Fantasy Baseball Roundtable: Defining scarcity

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on April 9, 2012 @ 12:35:02 PDT

 


We are going to do something a little bit different today. Fantasy baseball has its own vernacular, with most of the terms having a universally understood connotation or meaning. However, there is one term that is bandied about quite regularly that I am convinced is either misunderstood or for which everyone has their own personal meaning. My guess is the latter, so I decided to find out.

Minnesota Twins 2B Alexi Casilla
A warning for scarcity

The term is scarcity. Just about every description of one's strategy entails how one deals with the notion of scarcity. I have my own idea of what I feel scarcity entails in a fantasy baseball sense, and quite truthfully, it contradicts a lot of what I perceive to be the meaning intended by my fantasy brethren. As such, there was a time several years back where I would have used this space as a vehicle to decree everyone else wrong while my rendering of the word is of course, correct.

But I have matured as an analyst and no longer deem it necessary to be right all the time. Well, that's not exactly true. Better said, I have learned to accept there are multiple means of treating some situations, none of which are right or wrong, just different. I humbly believe that in some cases, my way is better, but I have discovered over the years it is counter-productive to claim it is the absolute best. Scarcity and its treatment is a perfect example.

As suggested, part of the problem is there is no single definition of the word scarcity. What we are going to do today is poll a group of the best fantasy analysts in an effort to get an appreciation for the varying opinions and approaches when it comes to handling scarcity. I will then comment on what we have learned in my standard round table wrap-up. Then, later this week I will share my personal feelings on the subject in my weekly column at Mastersball, which we will co-post here at KFFL for those interested.

There is no better collection of industry analysts than my fellow Tout Warriors, so I asked them for a moment of their time, posed this question and received the ensuing responses:

How do you define scarcity and how do you account for it in your drafts and auctions?

Glenn Colton (Rotoworld) and Rick Wolf (Full Moon Sports) - multiple time Tout Wars and LABR champions:

Scarcity exists when there is one or just a select few players at a position that are far more valuable than the remainder of the pack. In other words, scarcity is present and relevant when rostering one of the select few at a position means that you will have a distinct advantage in production over your competitors.

As to how we address scarcity, we evaluate each position and budget substantial dollars (or high picks) to the scarce position if and ONLY if the players in the top tier of the scarce position are reliable, the right age (approx 25-32), injury free this year, not recovering from a major injury from the year before and do not present a batting average drain. If the player is also on a good team, we are willing to push the budget that much further. Given these criteria, we would chase Joey Votto in an NL-only league but would pass on the big money it would take to roster the oft-injured (or at least often nicked up) Troy Tulowitzki.

That is it with a couple of minor adjustments: (1) the player has to also have had 1000 ABs. It is not really 3 yrs MLB experience ... it is 1000 AB which is usually 3 yrs experience for a young player; (2) Three positions are not included since players playing those positions get hurt a lot more than other positions: catcher, starting pitcher and closers. Sometimes we target particular players there, but do not weigh in scarcity.

Steve Gardner (USA Today) - defending National League Tour Wars champion:

To me, there are two different types of scarcity. The first kind is position scarcity. I look at this as the number of acceptable options at a given position in relation to the number of teams in the league. Each owner may have a different definition of "acceptable," such as someone who wants to have a top-tier catcher vs. someone who really doesn't care about filling that position until later in the draft. Similarly, there may be only three shortstops in the top tier, but ten more roughly equal ones in the next tier. Would that be considered a scarce position? Yes and no, depending on what strategy you choose to employ.

In Tout Wars AL and NL this year, we got a little lesson in how scarcity can change by the addition of the swingman roster spot. All of a sudden, owners weren't required to have the exact same roster composition. If one owner does something out of the ordinary and (cough, cough) happens to purchase four catchers, then the supply of available ones becomes even more scarce than anyone had expected. That usually forces people to either overpay to get those scarce resources or back away completely because the cost is too high.

The other type is category scarcity, which is mostly focused on counting stats. In general, there's a scarcity of top-tier home run hitters, base stealers and high-strikeout pitchers. Players who provide those stats usually command a high price ... and to get them, fantasy owners need to prepare to pay accordingly.

In general, I'm willing to go the extra dollar or reach in an earlier round for those players who can provide those valuable commodities. If they happen to address both position and category scarcity, then I'm even more interested. But the supply is always changing throughout a draft. The fewer the available options to address a team's particular needs, the more scarcity plays into draft decisions. The real goal is to find the sweet spot in the draft where you always have options ... and aren't forced into doing something because it's your only choice.

