2021 Fantasy Baseball Sleeper Hitters (The Search For Narco)

You’ve undoubtedly read many posts about potential fantasy baseball sleepers during your draft preparation. This is another one of those posts.

That being said, this is a little bit different than your standard sleeper post.

When I first started researching fantasy baseball, I found myself in love with the process because of the math that accompanies it and how it can all fit together so nicely. I found that baseball is full of independent events so it lends itself to analysis better than most sports. Instead of trying to become the best scout who can break down batter mechanics, I found myself wanting to be the best at understanding the numbers behind the game so I could crack the code of which players were worth gambling on.

That’s where my sleeper system was born.

It’s a data-driven system that sets various benchmarks for players and it coldly tells me who is destined to break out this season based on that data. I don’t tell the system what to do; the system tells me what to do. It gives me the names and I dive in deeper to analyze them. I trust the system even when it surprises me with the results at times. I trust the system because it has worked for me year after year and has found some of my best draft picks during that time.

Let’s take a look at what the system tells me in 2021.


Wait, What’s A Narco?

Oh, right.

When I was dreaming up this site in 2008, I had come up with the early version of this system. As a bit of a joke, I had wanted to have a snappy moniker for my sleeper picks. I enlisted the help of my trusty friend Russ* and he told me that narcoleptics are the sleepiest sleepers of all so maybe “narcos” would be a cool name for my sleepers.

Russ was right. I started calling my sleepers by that name instantly and have stuck with it for over a decade. Here we are many in the year 2021 and I’m still doing it.

*Fun fact for long-time readers of this site: Russ was once known as Mrs. Cheatsheet in an old podcast that we did together here.


What’s This Sleeper System All About?

The system started because I wanted to find lesser-known players that weren’t widely-known yet but seemed capable of breaking out. I envisioned young players that played a partial season in the year prior, did great in that time but weren’t getting draft love yet because they didn’t have a long history of success.

I’ve worked on and tweaked the system over the years based on my research and findings. That has led me to create various filters before I even start my calculations. I had to modify some of my usual filters this year because last year was a shortened season but this is how I filtered the list for 2021. Eligible players must:

  • Have had less than 150 plate appearances last year
  • Have had less than 650 career plate appearances going into this year
  • Be 27 years old or younger
  • Not be drafted in the Top 100 players this year

That gives me a smaller pool of players, to begin with. Within that grouping, I calculate a Fantasy Points Per Plate Appearance (FPPPA) stat based on weighting certain stats that are relevant for fantasy success. That doesn’t tell me what I need though. The relative success of hitters can change in a given year due to the rise and fall of offense across the league. So, I take another step of translating that FPPPA into z-scores to see how far above/below average each player was for that year. From there, I look for players that were at least 0.50 standard deviations above league average in that FPPPA stat. This is my group of hitters with above-average production. These are my narcos.


What Kind Of Sleepers Has It Found In The Past?

Historically, this system usually finds anywhere from six to twelve players in a given year to take a look at. From that group, a third of them end up taking a significant leap forward and being drafted much higher the following year. Aside from significant leaps forward, two-thirds of the players at least outperform expectations after being selected as a sleeper. It’s not a sure-fire system, but a system that has a 33% success rate of finding impactful later-round picks ain’t bad at all.

For the 2020 narcos, it’s hard to fully judge their success due to the shortened season. For instance, some players were on the list like Will Smith, Tommy Edman, and Austin Riley that had decent seasons but maybe didn’t take the full jump we had hoped. There were also definite successes in last year’s group with Dominic Smith breaking out as well as Clint Frazier, Brandon Lowe, and Lourdes Gurriel Jr.

To look at the full list of successful narco picks from the past, here are the players that took a big jump forward after being selected as narco hitter (with the player’s increase in Average Draft Position noted):

  • 2020 – Lourdes Gurriel Jr (went from 169 ADP to 92 ADP), Brandon Lowe (199 to 69 ADP), Nick Solak (303 to 194 ADP), Dominic Smith (437 to 114 ADP), Clint Frazier (456 to 181 ADP)
  • 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)

Who Meets the Criteria in 2021?

When doing the calculations for this year, I had wondered if I’d get too many names because of the weird shortened season last year. Thankfully, the fact that I normalize the data ahead of time made it so that it fell in line with my normal, expected amount of names. There are ten hitters on the list this year and three bonus hitters that I’m throwing on for a laugh at the end.

The Draftable Sleepers

  • Will Smith (LAD, C, 26 years old) – 104 ADP
  • Ke’Bryan Hayes (PIT, 3B, 24 years old) – 139 ADP
  • Ryan Mountcastle (BAL, OF/1B, 24 years old) – 156 ADP
  • Jared Walsh (LAA, 1B, 27 years old) – 207 ADP

Will Smith has made the list again. This tends to happen sometimes and I mostly take it as a good sign. For instance, Brandon Lowe was on the list two years in a row as he jumped from 390 ADP to 199 ADP to 69 ADP this year. Will Smith had hit 35 HRs between AAA and the MLB back in 2019 and that power continued to show last season. On top of that, he improved upon his contact rate and was able to raise his AVG and OBP last year. It’s all trending towards a big season that should move Will Smith firmly into the Top 100 players in the years ahead. (Edit: Dave Roberts is saying that Will Smith will only start about 90 games this year. That makes him less intriguing, I must say.)

