Position Scarcity: The Mondesi Line

It's our fault, not yours. We did this. Fantasy experts have been repeating the same tired dogma about positional scarcity for so long that maybe you've forgotten how incredibly simple these games really are. Here's your goal: in roto leagues, you want the most points in the most categories. In head-to-head leagues, you want to beat the week's opponent in as many categories as possible. That's it. If you have any other goals, you've overanalyzed the game.

Do you get bonus points for having a top-five shortstop? No, you don't. How about for having a top-tier catcher? Nope. Second base? Again, no.

Home runs from middle infielders have precisely the same impact on total points as home runs from outfielders. Let's call this the transitive property of fantasy sports. It doesn't matter which sport we're talking about, either. A yard is a yard, a rebound is a rebound, and a home run is a home run. It's surprisingly easy to forget this, too. And it's our fault, not yours. We're entirely to blame.

Am I saying that you should just ignore positional scarcity at your draft? Heck no. I'd lose my expert accreditation if I did that. Brandon Funston would show up at my apartment and rip the epaulets off my jacket. But I'd like to make one thing brutally clear: when looking at the difference between two players at any position, you should care about the magnitude of the difference. Too many owners concern themselves with ranks and tiers and ignore the stats behind them. That's a big mistake. One of the easiest ways to lose a league is to spend a high pick on, say, the number three guy at a "scarce" position when he's only marginally better than the number 15 guy.

For an example of this phenomenon, let's look at a bunch of second basemen:

PLAYER

TEAM

AVG PICK

AVG RD

Chase Utley

Phi

11.1

1.3

Chone Figgins

LAA

45.3

4.2

Robinson Cano

NYY

50.5

4.7

Brian Roberts

Bal

56

5.1

Dan Uggla

Fla

67.8

6.1

Rickie Weeks

Mil

83.8

7.5

Julio Lugo

Bos

88.5

7.8

Jeff Kent

LAD

113.3

9.9

Josh Barfield

Cle

124.5

10.8

Freddy Sanchez

Pit

132.9

11.5

Howie Kendrick

LAA

138.8

12

Tadahito Iguchi

CWS

148.9

12.9

Brandon Phillips

Cin

159.5

13.8

Ryan Freel

Cin

173

14.9

Ray Durham

SF

189.2

16.2

Ian Kinsler

Tex

196

16.8

Marcus Giles

SD

199.3

17

Jorge Cantu

TB

201.5

17.3

Mark DeRosa

ChC

203.1

17.4

Jose Vidro

Sea

213.4

18.3

Craig Biggio

Hou

214.3

18.3

Ty Wigginton

TB

217.3

18.6

Placido Polanco

Det

219.3

18.7

Orlando Hudson

Ari

221.6

19

Luis Castillo

Min

226.8

19.3

Chris Burke

Hou

226.9

19.3

For a moment, we'll ignore the fact that drafting Mark DeRosa ahead of Ty Wigginton is just criminally wrong. Same with DeRosa and Chris Burke. Seriously: it's criminally wrong. Like you should go to fantasy prison and share a cell with the dude who uses the full 1:30 for every draft pick. It's a punishable offense. But again, we're ignoring that.

Instead, let's look at four sets of fantasy stats from last season:

Player A – 563 AB, 85 R, 10 HR, 55 RBI, 36 SB, .286 AVG
Player B – 536 AB, 65 R, 17 HR, 75 RBI, 25 SB, .276 AVG
Player C – 423 AB, 65 R, 14 HR, 55 RBI, 11 SB, .286 AVG
Player D – 366 AB, 55 R, 9 HR, 40 RBI, 11 SB, .282 AVG

Those players will all be full-time starters in 2007. If that's all you knew about them, how would you rank those guys? Would they all belong to the same tier?

What if I told you that Player A was going to be 30 at the end of the season? Player B will be 26, Player C will be 25, and Player D will be 27. Would that matter to you? How about if I said that Player A hits in a moderately pitcher-friendly park, while B, C and D all play in home parks that are decisively hitter-friendly? How do you feel now? Does that affect your rankings?

