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Best of BP: The FAAB Phenomenon

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Image credit: © Brett Davis – USA TODAY Sports

This article was originally published on May 25, 2023.

Every season there is a “FAAB phenomenon”. This is typically a one-time occurrence that fantasy analysts get excited about and insist is the latest and greatest trend in terms of high-end FAAB spending. One year the trend was big spending on rookie hitters. Another year it was closers. This year (so far) it has been rookie pitchers. 

There is frequently a level of analysis around these expensive, high-profile acquisitions that lacks the intellectual rigor of similar preseason analysis about salary cap draft dynamics. Part of this comes because the dynamics of a salary cap draft are simpler to explain. With rare exceptions, these drafts take place at a fixed point in time over the course of a few hours. It is possible a valuation altering event could happen during the draft, but even then, one significant change in circumstances won’t do much to alter your overall valuations or strategic imperatives. If you were drafting while Edwin Diaz got injured, it didn’t alter much outside of David Robertson and maybe Adam Ottavino’s draft cost.

FAAB is different and far more challenging to perform useful analysis on for a few reasons. Whereas the draft is a one-time event, each FAAB period is unique. A $150 winning bid in mid-July isn’t equal to a $150 winning bid in April. Every league is different as well, and while this applies to drafts at least in redraft leagues every team is generally pursuing the same group of players. With FAAB, if Brenton Doyle is grabbed in League A and unclaimed in League B, this alters the bidding dynamic and money spent the next week. And Doyle is one player. The combination of money that is (or isn’t) spent and the players who are (or aren’t) taken makes analyzing FAAB decision making challenging at best and nearly impossible at worst.

This week, I’m going to attempt the nearly impossible.

Using last year’s TGFBI FAAB data, let’s start by looking at the most expensive hitters taken.

Table 1: Most Successful FAAB Hitter Acquisitions, TGFBI 2022

The data from these tables are from my TGFBI FAAB Reviews from 2022, which included only the 10 most-acquired free agents every week. This eliminates outliers where a player was unexpectedly dropped in one league and picked up the following week. I also used data through the end of August only, as September FAAB tends to lend itself to acquisitions (and drops) that are extremely league specific.

Harris is the only hitter on Table 1 who was also Top 10 in terms of FAAB cost, and he didn’t even crack $100. Most of the best offensive acquisitions were cheap, costing under $20. You could have decided not to go over $100 on any hitter and done quite well for yourself in the average TGFBI bracket.

There isn’t much truth to the “it’s better to spend your money early” axiom either, at least in terms of return on investment. Drury was a great early addition, but he was also the fifth most expensive hitter in Week 5. Meanwhile, McCarthy and Segura both provided sneaky late value (yes, Segura and Ramirez both accrued some of those earnings before their acquisition dates).

Table 2: Most Successful FAAB Pitcher Acquisitions, TGFBI 2022

Something the most successful pitchers have in common with their offensive counterparts is they did not cost their fantasy managers a lot of FAAB. Only Bard cracked the top 10 in cost and at $74 was someone who hardly broke the bank. The rest of these pitchers were cheap (although slightly more expensive than the hitters) and you could have picked up seven of the 10 for less than five percent of your overall budget.

The most significant difference is that you had to get in early with these pitchers or risk not getting one. Felix Bautista was a double dip, as he was a common acquisition in Week 6 and once again a common acquisition in Week 17, but beyond that you need to scroll pretty far down the earnings rankings to find a “late” acquisition who returned positive value. Narrow this down to starting pitchers and it was even tougher sledding. Jesus Luzardo in Week 16 was the most successful late SP acquisition, and while his $4.40 in earnings was solid, it wasn’t anything close to a game-changer. 

Table 3: Most Expensive FAAB Hitter Acquisitions, TGFBI 2022

The negative earnings for these hitters aren’t quite correct, as it uses full-season, replacement-level value as a baseline. Grissom posted a .276 AVG with three home runs, 18 runs, 14 RBI, and four steals from August 15 until the end of the season. That’s not the sort of juice his fantasy managers were hoping for when they dropped triple-digit bids, but it also doesn’t speak to a negative earner. Grissom was fine, even though he was a disappointment relative to his FAAB cost.

That’s the bottom line with nearly all the hitters on this chart, excluding Harris and Miranda. Yes, Pasquantino was solid (he was the fifth best offensive first baseman from the time of his acquisition until the end of the season), but he had more real-life import than fantasy significance. It wasn’t his fault the Royals didn’t provide enough runs or RBI opportunities, but it certainly matters in calculating his value.

All these players were rookies or at the very least playing in their first full season. Harris was the lottery ticket that won, while the rest of these hitters were unsuccessful to varying degrees. Only Lewis can get a pass due to injury; everyone else didn’t get the job done from a fantasy perspective.

Table 4: Most Expensive FAAB Pitcher Acquisitions, TGFBI 2022

The mythology that hitters are better than pitchers extends to FAAB. There were more expensive FAAB buys who performed above replacement level among the arms (four) than there were among the bats (three). While there wasn’t an extremely successful starting pitcher among this group, I’m sure that Kirby and Cabrera managers weren’t upset about what they got, even if they were somewhat disappointed that neither pitcher saved their bacon.

The imperative among buyers once again hews toward rookie pitchers, although closers and would be closers have also entered the conversation. I’d argue that if you could only choose between spending big money on a rookie pitcher or a would-be closer you should select the closer. The downside is they don’t keep (or get) the job and you move on quickly. The rookie arms who fail damage our ERAs and WHIPs before we exit stage right.

So, the takeaway here is to spend less on rookies and more on established veterans, right?

This is the problem with this sort of analysis. You could spend more on experienced players, but if the market is hyper focused on whatever this year’s FAAB phenomenon is all you’ll be doing is overspending on players the market isn’t interested in. The right answer to “what, in hindsight, should I have spent on Tyler Anderson?” isn’t “whatever it took” but “one dollar more than the winning bid.” 

The other challenge with this type of analysis is that teams in different circumstances should have different FAAB strategies. If you have suffered multiple starting pitcher injuries and are hoping for an immediate boost, spending $200+ on a rookie pitcher might make sense. Or it might not make sense, but it won’t matter much if you are right or wrong because you are probably heading toward a losing finish anyway. If you are in contention and are more the victim of a handful of slow starts and not a slew of injuries, you’re better off tweaking your team on the margins and avoiding the risky rookies.

“Rookie pitchers are a flawed FAAB investment” is a correct statement but is also the wrong way of looking at this problem. The reason fantasy teams are bidding heavily on rookies is often because things went sideways and they need to roll the dice. Sometimes this is simply due to bad luck while other times there is truly bad process from the draft coming back to haunt us. Making this distinction and fixing this issue in the future is more vital than beating yourself up that a specific FAAB purchase or purchases didn’t go your way.

Thank you for reading

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