Chance Favors the Prepared Fantasy Baseball Mind: The all-time draft

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on October 26, 2011 @ 10:12:52 PDT

 


What do high stakes fantasy baseball players do during the World Series? A bunch of us are participating in "The All-Time Draft." Over at the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC) forum, we are having a contest where the winner gets an entry into next spring's NFBC Classic. The league uses standard 5x5 scoring with the normal 23 roster spots. The player pool is composed of everyone in Major League Baseball, starting in 1901. But here is the catch - you name the player and declare the season and that player and all other seasons are now off the board. If the player appeared for 20 games at more than one position, you can move him between positions, but once you declare a season, you are locked into that year. Another nuance is we are going to draft selected rounds "blind." That is, we are all going to send our picks for rounds 5, 10, 15 and 23 to an impartial third party. At the end of each blind round, the names of the 15 players will be revealed, but not the owner or the season. The purpose for this was originally to take the pressure off someone with one of the last few picks who was not going to win, but could in essence control who did. While this is still a primary reason, it was also decided that this would add a shroud of mystery to the draft to retain interest as well as add the wrinkle that while we have a feel for what each other is doing, there is a bit of uncertainty.

New York Yankees 3B Alex Rodriguez
A roto dream: A-Rod at SS

I was invited to participate in the league provided I serve as the spreadsheet bitch, tracking the standings and rosters. Fortunately, I already had an Excel program designed that could handle the festivities so I gladly accepted the invitation and began plotting my strategy. The first step was learning our draft position. The NFBC utilizes a concept they call the Kentucky Derby System (KDS), where you put in order your preferred picks. Names are drawn from a hat and the first name gets their top choice. This is the means horses and jockeys choose their gate in the Kentucky Derby, hence the name. I ended up smack dab in the middle, pick eight. I figured just like in a regular draft, the advantage of this spot is having the best chance not to miss out on a run with the disadvantage being not really able to initiate a run or strategically pair up picks.

While I readily admit my fantasy baseball life is an open book for anyone motivated enough to glean how I feel about the player pool and my favored strategies, I apologize but I am going to be a bit coy about my plan for this unique draft. After all, a free NFBC entry is on the line and these guys are good. That said, I have no qualms sharing my ranking system, but first I need to talk a little about rankings in general.

It is human nature to want to put a static number next to each player and say "Smith is better than Jones." If there was a single number that we could attach to each player that would accurately measure his value, we could in fact do this. But due to the rotisserie scoring system and hitting and pitching dynamic, this is not possible. Actually, the ratio nature of batting average, ERA and WHIP alone render it impossible to use a static number since ultimately, the value of the ratio stat depends on the number of at-bats or innings, which is not known until the end of the draft. It should be noted that this is not referring to the excess statistics you have over the team directly below you in each category - there is no accounting for this. The chief single number is really not an accurate means to rank the players as the individual category rankings depend upon one's strategy and that strategy may very well change as a result of the flow of the draft as well as the strategy of one's opponents and how that impacts the player pool. By means of example, if you decide to ignore or at minimum, not focus on a category like stolen bases, your value for steals is different than everyone else. In a league of this nature, this could even mean you not only value a player higher or lower than someone else, you value individual seasons from the same player differently. This phenomenon adds to the intrigue and attraction to this sort of exercise.

With that as a backdrop, here is a quick review of how I prepared my rankings to use as a guide. For hitters, to help keep my spreadsheet to a reasonable size, I only downloaded seasons of more than 450 at-bats, which I bet will turn out to be low, I could have set the filter higher but I wanted to make sure I captured seasons of hitters that walk a lot. For pitching, I only included seasons of 50 or more innings pitched, then did a quick filter to get rid of seasons with fewer than 150 innings with no saves. Again, the only reason for doing this was to keep the spreadsheet to a size that was manageable.

The next step was converting the ratios to a counting stat. I used the same formula I use for dollar value calculations, comparing the player's stat to a baseline stat then multiplying by the at-bats or innings. As suggested above, the setting of the baseline impacts the counting stat conversion, adding a degree of error to the number. I chose a batting average, ERA and WHIP worse than I expect the last place team in the respective categories to finish, minimizing the number of negative points earned.

