Baseball cards keep me feeling young, and they speak to both my mathematical and artistic sides. A baseball card is an under-appreciated work of art; it is also an outstanding way to familiarize a young fan with the numerical nature of the game.
Every winter, I'd eagerly anticipate the release of the new season's set of cards. What kinds of neat statistical facts would be included on the backs of my favorite players' cards this year? What would the new designs look like? Who would be tabbed this year's "top rookie prospects" cards?
When I was younger, I remember setting a goal for collecting: To hand-collate an annual set, including every card and every variation. Remember all those error cards of the 1980s? Yes, they'd be included in any complete set. The process of acquiring, studying and collating each card was the fun of my collecting experience.
After baseball card manufacturers moved beyond the collecting and into seemingly an "investing" phase, adding variations, subsets, memorabilia inserts, autographs and "chrome" coating to their sets, to name a few, and I moved beyond my grade-school days, my focus changed: I decided to work backwards, determined to fill in the remaining gaps in the older sets of my childhood, and perhaps beyond that.
The 1974 and 1975 Topps sets proved particularly challenging, but they're also two of my favorites; 1974 for its simplicity, and 1975 for its color. And if you've ever picked up a baseball card price guide, you also know that they're the point at which, working backwards, it becomes a little pricier to accomplish this quest (there are also noticeable jumps in 1978 and 1972).
Now, the easy answer would be to buy a full set and be done with it. But that's cheating; that foregoes the acquisition experience of each individual card, the appreciation of the game's history that is contained within each.
Still, and again if you've ever picked up a price guide, you know that hand-collating is a considerably more expensive way to complete a set. Totaling the values of each individual card results in a number at least 150-200 percent of the complete set's value.
Ah, but that's where the fun comes in: The other critical facet of this quest is the frugality with which it is done. As kids, we might not have cared much about the prices; as adults, we're much more mindful of them.
Many methods have been used. Garage sales, like the one at which I luckily discovered two full 3,200-count boxes of 1976 Topps for $40, extracting the needed items, then swapping the remainders for other targets. Online auctions/stores, which were a good way to acquire minor-star lots for discount prices, as well as an ideal way to swap extras. And card shows, which were the best way to target rookies and major stars, and was the way I acquired my 1975 George Brett card at 75 percent of the at-the-time list price (while getting a few other throw-ins from that set), mainly because the dealer had a surplus of inventory and was trying to pare it down for the trip home.
It's an enjoyable experience still ongoing, and as a fantasy baseball analyst, it is a process almost identical to the one I use in building my fantasy teams.
After all, bargains are exactly what we seek. We don't want to have to pay $75 for a 1974 Topps Hank Aaron card; we want to get it for $50 because that's what its seller was willing to take that day. Just the same, we don't want to spend the No. 4 overall pick in the draft on Clayton Kershaw; we ideally hope that he'll still be there with pick 12, because none of the other 11 teams in the league believed in spending their first pick on a pitcher.
But the Kershaw example is merely one, and it's far from the most apt choice. Looking at the ESPN live draft results for updated average draft position (henceforth called "ADP"), there are many more tantalizing bargains there for the taking. And the owner who gets the greatest volume of bargains is ultimately likeliest to wind up the winner.
In fact, I look at our ADP and see many name-brand players going for exactly market value -- the equivalent of paying exactly $75 for the aforementioned "Hammerin' Hank" card -- while a reasonably comparable replacement remains available many, many rounds later. That's not to say that paying market value is always bad; but it's a mistake when it's done while passing up a greater value opportunity.
Listed below are nine such examples, name brands you can pass up in exchange for their bargain shopper alternatives:
You might be proclaiming "Blasphemy!" on this one. Polanco, a third-year player who fell short of double-digit homers in each of his first two seasons, and who has only twice in his 10 months in the big leagues batted as high as .280, over Carlos Gomez, a first-round pick a year ago and a player who has averaged .272 with 20 home runs and 32 stolen bases the past four seasons?!
