Thursday, February 27, 2014

Back to Basics: Draft Strategy 101 Part 3

The idea behind position scarcity is simple: the elite performers at thin positions get a boost in value because the gap between them and the rest of the guys at their position is larger than that of deeper positions like 1B, 2B, and OF.  Essentially, you are trying to get a leg up on your league-mates by being elite where they are not, and assuming you can still be strong enough elsewhere because of the depth of those other positions.  It is this idea that has kept guys like Robinson Cano and Troy Tulowitzki in the middle of the first round for so long when their numbers alone/injury history may not have always warranted it.



But should we really be looking to fill these thin positions with elite performers early?  Are these guys even good values where they are currently ranked?  How much weight should we actually give position scarcity when formulating our draft strategy?

Well, in short, no, not really, and not much.  Generally I believe position scarcity is overrated. We’re looking for the best numbers we can get, regardless of where they come from.  If we load up on scarce positions early then we will be left with middling options at the deeper positions, which is where the best numbers are usually found.  The first round is mostly filled with OF and CI because those guys have the most well-established, safest floors, while also maintaining some of the highest ceilings (especially for power) in the league.  So by attempting to get this leg up on our competition by filling thin positions early, we are actually doing our teams a disservice by not only increasing their risk but also limiting their potential upside.

In today’s fantasy baseball game, power is of the utmost importance. Power hitters generally produce in at least three categories automatically (HR, RBI, OPS), while contact guys (BA) and speed guys (SB) are only guaranteed to give you one.  Power is also harder to find than ever.  Last year, in fact, only 14 players hit at least 30 HR, and all of them qualified at 1B, 3B, or OF.  This year, 8 of those 14 players are being drafted in the first 4 rounds (3 if you leave out Jay Bruce), and the ones that aren’t come with (often severe) BA risk (Alvarez, Dunn, Trumbo, Soriano, Moss) or big-time cliff season risk (Ortiz).  So by eschewing these big power producers in favor of top-tier thin position guys early, you are putting yourself in a hole in the power categories, and all but guaranteeing that you will have to make other sacrifices to make up for the lost power later.

Draft Strategy Part 1
Draft Strategy Part 2
Part 4 - Misc.
This is no longer the PED-era of the early-2000s, there isn’t massive production everywhere on the diamond all throughout the league any more.  Everyone is going to have some weak spots in their fantasy lineups - there just aren’t enough great players to go around.  With that in mind, there’s nothing wrong with waiting (‘til double-digit rounds and beyond even) to fill your 2B, SS, or C spot.  Chances are most of the other teams in the league will be pretty weak there too.  With the limited supply of elite power available, you want to lock up as much of it as you possibly can early on.  The goal is to draft the best stats you can to give yourself a shot to win your league, not to have the lineup with the fewest holes in it.

(As proof that I actually believe in this concept of looking at numbers over positions early, check last year’s draft results at the end of the first installment of this series.  You will see I started the draft 3B-3B, with Miggy and Longo).

Obviously, this is not to say that we shouldn’t look at position at all when making our picks.  If I had gone 3B-3B-3B-3B then my 4th pick would have been a bench player, and that’s certainly not good draft strategy!  But I knew that my league (like many, many other leagues) has an IF spot and a UTIL spot, and that these spots count just as much as all the other ones.  This is important to remember, as I often see drafters waiting to fill their IF/OF/UTIL, etc spots until after they have filled the rest of their starting lineup.  These flex spots are just as important as the other spots (even more so sometimes, because they let us start an extra OF or CI) and, as such, we shouldn’t care if they get filled up before the other spots.  While this may slightly hamper our flexibility later in the draft, that’s a sacrifice we should gladly make to lock down as much big, safe production as we can.

