Fantasy is fun but it also serves an infinite supply of humble pie.
With each season, we make new mistakes and discover new blind spots, and sometimes we'll even revisit some of the old ones. If this was one of those seasons that has left you with a bitter aftertaste, you can wash it away by looking forward instead of backwards, recognizing that the players who frustrated you most are also your greatest teachers.
Anyway, that's what I've attempted to do here. I can stew over the fact that I was the last owner on Earth to recognize Matt Carpenter was an elite at several positions, or I can figure out how to learn from my mistake. Likewise, I can determine how to better handle players like Chase Headley, in whom I invested a lot but got little back.
Along with Carpenter and Headley, I have found six other players who could be my mentors, if I just take a little time to listen to what their performances from the past season are telling me. Just maybe they'll provide a useful lesson or two for others as well, and while I'm at it, I'm also looking ahead to see which players I can apply these lessons to for next season.
It looks like Profs. Carpenter and Uehara are about to take the podium ...
Lesson #1: Don't let a player's previous roles interfere with your appreciation for a desirable skill set.
The lesson in detail: Maybe I shouldn't be blamed for shying away from Carpenter on draft day, as it wasn't clear that he would be entrusted to hold down a full-time role. However, it became apparent early on that Carpenter would settle into everyday play as well as a spot at the top of the batting order. While it would have been impossible to predict the Cardinals' absolute mastery of hitting with runners in scoring position, Carpenter's knack for getting on base alone made him a threat to be one of the best sources of runs in Fantasy (if not the runaway leader in the category).
I was far too late to the Carpenter run-scoring party, as I let my perception of him as a utility player color my expectations, even when that perception became obviously outdated. Because he lacked a steady role in 2012 and entered the 2013 season as a 27-year-old, I discounted his prior major and minor league stats. Yet nearly every thing Carpenter did this season -- which landed him among the top six first- base eligible players -- was presaged by his statistical track record. Carpenter had been good at hitting for contact, getting base hits on balls in play and drawing walks for awhile, and only his 55 doubles stand out as a stat that is likely to drop off next season.
It took Uehara longer to establish himself in a high-profile role, but once there were even whispers about him taking over as Boston's closer, I should have been pursuing him in every league. As with Carpenter, I underestimated Uehara due to his age, but he was every bit as enticing as a closer-in-waiting option as Kenley Jansen. Uehara has been putting up crazy-good strikeout-to-walk ratios throughout his career as a reliever, and between his miserly walk and BABIP rates (the latter of which is not simply a matter of luck due to his flyball tendencies), he was a lock for an ultra-low WHIP.
Lesson #2: Don't hold on to preseason expectations for too long.
The teacher: Chase Headley, 3B, Padres
The lesson in detail: I bought into Headley's 2012 breakout and made him my sixth-ranked third baseman during the preseason. The months rolled by with Headley providing only a portion of the production I expected from him. Headley did finish the season strong, hitting .305 in September with five home runs, but with the news that he played all season with a knee injury, it's clear I should have given more weight to his protracted struggles, at least when they spilled over into the second half. We may not always know the reasons why a player fails to meet expectations over a period of several months, but the time to move on should probably come before August, not after. Maybe for most owners this is not news, but I am heavily biased towards giving my early-round picks a very long leash.
Players lesson could apply to in 2014: We'll see next July.
Lesson #3: Keep minor league sample sizes in perspective.
The teacher: Jose Altuve, 2B, Astros
The lesson in detail: Heading into this season, I saw an opportunity for Altuve to break out. In his first season-and-a-half, he had already shown he could steal bases and hit for a decent average, but he had yet to duplicate the power he had shown in the minors. Altuve's most impressive power numbers came in Double-A and Advanced Class A, but that experience was comprised of all of 118 games. Only 35 of those games came at Double-A, yet I gave too much weight to a small sample of games in the minors as compared to a larger sample of major league games.
Going into 2014, now I know that the smarter move is to expect Altuve to be the Astros' answer to Elvis Andrus, but with fewer walks and run-producing opportunities.
Lesson #4: Target high upside players over steady but unspectacular types.
