Roundtable: why rank?

There was some discussion among the four staffers who compiled, over the last two weeks, the THT consensus rankings that top-200 lists and similar endeavors are pretty much dumb. Besides being wickedly tedious to put together, they don’t do much by way of providing context or personal preference in draft strategy, and—we’re guilty of this too—are thrown at readers among a mess of other top 200 lists.

So I set the THT staff out to discuss such rankings and share our opinions on the matter. For better transparency, and for better drafting, we do discuss.

Nick Fleder: I admit this may come across as slightly hypocritical, but during the compilation of our staff rankings, I recognized that there wasn’t a lot of love for top-200 lists, or even top-250 and top-300 lists, for that matter. Point being: the number is mostly arbitrary and requires a great deal of context that isn’t provided.

For example, my top 200 list may cater to how I play as a fantasy baller (never heard that one before, have you?): I may go pitching-heavy in my ranks, have shortstops top-heavy, and have relievers all in the 150-plus range because I simply don’t pay for saves.

Whatever my mindset may be, it’s certainly not supported by seemingly random rankings. It requires an in-depth, comprehensive write-up that would be not only tiresome to this author, but worthless to many readers who may then have to struggle with 15 different write-ups from 15 different sources that actually provide no consensus whatsoever but rather a vast jumbling of data to sift through.

Josh Shepardson: My biggest problem with the top-200 is the lack of context it comes with. A top-200 list is going to look much different for a two-catcher, corner-infielder, middle-infielder, five-outfielder league than one that starts one catcher, no backup infielders and only three outfielders (Yahoo! default).

It is also inherently silly. If I take my 12th-best player, and he’s a starting pitcher, and I come up on the clock again, and hey look, another starting pitcher tops my list, am I really going to go SP/SP in the first two rounds? Maybe, if it is some kind of strategy I’ve already planned on, but likely no.

Jeff Gross: Oh, boy. I could never rank my top 200. I have issues ranking 60 outfielders, and 100 starters is pushing it, too. THT Forecasts has a “more perfect” system that has billions of iterations and positional value adjustment, but here’s the quick and dirty Z-Score weighting system known as EYES.

Brad Johnson: I don’t really do snake drafts anymore, so rankings have very little impact on my approach to fantasy. I consider position rankings to be a basic sorting feature and will occasionally draft a guy who is two or more spots from the top at a specific position based on my team needs.

Given that I put little stock in positional rankings, it follows that I think big boards are nonsense. Your first couple of picks should come from the big board and your personal preferences. After that, you really ought to be building by team-specific needs such as position and category rather than whether or not Player X is 43rd-ranked and Player Y is 68th-ranked. If Player Y is better for your team, and you’re not very confident he’ll be available for your next pick, then select Player Y.

Mark Himmelstein: In previous years, have you noticed you have a penchant for finding anything in particular on the waiver wire? Saves, perhaps? Or maybe outfielders who steal bases? Or pitchers with a good ERA but modest strikeout rate? Then focus on other areas in the draft, even if you think Brian Wilson, Brett Gardner, or Doug Fister is the best player left on the board.

The converse of this is true, as well. If you’ve found yourself repeatedly struggling to patch a particular type of hole using the waiver wire, that may be an area you should give extra priority on draft day, even in spite of your own rankings.

Jeff Gross: I think the problem with rankings if they don’t indicate tiers. I internalize my valuations of players by tiers. There are “guys” who in my head are essentially fungible. That’s how I view them. I like the rankings simply because it requires you to organize your thoughts some. Being a rankings slave, however, is silly.

Nick Fleder: I would urge readers to ask their trusted experts—if you want to call us that—to explain their mindsets in their specific rankings rather than blindly trusting. If my style fits yours, then you may want to take my top 200 to heart and use it as a cheat-sheet of sorts, but don’t, by any means, trust any list over your gut.

This extends to a whole other side of drafting, one that Brad explained with the Player X and Player Y analogy: Do you feel comfortable taking someone way ahead of his Average Draft Position or rankings (the former often a byproduct of the latter, to a certain extent) if you really love ‘em? Would you dare make Dee Gordon a seventh-round pick if he goes, on average, in the 10th?

There’s a lot of strategy involved, and sometimes it takes a gutsy call—and don’t forget that if everyone is playing from the same field, you may actually use that fallacy to your advantage by saying, “Hell, if everyone’s gonna wait on a seventh-round player till the 10th, I can get some value in rounds seven to nine”—but as a general rule, cater to your gut rather than these rankings. Whew.

Brad Johnson: Then again, rankings were never meant for me. I have values for more than 500 players internalized. I can look at a sorted short list of names and pick the best one for my team without pause (okay, sometimes I need the full minute and a half to introspect). Rankings are for those who know the top 100 players and the guys on their favorite team but don’t pay attention to an entire league.

