This isn’t fantasy baseball, Joe

When dismissing the skills or impact of a player with an impressive statistical profile, mainstream baseball pundits often like to quip: “This isn’t fantasy baseball.” Such an inane rambling is usually followed by some nebulously baseball-relevant and platitudinal comment indicating David Eckstein’s superiority to Adam Dunn, to take an arbitrary example. (These commentators fail to realize that indomitable will to achieve mediocrity is a category in my league, and that Darren Erstad is also kicker-eligible in my fantasy football league.) Though it is true that some players are more valuable assets to a fantasy team than they are to an actual baseball, this door swings both ways.

The mainstream media often acts like we fantasy junkies are the only ones beholden to stats. However, it wasn’t the fantasy community who clamored for Jimmy Rollins to be chosen as the 2007 NL MVP, when he posted an OBP only .01 above the league average. It wasn’t us swooning over his 20-20-20-20 season, ignoring the fact that he made 527 outs in the process of compiling those numbers. It’s not only us who are gaga for numbers; the mainstream baseball community and its pundits are too. Further, I’d attest that most astute fantasy players know more about statistical analysis than the average mainstream pundit and therefore are savvy enough to appreciate a player’s common baseball card numbers for what they are, and attach no greater significance to them than they merit.

We know what a 40-40 season from Alfonso Soriano is worth in our game. We know that many of players’ real faults are beneficial to their fantasy value. Soriano, for example, was never anything resembling a top 10 player in the actual, physical sport of baseball. This was something I never debated, even as I drafted him multiple times in the first round of drafts in the early to mid-2000s. High-level fantasy players are very smart and we are able to recognize disparities in player values in various arenas. We understand that fantasy and reality is not an apples to apples translation.

We know that Ichiro’s unwillingness to walk helps add even greater weight to his stellar batting average. We know that Jimmy Rollins and Soriano can pad their counting stats by not taking walks (though they might be able to make up for that value by stealing more bases and scoring more runs if they did). Therefore, Jimmy Rollins is an elite, top 15-ish fantasy baseball player, or was so going into last season. However, Jimmy Rollins is not really that good.

Even in his MVP season, Jimmy Rollins was not, by any means, one of the 15 best players in baseball; he was the second-best middle infielder on his team, and the second- or third-best shortstop in his own division. However, Rollins is not the type of player who is the target of the “this is not fantasy baseball” criticisms. (Those criticisms are usually reserved for high-slugging, high-OBP players who hit below .280.) Quite the opposite, Jimmy Rollins is the subject of endless hagiography by the mainstream baseball press. So, the next time you’re hanging with Joe Morgan and he tells you what a great ballplayer Jimmy Rollins is, you should calmly remark to Little Joe that “this is not fantasy baseball.”

I didn’t just write this whole preamble simply to imply that mainstream baseball pundits are often blowhards who don’t know much at all about how players actually accrue “value” and to advertise the superior knowledge of people like you and me. OK, maybe I did. But, I’m supposed to make the columns somehow practically relevant to your fantasy experience, so let me attempt to do that.

The hype surrounding a player, even for fantasy purposes, is not created in a vacuum. Even a fantasy columnist is subject to the unavoidable swell of opinions about players and their abilities. Most of these interpretations are not in the context of fantasy baseball, and are not based on statistically sound analysis. A player’s popularity and reputation is something that affects many draft decisions. And, even if you are astute enough to minimize its impact, it may affect your league mates. Few phenomena are more exploitable in fantasy sports than the gap between perception and reality. And, contrary to the proclamations by many of the baseball talking heads, in my anecdotal opinion, often it is actually the same players who are overrated and underrated by them who are overrated and underrated in terms of, say, ADP.

The over- or under-valuing of players often plays out in terms of archetype.

The following is a woefully incomplete list of some of the things that go into a player being overrated, offensively only. Some are relevant to fantasy baseball and some aren’t.

  • High batting average, low on-base skills
  • “Exciting” player, often top-of–the-order type
  • Alleged grittiness
  • Alleged clutchi-ness
  • Impressive pseudo-individual counting stats (runs, RBI)
  • Achievement of arbitrary round milestone totals in statistical categories. (Q: What does it mean to have 20 doubles, 20 triples, and 20 homers? A: No much that can’t be gleaned by simply looking at slugging percentage!)
  • Being undersized and white (sorry, it just can’t be left off the list)

The following is the inverse list, an incomplete list of either undervalued offensive traits or traits that are perceived as being more hurtful to a player’s value than they really are.

  • Lower batting average, superior on base skills
  • High strikeout totals
  • More impressive home run totals than RBI totals
  • Being very good in many areas valued by traditionalists, but not elite in any of them
  • Patience perceived as passivity

If you start to think about the players that fit these respective lists, you’ll probably reach the realization that many of the players who fit the first list are actually often overdrafted in your fantasy leagues: Ichiro, Rollins, Jeter (underperformed ADP several years before last year’s resurgence), perhaps Jacoby Ellsbury in the near future. Many of the players who fit the second list are often bargains: Adam Dunn, Bobby Abreu, Nick Markakis (disappointed a bit last year, but has that unsexy, yet valuable game).

