Drafting an outfield is intimidating. I consider myself a very good fantasy manager, but putting together even an average fantasy outfield has been my Achilles’ heel. Last year I finally stumbled into something resembling an elite outfield — I traded for Andrew McCutchen in the pre-season, grabbed up my man Ben Zobrist, took a chance on Alex Rios, and rotated hot bats in and out of my fourth spot (thank you, Nate McClouth) — but I have no faith in being able to repeat my success next year.
The difficulty with drafting outfielders, in my opinion at least, is that they come in all shapes and sizes. There’s too many of them to keep track of, and depending on how you draft bats in your infield you can either look for power in the outfield or rely on speed instead.
To help you plan your draft strategy for 2013, here are the three-year trends we’ve seen in the outfield. Each chart breaks down how outfielders have done in each of the 5×5 fantasy categories. Sections highlighted in green show where the position is trending up, and sections highlighted in pinkish-red (hey, it’s easier on the eyes!) show where the position is trending down.
The number of outfielders scoring 80+, 90+, and 100+ R has pretty much flat-lined over the last three years, but they get the green “trending up” distinction in the 100+ category because the rest of the league has been on the decline. Last year there were 148 players that recorded at least 500 PA, and 60 of them were classified as outfielders according to Fangraphs.com. That’s 40.5%, so it’s actually pretty impressive that outfielders consistently account for 50% or more of the league’s run totals above.
That’s a whole lotta green. The league as a whole has seen the number of players hitting 30+ and 35+ HR increase over the last three years, but the number of outfielders hitting those thresholds is increasing at a much faster rate. In just two years, the number of outfielders hitting 30+ HR has tripled. Last year over 50% of the players who hit at least 35 HR qualified as outfielders. Power at this position is really on the rise.
And as homers go, so do RBI. While there hasn’t been much change in the number of elite RBI producers compared to the league average, last year saw a nice jump in the number of outfielders who drove in 80+ and 90+ RBI.
That’s a whole lotta red (or pinkish-red). Stolen base output among outfielders has been on the decline, and while elite SB options are still primarily outfielders (8-of-11 players with 35+ SB qualified at outfield), the mid-tier options have become more scarce compared to the league average. It’s unusual to see both HR and SB be on the rise at a position, and because we know HR power has been more prevalent among outfielders, this trend for SB is not surprising. Remember, though, 40.5% of all players with 500 AB were outfielders and all of these percentages are well above that mark. SB are still widely found in the outfield even if they are trending down slightly.
Among the five fantasy categories, we’ve seen the green highlighted section appear among the elite numbers (100+ R, 35+ HR, 100+ RBI, 35+ SB, .300+ BA) a total of three times, and the only red/declining trend was with SB.
Outfield on the Rise
This tells me we’re seeing breakout of multi-talented offensive threats among outfielders, and the days of drafting SB-heavy outfield options may be a thing of the past. Several of the game’s top outfielders — Mike Trout, Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp, Carlos Gonzalez, Jason Heyward, McCutchen, and Justin Upton just to name seven — are also the game’s top fantasy options. Period. ESPN’s top 250 rankings rank four outfielders in their top five overall, so don’t pass on an outfielder in the first round just because there are a lot of other above average outfield options later on.
Yes, these players are elite outfielders, but they’re also elite players overall. Pass on them at your own peril.