On their podcast Lenny Melnick and Paul Greco raised an interesting fantasy thought experiment. Lenny asked whether, assuming batting average to be equal, would you rather have a $1 keeper who hits 30 home runs or one who gets 30 steals? Since this issue touches all sorts of fantasy theory I thought it would be perfect for discussion.
There are two main considerations and a whole host of minor ones. The primary considerations are the opportunity cost of each and the second is the scarcity issue. Opportunity cost is basically the “cost” you pay for choosing one alternative over another. If I am choosing whether to buy an apple or an orange, the apple costs me not only its price but also the benefit I would have obtained had I chosen a banana. This may be a positive or negative cost by the way. Sometimes there may be equal costs of course. If I wokeup one day to be greeted by Evangeline Lilly and Ali Larter wearing nothing but high heels and a fur coat one would be hard pressed to say that choosing one over the other could bear a high opportunity cost.
So let’s say we choose the 30 steal player, which as the question was discussed was the Juan Pierre type not the true fantasy stud who goes 30-30. Generally these 30 steal guys are non-power hitters and will have fewer total bases and lower slugging. Since we assume an equal batting average that means we assume an equal number of hits and at-bats, essentially.
So by choosing the steals we lose the opportunity cost of the extra bases generated by the power hitter per hit. In a points league or a head to head league the power hitter is clearly preferable because of this. The opportunity cost of passing up these extra points is too high. But if the point structure is such that steals are heavily weighted then it could even out but I don’t know of any leagues of this sort that are routinely played. The head to head mixed league I play in awards one point for every base on a hit and one point for steals, pretty standard. That is a hefty opportunity cost.
What do we lose if we choose the power hitter? Aside from losing the steals, I don’t think there are too many other points that can be lost by choosing the power hitter in the garden variety mixed league. In almost every offensive category the power hitter will likely do better than the 30 steal guy on a per hit basis. We can speculate that perhaps the steals guy might have more walks and a higher OBP or maybe more runs, but there is nothing intrinsic about the steals guy versus the power guy that makes it so.
So if you are in a points league or a head to head league that uses points I think the power hitter is preferable.
In a traditional roto format, the only way the steals guy can win is if the scarcity of steals is sufficient that it overcomes the additional benefit of the power guy. According to Sean Lahman’s database in 2006 there were 2,767 stolen bases, and 5,386 homers. So steals were twice as scarce as homers. This is exactly borne out by the actual data on 30 homer and steal guys. There were 60 guys with 30 HR in 2005 and 2006 but only 30 players with 30 steals. At least in 2005 and 2006 one can argue that in the fantasy world steals were twice as scarce as home runs.
2007 though was a different animal. Who knows why (and I didn’t metion the “s” word) but there were 470 fewer homeruns hit in 2007 compared to 2006. There were 26 players with 30 HR (so four less than expected from 2005 and 2006) and 19 with 30 SB (four more than expected from 2005 and 2006). Totals across the two leagues were 4915 HR and 2899 SB for 2007. So the ratio was lower but steals were still far scarcer than homers.
Given the scarcity, getting a 30 steal guy in traditional roto is more valuable, though if there is a further decrease in homers it could change. For the purposes of this discussion it is the ratio of the two that matters not the absolute values. In my high stakes league we use SB-CS as a category. Here are the team totals for the AL teams and the NL teams:
Place AL NL 1 141 135 2 87 120 3 84 119 4 82 108 5 74 106 6 72 74 7 71 59 8 54 56 9 45 51 10 44 50 11 28 42
By himself, the 30 steal guy at $1 could move the tenth place team to fifth in the AL and the fifth place team to first in the NL. Granted this is not conclusive proof. But given that steals are scarcer, the impact of a scarcer commodity is higher and my league’s stats bear this out.
So in traditional roto formats I would usually prefer the steals guy. I will admit that I am almost always willing to pay top dollar for speedsters with good batting averages, but will rarely do so for top HR guys, for lots of reasons that I will discuss in the off season (not the least of which is how the markets traditionally values these guys). So, one may argue that I am biased.
Let’s also consider the fact that in an auction league you have $29 to spend after you choose. Can you make better use of the $29 to get a HR guy or a steal guy? If you take the $1 steal guy you have $29 to spend on power. Because there are more 30 homer guys and more homeruns it will be easier to make up the power using the money. So you are spending money to get help in multiple categories based on the ancillary benefits to other categories that typically come with power hitters.
If you take the $1 HR guy then you have to buy the steals. Not only is this more difficult since they are scarcer, in spending that money on steals you pass up all of the other offensive benefits that come with the homer guys. So, your money is spent less efficiently buying help in one category.
So I think that in a points league you prefer the power hitter and in an auction league or a 4×4 traditional roto format you prefer the steals guy.
Your answers may vary, especially if your league has some unique wrinkles.