I see a few valuable ways to use this information. Least relevant to fantasy baseball, but perhaps most personally gratifying, you can paraphrase this argument to debunk baseless potshots from traditionalists as projections of their own biases and simultaneous statistical fascination and illiteracy. … Look at us; we love non-meaningful, arbitrarily selected, round numbers!

In terms of budgeting, either by dollar bid or draft position, looking at the player’s archetype (along with overall popularity) can often give insight into whom you can lowball and whom you may have to be willing to reach a bit for. If you have calculated actual dollar values of rankings, perhaps you might want to mentally add or subtract 10% from those values to get a more accurate view of the actual market. You want to avoid putting yourself in a position where you need to acquire a skill set that is overvalued by the market, but sometimes you can’t avoid it, especially when it comes to star players. It’s easier to build your supporting cast on the cheap than it is to get bargains on the high-ticket players.

Another important skill this concept relates to is being able to view the fantasy advisory industry though the looking glass. Since we are generally sabermetrically oriented, but also aware that the currency of fantasy leagues isn’t Win Shares Above Bench, we’re probably equally likely to miss by over-predicting the production of a Chris Davis as we are to over-predict an Alexei Ramirez. We have to engage in something of a two-step process where we try to determine the core competency of a player in terms of value, and then extrapolate that into the less sound signifiers and juggle overlapping but differing ontologies (as long as we’re talking about archetypes, we might as well through around some semiotic terms, right…)

Your individual leagues are all microcosms of this larger dynamic, in which various streams of external opinion mix with self-possessed knowledge to form an ecosystem of perception and value. In fantasy baseball, the profits are always most easily made on the disparity between the market value of a commodity and the actual value of that commodity (either objectively, or in the specific context of your team). The fact that teams have equal financial/opportunistic resources mitigates the potential for an owner who surmises these gaps incorrectly to compensate for that. Therefore, it is important to determine patterns relating to how your leagues value different skill sets and players, as well as to find out where your league mates get their information. Some fantasy sites are big and influential enough that they themselves can begin to create echo chambers for their perceptions. One thing that’s great about THT is that you get highly regarded expert opinion, but it is still niche enough that every single one of your league mates isn’t reading the same exact articles. (Though they should be, gosh darn it!)

To sample the tried and true feeding/teaching proverb, it is more valuable to know how your opponent thinks in general, than it is to know what he thinks about any given issue. In the economy that is fantasy baseball, only knowledge that is predictive in nature has any long-term value.

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Comments

  1. Andrew P said...

    I like the cut of your jib.

    Then again, I wonder if your article couldn’t be summed up in two sentences:

    1.  Many baseball commentators don’t know their wife from Jimmy Rollins (sexy at first, great legs and you learn to eventually live with the flaws).
    2.  Exploit market inefficiencies.

    On the other hand (I’ve apparently got at least 3 hands), any general fantasy strategy article can be summed up by exploiting market inefficiencies.

  2. Greg Simons said...

    This is grammatical nitpicking, but sometimes it’s necessary.

    You said “we might as well through around…”  Several times in last few months – and twice in baseball-related articles! – I’ve seen “threw” spelled as “through.”  (You have your verb tense wrong, as an added bonus.)

    I’m sorry to pick on you, Derek, as I imagine this was but a minor brain hiccup, but seeing this misspelling is quite surprising to me, especially in the context of baseball, where “throw” and “threw” are used with such frequency.

    Grammar rant over.

  3. BS said...

    Well, I don’t disagree with the gist of the article, but I do have to defend Jimmy Rollins a little bit here.

    I’m not really commenting on whether or not J-Roll’s season was MVP worthy (it was consideration-worthy IMO, but I would’ve given it to Utley). But if you go by Fangraph’s WAR, J-Roll was indeed a top 15 player during his MVP season (#11). He may not have been the top-15 “best” whatever that means, but value-wise, he was top-15.

    Also, he wasn’t the best IF on his team, but it’s not like he was surrounded by a bunch of league average players. Being 2nd to a legitimate top-5 guy like Utley is no shame.

  4. Pat said...

    I know you were focusing on Rollin’s offensive numbers, but I believe a major reason he won the MVP that year was his excellent defense (watching him flame-throw to first is a sight to see) and his leadership skills. These attributes should factor into a MVP award.

  5. Derek Ambrosino said...

    First, my apologies re: the grammar issues. I could offer an excuse like, I was pressed for time and didn’t proof sufficiently, but that doesn’t change anything. Subpar writing undermines the lucidity of even the most profound thoughts (I think, I’ve yet to actually have one), so I hear ya, Greg.

    BS,

    Rollins was merely an example; he’s very much the poster boy for the “stats don’t mean anything, this guy is awesome – I mean, look at his stats” problem. By different numbers, he was or was not a top 15 player. By WAR he was 11th. By Win Shares he was (three-way) tied for 14th. Switch that two WSAB and he was outside the top 30. Personally, I would have voted for David Wright who also happened to be an absolute beast down the stretch (for what it’s worth), even though the team around him folded like a Trapper Keeper.

    Andrew P.,

    Shh.. Don’t expose my secret, you three-handed freak! Yeah, I take two points that could be covered in a paragraph and write 2,000 words about them. It worked for Mark Twain and the Jumping Frog of Caleveras County. (And, damn it, I need whiskey money too!)

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