StrategyJanuary 23, 2013

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Keeper Decision Criteria, Part 2: Position Scarcity

By Scott Swanay

In Part 1 of this series I wrote about evaluating potential keepers by comparing their keeper cost for the upcoming season with their projected cost (if they were available in the player pool) and their projected fantasy value. In this article, I’ll continue the discussion by examining the importance of position scarcity as a second criterion for making your keeper decisions.

Since “position scarcity” is a frequently (mis)used term in the fantasy baseball community, I’ll start by offering my definition: it’s the comparison of the relative drop-off in expected fantasy value as you move from the higher-rated players at a given position to the lower-rated players at that same position. Positions such as second base, third base, shortstop and catcher currently have a faster drop-off in players’ fantasy values than positions like first base, outfield and pitcher. Thus, if you’re deciding between a player who plays one of the positions in the first group and a player who plays one of the positions in the second group, it generally makes more sense to go with the player who plays the position in the first group due to the greater opportunity cost associated with passing on that player.

Let’s look at a very simple example of applying position scarcity in a draft. Suppose that you and I are having a two-person, two-round snake draft during which we both need to select a pitcher and a catcher. Also suppose that players’ projected fantasy values are on a scale of 1-10 and that we both place the same value on each of the players. Finally, suppose that only the following four players are available: Justin Verlander (projected fantasy value of 10), Zack Greinke (9), John Jaso (4), and Francisco Cervelli (1).

Which player would you take if you had the first pick in our simplified snake draft? While it would certainly be tempting to take Verlander, since he has the highest projected fantasy value of the four players, the smarter decision would be to take Jaso, since the three-point drop-off between his value and Cervelli’s is greater than the one-point drop-off between Verlander’s value and Greinke’s. You would wind up with a team value of 13 (Greinke and Jaso), while I would wind up with a team value of 11 (Verlander and Cervelli).

Of course, in a real-life drafting scenario, we probably wouldn’t agree on every player’s fantasy value (unless we were blindly using the same source for player values), we’d have 10-16 teams in our league, and we’d have to fill a 15-40 man roster consisting of players at every position. Also, if we were participating in an auction instead of a draft, position scarcity is much less of a factor — if you lose out on the bidding for a given player, you can still bid for the next-best remaining player at that position (although you have little control over the order in which players are nominated, which isn’t always from most valuable to least valuable), providing you still have the funds to do so.

So, how does the concept of position scarcity apply to keeper decisions? After narrowing your list of potential keepers to those players whose fantasy value and cost if they were available this year exceeds the cost of keeping them this year, it also makes sense to consider position scarcity. Let’s look at three scenarios for a hypothetical 10-team AL-only league with the standard 14-hitter and 9-pitcher roster.

Auction League

Suppose you have a $260 team salary cap, you can keep just one player, and you’ve narrowed your decision down to Miguel Cabrera, who would cost $40 to keep and would probably go for $45 in this year’s auction, and Mike Trout, who would cost $12 to keep and would probably go for $40 in this year’s auction. The best third basemen who will be available for this year’s auction are Kyle Seager, Will Middlebrooks, Mike Moustakas and Brett Lawrie. The best outfielders who will be available are Austin Jackson, Jose Bautista, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson and Nelson Cruz.

While it would be easy to look at this scenario and keep Trout on the basis of his being a better keeper value than Cabrera, the principle of position scarcity in a vacuum would suggest that keeping Cabrera would be the wiser choice. What would I do? Since it’s an auction format, I would probably keep Trout and use part of the $28 “savings” (i.e., the difference between his anticipated auction price of $40 and his keeper price of $12) to overpay for Cabrera in this year’s auction. Of course, even if other owners have the same idea and I lose out on the auction for Cabrera, I could still use that savings to purchase players at other positions. For an auction, my goal is always to accumulate the most fantasy value I can for my $260, and in this scenario choosing Trout is more consistent with that goal.

Salary Cap Leagues with Assigned Player Salaries and a Draft

Suppose the same details as in the previous scenario, except that we know Cabrera’s and Trout’s assigned salaries for the upcoming season are $45 and $40, respectively. If there were no draft penalty associated with keeping a player, I’d still keep Trout because he represents a better value. If there were a draft penalty (e.g., if you keep a player, you lose your pick N rounds earlier than you drafted him last year), my choice would depend on the specifics of the penalty, but in all likelihood I would still keep Trout over Cabrera.

Draft Leagues with No Player Salaries

As with the previous scenario, the details of the draft penalty (if any) are important. First, let’s assume there is no draft penalty. If based on the league’s standings from last season, I’m “fortunate” enough to have the first pick in the draft, my keeper decision doesn’t matter, as I’d essentially get to keep both players. However, assuming that I don’t have the first pick, and in all likelihood the player I didn’t keep would be gone by the time my first-round pick came up, I’d opt for the player at the position with greater scarcity. In this case that position would be third base rather than the outfield, so I would keep Cabrera over Trout.

Next, let’s assume there is a penalty associated with my keeper decision (e.g., if you keep the player you picked in the first round last year, you forfeit this year’s first-round pick; otherwise, you forfeit your pick N rounds earlier than you drafted the player last year). In all likelihood, keeping Cabrera would cost me a first-round pick, while keeping Trout would cost me a pick in the mid-late rounds of the draft. In this case, I would keep Trout and plan to get a second-tier or third-tier third baseman in the draft, although probably not with a pick in the first few rounds of the draft.

Although I did so implicitly in the example I constructed above, in the final article in this series I’ll discuss the importance of anticipating which players the other owners in your league are going to keep.

Scott is a lifelong Yankees fan who saw Fritz Peterson (post wife-swap) beat Nolan Ryan in the first baseball game he went to. You can catch up with Scott in the Cafe Forums where he posts as The Sherpa. You can also follow his work at Fantasy Baseball Sherpa and follow him on Twitter (fantasy_sherpa).
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