Winning with atypical production
Just this spring, the New York Mets were concerned about first base. Well, they were probably concerned about a lot of things, but first base was being reported as a particular problem for the team. In March, the New York Post went so far as to run an article with the headline, "Lack of power at first base worries Mets." You see, in 2009, 22 first basemen hit 20 or more home runs. Daniel Murphy, the Mets' first baseman, hit only 12, ranking him 30th overall at the position, hence, the concern.
Now let's ignore the fact that Murphy's 12 home runs were the most on the Mets, so perhaps there are bigger fish to fry there. What really confuses me is why everyone feels a team has to start a power-hitting first baseman in the first place. Sure, if everybody in the league has a first baseman who drives in 100 runs and yours has only 60 RBIs, that's not a "good" situation, but if your lineup also includes a shortstop who hits more than 30 home runs -- more than doubling the output of better than 90 percent of all shortstops -- then who cares?
Unless you play in a league where you get points for having the best catcher, the best third baseman, etc., then all that matters is the combined statistical totals of your entire team. Where these stats come from shouldn't matter. Yet, there's a strange subconscious bias among both major league management and fantasy owners alike: power has to come from the corners, the center fielder is expected to lead off and steal bases, shortstops and catchers can hit .240 as long as they play solid defense.
Would you want to draft a starting first baseman who averages only 10.8 home runs and a handful of steals a season? Looking at the 2010 ADPs of the likes of Daniel Murphy (undrafted) and James Loney (183.9), the answer is a resounding "no." But what about a shortstop with those numbers? By the looks of where people drafted Stephen Drew (109.1) and Yunel Escobar (130.4), apparently those same stats look much more inviting. I'm not buying it. After all, that first baseman with 10.8 home runs per year I was talking about? That's Mark Grace, who actually received 22 votes for the Hall of Fame in 2009. If you're going to put Mark Grace in the same discard bin with James Loney, simply because he doesn't fit some arbitrary statistical profile at his position, then maybe we should be looking at things a little differently.
What exactly is "average" for each major league position? If we take only those players who had at least 250 at-bats at each position for the 2009 season, we come up with the following chart of the middle-of-the-pack producers at each spot on the field:
2009 "Average" production by position
As you can see, the traditional biases do play out, as first basemen are the biggest source of power, shortstops wield the lightest stick, center fielders swipe the most bases, and those designated hitters blast home runs without regard to their batting average. Let's put a face on those numbers. What would this "average" team have looked like in 2009?
2009 "Average" fantasy lineup
Now let's take a look at a team of "outliers" from 2009. These are the players who least fit the mold at their respective positions. We've got a first baseman who hits for average and power-hitting middle infielders. Our steals come from catcher and third base. From a fantasy standpoint, this new roster is likely to perform around 10 fantasy points better than the "average" team.
2009 "Outliers" fantasy lineup
One could play devil's advocate and argue that this team performed better simply because it has Cano (ADP of 31.4) and Tulowitzki (21.5). But even if we replaced that pair with Jose Lopez and Clint Barmes, we'd still come out ahead of the average team. The point here is not that these players should have been your first nine picks off the draft board. The point is that you shouldn't dismiss players who don't fit the familiar "positional profiling." When you have a need to improve your team during the course of the season, the players who may be the most valuable to you are these outliers who will be there for the taking precisely because they don't look the part.
With that in mind, here are our projections for the most profitable outliers at each position for the 2010 season. Keep these names in mind, and don't be afraid to slot them into your lineup if you need what they have to offer, even if they stand out like a sore thumb in comparison to the rest of their peers.
J.R. Towles, C, Houston Astros: Nobody can be happy with a 1-for-18 slump to start the season, but we're talking long term here, and Towles has the potential to give you double-digit home runs and a .280 average from behind the plate once he gets it going.
Gaby Sanchez, 1B, Florida Marlins: Sanchez has a sweet swing and has already exhibited tons of patience at the plate with a .426 OBP. He's not likely to hit 20 home runs, but so what? There's nothing wrong with 85 RBIs and a .310 batting average if that's what he gives us.
Casey McGehee, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers: This is the perfect example of what we're talking about. McGehee qualifies at both second and third base. As a second baseman, the fact he already has four home runs in 2010 would make him an All-Star. He'd be easily lost in the pack, though, if he were being compared only with third basemen -- which is where he's played exclusively so far in 2010 -- and be just "one of the guys."
J.J. Hardy, SS, Minnesota Twins: Hardy has fallen on hard times of late, as his 2009 power production was half of what it had been the previous two seasons, but he already has two home runs for the Twins, and appears to be well on his way to another sneaky-good season, perhaps approaching .500 in slugging percentage when all is said and done.
Adrian Beltre, 3B, Boston Red Sox: Beltre's days of swinging for the fences may well be over, though in Fenway Park 10 round-trippers may not be out of the question. Still, after a four-year stretch from 2002 to 2005 where Beltre stole fewer than five bases per year, he's more than doubled that output during the past four seasons. Plus, in the Red Sox's lineup, the RBIs should come.
Luke Scott, LF, Baltimore Orioles: Is swinging for the fences a crime? Yes, he's going to strike out 100 times, but if that comes with close to 30 home runs from left field, would that be such a horrible thing? Plus, in 2009 he had a career high in RBIs even though he saw action in only 128 games. His time is coming.
Rick Ankiel, CF, Kansas City Royals: Stolen bases? Well, he may get a few, but Ankiel is more of a free-swinging slugger who just happens to patrol center field. We're not sure why someone who is hitting .308 with three home runs so far in 2010 is owned in less than 10 percent of ESPN leagues, but that number should grow as people begin to realize he's worth it.
Matt Diaz, RF, Atlanta Braves: Bobby Cox has lost confidence in Melky Cabrera, moving the speedster to the eighth spot in the Braves' lineup and inserting Diaz in the leadoff spot, citing his .300-plus batting abilities. In fact, Diaz batted .439 (18-for-41) at the top of the order last season, so who cares that he walks about as often as the Braves change managers.
Ty Wigginton, DH, Orioles: He's filling in some at second base while Brian Roberts is hurt, but doesn't really have a position on the field when the Orioles are healthy. What makes Wigginton so interesting is that he has no problem taking off on the basepaths, a far cry from most DH-types who are so old they can barely manage to reach second base on a ball hit to the gap. An .800 OPS with a handful of stolen bases isn't too hard to visualize here.