Why we should always draft Pujols first

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While Pujols may not have a large chance of finishing No. 1 in an absolute sense, he still must be the No. 1 pick in the draft. (Icon/SMI)

For those following along with the debate over at the CardRunners league site, you’ll know that the topic of accuracy and precision of player “projections” (or whatever you wish to call your impressions of a player) has been involved throughout. There are those in the fantasy community who have taken to talking about “false accuracy” and how projections are merely a crutch, a security blanket, and that because we can never truly know what a player will do in the future, precision is unimportant. Regular readers also know that this is not something I believe to be true.

Far too much has been written at CR for me to dig through and try to find the exact quotes, so forgive (and correct) me if this isn’t perfectly accurate, but essentially, those on the “intuition” side of the debate have said something to the effect of, “We’ve done projections and models before and have discovered that they have limits. Fantasy baseball is a complex game that can never be fully comprehended or predicted, and we will never be 100 percent accurate with our projections, so instead of being quantitative about it, we’re just going to use our intuition instead. It’s not important if Derek Jeter steals 25 bases or 21 bases; having a general idea is enough.”

Unnecessary precision and error bars

This line of thinking seems to be becoming more and more prevalent in the fantasy industry, even among those with reputations as “stat” guys. One of the analysts at the forefront of this movement is Ron Shandler, who had this to say in his Baseball Forecaster last year:

The player knowledge is not “Vladimir Guerrero is projected to hit 25 home runs, drive in 100 runs, and bat .300.” These are lifeless pieces of projected data. Vlad could 27 HRs, or 22. He could bat .317 or .292. There are dozens of variables that may impact the actual numbers. The only knowledge that you can count on even a little is “Vlad Guerrero is a fading slugger who will get regular at-bats on a contending team.” Anything more definitive is pointless.

I disagree with this.

Shandler, more recently, repackaged his point using Miguel Cabrera as his example (I’ve condensed it to be succinct—follow the link if you wish to read his entire explanation):

Coming into the 2009 season, we had projected that (Cabrera would) hit 39 home runs. That’s his M.O.—he hits home runs in the 30s…

Cabrera finished 2009 with 34 HR. The difference between 34 and 39 is a bit more noticeable but does not substantively change who Cabrera is…

What’s more, we already know that there will be a minimum 30 percent error bar around whatever number we attach to his projected home run output. For a 30ish home run hitter, that could be a variance of 10 home runs. Suddenly, my 39 HR projection doesn’t look so bad…

Maybe, but by that logic, a 21 HR projection wouldn’t look so bad either, and I think we can all agree that a 21 HR projection for Miguel Cabrera would be way off-base.

So I have to ask, why do we need to attach a “39″ to his projected home run output?…

Perhaps we should just project that Cabrera will hit HRs “in the 30s.” It’s a wide enough range that not only covers our error bar—essentially taking into account some of the variability of playing time—but, oddly, also increases our accuracy. I’m more apt to be correct projecting Cabrera to hit HRs in the high-30′s than projecting him to hit exactly 37.

Well, of course it’s going to increase our accuracy. We’re getting 10 guesses instead of one. “In the 30s” will never be wrong when “37″ is right.

I think the problem here (and perhaps I’m misinterpreting) is that we seem to assume that this error bar is static, that Miguel Cabrera has one fixed error bar and that we’re completely justified in projecting any number of home runs within that error bar, and that if we do this we’ll be fine. But that’s not true. Every number from 30 to 39 is going to have its own individual error bar. Because that “30 percent error bar” exists, if all we were to say is that “Miguel Cabrera will hit HRs in the 30s,” we must implicitly be saying that we’re projecting him to hit 35 HRs.

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Why? Because if we’re not saying that he’s going to hit 35 HRs, then that error bar looks very different:

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Neither of these bars covers all the HRs in the 30s. So in actuality, by trying to remove precision, it seems that we may actually just be fooling ourselves. In trying to remove precision, we’re actually implying precision (strange as it is), but not the good kind that’s well thought-out. Rather, it’s the rounding-off kind. So if we’re going to be precise no matter what, why not make it count? Put me down for 37 home runs.

My point essentially boils down to this: if you’re using a range of outcomes as your projection, you’re using an error bar. And if you’re using an error bar, you’re necessarily implying a precise projection—whatever happens to be in the middle of that bar.

The No. 1 pick question

In a similar vein, Shandler posited in a March newsletter that perhaps we shouldn’t take consensus No. 1 pick Albert Pujols with the first pick in the draft.

If I were to go into a public draft with the No. 1 seed and select Ryan Braun first, or Joe Mauer, or Carl Crawford … well, I’d certainly keep the bloggers and tweeters busy for a few days.

