by Howard Bender
One of the things that I've learned in my years of fantasy sports participation is that, in order to be successful, you have to follow the trends of the game. The face of baseball has changed dramatically over the last three decades and in order to build yourself a strong, well-balanced team, you need to see what changes are occurring each year. It's how you learn what rotisserie categories are at a premium and which ones you can fill for cheap. For example, throughout the 80's, home runs were at a serious premium. It was much more of a speed game back then, as evidenced by the fact that from 1981-89, there were only 10 players that hit 40 dingers or more. 10 players in total over a 9 year span -- and that's with 4 of them doing it in 1987 alone. If you were building a fantasy squad back then, if you wanted to win categories like home runs and RBI, you were paying a pretty steep price for those guys.
But then the 90's came along and the face of the game was changing. From 1990-95, there were a total of 17 players who topped the 40 HR plateau, and in just 1996, there were 17 alone. Welcome to the Steroids Era. Welcome to "chicks digging the long ball." Suddenly home runs were everywhere and you didn't need to pay so high a price to get yourself a quality masher or two. I certainly can't remember anyone paying top dollar for Ellis Burks or Brady Anderson back then. Stolen bases, on the other hand, were not so easy to come by. Gone were the days when you had someone swiping 80+ bags in a season; the price you paid to win that category was enormous.
Then came the drug testing, the accusations, and the Mitchell report. Baseball was tired of watching the gargantuans like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire making a mockery of both pitchers and the game, and steps were taken to eliminate the juicing. Mandatory "random" testing was implemented and the titans that were stepping into the batter's box were being brought back to the mortal level. We haven't completely turned the corner, but we're getting close. Last season, while only 2 players topped the 40 HR mark, you still had 26 guys cracking 30 or more. Baby steps.
So what does that mean for your fantasy squad? Yup. That's right. You guessed it. Time to start opening up those wallets a little more come draft day. But don't worry. It's not too bad just yet. You'll definitely have to pay a premium price for the consistent top mashers out there, but you'll also be able to find your Ryan Ludwicks, your Jack Custs and your Aubrey Huffs for cheap on a year to year basis. The bargains can definitely be found late in the draft. Careful though. The investment in a premium power power guy or two is definitely a wise one. Finding the cheap mashers isn't easy and you definitely don't want to be on the short end of the power supply these days.
So if home runs are on the decline, does that mean that stolen bases are on the rise? Pretty much. You're always going to have your small handfull of guys who top the 50 SB barrier that will cost a pretty penny, but last year 16 players swiped 30 or more bases; 37 in total had a minimum of 20. Cheap steals can be had all over the place. And while it's always wise to go with full time players for your active roster, you don't necessarily have to all of the time. If you're looking for a boost in stolen bases, sometimes a lot of part-timers can help you out too. Last year, Rajai Davis had 29 swipes with just 219 at bats, Joey Gathright had 21 with just 279, and even Red Sox platooner Coco Crisp had 20. None of these guys were probably picked higher than the 15th round and none of them could have cost double digit funds in auctions.
So when guys are plucking Willy Taveras and Jacoby Ellsbury too early, be patient. You can wait a little bit and grab yourself someone like Shane Victorino or Carlos Gomez. Hell, you can wait and grab Michael Bourn in the middle rounds if you can surround him with enough higher batting average guys to counter his shortcomings. I love him, but he's the Adam Dunn of stolen bases.
Either way, you're much better off using your higher picks on the power hitters and the premium pitchers. Save the middle to late rounds to fill your stolen base needs and finish balancing your team after that. And if you really play it smart, some of those mashers you grab up top will give you a little speed too. Times are changing. Make sure you stay current.
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Howard Bender is a freelance fantasy sports writer and former champion in both rotisserie and head to head leagues. For questions, thoughts or comments you can email him at Howard.Rotobuzz@yahoo.com