Of course, we can’t just go on drafting corners and outfielders the whole time, eventually we’re going to have to fill out our lineups.  And some of the elite position scarcity guys have undergone various changes which may have affected their ADPs, possibly impacting their value relative to past seasons.  So let’s take an individual look at each of these thin positions, survey their landscapes, and figure out the best way to attack each one:

Shortstop


The top of the SS food chain is fraught with risk this year, whether it be injury-related or due to a lack of track record.  Tulo’s value has adjusted a bit to account for his injury-risk as he’s no longer a mid-first rounder, but he’s still too risky for my blood late-first/early-second.  Hanley Ramirez is the new Tulo: sure we love his upside, but he’s way too risky for the middle of the first round at this point in his career.  I’m not crazy about Reyes or Segura in the 3rd either, as Reyes could hurt himself eating breakfast, and Segura came out of nowhere last year then slashed .241/.268/.315 after the all-star break.  Ian Desmond is by far the best SS value in the early rounds, as he has established a pretty safe floor of about 20-20-.275, but I still think we can find better upside with that floor in round 4.  If he falls to the 5th, I’d have no problem taking the plunge.

The middle rounds start to bring about some SS values I can get behind.  Ben Zobrist has reached a point where his floor and position flexibility make him a solid value in rounds 7-8, even if his ceiling is a bit lower these days.  My favorite plan of attack at SS, however, is to target a couple particular category specialists between rounds 8-12.  If you’ve read this series up to this point, you can probably assume that most of my teams are loaded with power by now, but likely lacking in speed.  Enter Everth Cabrera, who has stolen 81 bases the last two years without reaching 400 ABs either season, and even showed the ability to hit for some average last year.  He can usually be had in the 8th round or later.  If things break the other way and I end up with some speed early, I’ll probably want a bit more power from my SS spot, and JJ Hardy is there to help.  He’s hit 77 HR the last three years (by far the most for a SS), while not killing you with a .256 BA over that span, and he’s usually around after the 12th round.

I’m not too interested in the other guys in this tier because they have either too low of a floor (Starlin, Andrelton, Alexei) or too defined and limited of a ceiling (Andrus, Asdrubal, Rollins, Alexei again).  Instead of considering one of these guys, why not wait another couple rounds and take a chance on the unknown upside of a Bogaerts or Profar?  Remember, once we reach this point in the draft we should be looking primarily at upside anyway, knowing that we can replace a guy fairly easily if he doesn’t pan out.

Second Base


2B is tricky this year.  While I like Dustin Pedroia’s floor in the mid-3rd, and Kipnis, though a bit inconsistent, has exhibited enough upside to be considered in the 3rd as well, many of us may not have a real good shot at these guys given our draft positions.  I am drafting 11th out of 12 in my most important league, and neither Pedroia nor Kipnis has been available at my third pick in any of the mock drafts I have done.  Beyond them, there are a few late-round options that present some decent value that I wouldn’t mind getting stuck with, but for the most part the rest of the 2B landscape is pretty uninspiring.  Therefore, I’ve been finding myself drawn more and more to Robinson Cano now that he’s fallen to the back of the first round, and can often even be had early-2nd (and obviously paired with another first-rounder).

We know that Cano is moving to a much more spacious ballpark and is going to be doing his hitting in a (presumably) less productive offense, but this guy has been the model of consistency with and average line of 99-28-103-5-.314 over the last five years, while never playing less than 159 games.  Those are elite numbers for any position, and a very safe floor, and he provides it all from 2B where arguably the least amount of total fantasy production comes from.  This has made him a perennial top-5 pick over the last few years, and rightfully so, but now the move to Seattle has him around the 1-2 turn and I think that’s a good value as the move will not have as big an impact on his fantasy value as many people think.  Last year, he hit 16 of his 27 jacks on the road while slashing .303/.366/.523, and stadium comparisons show that only one of his Yankee Stadium bombs wouldn’t have also left the yard in Seattle.  When he hits them, they’re leaving whatever park they started in.  Yes, there is still the risk of the unknown when it comes to a change in scenery (maybe he doesn’t mesh well in the locker room, maybe he just hates the city of Seattle for some reason, or whatever else), but I think the existing discount on him properly accounts for this, and I like him around the 1-2 turn paired with a real high-floor power guy like a Braun, Votto, Beltre, or Prince.