So your choice to put stock in any rankings comes down to this: How many player values have you internalized? Is it 100? 200? 500? The more players you can analyze in detail without consulting a stats page, the less you should worry about rankings.

Mark Himmelstein: While these lists can be enlightening to discuss, we are not simply betting on which players are going to perform the best in a vacuum. We are playing a dynamic game based on the outcomes of another dynamic game. We are making decisions that are based on previous decisions and which in turn will influence future decisions, all of which are mixing and mingling with 11 other people’s decisions.

That means strategy, tactics, creativity, self evaluation, evaluation of opponents and all that other fun stuff that’s really what makes fantasy baseball such a fascinating game. It also means too much precision can be a sin. Adaptivity and good judgment will trump precision nine times out of 10.

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  1. bohman said...

    i look at rankings as a sort of ‘reality check’.

    look for big swings and don’t mind the small stuff.

    thanks for the lists!

  2. philosofool said...

    I use a ranked list while I draft because I think it helps me keep track of what I’m doing by making it easy to refer to my thoughts going into the draft. I usually have a draft plan—guys I’m targeting for certain positions in later rounds, guys I want to get in the first few rounds in light of my fingers-crossed late round plans, and so on. But if everything goes to hell, I need something to act as a guide.

    Also, it’s really important to be able to abandon a draft plan if something crazy happens (like Pujols falls to you as the 12th pick in the first round). At that point, your plan to take Kershaw, or whatever, just goes out the window and your winging it. In this case, my rankings don’t serve as a plan so much as information to use while I try to bring everything together.

    Like Bohman, I like expert lists because they’re a reality check for me. When I like Gallardo better than Bumgarnder and *every single expert disagrees* I know what to do with my ranking.

  3. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I play in a 10 team keeper league that where we keep 3 position players and 3 pitchers.  I then rank the top 20-25 draftable players for BPA, then do the rest of the rankings and segregate them on my draft board by position, so if I am looking for, say a SS or pitcher at a certain point in the draft it is easy to locate them on by draft board.  This approach has worked quite well for me, although I am far from being a fantasy expert.

    In summary, I draft the first 2-3 rounds(I already have 6 keepers on the roster)by straight BPA, and then fill in the roster after that. I usually have 1 or 2 positions that I “punt” to the end of the draft if it looks like I can get a player that is close to a second tier player at the position at the end of the draft.

    I also generally draft pitching higher than others in my league which has helped me dominate pitching categories most of the time.

  4. DrBGiantsfan said...

    I play in a Yahoo league. I’ve always wondered what kind of a team I’d end up with if I just let it autodraft from the Yahoo rankings, but I’ve never had the guts to try it.

  5. Jeffrey Gross said...

    My overarching thought, besides not knowing that this internal conversation would eventually end up on the web, lol, is this:

    Don’t be a rankings slave. Rankings force you into some discipline and relative valuation, but what’s the real difference between a guy like Avila and Wieters? Is it enough that taking one over the other will break your team? Probably not. Winning fantasy is about an aggregation of value-conscious moves. More important than “who is ranked No. 12 versus 13 in your third baseman rankings” is the TIERS by position—where there is a clear drop in value, but not necessarily price. Look at the expected value per dollar and you’ll be fine. Sometimes, buying Pujols is a key to winnings, because it takes a whole lot of space to replicate that kind of production, but overall its about smart value-conscious moves. So do not fret about who is ranked 10 versus 11. Worry more about cost of 10 versus 11, and the drop is production between tier 2 and 3.

  6. Jeffrey Gross said...


    I might be the elephant in the room saying this, but i hate sabermetric-based fantasy competitions. There’s obviously still variation and prediction of breakout, but how much do walk rates fluctuate year to year? On the other hand, think of how volatile batting average is by comparison. The 5×5 stats are not perfect for real value approximation, but thats why they are so much fun in fantasy! It adds an additional layer of fun and challenge. RBI are the fun of fantasy. Why play a game that is 80% predetermined?

  7. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I think another point that’s important to mention – especially in the context of THT writers admitting they question the value of an exercise we just devoted many columns and days to – is that, as “experts” we write about both what we finding interesting personally as well as what we think might of interest to our readers (hopefully there’s a pretty overlapping Venn diagram to be drawn from that). But, we don’t always exactly know which of our opinions make for the best springboards of conversation. So, publishing these lists is a very efficient shorthand way of stating a lot of very short opinions. They’re all kind of like test balloons. It gives the readers a chance to drive the conversation because they can look at somebody’s list, compare it to their own opinion, and ask for a more in depth opinion from the writer.

    The lists are just a tool to prompt discussion, from our perspective. And, in that light, they are a very democratic tools because the column just creates a forum for fairly open discussion about any name mentioned within.

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