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Fangraphs: Exploiting Middle Infield Bias

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Jeff Zimmerman of Fangraphs has done the math on something that I always felt was there but could never quite quantify:

 

Exploiting Middle Infield Bias

 

Quote

So, Mike Trout is 2 SGP better than Giancarlo Stanton who is then 2 SGP better than Bryce Harper. The next 2 SGP drop is 10 spots to #12 overall, Trea Turner. Now, if we work our way up from the bottom, it takes 70 players to make the 2 SGP jump from #168 up #99. The overreach for Corey Seager (valued at 5.1 SGP) going at pick #20 (valued at 8.1 SGP) cost his owner about three spots in the standings. He can’t make up this difference once the talent begins leveling off. It’s best to fill out a roster’s positional needs after the top 100 hitters since their values are similar. The goal is to grab as many of the top guys as possible and worry about positions later.

 

So why does this discrepancy exist? Here are my thoughts.

 

  • Owners still think middle infield is still a scarce position. I believe most experts have been making this mental adjustment for years and can’t stop. This adjustment is not going to end with many top prospects at the middle infield positions (e.g. Gleyber Torres, Brendan Rodgers, Bo Bichette). Owners need to fight and try to eliminate this internal bias when constructing their team. The source of production is irrelevant if owners grab as much possible talent before the curve flattens out.
  •  
  • Owners are drafting off a positional ranking list instead of an overall ranking. Owners may panic when they see all the top infielders being drafted but shouldn’t. There are enough middle infielders to go around. An owner may reach early for a shortstop who is worth 2 SGP less than an available outfielder because the other “top” shortstops are being drafted. Take the better value now and wait to fill your shortstop at the same time the Seager owner is filling up his outfield a 0 SGP value. Again, production early, positions later. It’s sometimes tough to follow this approach as Richard Thaler stated in this article’s beginning quote.
  •  
  • Owners transferring real-world defensive value to fantasy value. It’s true that slick-fielding middle infielders have more real-world value. For fantasy purposes, only offensive stats count in the most standings. Using the incorrect metrics to value players can also be seen with speedsters going too high in points leagues or high AVG, low walk hitters in OBP leagues.

 

No matter why the bias is occurring, it can be exploited.

[...]

In leagues with no position scarcity, owners are still overvaluing middle infielders. These owners are giving up the opportunity to pick up better talent which will help them win. They may have a case of “FOMO” or still believe good middle infielders are scarce. By using a reliable player valuation system, true values can be created and exploited. Owners need to determine if they want to fail conventionally or succeed unconventionally.

 

For years now, I've never been willing to place as high a value on middle infielders as my leaguemates, and always ended up having to run with mid-tier (or worse) middle infielders.  Often times I'd be dropping those  guys early in the season for whoever the hot bat was at the position.  Turns out that, at least if this analysis is to be trusted, I was doing the right thing.

 

Now, I'm certain there are instances where some of the true elites at the position are properly-valued.  A guy like Trea Turner comes to mind just because he owns a category and doesn't hurt you in others, which could justify first-round value without applying any positional scarcity bump.  But once you take category scarcity out of the equation and just focus on getting the best players on your roster, it looks like a lot of teams are reaching too high to get what they think is a scarce resource, but actually isn't as scarce as they think.

 

Anyway, interesting discussion fodder for the offseason doldrums. 

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Counter argument, the draft can dictate whether or not you have to decide to take a position "early".  When I play 15 team leagues with no transactions, once the first two closers are off the board, the closer run is on.  That could be round 3, or it could be round 6.  You have to decide if you're content on settling for a back of the line closer, grab a closer in waiting, or get on the closer run before they're all gone.  MI still matters because many of the 99-168 MI hitters have warts.  LeMaheiu, no power.  Villar no average.  Odor average killer.   Moncada/Albies/Torres young or unknown.    In football, once you see QB falling off the board...are you okay with going with a Winston/Rivers type combo or will you bite the bullet and grab a mid tier guy.  