Ke’Bryan Hayes dazzled with a .376/.442/.682 slash line last year so it’s no wonder he made it through my filters. Hayes wasn’t a beast at the minor league level but he was rising the prospect lists for a while heading into last season because of his raw ability. The advanced numbers show that Hayes should continue to hit for a good AVG but his power numbers may regress a bit. But, hey, he’s a full-time starter in Pittsburgh and certainly could be a player who hits 20+ HR with 10+ SB and a good AVG. That’s worth gambling on at his point in the draft.

I had been excited about Ryan Mountcastle going into last season after he smashed 25 HR with a .312 AVG in AAA the year prior. In just 35 games last year, he continued with that sort of production as he had a .333/.386/.492 slash line. Mountcastle is a better fit for a DH role but he will have 1B eligibility for this year at least. If you draft Mountcastle, you’re looking at a guy with potential for 30 HR and a decent .280 AVG to go along with it. He won’t get you steals or much else but he can hit.

Jared Walsh hits dingers. He hit 44 of them in 652 PA during his time in AAA. In the majors last year, that sort of power continued as he hit 9 HR in 108 PA. The projections seem to think Walsh will regress quite a bit this year and that his strikeout rate will rise and his contact will drop. That’s the worry, of course. The fact is that he will get most of the starts at 1B for the Angels and he certainly has the potential to hit 30+ HRs if he is in a full-time role. It will be up to him to take advantage of his starts and keep himself in a full-time role though. With your 200th pick in the draft, it’s the type of gamble worth taking.


Sleepers for Deeper Drafts

  • Willi Castro (DET, SS/3B, 23 years old) – 260 ADP
  • Bobby Dalbec (BOS, 1B, 25 years old) – 284 ADP
  • Rowdy Tellez (TOR, 1B, 26 years old) – 297 ADP
  • Nate Lowe (TEX, 1B, 25 years old) – 339 ADP
  • Edwin Rios (LAD, 3B, 26 years old) – 346 ADP

This is the part of the sleeper list where the players have true flaws and represent gambles. These are the darts we throw during our draft and just hope that one of them hits.

Willi Castro hit for .349 last year but had a 27% strikeout rate and a .448 BABIP. That batting average is going to fall. We all know that. But, there’s hope. He traditionally hit near .300 during most of the minor leagues with a high BABIP and strikeout rate. If we are to put on rose-colored glasses, the best case result for Castro this year is a .280 AVG with 15 HR and 10+ SB. He has the ability for that. He is slotted to play SS and hit third for the Tigers so the opportunity is there if you want to take the gamble.

Bobby Dalbec was Boston’s #3 prospect coming into this year and he’s already been hot during Spring Training as he’s hit 5 HRs in 27 ABs (including two grand slams). This may cause his draft stock to rise as he will be the #9 hitter and Boston’s starting 1B this season. The power certainly seems to be real as he his 32 and 27 HRs in his 2018 and 2019 minor league seasons respectively. Despite hitting .263 in his 23 games last year, he is more likely to be a hitter with good power but a low AVG and a decent OBP. If we’re dreaming big, I’d say 30+ HRs, .240 AVG and .370 OBP would be our dream this year for Bobby.

The only thing holding back Rowdy Tellez is playing time. He’s likely to get time at DH but Vlad Guerrero Jr has the 1B position locked up. Tellez has already tallied 609 PAs in the majors and hit 33 HR with a .250 AVG during that time and you could expect similar numbers in a full season from him. In addition, he’s seemingly adapting to pro ball as he massively cut his strikeout rate and raised his walk rate in 2020. He’s had a rough spring but Tellez is worth stashing on your bench at the very least to see if he earns consistent playing time in Toronto.

Both Nate Lowe and Edwin Rios represent the biggest gambles here. Nate Lowe is getting a fresh start in Texas where he is slated to get a lot of playing time. His prospect reports have always tabbed him as an elite hitter with no speed. In a perfect world, he would put it all together this year and hit .280 with 25+ HR. That’s the dream there.

For Edwin Rios, the issue is that he has no starting spot. He slugged 35 HR in 500 PA in 2019 between the minors and majors with a .270 AVG. He continued to hit for power last season with 8 HR in 83 PA. As with many of the hitters in this tier, he could hit for a lot of power with a low AVG if he had a full-time role this season. Given his uncertain situation, you likely won’t draft Rios unless you’re in a deeper league. He’s one to watch though in case any playing time opens up for him.


Players To Watch After Draft Day

  • Mike Brosseau (TB, 1B/2B/3B, 27 years old) – 496 ADP
  • *Jacob Nottingham (MIL, C, 25 years old) – 739 ADP
  • *Brett Phillips (TB, OF, 26 years old) – 749 ADP
  • *Sam Haggerty (SEA, OF, 26 years old) – 768 ADP

The only player in this tier who is actually qualified to be a narco is Mike Brosseau. If he is able to get regular playing time, he’s a guy that should be able to produce 25+ HR in a full season. He has no path to playing time at the moment though. The other three names on the list are the ultimate dart throws as they had under 60 PA last season so normally wouldn’t qualify for this list but last year was a weird season so I included them for fun. They will not be on my teams but maybe you’re in a league that goes deep enough that they’re worth a closer look.

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