Derek Carty (Baseball Prospectus) - youngest LABR winner ever:

Position scarcity is all about opportunity cost. If I select this first baseman over this catcher, what catcher do I get stuck with later? What if I do the opposite? Comparing those gaps, we can get a sense of "position scarcity." The concept of position scarcity dovetails nicely with that of replacement level. If I keep passing over catchers, what's the absolute worst catcher I could possibly wind up with given my league parameters? What is the value of the 'replacement level' catcher? Once I know this, I can subtract this catcher's value from the value of all other catchers (then do this for every position), and I get player values that are position-adjusted. It's as simple as that.

Phil Hertz (Baseball HQ) - veteran NL Tout Warrior:

This year I chose to ignore scarcity. There's always crap at catchers and that didn't change. But, for someone who treads mostly in NL-only leagues, I couldn't really discern more scarcity in the middle than in the corners or the outfield - at least not enough to make me worry much about it.

Derek Van Riper (Rotowire) - veteran LABR and Tout Wars participant:

My condensed answer to your question is that I define scarcity categorically rather than by position. In most cases, I feel as though the premium prices required to address what other fantasy players (industry and non-industry) consider to be scarce positions ultimately hurts the final roster more than it helps. That is, the opportunity cost of a $20+ catcher and the resulting adjustments to spending elsewhere exceeds the opportunity cost of taking two cheap catchers and applying that share of the budget to positions with players capable of generating better numbers overall.

As we've seen over the last five years or so, the supply of home runs in the player pool has dwindled, which has ultimately shifted my strategy to attacking power early and often. While the supply of home runs has dropped, stolen bases have increased, making it easier to find them cheaply during the draft, or in-season on the waiver wire. If these trends continue and a larger percentage of the competition follows suit, it's almost certain that the "new market" will have a different inefficiency that can be exploited in some capacity.

Nando DiFino (CBS Sports) - Mixed Tout Wars participant:

I think scarcity is a totally subjective idea. I look at it like levels - where am I still able to get guys I like? For instance, in my Tout outfield this year, I have three $1 players who I am very fond of: Bryan LaHair, Alfonso Soriano, and Raul Ibanez. To someone else, they may be the results of scarcity; to me, they were sly sleepers in waiting who I knew I could get at the end, therefore allowing me to spend big on players I wanted at the start. I always have Plan B, C, D, E, and F ready to go - I approach drafts like there's a multiverse theory ahead of time - so scarcity isn't a huge issue for me if I'm prepared the right way.

Cory Schwartz (MLB.com) - NL Tout Wars veteran and multiple time NFBC league champion:

I define scarcity in two ways: first, how many players are available at this position that I would be willing to have on my team, compared to how many of those spots need to be filled overall? For instance, in a 15-team mixed league we need at least 75 outfielders, but there are probably only 50-60 who are actually worthwhile and/or desirable, so I consider outfield a scarce position. Second, what is the replacement value at the position, and what is the likelihood of getting a useful player at this position if I need to fill it during the season? This is the more "traditional" view of scarcity, because it points out the lack of depth at the middle infielder positions and, of course, at catcher. I try to address scarcity by having balanced teams, so I don't need to overspend (on draft day, in trade or in free agent bidding) to fill any holes that arise during the season. This allows me, as often as possible I hope, to take a "best available" approach towards free agent and/or trade acquisitions.

Dean Peterson (STATS Inc.) - Tout Wars veteran:

The short simple definition I would have is "Less than 15% of players available at a position for a certain value"

In case that doesn't make much sense, let me put it this way. If I were looking for players for say $20 or more of value, and with a 12 team league, there are 2 or less catchers that fit, than that I would say the catcher position is scarce. I would also drop that down to say $10 players, etc. as you progress through the draft.

I think the term has grown over the years to refer to great value players at a position. It's not that the position is scarce, as there is still the same number of them, but more of how many are there at the position for the price you are looking for.

