2017 Fantasy Baseball Rankings March 15, 2017  |  gregsauce

Ranking players for fantasy baseball is a profoundly personal experience.  Unlike football, where all stats are translated into raw points, rotisserie baseball allows us to build rosters in a variety of ways en route to victory.  Rankings therefore become an expression of how the ranker prefers to draft his or her teams.  My overall and positional 2017 fantasy baseball rankings show up at the end of this post.  In the space between here and there, let’s dive into the non-Kevin pillars of my draft strategy and how they inform my valuations of players.


Pitchers Are A Trap

To compare to fantasy football, starting pitchers are a lot like quarterbacks.  A large number of them have value, and even the less appealing options can be made to perform better for fantasy if you play the match-ups.  Yes, Clayton Kershaw is amazing, and you can certainly build around him as a first-round pick to win a league, but I don’t like to construct my teams that way.  I find it easier to approximate what the elite arms provide than what elite bats provide using later-round players.  Furthermore, streaming starters is much more manageable than streaming hitters in my experience.

If starters are like quarterbacks, then relievers are like tight ends or kickers.  They’re largely replaceable, and even the players perceived as rock solid can be volatile from season to season.  Closers pitch so few innings that their relative impact (outside of Saves) is pretty minimal compared to other positions.  Good relievers can help keep your ERA and WHIP down, but those ratios are primarily driven by the performance of your starters.  The best way to differentiate between closers is by their strikeouts.  Because ninth-inning roles shift so frequently and reliever ratios don’t have huge impact on our roto stats, I want to pile up as many incidental whiffs as I can.  That’s why I’m down on Zach Britton compared to the consensus and higher on guys like Ken Giles and Cody Allen.


Position Scarcity Isn’t Important

Fantasy baseball rewards the accumulation of statistics.  Where those statistics come from in your lineup is not especially relevant.  In the early rounds of my drafts, I try to take the most impactful players across the offensive stat categories, regardless of position.  The later rounds offer values at every position.  If you reach for second basemen and shortstops in the first five rounds simply because middle infield is “shallower” than other spots, you’re falling behind statistically.

There are exceptions, of course.  Jose Altuve has proven he can perform at a first-round value.   Should he vault to number one overall because he plays second base?  No.  You would only give Altuve the top rank if you legitimately expected his statistics to finish better than Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Nolan Arenado, and all the other top-tier players.  Disregard eligibility.  Get the best players.


Position Scarcity Does Exist

While it shouldn’t greatly inform your drafting tendencies in the first handful of rounds (say 5-10, depending on how things go), certain positions are deeper than others.  I’ve done haphazard studies on position scarcity in the past, usually to prove that second base is deep as hell.  I went through the annual tradition again this year and here’s what I found (using the same process as this article from 2014):

Averages of a "Starter" (Positional ADP 1-12)
Averages of a "Reserve" (Positional ADP 13-24)
C (*13-16)
Averages of "Non-Elite" (Positional ADP 4-24)
C (*4-16)1.766.20.883

(PR: ESPN Player Rater Value; $$$: FantasyPros Auction Value)

The first takeaway is how useless catchers are.  Even if you play in a two-catcher league, there’s incentive to wait and draft both your backstops in the late rounds.  The top catchers in ADP simply don’t return enough on investment, evidenced by the lowest value-per-dollar among starters compared to the highest value-per-dollar for non-starters.  Overall, though, the real reason to wait on the position is their simple lack of production.  Compare the average player rater values of catcher to any other position and it’s easy to see how little catchers actually contribute.

As expected, second base remains the deepest infield position.  The top twelve guys in ADP delivered the highest player rater values on average, but remain cheaper to acquire in drafts than first and third basemen.  The relative worth of middle infielders really stands out when we look at the value-per-dollar numbers excluding the top three players at each position.  Among the “non-elite” players, second basemen and shortstops offer clear advantages compared to corner men.  

The lower values per dollar of first basemen exist primarily because they cost more to draft.  This makes some sense, as most drafters will lean toward a corner player in their utility spots, creating more demand.  But is that default setting correct?  Based on the average player rater values shown for each position above, not really.  Sure, the top-12 first basemen in ADP were the second-best infield producers last season by ESPN’s player rater, but those high end players won’t land in a utility spot.  When you get to the reserve-type players (positional ADP between 13 and 24), first base falls of a cliff.  Based on last year’s numbers, the position is unorthodoxly shallow in 2017.  That means you should either pay market price for the top-tier guys, or wait and scrape the bottom of the lower-tier barrel for first basemen.

On the other hand, third base shoots up in value after the top-12 options are off the board.  That doesn’t make Kris Bryant a bad first-round pick, but he might find himself slotted in the outfield more often than you might expect if you land some other third baseman you like in the middle or late rounds.  It also serves as a reminder to look at third base in the same light as first base and outfield when you’re looking for a utility player.


Beware Recency Bias

Above all, I urge you to remember that last season is not likely to repeat itself.  Rick Porcello probably won’t win 22 games again.  Daniel Murphy could struggle to top 20 homers.  Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton didn’t necessarily lose their first-round fantasy talents after injury-shortened 2016 seasons.  Mookie Betts might not yet deserve 30-homer projections considering his home run rate increased while his fly ball rate decreased during last season’s breakout performance.  He could still go 20-30 with ease, but that makes him more of mid- or late-first type of player than a top-3 player.  Keep an eye out for this sort of stuff.  The Achilles heel of most drafters is overrating the previous season’s statistics.


When In Doubt, Chase Upside With Youth

Breakouts are not always easy to predict.  Chances must be taken to acquire ascending players.  Younger players tend to grow into skills and opportunities, but those leaps are challenging to forecast because we lack a track record of data.  On the flip side, decline from an aging player is somewhat easier to detect because we have more information about the career baselines of that player.  

After a certain age point, we can assume players will get progressively worse each season.  There are exceptions, of course, but the player base as a whole starts to decline between age 28 and age 31.  When I see the signs of slippage for older players, I drop them in the rankings.  Zack Greinke is a great example this year.  His declining K-rate doomed him after his move from Dodger Stadium to Chase Field.  With such a vast pool of solid pitchers to choose from, there’s no sense in taking a chance on a 33-year-old Greinke bouncing back

Even when older players aren’t clearly falling off from season to season, I will still often penalize them in my rankings.  Adrian Beltre has been super consistent through age 37, but it’s not going to last forever.  When I’m one of only four rankers to put Beltre behind Evan Longoria, that’s me trying to get ahead of the aging curve.  Longo has been similarly consistent in recent seasons, but he’s more than six years younger than Beltre.  The risk of Beltre’s value hitting the wall is much higher, even if his track record merits a better ranking than Longoria.  There are plenty of ways to break ties between similarly valued players.  I tend to skew younger in those situations.


2017 Fantasy Baseball Rankings

Full disclosure, the rankings below assume standard 5×5 rotisserie scoring and 28-man rosters (or larger).

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