But consider some facts…

Over the past six years, from 2004-2009, the player who was the consensus No. 1 pick has NEVER finished first. Never. This is a period when Pujols has been just as dominant as he is now. A-Rod was dominant during this time as well. Neither finished No. 1 in a year that the ADPs predicted they would.

In three of the past six years, the player who DID finish No. 1 wasn’t even ranked in the top 15 coming into the season. Ichiro Suzuki, Derrek Lee and Jose Reyes all finished No. 1 in a year when they couldn’t crack the pre-season top 15.

Yes, but how could we have known that Ichiro or Lee or Reyes would have been No. 1? Had we known, they would have been taken No. 1, wouldn’t they have? Or at least they would have been in the top 15. Just because a non-top 15 player has a good chance of finishing No. 1 doesn’t mean we know who it is. Sure, we could have guessed and taken Ichiro, but we could have just as easily guessed and taken Alfonso Soriano or David Ortiz and been wrong. Using hindsight to say that Ichiro should have been picked No. 1 is an example of the Texas Sharpshooter Fallacy.

You have a decision to make on draft day. You can avoid public ridicule and select Pujols and Hanley as your top two picks. Or you can consider other options. You can go for across-the-board consistency with a Ryan Braun or Chase Utley. You can hop onto the rising trends of a Matt Kemp or Justin Upton. You can play the speed scarcity card with a Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury. You can play the position scarcity card with A-Rod or Joe Mauer.

You’re probably reading this and thinking, Justin Upton with a No. 1 pick? Well, unless you are convinced he will come back to you in Round 2, remember that we would have been saying the exact same thing about Ichiro, Derrek Lee and Jose Reyes just a few years ago.

I’m not convinced that Shandler is looking at this the right way. Sure, odds are Albert Pujols will not be the No. 1 most productive player in fantasy baseball. Odds are, some player other than Albert Pujols will be the No. 1 fantasy player. But, sitting with the No. 1 pick in the draft, we are not given the choice of “Albert Pujols or “the field”. We’re given the choice of “Albert Pujols” or “Hanley Ramirez” or “Chase Utley” or “David Eckstein.” And therein lies the problem with the analysis. While Pujols may not have a great chance at finishing No. 1, he stands a greater chance than anyone else. Maybe it breaks down like this:

Chances of finishing 2010 as the No. 1 fantasy baseball player
Albert Pujols: 12%
Hanley Ramirez: 10%
Alex Rodriguez: 8%
Chase Utley: 7.5%
Matt Kemp: 6%
….
David Eckstein: 0.0001%

12% may not be that high (and I’m just making these numbers up, they may be way off), but it’s the highest of anyone else on the list. Were the list of available options to look like this, it’d be a different story:

Chances of finishing 2010 as the No. 1 fantasy baseball player
Albert Pujols: 12%
Someone other than Albert Pujols: 88%

To put it another way, it makes no sense to take a guy like Jacoby Ellsbury just because Pujols has some chance of not being the No. 1 player. Let’s do one more thought exercise using a graph of Pujols’ and Ellsbury’s expected value distributions based upon the “30 percent error bar” (assuming reasonable $40 Pujols and $33 Ellsbury projections).

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Sure, a scenario exists—and a somewhat likely scenario, at that—where Ellsbury is more valuable than Pujols. But we can’t take Ellsbury over Pujols just because in a few scenarios he could end up being more valuable. In far more scenarios, Pujols will be more valuable (and in one he’s almost $20 more valuable!). And this will be the case for every single player who is an alternative to Pujols (assuming you have Pujols ranked No. 1 on your cheat sheet, of course).

If you like Jacoby Ellsbury better than Albert Pujols, sure, take him No. 1 if you can’t trade the pick and he won’t be there in the second round. But don’t take Ellsbury just because Pujols’ chances of finishing No. 1 are low in an absolute sense.

Concluding thoughts

I know it seems like I’m picking on Ron a lot here, but that’s not my intention. I have the utmost respect for Ron and what he has done for the fantasy industry. I used him for most of my examples precisely because he is such an influential figure, because he is at the forefront of this line of reasoning, and because he has been so vocal about it in recent years. I think Ron is a very intelligent and talented fantasy player; I just don’t agree with him in this instance.

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Comments

  1. Jim C said...

    I take into consideration how many great players there are at each position. There are many more productive players at 1B than there are at 2B or, even more so, catcher. I would take Mauer first because even as low as the 3rd or 4th round, there will be a big bat available at 1B.

  2. Chris J said...

    Great article Derek. It was a patient and comprehensive rebuttal to Shandler’s misguided fatalist attitude.

  3. Mark said...

    Wow.  Shandler’s comments sound like he’s never played the game.  It matters little that the #1 pick doesn’t turn into the #1 player.  When drafting Pujols or Hanley #1 you are making the soundest bet that they will be #1 or close to #1.  Taking Upton #1 is a higher risk play.  He could be #1 or he could be #50.  Pujols could be #1 or could be #10, I’ll take Pujols.

