Random thoughts on one-trick ponies, tradeability, and ‘value’by Derek Carty
December 15, 2009
Last month, fellow THT writer Derek Ambrosino wrote a couple of articles that spurred some debate in the comments (Approaching unconscious competence and One category roar, five category snore). I had some of my own thoughts on a few of the concepts and theories discussed and wanted to share them.
As some quick background, most of the discussion centered around the relative value of one-category players and players who are a little above replacement in all five categories but spectacular in none.
Drafting to trade
In the comment section of Derek A.’s first article, there was a little talk about drafting with the intent to trade. As a general rule of thumb, most fantasy analysts will warn against “drafting to trade.” Still, Derek A. argued that “the chances that somebody needs a 40-steal guy regardless of the rest of that player's (lack of) skill set (or at least feels that they need such a player) is probably higher than the likelihood that somebody feels they need a Garrett Anderson.” I think most of us would agree with this statement (I certainly do), so the question then becomes: “Should this be a consideration when we’re initially drafting our players?” My answer to this question is a definite “yes.”
A couple years ago, I discussed one of my favorite mixed-league strategies: that of drafting high-upside players late in the draft. This seems to be a very popular strategy these days, and I think the principles of the strategy are very closely related to our discussion on the trade value of one-category studs.
When we discuss “high-upside” players, we generally think about young, toolsy players who have a higher probability of significantly outperforming their projections than an established, 30-something-year-old veteran does. However, I don’t believe that upside must be constrained to pure production. Why shouldn’t potential future trade value be incorporated in the "upside" bucket? After all, it all leads to the same goal: winning. Whether that win comes as a result of your 20th-round pick hitting like a third-rounder or as a result of you trading your 20th-round speedster for a top-notch SP shouldn’t matter one ounce.
Value is dynamic
Another facet of the comment section discussion dealt with whether or not we should be drafting one-category players in the first place. Reader Andrew P. talked about how he disliked the idea of forgoing "more valuable” players in order to achieve balance by taking a one-trick pony. Not to pick on Andrew, but I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.
Value is a funny thing, in that it is never static. I think when a lot of people talk about draft-day value, they think of it in a vacuum—as a precise, static number—but this couldn’t be further from the case. Value is dynamic and is unique to every team at every pick.
If you print out a list of players and dollar values and take that to your draft, the truth of the matter is, those dollar values will only truly be accurate until the first pick of the draft is made. After players have been removed from the pool and/or added to your team, the value of the remaining players will change. It will change—even if only slightly—every single time a player is removed from the pool. Over the course of an entire draft, those values can change quite drastically, especially if you’ve overloaded on one category and are short in another.
Here’s an extreme example to ponder: Let’s say the ghost of Ricky Henderson (from his 130-steal season) is resurrected and you draft him. Then you add a 118-SB Lou Brock clone. With your next pick, your pre-draft cheat sheet may say that the 110-SB Vince Coleman impostor is the best player on the board, but in the context of your team (which now sports phantom Ricky and Lou), Vince Coleman is significantly less valuable.
Why? Because you don’t need those steals! You’ve got 250 under your belt already—quite possibly enough to win the category outright. So the value of the remaining steals in the player pool is essentially zero for your team. For some other team participating in the draft, Coleman will be very appealing. But for you, the relative value of steals is extremely low, in turn raising the relative value of all the other categories. And this happens every time a player is selected (just not as drastically)—supply changes, your team needs change, and thus, every player's value changes.
I actually just had a similar situation play out in a mock draft I participated in for USA Today’s preseason magazine. I ended up with Adam Dunn, Russell Branyan and Chris Davis on the power side and Michael Bourn, Nyjer Morgan and Luis Castillo on the average/steals side. Once you take a player who will contribute heavily to HRs and RBIs but little to average and steals, the relative value of HRs and RBIs to your team decreases, and the relative value of average and steals increases.
I ended up doing a lot of "balancing" in this draft. I put balancing in quotes because it’s a word that often gets used without full understanding of what it means or why/when it should be done. I wasn’t just taking these one-trick ponies because I felt I needed "balance" (something I don’t feel is necessary just for the sake of it); I was taking them because their relative value was higher to my team because of its current makeup at that point in the draft.
The tradeability of different players
My last point today deals with the ability to trade a one-trick pony versus a guy who will help out a little bit in each category. Derek A. used Melky Cabrera as an example of the latter, so I’ll continue using him. He posited that Melky would be a lot harder to trade than, say, Elvis Andrus or Scott Podsednik who have much of their value tied up in one category. I absolutely agree, but I have a couple ideas of my own as to why this is the case.
The first is a pretty obvious one (and one Derek A. touched on briefly). Midseason, teams are often looking to trade for categories as opposed to players. If acquiring one player can catapult your team three or four points in the standings, that’s going to be a lot more appealing than acquiring a player who merely helps in acquiring three or four points across several categories. It's a matter of leverage.
One other important consideration, though, is that in our 12-team mixed league example, players like Melky and Garrett Anderson are end-of-the-bench guys. They are the guys drafted in the last few rounds or taken off the waiver wire during the season. While opinions of the top players in the league rarely differ from owner-to-owner (I think we can all agree that Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury are worthy of a pick in the first few rounds), opinions of the guys taken at the end of draft differ greatly. One owner’s late-round bargain is viewed as should-be-waiver-wire-fodder by another owner.
Feel free to compare rankings between different sites and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Guys appearing in spots Nos. 248, 249 and 250 on one site’s list might not appear at all on another’s. Last year, Baseball HQ loved Mike Jacobs; I hated him. I loved Nyjer Morgan; my own readers hated him .
Opinions diverge greatly at the end of drafts, so if you’re the guy who owns Melky Cabrera, there’s a very good chance you like him more than anyone else in your league (this is true to an extent for all players you draft, but particularly among late-round selections). And if that’s the case, how are you going to get what you consider equal (or greater) value in a trade? While Melky’s worth is open to interpretation, Andrus’ ability to steal a base is much less so.
Further compounding this reality is something called the endowment effect—the tendency for people to overvalue or grow attached to what they already have. As a result of this, owners are going to be more likely to want to keep their own, unspectacular end-of-bench guys than to acquire yours.
Just some stuff to think about. I realize these ideas weren't completely related, but I think they were all worth putting out there. If anyone has any of their own thoughts or questions, feel free to comment.
Derek Carty, 23, has also been published by NBC's Rotoworld, Sports Illustrated, FOX Sports, and USA Today. This season, he'll be contributing to FanDuel and will be linking to all of his work at DerekCarty.com. In his three years competing in expert leagues, he has won 2 titles with 4 top three finishes, including a LABR NL title in 2009, making him the youngest person to ever win a major expert league title. Derek is a proud graduate of the MLB Scouting Bureau's Scout Development Program and is a firm believer in the importance of combining stats and scouting. He welcomes questions via e-mail, Facebook, or Twitter.
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