and -- to a lesser extent -- runs and batting average throughout the draft, but it’s challenging to make up speed later in drafts without hurting your team in other categories.

Matthew Davis, FTN Fantasy Baseball Podcast -- A decline in stolen bases, a decrease in ceiling, and other players rising like Fernando Tatis Jr. push players like them down. The market is also okay with drafting first-round capital in pitching. Anything that causes someone to go up must bring someone down.

Vlad Sedler, Elite Fantasy / Fantasy Guru -- Trout's move out of the top three overall is multifold. It's a mix of 1) minor injury history concern, 2) projected lack of stolen bases and 3) natural movement of other younger stud hitters who have yet to hit their prime who contribute to all five standard roto categories. This was inevitable, but there's always recency bias to consider. Had Trout played the entire shortened 2020 season, truly smashed, and stole more bags, he'd have been the consensus first or second overall pick. Arenado's strong (weaker) splits outside of Coors and the possibility that he moves on from there is baked into his new price point. Also, the fact that he essentially steals no bases and is nearing 30 years old means it was only a matter of time that he would fall out of the top 2 rounds.

Mike Kurland, Bases Loaded Podcast -- It truly is as simple as the need for speed. Steals have become a premium and the market is showing the changes as any player with any sort of potential for speed gets pushed up. There’s even more emphasis on speed options who aren’t only stolen base threats. With that said, the likes of Trout and Arenado (especially Arenado) aren’t as sought after. There’s been recent injury concerns for both, they’re exiting their prime, their skill sets aren’t as flashy, and steals aren’t part of their profile anymore. Mostly Arenado. Trout feels like the best bargain of round 1 as I don’t suddenly buy him not running though.

Matt Williams, Turn Two Podcast -- Fantasy analysts like to outsmart themselves. Consistent players like George Springer are always a bargain in the middle rounds for this reason. Everyone feels the need to have “value” on every single pick. But early in the draft, all you need is for a player to return value, not exceed it. It makes sense in an overall contest like the NFBC Main Event or TGFBI to “go for it.” But in a standard league, consistency is undervalued. Long story short, people like shiny things.

Jenny Butler, NFBC Main Event guru -- I assume it's because they don't steal, which somehow doesn't seem to apply to Soto or Freeman. Also, I think people are afraid that Arenado will be traded out of Colorado. People freak out about SB in the first couple of rounds, even though it's easy to finish at least middle of the pack in that category with minimal effort without overdrafting for it.

Ignore These Stodgy Old Dudes at Your Own Peril

It would be a bit silly to implore you to draft Mike Trout with confidence -- it's splitting hairs to tell you to draft a player this good at five or six versus inside the first three picks. But the consensus number one pick is no longer that. And it's very clear that early drafters don't have the same confidence in Arenado, regardless of reason, that they once did.

Some of it's due to a potential lack of speed in a scarce environment, which is a fair criticism. Some of it is an age curve -- both players will turn 30 during the 2021 MLB season. And some of it is the propensity to draft starting pitching earlier than ever before. All are valid points.

Even some of the best minds in the game clearly have a difference of opinion, as shown above. Some are believers, and others aren't -- and that's what makes fantasy baseball so much fun.

But in my humble opinion, their fall down draft boards is a mistake, and their rise, like many seasoned vets, could provide some draft-day value. Here's to a healthy, happy 2021 and a return to a "normal" 162-game season as we know it.