When a cigar is not just a cigar

Jonathan Halket’s recent column has emboldened me. I have something of a rant to let loose as well, also aimed at “fantasy gurus.” Actually, this isn’t so much of a rant as it is a piece of advice to those who may read the results of all-“expert” drafts. So, heed the following sentence.

Internal politics and self-interest are involved in making picks in drafts whose results will be published on well-trafficked fantasy baseball sites.

Now, I want to make it very clear that I am not accusing any of these people of colluding, deliberately misleading their readerships, or any overtly conspiratorial behavior. What I am saying is simply that correctly identifying breakouts is seen as the type of accomplishment on which fantasy guru reputations are staked and grown in the mainstream fantasy community. Sensibly drafting a team of boring, but solidly matched and reliable veterans is not seen as sexy. Nobody exhibits a palpable aura of excitement when landing Bobby Abreu in their fantasy draft (except me, I love owning Abreu). For this reason, you will see many young, burgeoning stars, or stars-to-be get over-drafted in these all-expert leagues. Yet, this is something that people don’t seem to acknowledge in any meaningful way.

I remember watching a preview of the 2005 season in which a roundtable of pundits were making their MVP predictions. When it came to the AL, the usual suspects were thrown out there, Manny Ramirez, Alex Rodriguez and so forth. Then, one guy nominated, in seeming sincerity, Bobby Crosby. Crosby was coming off of a Rookie of the Year season and appeared to have a bright future ahead. But, nobody could have truly thought of him as a viable MVP candidate.

Most astute observers don’t think anything of these instances. Personally, I figured the show’s producers had stipulated that one of the non-sacred pundits had to throw out a highly controversial, and somewhat unrealistic nomination just to drive discussion and for the purposes of saying something that everybody watching at home didn’t already know. That’s par for the course after all.

When a fantasy guru publishes the results of a draft in which he drafts Alexei Ramirez with something like the 35th pick in the draft, he’s not doing quite the same thing as the Crosby nominator, and it’s certainly not as choreographed and premeditated, but he is, to some degree, “making a statement.” In fact, he’s likely doing two things.

The first thing he’s likely doing is putting his money where his mouth is. He’s likely talked up this player in the run up to draft time, and he’s showing his readership that he truly believes. That’s laudable in theory, but often the guru has stretched to get the player in question, which gives a false impression of that player’s value (and maybe even that guru’s level of expectation for that player).

The second thing he may be doing—and this is the dangerous one—is falling victim to the experts’ echo chamber. Every year there are a few darlings of the “expert” community. For some reason that maybe Malcolm Gladwell can explain, but I can’t, these players start out as potential breakout stars and throughout the preseason ascend experts’ pre-draft ranks at a remarkable pace only to end up in a ridiculous position. Two good examples of this last year were Chris Iannetta and Chris Davis and they both busted.

It is the young possible-but-not-definite studs the experts are in fiercest competition for. And, in pursuit of these players and the potential glory associated with being able to lay claim to landing them, the gurus often outsmart themselves.

As a tangential point to this whole discussion I want to address one more thing you commonly see when these gurus post round-by-round recaps of their all-expert league drafts. Frequently, you will read the author of such columns make a comment along the lines of, “I thought I might be reaching a little here, but I really wanted this player and knew he wouldn’t be available at my next pick.” I don’t understand how that is a viable defense of the pick being discussed. Either you reached, or you didn’t. As I read them, these types of comments reinforce my point about gurus feeling they have to draft guys they talk up for purposes of accountability, even if that player doesn’t represent the best pick.

The way I see it is very simple. Generally speaking, I don’t like or dislike players themselves; the question is the price I’m willing to pay for a player. So, to say that I wanted player X, and I had to take him here makes no sense to me. At every price point or numbered pick in a draft, there are multiple players that are perfectly defensible choices on their own merits. Did you pick one of those players or not? In your mind, does the player you selected have as good a chance as anybody else out there at proving to be the most valuable player (at least to your team) among those currently available? If you want player X, but he’s not one of those players, it makes no difference if that was your last chance to draft that player, no? Am I missing something?

This whole semi-rant comes back to two main points.

One, it’s unwise to pay premium prices for potential. In the early stages of the draft you are investing in production, but you are also paying for reliability. That’s what a blue-chip stock is; a relatively non-volatile investment that history dictates will be a sound long-term asset.

Two, a player’s projected production or ADP doesn’t really mean anything in terms of determining whether you got value by acquiring that player. The only value you accrue is the difference between the overall production the player gives you and the price you actually paid for him. A “sleeper” is only a “sleeper” if he’s drafted as such. If you think player X is undervalued at 60, and you draft him at 30, he now has to produce at that level to be a sound investment for you. If he gives you 45th pick value, you were right about your initial read, but you still made a bad pick.

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  1. Joel said...

    The same analyst predicted Josh Johnson as the 2009 NL Cy Young winner which was equally as bold since Johnson had less than 100 innings coming off TJ and never been in the top 10 vote.

    Although Johnson won’t win the Cy, he’ll likely end up in 5th in a strong class for NL candidates. That great call by the same analyst wouldn’t get mentioned in this type of article.