Nick Minnix (KFFL) - Tout Wars and LABR participant:

OK, so scarcity is essentially an economics term. A resource is scarce if it's more in demand there is a supply, basically. In fantasy baseball, the resource is players, although it depends on how you define them before they become scarce, so it's probably misused in roto. There are always players available, so to use a subjective term to demonstrate how I (and most people) view scarcity in roto, I'll call them ... "useful players." The term doesn't really matter, I guess, if I recall from my Econ100 days, since I could call the resource "crappy players," and if I say they're in demand, then they're what we'll assess the market for. But I'm a long way from reaching tenure (and probably will be with lessons like that).

Houston Astros RP Brett Myers
Applies to closers, too

Useful players are considered scarce at certain positions and therefore evaporate more quickly at a draft or go for more money in an auction than they do useful players that play other positions, where they're not considered scarce. (It annoys me when people call a position "scarce," since that's not what is scarce, but I probably do it without thinking, too, so never mind). What I kind of noticed (but didn't think about until Todd asked this question) in doing projections this year was that, for the most part, scarcity doesn't seem to be present, at least in mixed leagues. In AL or NL leagues, the case is probably stronger, but it seems like the distribution of useful players is somewhat similar - similar enough that there's no need to emphasize it in a draft, I'd guess. Of course, this is based on our projections, not on what will actually happen.

To approach useful players as if that were the case (there's not much in the way of scarcity of them in a fantasy baseball draft), statistically, probably gives you the best chance to come up with a winner. I tend to be much more subjective than that, based on my comfort level with players because of my or others' assessments of them. I'm sure that's the case for most people, although I'd guess that I do so much more than other people do. I end up with pockets within tiers, not just tiers, where I target players. Some folks think of getting players who fill stats, but I do take more of a player-centric approach. It's a lot more about comfort, and predictability, for me. I tend to fill my infield in the first third of a draft, but that's because I'm often not comfortable with some of the infielders available later. Some of them will surprise, but I'm usually most confident in my evaluations of ignored outfielders (don't ask me why).

Mike Gianella (Roto Think Tank) - NL Tout Warrior:

For me, scarcity is when there is too little of a commodity and too many owners chasing that commodity. It typically happens in keeper leagues when - as an example - a lot of closers or middle infielders are kept and the prices get driven up for the remaining players at the position.

The best thing to do to combat scarcity is to try and make trades in the offseason to get players at a scarce position or category. Overpaying slightly in a trade is far better than overpaying a lot at auction. Is this fails, the next step is to adjust your bids so that you decide where your price point to obtain a scarce commodity ... and where the price is that you'll let go. Paying extra to get a closer is a good idea. Paying $40 to get Brett Myers is not. While it is optimal to compete in 10 categories and/or field a balanced team, your primary goal is to win your league. Try to come up with prices or a draft strategy that puts you in this position. Pay a little more for scarcity, but don't overpay.

Tim Heaney (KFFL) - Mixed Tout Wars veteran:

My economics proficiency admittedly is ... let's say not of professorial levels. And while, obviously, you need some level of competence in analyzing numbers and their context, I take less of a mathematical approach than most other analysts.

Regardless, here are my two cents. Scarcity, in black and white, stems from a simple numbers game. Just like are there enough healthy orange harvests to fulfill the frozen orange juice quotas ("Trading Places," anyone?), there are, on the surface, enough healthy real-life baseball players to satisfy fake roster requirements.

Fantasy baseball scarcity is, essentially, qualified, and these classifications institute those elusive shades of grey. Sure, there are enough first basemen in the major leagues to fill starting fantasy lineups, but there's a palpable drop-off in statistics offered from the Miguel Cabrera tier to the James Loney tier.

Often, you chase talent in mono leagues and plug in holes wherever with playing time. In mixed leagues, though, you can manipulate your defined positional market more effectively. Outfielders are easily replaceable and insurable, which could in some views make the elite options there more worthwhile investments, but they'll also comprise most waiver wire lists, leaving those in need of infield aid scraping for help with some ugly names.

Though the catcher lot has the least offensive security, their preprogrammed schedules for time off, more frequent on the whole than infielders and outfielders, strips value on their returns even before the season starts. (The few that buck this trend are usually inflated in price.)

It's scarcity of useful players in stratified tiers. And, in terms of position requirements, infielders present more urgency to fill with a top-flight option than outfielders. As I noted in a recent blog outlining my FIRST strategy, getting a head-start on the most secure options at the bases and shortstop will leave you with more margin for error in your outfield, which has more readily helpful replacements.

My scarcity centers on the player pool, not statistics. Knowing your league's roster vulnerabilities will eventually put the numbers on your team anyway.

