Chance Favors the Prepared Fantasy Baseball Mind: Troy Tulowitzki and Scarcity

by Todd Zola, MastersBall.com on April 11, 2012 @ 08:58:18 PDT

 


Earlier this week, I polled my fellow Tout Warriors and asked that they define the term scarcity as it pertains to fantasy baseball and then discuss how they account for it in their drafting strategy. The results can be found in this week's edition of Lord Zola's Fantasy Baseball Roundtable, posted HERE. What follows is my take on the subject.

The purpose of this exercise was to illustrate how a single concept can be looked upon in so many ways. At the end of the day, no definition is right or wrong, though as will soon be elucidated, I do take issue with the means some choose to account for their perception of scarcity.

Detroit Tigers 3B Miguel Cabrera
Tulo can't match this man

As I alluded to in my wrap-up to the Roundtable, my first thought when it comes to scarcity is ensuring there are sufficient players in the draft-worthy pool to legally fill your league's rosters. The size of the draft-worthy pool is exactly as necessary to fill everyone's opening day active roster. In a 12-team league with 14 active hitters, the hitting draft-worthy pool contains 168 batter priced at $1 or more. The idea being if the entire player pool is ranked blindly, irrespective of position, there may not be enough players at some positions in the draft-worthy pool. According to my perception of the term, these positions are scarce and a pricing adjustment needs to be enacted. This adjustment is bottom-up, with the lowest ranked player at each position being assigned a value of $1 with everyone else scaled up in proportion to the expected percentage contribution. The draft-worthy pool now contains ample players at each position to legally fill everyone's roster.

As I suspected, there is a plethora of uses of the term "scarcity." Two that I sense existed were indeed confirmed in the Roundtable. The first has to do with the gap in talent between the top tier and the rest of the players in a positional pool while the second considers the relative talent in the positional pool as a whole. Obviously, I have always been aware of these scenarios, but I have never deemed it necessary to adjust my pricing because of it. I have always felt these were issues to be dealt with strategically. For what it is worth, I am not the only person with this conundrum as I recall fellow Tout Jeff Erickson from Rotowire blogging about this very topic.

As I have been thinking about where I want to take this next, I have concluded I can take it in any of a number of directions. But since I only have another 1,000 or so words before I lose your attention today, I will focus on one particular conundrum I have and save the rest for what will hopefully be some follow-up discussion or future essays.

My problem is I have a bunch of thoughts jumbled up in my head, and I am having a difficult time making sense of it all. Individually, each make sense to me, but collectively, I see some contradictions. To wit:

  • I understand player expected performance is best thought of as a range and thus the associated value we then place on a player is best thought of as a range.
  • I believe that it is reasonable that regardless of this range, we can still say Player A is ranked higher than Player B who is ranked higher than Player C.
  • I realize the big picture objective is to assimilate as much potential on your roster as possible, which at times means drafting a lower ranked or paying more for a lesser valued player - usually of the scarce variety.
  • I get that the draft or auction is only part of the process, there are still 26 weeks' worth of roster management ahead.

Here's the deal. I have no issue with the talent drop-off in some positions being thought of as a form of scarcity. If you want to play semantics, it can be said that the talent at the top of a pool is scarce. Where I take issue is the manner some choose to deal with this gap and that is to overdraft or overpay for players at those positions. To use a specific example apropos to this season's player pool, I question drafting Troy Tulowitzki in the top five or paying the same amount as Miguel CabreraRyan BraunMatt Kemp or Albert Pujols in an auction.

My reasoning is as follows. No one that champions taking Tulowitzki that high does so saying they feel the Rockies' shortstop will produce a raw stat line akin to Pujols, Cabrera, et al, but rather citing the huge talent gap before you get to the next tier of shortstops. The idea is the edge you have at the position over your competitors leads to an overall roster edge, which is the point I dispute.

Given that value or rank is a range and we don't know what will happen, overdrafting or overpaying is still an inefficient use of assets. I believe that while you will indeed have the best shortstop in the league, arguably by far, this does not aid in constructing the best roster, at least at the conclusion of the draft or auction, which ultimately may be the point I am missing .. MAYBE. We'll get to that in a moment.

The best way to explain this is to pretend we are not drafting dynamic potential and instead we are drafting fixed, static numbers. By taking Tulowitzki that early, you are leaving stats on the table that you WILL NOT be able to make up later. I'm sorry, but in a static environment, you won't. Your shortstop is better than my shortstop, but my roster is better than your roster because the difference between the player I get in the first round and my shortstop exceeds Tulowitzki and the player you get the same time I take my shortstop. The rest of the rounds can be a complete wash - I win because my first round guy has better stats than Tulo and my shortstop has the same stats as the guy you took when I took my shortstop.

Now let's remove the fixed stats constraint. As I explained, I understand all we are dealing with is potential, but I also explained that this potential can be ranked and I will leave the draft or auction with more POTENTIAL than the person who drafted Tulowitzki in the top few picks or paid very top dollar for him in an auction.

However, I am not willing to take the next step and proclaim that my potential TO WIN is any greater, though I obviously believe it is. Here is the point where "this is just the beginning of the process" kicks in. I am willing to cede that by the end of the season, because you have the best shortstop, you can POTENTIALLY have a better roster than mine if you use the next 26 weeks to gain an edge at some of the other positions. That is, if it ends up that all the other positions end up equal, you win because you have a better shortstop. If this is your reason for taking Tulo, I can accept that. I just don't like your odds of being able to pull this off.

One of the philosophies I have when assembling a team is there are some positions you draft an edge, there are some you work hard to gain an edge and there are some you just hope to break even. Actually, it is not just a positional consideration, but categorical as well. Depending on the depth and format of the league, I may choose to use the long season to embellish a light category such as steals or saves.

Examples of gaining an edge are considering spots like your corner, middle, utility and fifth outfielder to be fungible, and funnel players through those spots until you settle on a consistent, reliable performer, superior to the player you drafted or bought in the end game. The same principle can be applied to the back end of your pitching staff and closer, you work the waiver wire in an effort to upgrade those spots.

At the beginning of a snake draft, depending on my pick number and the picks prior to my selection, I will decide what positions I intend to draft an edge and which I hope to break even. Similarly, in an auction, after the first handful of nominations, based on the prices, I will make the same decision. But here's where I likely differ in philosophy from those proponents of the drop-off form of scarcity - my decision will involve not paying more than market value to accomplish both goals. That is, in order to gain my edge, I will not overpay or overdraft the player. I am simply not willing to leave potential on the table in the name of scarcity. I am completely comfortable that if I am patient, a player will be available to me at that position, at market value, sometime during the draft or auction.

As I suggested, there are a bunch of other big picture considerations. What position is most likely to produce undrafted useful players as the season progresses? What stats are most likely to be available? This all influences the intrinsic value of a player to your roster and may lead to a slight overpayment or overdrafting of a player to avoid the spots where the replacements are thin. This could even lead to tweaking the initial rank or value of each player to account for the fact that by season's end, the number of players that contribute value exceed that of the number assigned value in the draft-worthy pool.

But, and here is the key - it is going to take an awfully persuasive argument to convince me there are factors I have omitted that result in it being better to start the year with a roster with less potential value in an effort to end the season with more realized value. It is my contention that dealing with the drop-off form of scarcity by overdrafting or overpaying results in a roster with lesser value. Anything you say to convince why your team will be better than mine can all be 100% true. But I will still be able to say, "Yeah, but your team could have even been BETTER had you not drafted Tulowitski first overall."

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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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