 

You have to take construction into the equation too.  If you take like Stanton & Judge, are you really going to pass on a guy like Dee Gordon or Segura?   

 

 

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All valid points, @kidtwentytwo.  I'll try to address each.

 

Re: draft dynamics, obviously that comes into play.  I do think there's a point at which taking whatever's left after the run and being willing to back them up with a waiver grab if necessary is a valid strategy, though.  The scarcity dynamics are different with closers, but since you used them in your example: in my dynasty league last year I came into the season with zero closers, because I traded / dumped them all to stream starters in 2016.  Despite the equivalent of starting a redraft league with no closers, I finished 2nd in the league in saves.  Part of it was lucking into Holland, being quick to snap up Knebel, etc. but that shows that fear of missing out on closers in the draft may also be overblown.  You might lag in the category in April, but can easily make it up throughout the season.

 

With MI, as opposed to RP, I think it's even more compelling to pass on the upper tier (if they're being over-drafted) because of how high the picks are.  RPs start in the 5th/6th round maybe, while the elite MI are going much earlier.  Those 1st/2nd round picks can make or break you, as anyone who paid big for Villar or Bogaerts can attest to.  There are guys who return value, but I think Zimmerman's analysis shows that it's fewer than you might think.

 

Re: the warts among the middle/lower-tier options at the position: sure, that's a problem, but you're paying so much less for them and getting a hitter with much better value in the early rounds, so that has to be counted.  Zimmerman seems to have done the math (which can obviously be questioned, but looks compelling to me) that says it's beneficial to wait.

 

And if you do wait, and your draft-day option doesn't pan out, there are often waiver grabs at the position that you can easily swap them out for -- whereas few will have the guts to drop/short-sell on their 1st/2nd round pick and eat the losses to go grab a Nunez/Merrifield/Simmons/Andrus type who might be able to outperform the guy they overpaid for.

 

Re: Roster construction, that's a valid point.  I think that suggests that maybe one should try to avoid roster construction strategies that rely on overpaying for a scarce resource.  In your example, going Stanton/Judge paints you in a corner.  Not only are you passing up the four SP aces, but you're really in trouble if you miss out on Gordon who would go early 3rd in 12-team mixsed, so  you might overpay by full round or two to get Segura, or pin all your SB hopes on Andrus...  I mean, yeah, if those two bats fall into your lap and nothing else on the board looks good, obviously you take them, but just know that you're potentially giving up profit in the next few rounds when you have to cover for your lack of SB.

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The age old debate about scarcity.

 

We have been living in a relatively new era.  There was a time when a few key MI were head and shoulders above the pack.

 

Unless TT or CC breakout in a big way than those days are gone.

 

But look fundamentally speaking, MI will always value Defense more highly than 1B or OF.  Shortstops and 2B simply field more balls and are involved in more plays.  They are drafted more for their defense and therefore, over time, scarcity should return to form and we should be left with a few elite MI and a glut of OF and 1B.  Hasn't happened for some time.  But it will.

 

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I wanted a little more data.  I don't think you can look at one draft and assume its the norm.  Take our mock on rotoworld.  I've put in the picks of our draft into his graph.  Our picks were a LOT later.  You can also argue that guys like Gordon, Segura, Andrus, Merrefield are being drafted early more for stolen base scarcity than positional scarcity.  Young players will big upside will always be taken early (Bregman/Seager), then you have the older name players like Cano & Murphy who tend to taken a little earlier as well.  So I don't think we can assume that because MI were taken earlier in one draft that it is because people thought the position was scare.  Guys like Nunez, LeMahieu, Odor were taken almost 100 picks later in our draft than theirs.  