Mike Siano (MLB.com) - Long-time AL Tout Warrior:

Scarcity to me is a position where the longer you wait to address it the more you will hate the player you get and wish you went sooner. Scarcity is the anti-best available even though sometimes the best player available is a MI, OF or CL. I would have added 3B but with Miguel Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez getting added it is tough to kill the position. In mixed leagues I think it is a little easier to address since when you draft in the first five rounds some of the best players are second basemen and outfielders anyway but my general rule is first five picks will have a 2B,SS,OF,OF and C. Doesn't always go that way but I aim for it. In auction is where it gets dangerous since the bottom tier players at a scarce position go for ridiculous prices. I cringe at the Alexi Casilla price so I go get Asdrubal Cabrera or Derek Jeter to avoid not only hating a player I have but adding insult to it by grossly overpaying for him.

Larry Schechter (Sandlot Shrink) - 3-time Mixed Tout and defending AL Tout Wars champion:

I think position scarcity is a myth, except a bit for catchers.

Lawr Michaels (Mastersball.com): LABR veteran and multiple-time AL Tout Wars champion:

To me scarce is simple: third base, second base, shortstop, and closer are scarce. That is because there are only 30 starters at each spot in the major leagues, while there are 90 outfielders and 150 starting pitchers in theory.

Of course there are only 30 first basemen, but, first base runs deeper with power and stats than do second, third, and short. And, though catcher is similarly slim, there are a lot of mid-level catchers that can help you through the season. And for some reason, that same scenario does not hold true with the rest of the infield.

Closers, similarly, are lean, which is why I really like to have two of them on every team, for my riches mean someone else's drought of statistics.

Lord Zola's Wrap Up

Just what I expected - there is indeed a vast scope of viewpoints. For what it's worth, my personal take is most like Derek Carty's and Larry Schechter's, but I have learned to accept there are multiple meanings and approach things much like Tim Heaney.

By means of reminder, I will expand on this in great detail later this week, but if asked for my nuts and bolts definition of scarcity, it would be the number of eligible players at each position in the draft-worthy pool. Given this is muddied by players with multiple eligibilities as well we the roster positions of middle and corner infield and utility, the draft-worthy pool should be priced or ranked to consist of ample players to fill everyone's roster in a legal manner. For example, in a 12-team league starting two catchers, there have to be 24 catchers with a price of $1 or more in the draft-worthy pool.

If you treat the player pool without considering positions and rank everyone solely on their anticipated production, then total up the numbers of players at each position, those positions devoid of draft-worthy players are in my mind, scarce. In short, the way I deal with this is as Carty suggested, mathematically by making the lowest player at each spot to be worth $1, then scaling upward. When you do this, you discover, as Schechter suggests, that the lowest ranked player at each position have, to some, surprisingly, similar stats. There is little or no adjustment necessary, expect at catcher, to properly set the draft-worthy pool. What this does is price exact same stat line different for player of different positions, but that's perfectly OK. You should only be assigning value to stats that everyone else does not have so while the value assigned to 15 homers from a catcher may be different than 15 homers from an outfielder, the value assigned to a useful homer - that above the lowest hit per position, is the same.

As you can see, this is a rather objective, mathematical approach to scarcity. I suspected and have now confirmed there are other notions of the concept. Some of my industry brethren look at scarcity as a dearth of talent at the top of a positional pool, denoted by a large drop in talent, and consider those positions scarce. Others look at the talent at the position in general and if the overall potential is weak, that is a scarce position. Some don't even look at the quality, and just focus on the quantity available of each position with regards to what is needed to fill everyone's roster. For some, the term transcends positional considerations and delves into statistical inefficiencies.

For those hoping for a decided moral to the story, you will leave disappointed. As alluded to initially, there is no right or wrong. We all have what we feel might be better or worse. It is this better or worse that I will broach as a follow up to today's rather unorthodox roundtable. Before I go, I would like to extend a hearty thanks to those sharing their views and perspectives. And if I am allowed to go kayfabe for a minute and eschew this Lord Zola character, how cool is it that I can send out an e-mail and get so many wonderful responses from such a great group of guys?

Todd is the Content Manager for the Mastersball Platinum Subscription product, featuring frequently updated player projections, values, rankings and profiles along with unique Excel tools, Minor League rankings and cutting edge strategy essays. Click HERE for details.

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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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