I have participated in fantasy baseball drafts since way before the internet was a thing. We’d do our drafts with paper and pencil, and keep score during the season by adding up stats from the box scores in the newspaper. Needless to say, I’ve seen countless fantasy baseball drafts in my life over the past few decades and, thus, have seen countless types of owners.
It’s obvious that the best owners, time after time, are the ones that don’t panic once it gets later in the draft and the familiar names are off the board. These great owners are bummed when the draft ends because they still had a list of other deep sleepers they wanted.
There’s something to be said for dominating the latter half of the draft and finding those hidden gems. Some owners are prepared and some are not.
In my quest to become one of those great owners over a decade ago, I set out to create an unbiased system for finding the best sleepers for my fantasy team. That prompted me to come up with an early version of the system that was dubbed The Search For Narco (because a narcoleptic is even more sleepy than a sleeper, I cleverly thought at the time). From there, it evolved each year and has been a successful model for generating a list of quality sleepers to target. It’s a useful tool for me to win those later rounds of drafts.
The general idea of this system is that I have certain general benchmarks and criteria that I use to filter the draft pool and that gives me a list of names to target in the later rounds. They aren’t guaranteed locks but it is at least a list of about six to twelve players that are worth further analysis each year.
The players that this system identifies usually include a few that take big leaps forward during that sleeper season. Looking back on past years, here are some of the successful hitters from the Search for Narco (with the player’s increase in Average Draft position after that sleeper season noted):
- 2019 – Ramon Laureano (went from 226 ADP to 93 ADP), Jeff McNeil (307 to 96 ADP), Brandon Lowe (390 to 199 ADP)
- 2018 – Jesus Aguilar (from 537 to 80 ADP)
- 2017 – Andrew Benintendi (from 127 to 41 ADP), Byron Buxton (143 to 49 ADP), Domingo Santana (255 to 99 ADP)
- 2016 – Jonathan Villar (from 345 to 21 ADP), Jackie Bradley Jr. (319 to 145 ADP), Wil Myers (208 to 54 ADP)
- 2015 – Mookie Betts (from 113 to 18 ADP), David Peralta (395 to 114 ADP), A.J. Pollock (was 183 ADP, had a great season but was injured next year)
- 2014 – Charlie Blackmon (from 450 to 96 ADP), Yan Gomes (268 to 120 ADP), Kole Calhoun (215 to 79 ADP)
- 2013 – Matt Carpenter (from 375 to 56 ADP)
- 2012 – Paul Goldschmidt (from 168 to 49 ADP), Josh Reddick (386 to 167 ADP), Jason Kipnis (184 to 66 ADP), Allen Craig (322 to 56 ADP), Todd Frazier (450 to 178 ADP), Salvador Perez (316 to 140 ADP)
The system here is really designed to target players to fill your bench with and take a chance on. When I’ve analyzed my past success with this system, I’ve generally found that about two-thirds of the players that come up in this list (and actually play in the season) perform above expectations with about one-third greatly outperforming expectations. So, yes, there will be duds and there will be guys that just do so-so but if you fill up your bench with guys from this list, there’s a pretty decent chance that you’ll end up with some guys who catapult into your starting lineup and help your team.
The Method Behind My Sleeper System
When I constructed this system, I was basically looking for a way to find talented hitters that people didn’t have on their radar yet. In my mind, that meant players who hadn’t really played a full major league season yet so they didn’t have an easy stat line for people to analyze.
From there, I found other factors over the years that played into finding successful sleepers. For instance, if a player hadn’t played a full season but are still being drafted in the early rounds, they often fail to live up to that hype. I also found that older players getting a late start weren’t the best sleepers. So, I eventually settled on this as the first step in filtering my draft pool for sleepers:
- Less than 400 plate appearances last year
- Less than 900 career plate appearances going into this year
- 27 years old or younger
- Not being drafted in the Top 100 players
After those intial filters, I look for the most successful hitters in that group. To do so, I calculate a Fantasy Points Per Plate Appearance (FPPPA) stat based off weighting certain stats that are relevant for fantasy success. I then translate the FPPPA into z-scores to see how far above/below average each player was for that year (because the baseline FPPPA changes every year based on whether the ball is juiced or not). Within this group, I look for players that were at least 0.50 standard deviations above average in that FPPPA. This is my group of above-average hitters that could be primed to break out.
Who Meets the Criteria in 2020?
There have been years where I’ve done that filtering and only had a couple players qualify as potential sleepers. This is not one of those years. In 2020, we have 14 players who fell into the narco criteria. Six of them are in an easily draftable range with the rest being meant for deeper leagues or just players to watch during the season as a potential waiver wire pickups.