Remember, the theme of the column is "Bargain Shopper"; these are discount-rate candidates with the potential to approach, if not fill, the contributions of pricier, luxury items. Gomez certainly possesses a power advantage over Polanco, as health-willing he's highly likely to finish with at least six to eight more home runs. But there's no other aspect of Gomez's statistical profile that is decidedly better. Gomez is also going in the fourth round of ESPN leagues, which is roughly two rounds sooner than his ADP on other sites, but Polanco is going in closer to the 10th round.
Two major differences between Liriano and Rodon stand out: Liriano is a bit more ground-ball oriented, with a 52.9 percent rate compared to Rodon's 48.6 percent last season, mostly thanks to his superior changeup (at this career stage) and a fastball with greater sink. Liriano also calls a pitching-friendly ballpark his home, while Rodon calls one of the more homer-friendly environments his.
But considering Rodon's age -- he's 23 -- and second-half growth, is their difference in value truly 120 or so spots, as indicated by their ESPN ADPs? I'd argue it should be less than half that, being that Rodon's slider is potentially elite, and could be his ticket to a comparable strikeout total. Moreover, if he maintains his control gains, he might match Liriano in WHIP.
Calhoun is a tricky case of chasing last year's stats. Sure, he hit 26 home runs and tied for 27th in the majors, but he also did so amassing the 11th-most plate appearances (686) with a home run-per-fly ball ratio nearly three percent greater than the league average, and one unusually high for a player with his rate of hard contact. In addition, Calhoun declined significantly in his performance against left-handed pitchers, and posted his highest strikeout rate in any of his six professional seasons.
Conforto, meanwhile, shares some of Calhoun's platoon-splits concerns, except that he's 23 years old with a greater prospect pedigree and therefore a greater likelihood of future improvement. Regardless of your ADP source, ESPN's or elsewhere, Conforto isn't being drafted as a top-50 outfielder or top-200 player overall. Calhoun, meanwhile, resides just outside the top 100 overall players, meaning he's going at least 10 rounds sooner; this is the effective equivalent of paying exactly market value for his stats. But from a Rotisserie-category angle, Conforto might ultimately finish only a handful of runs scored and three to five stolen bases behind Calhoun.
Trivia time! In his eight big-league seasons, Evan Longoria has averaged .271 with 30 home runs and 103 RBIs per 162 games played. But in how many of those eight years has Longoria met at least two of those three AVG-HR-RBI thresholds? If you answered two -- in 2009 and 2010 -- good for you, but that means he hasn't done it in six years, and doesn't it feel like Longoria has performed better than his .263-25-81 average during his past five seasons? Despite his playing in relative obscurity for the Tampa Bay Rays, Longoria has become quite the name brand in fantasy, except that his recent performance gives the look of someone closer to 33 than 30 years old.
Castellanos, meanwhile, enjoyed a power boost in the second half of 2015, posting a .208 isolated power and nine of his 15 home runs. In fact, from July 1 forward he outperformed Longoria in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walk rate and hard-hit rate. We all know the follies of making snap decisions on limited samples, but Castellanos is 24 years old with the look of a player on an upward trajectory. He is also going more than 150 spots later than Longoria in drafts, which is far too much considering the only definitive statistical advantage Longoria might have over Castellanos is a higher spot in the lineup (see: numbers, counting).
To be clear, Will Smith is not Andrew Miller's skills equal. Miller lapped him (arguably several times) in practically every relevant category in each of the past two seasons, and as things stand today, he's the more likely of the two to get a potential Opening Day save chance for his team. But the two do share a few common traits, making Smith an effective "light" version. They miss bats -- Miller had a second-ranked-among-relievers 42.5 percent miss rate on hitters' swings and Smith an eighth-ranked 35.2 percent (minimum 50 innings). They have more of a ground-ball leaning -- Miller had a 49.2 percent rate and Smith a 46.2 percent. And they were lights-out against right-handed batters -- Miller limited them to a .210 wOBA, Smith a .246 -- last season.
However, Smith is going roughly 100 spots later in drafts, and doesn't it make more sense to pocket that savings and take the pitcher with a full season's chance at saves than the one only getting them during Aroldis Chapman's 30-day suspension?