The players are Brian Roberts, Brandon Phillips, Ian Kinsler, and Burke. I don't think any one of them projects as discernibly better than the other three. Give them all an equal number of plate appearances, and their numbers will be relatively similar. Kinsler may have the greatest upside, but it's debatable. What I find particularly interesting is that Roberts is getting drafted in the fifth round, while Phillips falls to the 14th, Kinsler to the 17th, and Burke to the 19th (and he often goes un-drafted, which is nuts. He's going to play the outfield, where he's less likely to get hurt, and he'll hit in front of Carlos Lee and Lance Berkman).

The only category in which Roberts is likely to exceed the mean in a 12-team mixed league is stolen bases, yet no one would call him an elite base-stealer. He's only reached 30 steals once in his career. Even if you think 30 steals are hugely valuable, why not just wait eight rounds for Willy Taveras (average pick 163.8)? Or why not grab Chone Figgins one round earlier than Roberts? That's an elite base-stealer. Figgins has swiped 114 bags over the past two seasons. Roberts isn't in that class speed-wise.

There he is, though, getting drafted in the fifth round. And why? Because talent is scarce at second base and people want a top-five player, even if the difference between that guy and a player you can get in the next-to-last round is negligible.

It's really not my intention to pick on Brian Roberts. He's fine. But there's no way the difference between Roberts and Phillips, Kinsler or Burke is worth a fifth round draft pick. It's insane. The same argument applies to Yankees second baseman Robinson Cano. His entire value in 2006 was in his batting average. In a 12-team mixed roto league, he would have been below the mean in every other hitting category. Could he improve in the counting stats? Sure, he's part of an absurd lineup. But I wouldn't rely on Cano or anyone else to hit .342 again. Regression to the mean is a powerful thing, and it's overwhelmingly likely to catch up with Cano, a .278/.331/.425 hitter during his minor league career.

Of course, second base isn't the only position where a recklessly misapplied tiering strategy can result in heinous picks. Ivan Rodriguez (74 R, 13 HR, 69 RBI, .300 AVG) goes five rounds ahead of Russell Martin (65 R, 10 HR, 65 RBI, .282 AVG); Huston Street (37 SV, 67 K, 3.31 ERA, 1.09 WHIP) goes five rounds before Takashi Saito (24 SV, 107 K, 2.07 ERA, 0.91 WHIP). The differences between those players won't be worth the cost.

For me, every position has an imaginary line below which I don't care who I own, because any of a dozen players will deliver comparable stats. Let's call it the Raul Mondesi line, in honor of the worst player I was ever excited to draft. This year that line gets drawn beneath Brian McCann at catcher, Nick Swisher at first, Felipe Lopez at short, Ryan Zimmerman at third, Nick Markakis in the outfield, Ervin Santana at starter, and Billy Wagner at closer. I'm also drawing the Mondesi immediately below the top second baseman, Chase Utley.

Everyone agrees that Utley is the premier player at his position. But I don't think that we – by which I mean the international community of fantasy experts – have done a particularly good job of expressing just how much better he is than the rest of the field. If we had, then Roberts and Cano wouldn't be so highly valued.

Here's how I'd arrange the tiers at second base:

Tier 1 – Chase Utley
Tier 2 – Nobody
Tier 3 – Nobody
Tier 4 – Chone Figgins and Howie Kendrick
Tier 5 – Just about every other starter in MLB who qualifies at second except …
Tier 6 – Mark DeRosa and Craig Biggio.

Utley was orders of magnitude better than everybody else in 2006. In fact, if the best possible player pool had been drafted in a standard Yahoo! public configuration, Utley would be one of only three players to exceed the league average in all five hitting categories – not his position average, but the league average. (Because you should care about this sort of thing, the other two players were Carlos Lee and David Wright). I find it much easier to make a case for Utley being the top overall pick in a draft than for him to be a second rounder. He's great, unlike everyone else who qualifies at second. Those guys are all flawed, and it isn't terribly important whether you get the fifth best or the 20th.

What's truly scarce in fantasy is a player who finishes significantly above the league average in multiple categories. That's how you need to invest those early picks, not on sub-league average players who you think might slightly outperform other sub-league average players. Because what matters in the end are the numbers you compile, not where you get them.

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