The Draftable Sleepers
- Tommy Edman (STL, 2B/3B) – 143 ADP
- Will Smith (LAD, C) – 154 ADP
- Willie Calhoun (TEX, OF) – 166 ADP
- Lourdes Gurriel Jr. (TOR, SS/OF) – 169 ADP
- Aristides Aquino (CIN, OF) – 170 ADP
- Brandon Lowe (TB, 2B) – 196 ADP
Tommy Edman is basically going to be a super utility player for the Cardinals, so his position eligibility may be intriguing. In a half season last year, he accumulated 11 HR, 15 SB and a .304 AVG so there’s a reason to be excited if he finds regular playing time. I do have some concern about whether his power is sustainable so I’d personally temper expectations on him but he becomes worth a gamble depending on how late he goes in your draft.
Will Smith hit 35 HRs in 466 PA last year between AAA and the majors. For a catcher, that is extremely appealing if he can keep that up over a full MLB season. He most likely projects to be a low-AVG, high-OBP hitter with big power, but he showed last year that he can hit for a decent AVG too. He’s certainly worth reaching for if his ADP stays around the 150th pick.
I am feeling really good about Willie Calhoun at his draft spot too. He is a power hitter that makes good contact and could offer up a .300 AVG and 30 HR season if all goes well. He also seems pretty firmly slotted into the starting LF position so playing time shouldn’t be an issue. I’m fully in on Calhoun and likely will have him on multiple teams of mine.
Across his entire MLB career, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has hit .279 with 31 HR over 606 PA. That’s basically a preview of what you could get out of a full season from the 26 year old. He even threw in 6 SB for fun last year too. Based on his minor league numbers, his contact and his power both seem real. I am feeling good about reaching for Gurriel here in the middle rounds.
The trade for Nick Castellanos muddies the waters for Aristides Aquino in the outfield of Cincinnati. He could even start the year in the minors. Not great news! If and when he works his way into the lineup, he projects to be a big power, low average type hitter (he hit 47 HR in 548 PA across AAA and MLB last year!). There’s certainly value in that type of hitter. We just don’t know yet what his role will be so keep your eye on the news out of Spring Training here.
Brandon Lowe was a late round, deep sleeper here last year. He did well in half a season but then ended his season early with an injury. The bad news is that he struggled mightily against left-handed pitchers and that may force him into a platoon situation this year. Steamer has him projected at a .247 AVG with 23 HR and 7 SB over 570 PA. I’m actually kind of worried he’ll reach that PA mark and, even so, he’s one of the least sexy sleeper names from this list to me.
When I queried my Twitter followers to see if any of these players jumped out to you, Lourdes Gurriel Jr. was the winner:
Out of these potential mid-round sleeper hitters, which of these would you be most excited to draft this year?
— Mr. Cheatsheet (@mrcheatsheet) February 25, 2020
So, the hivemind thinks he’s the best one to reach for out of this group. It could mean he’s the safest bet for success, but I also take that as a sign that means he may end up being snatched up earlier than his ADP in your draft. Adjust your strategy accordingly if you want him.
Sleepers for Deeper Drafts
- Austin Riley (ATL, 3B/OF) – 271 ADP
- Nick Solak (TEX, 3B/OF) – 303 ADP
Austin Riley is projected to be a big power hitter, but he’s only 22 years old and doesn’t have a solid starting role at the moment though. In a full season this year, I’d expect low AVG and good HR numbers from him. He’s certainly worth a gamble at his current draft spot. You just have to hope he gets regular playing time.
Nick Solak also doesn’t have a solid starting role this year. But, if he gets decent playing time, you can expect a high AVG hitter with decent power. An ideal season for him would project out to something like .285 AVG and 20 HR, but that’s being fairly optimistic about his playing time chances.
Players To Watch After Draft Day
- Dominic Smith (NYM, 1B/OF) – 437 ADP
- Clint Frazier (NYY, OF) – 456 ADP
- Reese McGuire (TOR, C) – 469 ADP
- Matt Beaty (LAD, 1B/OF) – 534 ADP
- Mike Ford (NYY, 1B/DH) – 549 ADP
- Jordan Luplow (CLE, OF) – 566 ADP
These are your super late-round targets in the deepest of leagues or, more likely, guys to keep an eye on throughout the season to see if they start to break out. All of these players are dealing with playing time issues and may be spending the year in the minors. Out of these names, Matt Beaty and Mike Ford seem most interesting to me if either finds himself in a place where he can play on a regular basis, as they both project to have good power and contact ability. In reality, any of these players should not be rostered in most leagues until they find themselves in a situation where they can play on a regular basis.
Luke is better known as Mr. Cheatsheet despite his last name not being Cheatsheet. He makes spreadsheets, writes blog posts and his rankings were in the top 10 accuracy among FantasyPros experts in 2014, 2016 and 2017. When he's not doing fantasy baseball things, he can be found playing board games or rating beer.