If you're paying for Zimmermann, you're paying for consistency -- and nothing more. He's one of only eight pitchers to have managed better than a 3.75 ERA, 1.25 WHIP and 150 strikeouts in each of the past four seasons. But he also has 125 fewer total strikeouts during that four-year span than any of the other seven, as well as the lowest ground-ball rate and worst FIP during those four seasons among the group. Certain pitchers possess peripheral-busting ability, even those who are occasionally subject to random-variance blips, and one of the smartest times to brace for one of those blips is when a National League pitcher migrates to the American League. In Zimmermann's case, consider that his already modest strikeout total was inflated by facing the pitcher's spot in the lineup, his 92 whiffs of opposing pitchers from 2012-15 being the sixth-most in baseball in that span. In the AL, that might mean as many as 15-17 fewer strikeouts, hurting his fantasy value, but also that many more potentially damaging balls in play.
While wins influence this equation, considering the ADPs -- Zimmermann is roughly an 11th-round pick using industry numbers, and a wiser 13th-rounder in ESPN leagues -- he's the precise luxury item to avoid. Instead, the better strategy is scooping up two or three bargain-bin items with comparable (and preferably better) peripherals in the hopes of piecing his roster spot together. DeSclafani is only one such candidate, nominated because of his roughly 28th-round ADP, as well as his 5.5:1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in the second half of 2015.
Catcher is tricky to evaluate on a broad scale, because of the differing strategies in one- versus two-catcher leagues, but regardless of your format, my recommendation is to bargain shop at catcher wherever possible. This is one such example. Perez is perceived as a "midrange No. 1 fantasy catcher," but his taxing workload threatens to lower his statistical ceiling beneath any other member of the position's top 10 (besides perhaps Yadier Molina, who strangely resides within that group in ESPN ADP, even if his ADP almost everywhere else in the industry is outside it).
Ramos, meanwhile, is going more than 150 spots in the draft later than Perez, despite projections (beyond merely ESPN's) that have him within roughly three to five home runs, five to 10 RBIs and 19-20 points of batting average of Perez. There's little doubt that Perez is the "safer" pick, having appeared in 14 more games (49 additional plate appearances) than Ramos in 2015, and an annual average of 45 games and 172 PAs more than Ramos from 2013-15. But this is an instance where fewer might equal more. Besides, Ramos actually finished within four games and 26 PAs of Perez during the final three months of last season. If the Washington Nationals view Ramos as a workhorse going forward -- which makes sense considering how poorly Jose Lobaton hit last season -- Perez might not enjoy the volume advantage at all.
It's easy to forget that Fowler actually played in more games (156-153) and had more plate appearances (690-689) last season, but it's true -- and is compelling evidence that any suggested good fortune Eaton enjoyed in the injury department was shared by Fowler. Injury risk is the common bond for these two, with their major difference being batting average; Fowler's typically 20 (or more) points lower due to a greater strikeout rate. Still, considering their similarities, including projected leadoff roles atop good offenses, how is it that Eaton is regarded a top-100 overall player, while Fowler isn't even getting selected within the top 200?
Even if it's concerns about his delayed re-signing with the Chicago Cubs or the resulting logjam created in their outfield, Fowler is in outstanding shape to turn a tidy profit, having finished 113th on the 2015 ESPN Player Rater, while Eaton is probably being drafted within range of his best-case scenario in the 2016 edition.
Coming off a terribly disappointing 2015, Samardzija picked a perfect spot to maximize his bounce-back odds, by signing with the San Francisco Giants. The problem, however, is that as the No. 29 starting pitcher, and No. 116 player overall, in terms of ESPN ADP, Samardzjia hasn't been afforded much room for profit by his owners. He has only once finished among the top 40 starters on our Player Rater, in 2014, when he finished 22nd (and 89th overall). And as a more cutter/slider oriented pitcher now than he was two years ago, it's no slam dunk that his 200-plus-strikeout ways return, with that category a large component of his rebound prospects.
Ventura, by comparison, was more ground ball-oriented, had a greater swing-and-miss rate, is the harder thrower of the two and, from Aug. 1 forward (including the playoffs) had a 24.5 percent strikeout rate (also 9.62 per nine innings) in 18 starts. If your aim is speculating on a significant strikeout bump, doesn't it make more sense to take Ventura roughly six rounds later, as indicated by his ESPN ADP?