As I mentioned before, if you make it past the first few rounds without a 2B, you’ll be left with mostly sketchy options.  Carpenter was a steal last year, but it’s not usually smart to pay for a career year, and we can do better than 14 combined HR/SB in the 4th or 5th round.  Kinsler is on the decline and a BA risk, while still maintaining a pretty lofty price, and Altuve is too expensive for what he provides (get Everth a couple rounds later).  I do like Zobrist’s value, as I said under SS, and think Phillips and Hill are pretty cheap considering Phillips just had the first 100 RBI campaign of his career (that .706 OPS hurts though) and Hill is one of only probably three legit 25-HR threats at the position (Cano and Gyorko being the others).  Gyorko will struggle to hit .250 though, while not being much cheaper than Hill, and Prado and Kendrick just don’t provide enough counting stats to really make an impact.  I’d rather take Chase Utley, who showed he can still play when healthy last year, but I wouldn’t expect a full season from him and would make sure to get a decent backup.  Later on, Daniel Murphy seems like a good value based on his output last year and job security this year, and you have other real late upside options like Profar, Brad Miller, Anthony Rendon, and Brandon Dozier.

Catchers


You may have heard this before, but C is super deep this year.  Jason Castro, who hit .276 with 18 HR in 435 AB last year, is currently ranked outside the top 12 at the position, so pretty much everyone in your league will have a relatively useful option here.  On top of this, Catchers historically have finished as top-50 fantasy players extremely rarely, and even visits inside the top-100 are fairly infrequent.  Last year’s top C was Yadier Molina, ranked 87 overall, and only another 5 finished inside the top-200.  So we should never spend an early round pick on a C, because they almost never deliver that level of production, and this year that is truer than ever.  Posey and Mauer really only give us an advantage in BA, while being about average (last year even below-average) everywhere else.  Pass on these guys in favor of a Pujols, Holliday, Myers, Kemp kind of guy, and take your pick from the smorgasbord of C later.

Rosario and McCann are solid 20-HR bets available after the 10th round, and Sal Perez and Lucroy are decent Posey/Mauer imitations even a few rounds later.  Wieters seems to have plateaued, but he’s still just 27 and he hit 22 HR with 79 RBI last year.  Wilson Ramos was a monster while on the field last year, hitting .272 with 16 HR and 59 RBI in only 287 AB, and should be in line for a full season this year.  Similarly, Evan Gattis hit 21 HR with 65 RBI in only 354 AB, and should be the starter this year as well.  Both guys can be had around pick 200.  Even later, the likes of the aforementioned Castro and AJ Pierzynski should be reliable fantasy producers for us once again.

While floor is fairly easy to find at C this year, upside seems to be quite a bit rarer, but we get it at a pretty good value in Carlos Santana.  On average the fourth C taken, his overall rank is in the 90-100 range so he is often still available after the 8th round.  He has great on-base skills and raw power, is transitioning away from C this year to presumably stay healthy and fresh, and he’s still just 27 years old.  I’m predicting a 10-20% jump in production from him this year, which from last year’s 75-20-74-3-.268-.832 line would easily make him the top C in the game.

Third Base


3B isn’t exactly considered a thin position, mainly because of the quality at the top of its tiers, but I’ve found its depth to be questionable enough that it bears mentioning here.  Everyone beyond the second round is too expensive for their fleas, in my opinion.  Carpenter (4th round) is priced for little room for profit even if he comes close to last year’s career season.  Zimmerman (5th) and Sandoval (8th) are big time injury risks (I like Sandoval better given the price), while Machado (8th) is coming off a major injury less than five months ago, and still has slightly limited upside at this point anyway.  Alvarez (6th-7th) may hit .250 with 35-40 HR, but he may hit .220 which is a big category killer even if it’s accompanied by 30+ HR.  Donaldson (8th-9th) seems to be a pretty good value, but he’s not exactly proven, and Lawrie (9th) has large improvements already factored into his price tag, leaving little room for profit.  Outside the top 12 there are some decent values in guys like Seager, Gyorko (if you need power), Arenado, and Headley, and even deeper lottery tickets Middlebrooks, Frazier, Freese, and Rendon (not to mention Bogaerts and Profar, but they’ve more value as your 2B or SS), but you’d prefer not to have to rely on these guys as starters.  So my advice is to grab one of the top 5 guys (Miggy, Beltre, Encarnacion, Longoria, and Wright) in the first two rounds if at all possible.  They are safe, elite performers who are unlikely to disappoint, and should deliver numbers worthy of a second round pick (or 2nd overall pick, in Miggy’s case) anyway.