    The 30% error bar for Miggy is silly.  He has two error bars – healthy and unhealthy.  If healthy, his error bar is 10%.  If unhealthy, it is unknown.

  4. Andrew said...

    To be fair, I think Ron mainly just wanted to stir up discussion over this matter.

    I don’t really believe if he would have ever taken a player like Justin Upton first in any straight draft league.

  5. Rob said...

    @Mark – You should combine the two error bars you mention into one and get the 30% mentioned in the article.  That needs to be built in from the start. 

    One thing which is only taken into account subtly…  You not only have to have personal rankings based on projections (or whatever you want, VORP etc) but you also need to “guess” what the rest of the league will do.  You make rank Justin Upton as number 1 overall, but if everyone else has him at number 35 then you don’t need to take him number 1.

  6. Jacob Rothberg said...

    Isn’t the issue with Pujols NOT that he has the greatest chance of finishing 1st, but that he has the smallest chance of failure?

    If you pick first and use Shandler’s “method” and take somebody like Crawford or Mauer or Kemp and he hits to the low end of his projected variance then you have probably torpedoed your team, whereas Pujols, even at the low ends of all his projections is still easily one of the top 30 players in baseball.

    When Picking high, your greatest goal should be to minimize risk.

  7. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Steve,

    Again, through the looking glass, this is not so simple. Sure, 1B is deeper than C, but that’s only half of it. In a 12-team league, there will likely be somewhere in the vicinity of 25+ 1B-elibgible players rostered (1B, CI, Util). There will likely be only 1 (non-DL-ed) catcher per roster on these same teams, so the pool isn’t nearly as deep, but it doesn’t have to be.

    Your argument is only valid if league set-up dicatates that all positions will be rostered at near even frequency.

    I do think the overall reasoning offered by Shandler is faulty though. Pujols is a bastion of consistency. A few other players can be argued to have higher ceilings, but Pujols is nearly unique in his absence of risk to fail. In fact, one of the things that is so amazing about Pujols is that over his career, he has almost no meaningful split differentials:

    vs RHP: 330/419/622
    vs LHP: 344/450/645

    Home: 335/433/626
    Away: 332/421/630

    1st half: 327/423/622
    2nd half: 342/432/634

    …the trend continues over just about every conceivable split.

  8. Andrew S said...

    I think you do a nice job of explaining why Ron is off-base with his first point, Derek.  Predicting that Cabrera will hit 39 HRs, for example, does not mean you are asserting with dead certainty that he will hit exactly that number.  It indicates that HRs in the high 30’s or low 40’s would be a reasonable expectation for Cabrera.  He could end up only hitting 31 HRs or he could end up hitting 47 HRs, but both those results seem decidedly less likely based on what we’ve seen from him in the past.  Saying he will hit HRs “in the 30’s” seems like a cop out and, like you said, would only cover the reasonable range of HRs he might hit if you think he is most likely to hit 35 or so.

    I don’t think you are giving Ron quite enough credit for his second point, though.  The point isn’t that you should select someone other than Pujols just because he most likely won’t finish as the #1 overall player.  The point is that projections are FAR FROM an exact science, so if you have good reasons to believe someone like Braun will outproduce Pujols, Braun is a perfectly reasonable guy to take #1.  I think Ron is right that people often stick too closely to draft orthodoxy rather than taking the player they believe will do better. 

    Of course, this is only true if that gut instinct is backed by sound reasoning.  For instance, there is no way to justify taking Carl Crawford or Jacoby Ellsbury #1 in my opinion, since they are guaranteed to give you below-average production in two roto categories. Plus, speed, especially in the outfield, can be had for much cheaper, especially now that teams are running more in the post-steroid era. 

    If it were my team, I’d still take Pujols #1. But the bottom line is that if you know what you’re doing, you should do your own research and take the guy you believe will give you the best stats, regardless of what other people think.  Don’t pass on a player you won’t be able to get later just because you’re afraid of being ridiculed.  Because in the end, these are just projections, and they aren’t set in stone.

  9. Derek Carty said...

    Steve Stein, this guy, and Jim C,
    Accounting for replacement level is of vital importance, and I didn’t mean to imply that we shouldn’t do that.  In my example, I mean that Pujols has a 12% chance of being the #1 player *once we account for position scarcity*.

    Now, as Andrew S points out (and as I say in the second to last paragraph), if you think Braun (or Ellsbury or whoever) will outproduce Pujols (accounting for position scarcity, of course), then you have a legitimate reason for passing up on Pujols.  Taking the player you like most is different than taking someone other than Pujols simply because there’s a lot of uncertainty.

