Ten Most Valuable Hitting Fantasy Seasons Since 1920

One of the best features of the wins above replacement (WAR) statistic is that it allows us to compare the greatest single-season performances across different eras in baseball history.  Anyone who has browsed the FanGraphs Leaders page should know that Babe Ruth had the top-five WAR seasons in history, all in the 1920s.  In terms of offensive runs added (batting and base running), Ruth’s 1921 season ranks as the best ever, followed by Barry Bonds’ 73 home run “asterisk” season of 2001.  But what about fantasy baseball?  Were these also the greatest (read most valuable) rotisserie seasons ever recorded?  That’s the question I set out to answer.

Using a slightly modified version of Zach Sander’s fantasy value above replacement (FVAR) system for valuing fantasy players, I estimated the auction value for every hitting season from 1920-2013.  First, I determined every player’s position eligibility based on some simple assumptions (meant to reflect Yahoo’s approach) whereby a player is eligible for a position if they meet any of the following criteria:

  • Played at least 20 games at the position in the previous season.
  • Started at least 5 games at the position during the current season.
  • Played at least 10 games at the position in the current season.

With that established, I proceeded to calculate the z-scores, FVAR and  auction values (FVAR$) for roto leagues.  Based on a 5×5 12-team mixed league with $260 budget per team (and quite a few other assumptions) here are the ten most valuable fantasy seasons for hitters since 1920 (5×5, 12-team mixed):

Rank

Season

Name

POS

PA

AVG

R

HR

RBI

SB

FVAR$

1

2007

Alex Rodriguez

3B

708

0.314

143

54

156

24

$56

2

1997

Larry Walker

OF

664

0.366

143

49

130

33

$55

3

1985

Rickey Henderson

OF

654

0.314

146

24

72

80

$55

4

1983

Tim Raines

2B

720

0.298

133

11

71

90

$53

5

1963

Hank Aaron

OF

714

0.319

121

44

130

31

$53

6

1988

Jose Canseco

OF

705

0.307

120

42

124

40

$53

7

1993

Barry Bonds

OF

674

0.336

129

46

123

29

$52

8

1982

Rickey Henderson

OF

656

0.267

119

10

51

130

$52

9

1921

Babe Ruth

OF

693

0.378

177

59

171

17

$51

10

1974

Lou Brock

OF

702

0.306

105

3

48

118

$51

At this point you’re probably asking: “What, A-Rod?!?!”  I know, as a Red Sox fan and sentient being I was not happy to see A-Rod at the top of the heap.  As much as you may like or dislike A-Rod in real life, if you drafted him first overall in your 2007 fantasy league you were not disappointed with his across-the-board production.  But, you might also be asking, as I did, how was A-Rod’s 2007 season worth $5 more than Babe Ruth’s 1921 season?   Ruth’s hitting and base running in 1921 added 119 runs compared to 75 runs added for A-Rod in 2007, so what gives?  As best I can tell, here are some reasons why A-Rod-2007 had a higher FVAR$ than Ruth-1921:

  • Ruth’s replacement in 1921, Ralph Miller, was much worse than A-Rod’s replacement in 2007, Melky Cabrera.
  • As a result Ruth-1921 had a much higher FVARz score than A-Rod-2007, but the average above-replacement player in 1921 also had a higher FVARz than the average above-replacement player in 2007.
  • As shown in Zach Sanders’ third post on FVAR, the auction values are a function of FVARz divided by the average FVARz for above-replacement players.  Hence, Ruth’s FVARz was divided by a larger number to calculate FVAR$.

Does this make sense?  Yes actually, I think it does.  What it means is that in 2007 A-Rod and Melky Cabrera together were worth more than Babe Ruth and Ralph Miller together in 1921.  In a fantasy auction in 1921 it would have been unwise to spend too many fake dollars on the best players like Ruth and Hornsby (or drink in public because of that Prohibition thing) because you would have been stuck with the bottom players, like Ralph Miller, who were really, really bad (there were only 16 teams back then and no DH).

For fun, below is a dream fantasy lineup with the best hitters since 1920 at each position (5×5, 12-team mixed).  Enjoy.

Order

Season

Name

POS

PA

AVG

R

HR

RBI

SB

FVAR$

1

1983

Tim Raines

2B

720

0.298

133

11

71

90

$53

2

1985

Rickey Henderson

OF

654

0.314

146

24

72

80

$55

3

2007

Alex Rodriguez

3B

708

0.314

143

54

156

24

$56

4

1927

Lou Gehrig

1B

717

0.373

149

47

175

10

$48

5

2006

David Ortiz

Util

686

0.287

115

54

137

1

$34

6

1997

Larry Walker

OF

664

0.366

143

49

130

33

$55

7

1963

Hank Aaron

OF

714

0.319

121

44

130

31

$53

8

1997

Mike Piazza

C

633

0.362

104

40

124

5

$45

9

1998

Alex Rodriguez

SS

748

0.31

123

42

124

46

$48

I’m hoping to write more posts like this using historical FVAR, especially if readers/commenters think it worthwhile.