Next, I set up a worksheet for each category and sorted by the roto stat I was scoring that time. Let us use homers as an example. Since there will be 210 hitters drafted, I found the top 210 home run seasons after deleting the non-leading seasons for every player. In other words, 210 different players comprise this list - it is not the top 210 home run seasons. I then made sure there were ample players of each position to fill the 15 rosters legally. Next, the total of these 210 stats was determined. The category value of each player was computed as (player stat) / (total of the pool) x 1,000. I chose 1,000 arbitrarily; it was selected because the final ranking of each player was a number easy to eyeball - not too big and not too small. This was done for all five categories, hitters and pitchers.

Long time readers of this space know I like to consider value over replacement and that is the next step. This is the same as value based drafting in football, you find the last player drafted at each position and subtract that number of points from everyone at the position. Middle infield, corner infield and utility add a little twist, which is part of the strategy I am going to omit since I believe it may end up to be integral to the final results (more on that later). The larger point is at the end of the day, I had a ranking sheet with exactly enough players to fill all 15 rosters in a legal manner. It must be reiterated that these are solely values in a vacuum and depending on my ultimate strategy, the relative positions could change. That said, the fact that I used 1,000 to normalize each category gives a major hint to my initial plan - BALANCE. Others are going to bulk up in some categories in lieu of others. At least initially, I want to give myself a chance to compete across the board.

The draft is underway and as mentioned, I am reticent to provide my complete thought process for each pick until the draft has concluded, so I apologize for that. With my first pick, I took Ty Cobb's 1911 season which caused a slight stir since he hit only eight homers, putting me way behind those who took a hitter first. But, I picked up 83 steals with a .420 average, but the best part was 147 runs and especially 127 RBI. Think about the high speed, low power players of today and find me one with that level of runs and RBI. Basically, because picking this season from the Georgia Peach will only put me behind in one category, I was willing to take the plunge feeling I can make up for lost power later, especially with a .420 average to use as a buffer. Next, I went with the 1997 campaign of Mike Piazza, adding 40 homers, 104 runs and 124 RBI. Without giving away too much, I did not have to jump Piazza up on my list because he is a catcher; he was my top non-outfielder hitter on the board at the time.

To whet your appetite, here are the first two rounds:

1.01 1921 Babe Ruth-OF
1.02 1908 Ed Walsh-P
1.03 1922 Rogers Hornsby-2B
1.04 1913 Walter Johnson-P
1.05 1908 Christy Mathewson-P
1.06 1904 Jack Chesbro-P
1.07 1915 Pete Alexander-P
1.08 1911 Ty Cobb-OF
1.09 1965 Sandy Koufax-P
1.10 1904 Joe McGinnity-P
1.11 1904 Rube Waddell-P
1.12 1931 Lou Gehrig-1B
1.13 1901 Nap Lajoie-2B
1.14 1968 Bob Gibson-P
1.15 1997 Larry Walker-OF

2.15 1932 Jimmie Foxx-1B
2.14 1930 Hack Wilson-OF
2.13 2001 Alex Rodriguez-SS
2.12 1930 Chuck Klein-OF
2.11 1976 Joe Morgan-2B
2.10 1909 Mordecai Brown-P
2.09 1930 Al Simmons-OF
2.08 1997 Mike Piazza-C
2.07 1998 Sammy Sosa-OF
2.06 2001 Barry Bonds-OF
2.05 1937 Joe DiMaggio-OF
2.04 1912 Smoky Joe Wood-P
2.03 1920 George Sisler-1B
2.02 1910 Jack Coombs-P
2.01 1930 Babe Herman-OF

In general, my belief is the winner of this unique setup is going to be the one who has a solid set of relative rankings, but more importantly, does the best job of gauging the flow of the draft to best know when to take hitting and when to take pitching as well as factoring in positional and categorical aspects. In other words, pretty much the same as regular drafts.

I am sure I will be providing updates on this draft from time to time, but please feel free to follow and even comment on the NFBC forums.

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About Todd Zola, MastersBall.com

Focusing primarily on the science of player valuation and game theory starting in 1997, Todd Zola and Mastersball carved out an important niche in the fantasy industry. In 2006, Todd became the Research Director for fantasybaseball.com, and in 2009, he relaunched Mastersball and is now a managing partner.

Todd competes in Tout Wars and the XFL, and has been a multiple-time league champion in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship. He has been a contributor to the fantasy content at MLB.com and SI.com, is a frequent guest on Sirius/XM and Blog Talk Radio and is an annual speaker at the spring and fall First Pitch Forum symposiums.

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