    Perhaps I misinterpreted Ron’s point, Andrew S.  If all he is saying is that “people often stick too closely to draft orthodoxy rather than taking the player they believe will do better,” then he’s right.  Stick to your own guns and don’t take a player simply because everyone else thinks you should.  If that’s what he’s trying to say, though, I think he could have been much clearer about it.

  10. Derek Carty said...

    Rob,
    Absolutely right.  Taking into account market conditions is very important.  You don’t want to take a player higher than you need to.  I loved Colby Lewis this year, had him priced in the teens for Tout, but I opened the bidding for him at $1 and got him for $1.

    Andrew,
    I agree that I don’t think Ron would have ever taken Upton No. 1, but I also don’t think it should have even been a consideration worth mentioning, unless you really think Upton is better than Pujols and Hanley and whoever else.  That would be the only legitimate reason to take him #1.

    Jacob Rothberg,
    That’s a slightly different discussion, more about strategy than straight probabilistic performance, but I do tend to agree with you and have said in the past that I tend to gravitate towards consistent performers in the early rounds of drafts.  I’m willing to give up the tiniest bit of expected value in order to get consistency and elimination of risk with those early picks, and I’m pretty sure Ron is the same way.

    Also, as has been alluded to in some of the comments, league type is important as well, just as important as position scarcity.  Once you take all factors into consideration, if Pujols comes out as having the greatest chance of success (or the lowest chance of failure), he should be the pick.  If he doesn’t, you’re perfectly justified in taking someone else.

  11. Derek Ambrosino said...

    BTW, it should be noted that Shandler is not just blowing smoke with rhetoric. In a prestiguous league (I can’t recall which off the top of my head), he drafted Miguel Cabrera 1st overall back in 2008.

  12. Andrew said...

    If I recall correctly, that was just a mock draft and not a league that was actually played out.

    That being said, Ron did indicate that he would have passed on Pujols at #3 in the NFBC Main Event when there was concern over Albert’s health this spring. He ended up taking Braun.

    Ron practically invented the notion of taking safe, consistent players in the early rounds. The fact that Pujols is the safest elite player in the MLB player pool leads me to believe that Ron would always take him first.

  13. Andrew said...

    Ron also did have the first pick at the FSTA conference this spring and took Pujols, for what it’s worth.

    Again, just like his other weekly columns, this was simply meant to generate discussion.

  14. Derek Ambrosino said...

    Note to self, suggest THT hire an intern for fact-checking purposes…

    Seriously, Andrew, I assume your recollection is more accurate than mine, as I truly just remember much ado about Ron valuing M-Cab as the most attractive fantasy asset in his first year on Detroit.

  15. Derek Carty said...

    If I recall, it was a mock draft where he asked everyone if there was a good reason not to take A-Rod, then said he’d take Wright instead.  Then he actually took Cabrera.

  16. Tony Starks said...

    I’m in an 18-team league where we start 4 SPs and because of how the scoring system is slightly skewed to high K/low ERA SPs the first three picks in our draft went Lincecum, Halladay, + King Felix. I had the 4th pick and while Pujols was there, staring me down in the face I decided to get cute and take Greinke. I was well aware of the risk I was taking but had no clue how bad this Royals team was going to be. But I also knew there weren’t many aces left after those three. Plus the fact that 1B was one of the deeper positions this year had me thinking that the difference between getting an elite SP and a mid-round 1B vs getting Pujols and ending up with an SP3 as my top arm probably leaned in the direction of getting the ace while I could. Right now I’m 100% disappointed in my decision but who knows how the rest of the season will pan out.

  17. Jon Kammerer said...

    I used CHONE this year to draft my fantasy teams.  I don’t expect it, or any system, to be able to be precise at the individual level.  However, on the team level, fantasy or otherwise,  projections tend to function well.

  18. Derek Carty said...

    I’m not so sure that projections don’t function well at the individual level, it’s just that they are what they are.  There’s a certain level of accuracy we can ever hope to achieve with projections (or with any evaluation method), and that’s something that we simply need to come to terms with.  I don’t think that, because there’s inherent variation, that it’s best to forsake projections and embrace imprecision.

  19. Steve Stein said...

    Disagree disagree disagree.

    I don’t care if my #1 pick finishes as the best fantasy player.  My pick will ALWAYS be determined by VORP, and not by absolute value.  I haven’t run the numbers, but my guess would be that Mauer and Hanley have higher VORP in 10- and 12-team leagues.

    Pujols may very well be the “best” fantasy player, but there are plenty of very good fantasy 1Bs.

  20. Ron Shandler said...

    Terrific discussion. I’ll respond to specific points at a later time, since there is a lot here. One thing I will note now. I did draft Miguel Cabrera first in the 2008 FSTA experts league. I finished 4th.

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