Closers


In our game (Roto scoring, 1250 IP-cap, usually 5 SP/2 RP), closers serve two purposes: to provide saves and to chip in on ratios and K/9 to help our starters provide the best 1250 IP possible.  One of these things, saves, the closer himself has relatively little control over.  When it comes to the saves category, all we should really consider is the closer’s grasp on the job, his ability to stay healthy and effective enough throughout the year to maintain that job, and the quality of his team vis-à-vis its ability to provide save opportunities.  When we look at Craig Kimbrel we shouldn’t see that he saved 50 games last year, we should see that he’s never missed time with injury, he’s absolutely nasty, and he has a very firm grip on the closing gig for a pretty strong Braves team.  Well, that and a 13.2 K/9 with ridiculous ratios.

Ks (and to a lesser extent, ratios), as with starters, are more predictable year to year for closers, so these are what we want to look at when considering which ones to draft.  Guys with massive K/9s (think 11.0+) can be invaluable in helping make up for some our lesser starter’s K/9s, and they usually come with great ratios that contribute to your bottom line as well.  If you had Greg Holland and Glen Perkins as your closers last year, in addition to 83 saves you got 180 K, a 1.74 ERA, and a 0.89 WHIP over 129.2 IP.  Even with only 4 wins, that is an excellent contribution to your final ratios, and 50 extra Ks you can add to your starters to get them closer to our target of 9.0 K/9.

Mentioning these two guys brings up an important point about closers: many of them will lose their jobs, and many who will end the year near the top of the position ranks will not start the season as the guaranteed closer or even as the closer at all.  Neither Holland nor Perkins were locked into the role back when we were drafting last year, and they were consequently drafted very late or not at all in some leagues.  So there’s always closers to find later by actively playing the waiver wire, and some of them will likely end up near the top of the ranks.

Because of this, I never advocate taking a closer in the first 10 rounds.  There is just too much hitting and starting pitching production to be had to pass it up for something that can be found later in the draft or for free in season.  Luckily, there were 12 guys last year with that elite K/9 I mentioned (11+), and another couple new closers who could plausibly approach that number, and many of them are available after the 10th round this year.  Perkins and Jason Grilli should be around then, and they are safe guys to build your fantasy bullpen around.  Guys like Balfour, Frieri, and Rodney are around even later, and provide that excellent K/9 we so covet (Frieri has been one of my favorite targets so far this year).  Rafael Soriano, David Robertson, Addison Reed, and Casey Janssen, while not quite as elite in Ks, have pretty solid grasps on their jobs and enough K upside to be good deals at their current prices.  And Veras, Parnell, Nate Jones, Axford, Neftali Feliz, Tommy Hunter, and Jesse Crain are very late options with solid K-rates and the first chance (with little competition) to lock down the job on their respective teams.  I expect most, if not all of them, to succeed, and provide RP1 stats from most teams’ RP2 spots.
If all else fails, look for guys with the best chance to get a shot at their team’s closer role, and pretty much ignore anyone with a K/9 south of about 8.0.

Remember, fantasy baseball is a game of compiling the best numbers, not necessarily putting together the best looking lineup 1-9.  Early on in drafts we should be getting the best stats we possibly can regardless of where they’re coming from, and not worry too much about filling out our lineups until a bit later.  There are a few examples where position scarcity guys are solid values (Robinson Cano this year, in my opinion), but this is generally the exception and not the rule.  There are often many interesting upside plays and category specialists available late to fill these thin positions, but there are very few safe power producers late if you passed on them early in the draft.  So don’t worry much about position scarcity when putting together your draft strategy, the best way to get that leg up on your competition is to draft the best fantasy production possible.



Thanks to everyone who’s been reading over the past month or so.  I’ll be taking a little break now while my fair city celebrates the festival of public drunkenness known as Mardi Gras, but I’ll be back in a couple weeks to wrap up this series and hopefully discuss a few more player values before draft season really kicks off.  In the meantime, follow me on Twitter at @RotoClayton to send me any fantasy related questions or comments you have.

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