    There was also a lot of perceived reaching from “experts” saying they would never take Tim Lincecum (or any pitcher) with a top 10 pick and those who did were handsomely rewarded as Lincecum provided top 5 value while still having an inferior year to 2008. Similar reaches who pan out also wouldn’t get mentioned in this type of article.

  2. Andrew said...

    This is excellent, Derek. I really wish more experts cared more about actually forming the best roster than just targeting sleepers.

  3. Derek Ambrosino said...


    I think you may have missed my point(s) a bit.

    I didn’t mean to cherrypick in order to attack “experts” or to make a disingenuous argument. The Bobby Crosby mention was just an anecdote to give credence to the notion that we know well-established pundits in the mainstream baseball media do or say things for the purposes of creating contraversy or simply to contradict prevailing opinion, but we never really stop to think whether a prominent fantasy writer could have ulterior motives, even if those motives are largely implicit. While I understand there are fundamental differences between the two industries that make a fantasy writer less likely to do these things, this still seems to me to be at least a mildly interesting dichotomy.

    I was speaking specifically about one specific archetype, if you will, of likely inadvertant bias.

    I’m also not saying that reaches never pan out. Any player who you honestly think is the best option (or has just as good a chance as anybody else available as being the best option) at that spot/price point is not a reach. If your pick doesn’t fit that criteria, it is a reach.

    I love Josh Johnson, I had him on literally every one of my fantasy teams this season. But, I think it’s safe to say that if were drafting him where the other more established, perenial CYA candidates were going, you were “reaching,” even if his final performance made him value neutral where you drafted him. …I could split queens at a blackjack table and win both hands, doesn’t mean it was a smart move when I made it though.

  4. Derek Ambrosino said...

    I just want to mention for the sake of disclosure, that one of my editors reminded me that the pundit who predicted Crobsy for MVP was indeed Peter Gammons. I had truly forgotten who it was, and cognitive dissonance must have compelled me to assume it wasn’t one of their sacred cows. …So, maybe Gammons really was on his own on that one, who knows?

    In light of that, I guess my comment about “non-sacred” pundits was off base. Either Gammons went off the reservation for a bit, or there are no sacred cows when it comes to manufacturing disingenuous edginess and discord in the mainstream sports media.

  5. John Miller said...

    I chuckle over these so called expert drafts. I cant believe if they were putting up there own cash for these drafts they would pick like they do. With the easy access to all for saremetrics/fanalytics and etc , there is little need or reason to pay attention to actual drafts or “hard” projections.

  6. Mike said...

    Very interesting stuff.  I never thought about it like that, but in mock drafts, it seems like a perfectly obvious human response. 

    And not to be a stickler, but I think Reynolds made the Crosby pick for MVP.  So…

  7. R M said...

    I had one team this year that had Jay Bruce, Chris Davis, Alexei Ramirez, and BJ Upton on it.  I didn’t overdraft anyone but Chris Davis, so I still finished 4th of 10 in Roto which isn’t that great, but it could have been a total disaster if I had completely relied on these guys.  That team looked amazing pre-season, I guess this is just an example of what can go wrong when you go for upside instead of consistant veterans.

  8. Brian Oakchunas said...

    “If you want player X, but he’s not one of those players, it makes no difference if that was your last chance to draft that player, no? Am I missing something?”

    Sorry but yes. Let me give you an example. Last year I wanted Jayson Werth. I had him estimated to have third round value (which turned out to be correct) and by the fourth or fifth round he may have been the most valuable player on my board. Drafting him then, even though he is the most valuable player on my board, would be extremely stupid, however. I can draft other guys who are going to go quicker. His ADP was maybe round eight, so I pick him up in round seven, which could result in a comment of “Maybe I reached, but I was afraid he wouldn’t be there in another round.” In other words, I reached above where I thought others would take him, but not above what I thought he was worth (or Werth, as it were).

    Now, you could say that in an early mock draft, you are creating the round someone goes in and therefore should pick him in the third, but you should still treat it as a competition. Based on what you believe perceptions of the player are and earlier mocks, you can guess where a guy might go. You don’t want to just take him anywhere without regard to what your competitors might do.

  9. Derek Ambrosino said...

    To your first para, I’ll simply say that in the case you describe, you were not reaching. He was the most valuable player on your board and you took him. Passing for as long as you felt you could to maximize the value of that pick was even better execution. The inherent risk there is how long you want to press your luck and that’s up to each player to decide. I successfully did that with Abreu this year in my main league, but rolled the dice one too many times on Vazquez slipping and crapped out on that one. Nonetheless, what you did isn’t what I’m referring to. I’m talking about people who take players who are not the highest rated player on their board just because they are intruiged by their upside and they know said player will not make it back to them.

    As to your second para, I’m inclined to disagree and say that it is either one or the other. If it’s a “mock” then it’s not a competition. Either you are engaging in a communal exercise to calibrate value or you are in a competition to build the best roster. If you are not playing out the season, the by definition it must be the former because there is no metric by which you can evaluate the latter.

  10. patrick dicaprio said...

    nice article! i will point out one thing though:

    “Every year there are a few darlings of the “expert” community. For some reason that maybe Malcolm Gladwell can explain…”

    About two years ago or so I wrote and article on this blog about Tacit Communication. That is what is going on.

    this was really an excellent piece though, so great job!

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