Twitter: @FVARBaseball

Website: fvarbaseball.wordpress.com




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17 Responses to “Ten Most Valuable Hitting Fantasy Seasons Since 1920”

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  1. Brian says:

    It’s worthwhile. Keep writing!

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  2. Nitpicking says:

    Tim Raines isn’t a second baseman under your criteria. He did not start any games at 2nd base in 1983 (henever started a games at second after 1982). He also didn’t appear in 10 games at 2nd base that year. You need another second baseman for your alltime team.

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    • Aaron Levy says:

      Thanks for your comment, but according to FanGraphs fielding data (and I double-checked at Baseball Reference) Raines played, in fact started, 36 Games at 2B in 1982, so by my criteria he would have been eligible at 2B to start the 1983 season (played at least 20 games at the position in the previous season). In ’83 he appeared in only 7 games at 2B, starting none, so it would have been one of those fantasy baseball POS eligibility quirks that we all know and love.

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  3. Eric R says:

    Who would be the best 3B or SS if you could not list A-Rod twice in the all time list?

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    • Aaron Levy says:

      The next five 3B seasons are: A-Rod (2005, $47 ugh), Tommy Davis (1962, $45 who?), Jimmie Foxx (1932, $45), Miggy (2013, $45) and Miggy (2012, $44). The next five at SS are: HoJo (1989, $47), Maury Wills (1962, $46), A-Rod (2002, $43, ugh), RYount (1982, $42) and Han-Ram (2007, $41). If FanGraphs thought it was a good idea FVAR$ could be added to all the player pages and then all this info would be yours (just a thought).

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  4. Doug M says:

    Then I think the next step is fantasy value above average auction price.

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  5. Dre says:

    I think this is a bit unfair to older players. Fantasy Leagues wouldn’t have had 12 teams in them in 1920, when there were only 16 teams in both leagues.

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    • Aaron Levy says:

      Good point. Maybe as a follow-up post I’ll adjust the fantasy league settings for MLB expansion. For example, I could assume a 6-team fantasy league for the 1901-1960 era when the league had 16 teams, etc.

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    • Z says:

      Additionally, if we were trying to make a “dream team” shouldn’t the “replacement pool” be all players through all years, rather than just the other players in that year? While the first table shows that you’d spend more for ARod in 2007 than Ruth in 1921, you’d have to be a special kind of idiot to draft ARod in 1921 over Ruth, given the difference in their raw numbers (which look even worse when you consider ARod wasn’t even a zygote then and couldn’t hold a bat).

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  6. PXF says:

    Since A-Rod can’t play both 3B and SS simultaneously — even thought your dream team allows time travel — who would replace A-Rod at SS?

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  7. Joe says:

    Whenever someone tries to calculate fantasy value, they use Z-scores. An obvious mistake, because the value of a chunk of say 10 HR, is different if you go from 40 to 50 than if you go from 20 to 30, but it’s the same production.

    Maybe that isn’t the case here, because you don’t specify exactly how the z-scores are used.

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    • Aaron Levy says:

      Thanks for your comment, but I don’t see the problem. Z-scores are a way to place different statistics on equal footing, for example 10 steals v. 10 HRs, by looking at standard deviations from the mean. Using z-score 10 HRs, whether from 20 to 30 or 40 to 50, should add the same value for a player ((10 – avg HR per player)/stdev HR per player).

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  8. Joe says:

    The depth argument doesn’t make sense for A Rod over Ruth. More alternative productive players diminish the value of A Rod. You can get a better player cheaper today than back then, meaning the few remaining good players are more valuable.

    When one player is head and shoulders above the rest, they deserve a higher percentage of the payroll.

    Z score systems typically overrate steals

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    • AngelsLakersFan says:

      I understood it to mean that while there was less depth at the bottom of the league in Ruth’s time that year there were some other really good outfielders, while in 2007 Arod towered over every other third basemen.

      Essentially the free agent pool was barren in Ruth’s time, but the players already taken and on other teams in the league at the same position were quite good as a group, and far better than the group of owned third basemen in 2007.

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      • Aaron Levy says:

        Not exactly. Let me try another more far-fetched example. Let’s say Obama and Biden are picking teams for a 5-on-5 pick-up game at the White House and they decide they’re going to pick teams using an auction. In the first game their options are LeBron James, six random NBA starters and Michelle Obama. In the second game their options are Carmelo Anthony, six random NBA starters and the worst player in the NBA. LeBron is clearly better than ‘Melo, there’s not debate, but in this situation Biden should pay more for ‘Melo than LeBron for reasons that should be obvious: the more Biden spends on LeBron the more likely he is to end up with Michelle, whereas he you spends a ton on ‘Melo he’ll also get the worst player in the NBA, who is much better than Michelle Obama (no offense to the First Lady). Got it?

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  9. Joe says:

    Ryan Howard 06 clearly beats Ortiz at 1B.

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