Consider Adrian Gonzalez. No doubt, he has been an impact player – both on the field and for fantasy owners – over the past three seasons. Gonzalez is sixth among first basemen in homers over that stretch, along with ranks of ninth in AVG, sixth in runs and sixth in RBIs. Now, with Gonzalez’s winter move to Boston, the possibilities appear endless. After averaging 35 HRs per season, could an escape from PETCO mean 50 homers? Could a cleanup spot in the stacked Red Sox lineup mean 120 RBI after an average of 106? Indeed, every available projection system suggests that the highly favorable situation for Gonzalez will increase his performance across the board, potentially making him one of the top three fantasy first basemen in the game.
Although Gonzalez’s situation is extreme – he’s leaving the hardest park for lefties in which to hit home runs for a relative bandbox and potentially the best lineup in baseball next season – he serves as a good example of just how much a player’s surroundings, specifically his home park and his teammates, impacts his fantasy performance.
Too often, the analysis of these effects on fantasy players begins and ends with blanket park factors for hitters and team win totals for pitchers. The truth is that each individual player will see a different impact in different situations. A deeper examination of the context that surrounds each player will show that there are far more factors at play.
We can examine the blanket effect of a ballpark by looking at the differences between a team’s wOBA and a team’s wRC+. Some of the effects are unsurprising – PETCO is death to hitters while Coors and Chase Fields are offensive boons. Others are less intuitive: despite being treated as a hitters nightmare, Seattle barely has any blanket effect. The Rogers Centre, responsible for a 30 HR season out of Aaron Hill and a 50 HR season out of Jose Bautista, surprisingly favors the pitcher.
For this reason, we introduce component park factors. Whether you use those at Statcorner.com (which I will use here) or Justin Merry’s at Beyond the Box Score, you can see the ways in which parks can impact individual hitters. When Alex Gonzalez was traded from the Toronto Blue Jays to the Atlanta Braves at last season’s trading deadline, he had notched 17 home runs. Toronto’s park factor for right-handed home runs is a robust 116; at the relatively spacious Turner Field, that number drops to 92. Unsurprisingly, then, Gonzalez only managed six home runs in the final two months of the season, well off his original pace.
Although the most popular use of these park factors is probably with analyzing home runs, we shouldn’t ignore their effects on the rest of a hitter’s line. Let’s continue to use Toronto as an example: although the relatively short fences let plenty of balls leave the yard, the resulting limited outfield space, along with the fast turf, leads to fewer balls falling in for hits. The Rogers Centre has a 93 park factor in singles for lefties and 92 for righties, which is a contributing factor to such low batting averages as Bautista’s .260 mark, Vernon Wells‘ .273 and Lyle Overbay‘s .243. These results, of course, work similarly with pitchers.
The other important aspect of surroundings is the player’s teammates. For starting pitchers, this effect is huge. Felix Hernandez‘s Cy Young season in 2010 perfectly illustrated how even the best starters will struggle mightily to win games. Yovani Gallardo can tell you how difficult it can be to get outs behind a defense as bad as Milwaukee’s, as can Zack Greinke with the poor Royals defense – both pitchers had ERAs over half a run higher than their ERAs in 2010. As it is easy to project team offenses and even team defenses to a certain level, these effects, as important as they are, are typically well recognized and exploited by fantasy owners.
For hitters, the effect of team might be less obvious. There are two key components to understand: First, the hitter’s slot in the lineup can have huge effects on his production in multiple ways. The most obvious may come from the role of the lineup slot. Leadoff hitters are prone to score more runs and fewer RBIs; heart-of-the-order hitters will have more RBIs due to the high volume of baserunners they see. The bottom of the order gets the short end of the stick, seeing fewer baserunners and with little power to knock them in.
Arguably more important, though, is the plate appearance effect of lineup slots. Over the course of a 162 game season, each lineup slot sees roughly 18 more plate appearances than the next. That could be as much as 3-5% of a player’s raw totals down the drain from just dropping one slot in the order. Other changes could be much more drastic. When Curtis Granderson dropped from 1st in the Tigers order to 7th and 8th with the Yankees, despite the far more favorable team and park situation, all of his raw totals dropped, both on an overall and per-game basis.
These all have to enter into your player valuations, although any reputable fantasy site should account for this kind of context in their rankings. But there are places where you should be able to use these surrounding effects to your advantage. If a draft is taking place directly after a trade or other move which drastically changes a player’s situation, his ADP likely won’t reflect his change in value. The best chance to capitalize on this inefficiency, though, is almost certainly through mid-season transactions. Selling players like Alex Gonzalez who are bound to take a hit in their new park and buying players like Adrian Gonzalez who move into favorable situations can allow you and your fantasy team to pick up surplus value. Especially in the hyper-competitive leagues that I expect Second Opinion readers will play in, these subtle differences can be the difference between making and missing the playoffs or the difference that propels a championship team.
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