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Beware of Sleepers

Sleepers are the holy grail of fantasy analysis. Everybody has players they like more than others and sleepers are those special someones who offer tantalizing upside at a piddling price. Sometimes, they’re just overlooked, small market players who have been good all along while other times they are players predicted to have a break out season.

It’s good to have sleepers. It’s good to acquire them on draft day, assuming you have some skill at parsing the mountains of data available on the internet. It can even be good to throw an extra dollar at your favorite targets in the auction. Where owners run into trouble is when they convince themselves that they must acquire their sleepers.

Every spring, I put together a small list of sleepers using a basic formula that I discovered ages ago. If memory serves, I got it from Baseball Info Solutions. Aside from the odd scouting job (i.e. Greg Holland prior to last season), this method has produced some of the best sleeper lists I’ve seen. Last year turned up Josh Donaldson, Domonic Brown, and Brandon Belt. It also identified Lorenzo Cain, Justin Smoak, and Nolan Reimold.

So the formula got it half right. That’s a good success rate for a sleeper list, but it’s also a lesson on the risk of targeting sleepers. A good list will have a high failure rate. That’s the nature of fringy, upside plays. Even so, had you drafted all six of those players for $10-12 total, you would have made out like a bandito. Roster constraints and your rivals usually will prevent that strategy.

Sleeper lists tend to get passed around. A lot of our rivals live and breathe in the same echo chamber, read the same analysis, and use the same Steamer projections as we do. It’s not unusual for a sleeper to get bid up over $10. That happened with Kyle Blanks a few years back. There are a few players every year that owners over-pursue. Maybe this year it will be one of the young pitchers like Sonny Gray, Michael Wacha, or Danny Salazar. Maybe it will be Corey Kluber. All I know is that it will be somebody.

That player pick comes with several orders of opportunity cost and it is this point that I want to reinforce today. Paying $3-10 for a back-of-the-roster player that you like has an obvious financial cost. If you started with $260, you’re now that much closer to bust. A good owner can manage around a few wasted dollars, so this isn’t that big a deal.

Here’s where it becomes a problem. You have your Mr. Sleeper, let’s say he’s an outfielder. Some owners – you know who you are – will set their sights on their sleepers from the first pick of the draft. They’ll plan the entire experience around winning those players, which is why you get absurd $10 bids on Blanks. These owners could nominate their sleeper early (a strategy I occasionally condone), but most opt to wait until everybody has spent their budgets. That requires these owners to intentionally reserve money for the end of the draft. And as we all know, unspent auction dollars go back to the Yahoo! vaults at the end of the day.

Let’s say that for whatever reason, Carlos Gonzalez could have been had for $30. You opted to forgo Cargo for a $22 Alex Gordon so that you would have budget left over later. Fine. Whatever. That’s a reasonable trade off even though most owners would be kicking themselves later. If your sleeper breaks out, your Gordon-Sleeper combo looks smart. If the sleeper flops, there’s a whole waiver wire and trade market to replace him. You can think of your two alternatives as this:

Injury prone, five category stud and a $1 question mark
-or-
Steady, three category asset and a slightly less questionable mark

You might not have needed that extra $8 to win your outfield sleeper, but you wanted it on hand just in case.

That’s still just garden variety bad. Every owner can go back through a draft and find areas where it would have been better to pay for the high quality asset over the chaff. There is a risk of this strategy cascading into a season-ruining disaster.

Occasionally, an owner goes into an auction draft way too timid and/or too obsessed with their sleeper targets. Mike Trout goes first for $52. Some dork nominates A.J. Ellis second and he goes for $2. Miguel Cabrera is nominated third and goes for $61! Andrew McCutchen takes home $47 (and who wouldn’t pay $5 to upgrade McCutchen to Trout). The early bidding is donkeypoop insane. Our hypothetical owner says to him/herself  “I shall reserve my dollars and buy up all the second tier guys and my sleepers.”

And then the second tier guys come around. The bidding intensifies. Three other owners had the same idea and realize they have to win bids now or risk fielding a pitiful team. Hunter Pence takes home $25 and Shelby Miller is bought for $24. Inflation is a bitch.

Now our subject has most of their budget and it’s the third tier. Guess what, all the other owners used up their budget. Yes, Shane Victorino is a bargain at $6, but he’s the best player on your roster. It’s nice that you got five closers for $20 total, but they’re the dregs and will probably hurt as much as they help. Worse, you have $100 that literally can’t be spent. At least you get your pick of the sleepers.

That story wasn’t a dramatization. I’ve watched it happen probably three or four times. Once, I barely avoided falling victim myself. In that same draft, I saw an owner leave with $182 of $310 unspent. I was left holding $30 and another owner had around $50 (it was a crazy draft).

I encourage fantasy owners to build out their list of sleepers. Just don’t become overly attached to those players. If you look too far ahead in the draft, you might miss the present values. And if you really screw up, it could be the end of your season.