The teacher: Marco Scutaro, 2B/SS, Giants
The lesson in detail: I wound up with Scutaro in several leagues, as I figured he would be a reliable contributor with a batting average close to .300 and at least 80 runs. Scutaro delivered on the batting average, but the Giants had a less potent lineup this season, and his run production suffered greatly. Partly because of injuries and partly because of his team's lackluster offense, Scutaro was not able to build on a solid track record.
When you choose a player with little upside because he has been steady, when the unexpected happens, you have little to fall back on. Though it would have represented greater risk, I would have been better off with less-proven middle infield options like Carpenter, Jedd Gyorko, Jean Segura, Everth Cabrera and Andrelton Simmons, all of whom were far less known quantities and available later in most drafts. At the very least, I should have drafted a higher-upside hitter and stashed him in case he panned out.
Lesson #5: Do your homework on managers' tendencies to give the green light on stolen bases.
The teachers: Clint Hurdle, manager, and Starling Marte, OF, Pirates
The lesson in detail: Some managers, like Mike Scioscia and Joe Maddon, are notoriously aggressive about having their players steal bases, while others, like Buck Showalter and Fredi Gonzalez, have been more cautious. Most managers are somewhere in the middle, and the likelihood that they'll be aggressive will vary depending on their personnel.
This is something I ignored when making preseason projections for Marte. Despite reasonably good accuracy in many aspects of his projection (.269 Avg, 16 HR, 79 runs, 138 K, 28 BB vs. actual .280 Avg, 12 HR, 83 runs, 138 K, 25 BB), I was way off in terms of Marte's overall Fantasy value. That's because I projected him for 22 stolen bases instead of his actual 41. While Hurdle hasn't always been prone to sending his runners, he has done so when he's had a superior base-stealer, like when he had Willy Taveras with the Rockies. The 12 steals that Marte got under Hurdle in just 47 games in 2012 should have clued me in to his potential to far outstrip the relatively modest totals he accrued in Triple-A and Double-A.
Largely as a result of shortchanging Marte by 19 steals, I projected him as the 53rd most productive outfielder in Rotisserie leagues, but he finished the season ranked 18th among outfielder in standard Roto value.
Lesson #6: Be patient with top-flight players returning from injury.
The teacher: Victor Martinez, 1B/DH, Tigers
The lesson in detail: Even after missing the entire 2012 season with a torn ACL, Fantasy owners had to typically invest a mid-round pick to get Martinez. If he could pick up where he left off and hit .300 with double-digit homers and 100 RBI, owners would have a bargain on their hands, but that didn't look likely three months into the season. At the end of June, Martinez did have six home runs, but he was batting .232.
This was actually a lesson I didn't have to learn the hard way, as I stuck with Martinez through the bad months, and starting him finally paid off in July. Over the final three months, Martinez batted .367, as he started hitting more line drives and fewer grounders. He also finished with 14 home runs and 83 RBI.
Martinez's case doesn't prove that one-time star players will always be able to rebound after an injury-plagued season, much less a year-long layoff, but it does show that it's possible, and that patience is warranted.
Lesson #7: Don't write off pitchers coming back from Tommy John surgery, even if they were unsuccessful prior to the procedure.
The teacher: John Lackey, SP, Red Sox
The lesson in detail: Upon joining the Red Sox in 2010, Lackey's career went into free fall, with the descent accelerating in 2011. After having suffered through two years of disappointing stats, it was easy to forget how good Lackey was as an Angel and the role that health may have played in his decline. We were reminded of both once he returned from Tommy John surgery this season, as Lackey rediscovered his command. The possibility of a rebound season seemed remote before the 2013 season got under way, especially since he hadn't been especially effective in spring training. (Another lesson: Don't get fooled by spring training stats.)
Lackey finished as a top 60 starting pitcher and would have ranked much higher with better run support. The Red Sox's potent lineup somehow managed to give him only 3.8 runs of support per nine innings. I didn't even have Lackey ranked among the top 60 starters in the AL in my preseason projections, as I expected another season of mediocrity.
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