 

Last Name Pick Rank Difference
Altuve 2 / 2 7 5
Turner 4 / 4 12 8
Correa 10 / 7 17 7
Lindor 17 / 23 16 -1
Seager 22 /24 41 19
Gordon 23 / 31 29 6
Bregman 25 / 39 48 23
Dozier 28 / 39 25 -3
Murphy 29 /42 49 20
Schoop 35 / 46 61 26
Cano 41 / 64 63 22
Segura 42 / 77 72 30
Andrus 46 / 47 73 27
Merrifield 53 /82 95 42
Odor 61 /142 36 -25
Nunez 63 / 158 116 53
Bogaerts 70 / 87 78 8
LeMahieu 73 / 173 77 4
Villar 74 / 143 70 -4
Gregorius 76 /122 168 92
Albies Picked 81, not ranked N/A NA
Moncada 92 150 58
Story 99 82 -17
Average 44 61 18
Median 41 61 8
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You make some interesting points, @kidtwentytwo.  I think some of your numbers are off, though, and I still think the premium on MI holds once you correct those and focus the analysis on the earlier rounds where the overdraft premiums are more expensive .

 

You guys did a serpentine draft in mock #1 right?  And the draft order was the order they're listed at the top of the spreadsheet?  If so, those numbers for forum mock #1 don't look right to me.  One clear error is that both Bregman and Dozier are listed at 39 (Dozier should be 46 unless I'm reading the spreadsheet wrong).  Then Murphy should be 43, Schoop should be 59...  Several others are off as well.  Here's my attempt to correct those errors, plus the results of the 2-early industry drafts, and RW forums mock #2:

 

image.png.29b05188c9360021586df3f9b3807c31.png

 

On the left side are the draft positions (ADP in the 2-early case, as there were 4 mocks there), while the right-side is the diffs between those draft positions and the player's value ranking.  Color-coding is red == player was overdrafted (relative to rank), green == good value.

 

Here's a chart that I think shows the pattern pretty well:

 

image.png.2c29ec52eb84a19bd15ba693abfe6e32.png

 

Above 0 on this chart is a player taken ahead of their projected value, below zero is a player taken at a discount.

 

This chart confirms your observation that the draft that Zimmerman used for his analysis seems to have overvalued middle infielders more than any of the others.  Still, when looking at the other mocks, we see significant premiums placed on these players.  Maybe these premiums are appropriate given the scarcity of the positions, but it's worth considering whether the premium might be too much.

 

Other interesting notes:  all of the mocks seem to have Lindor coming at a bargain relative to his projected value, and all of them have Dozier being even more of a bargain.  This raises the question of what the projections think vs. what we think when we're drafting them, but still, some interesting data points there.

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Well, I think it's different points when you compare guys like Ramirez vs replacement level, Correa vs replacement level, etc. 

The closer you get to the replacement line, the less value you are drafting. 

I do think premium positions, like C, 2B, SS, are worth targeting earlier than the production says they should go, but there's a limit to everything. 

I love Corey Seager, but if I was in a draft tomorrow and the first 3 picks were Trea Turner, Carlos Correa, and Francisco Lindor, I wouldn't snatch Seager later in the first for fear of the scarcity of SS.


It's an interesting thing to try to quantify, especially when so much of the draft choice factors in "upside." Two players may really be close in value, but one has that intangible upside that pushes their stock 2 rounds earlier. 

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maybe what sums it up best, is that Robinson Cano is now a forgotten middle round pick, while he was a consensus top-10 pick not that long ago.

He is older, sure, but his fantasy numbers aren't that different. I mean, in 2016 he went .298-39-103... pretty nasty for a second basemen. 

 

Back in the day though, IIRC, the drop from him to the next guy was gargantuan. Not unlike the Gary Sanchez drop now (though I'd argue Contreras is a burgeoning beast)

 

but as a general philosophy... I lean toward "accumulate talent, ask questions later." Once in a while this really comes back to bite you, like in years where shortstop on the waiver wire is absolutely barren... but in general, in my experience, the teams that win the championship, are the teams with the most talented star players. Maybe they have a pre-2017 Zack Cozart plugged in at MI... but the rest of their explosive roster makes up for it. 

Edited by ChicksDigTheOPS
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Ariel Cohen, who publishes the ATC projections on Fangraphs, confirms Zimmerman's findings, with what appears to be a far more robust study:

 

Is Middle Infield Scarcity Overblown?

 

Quote

Based on the chart above, the answer to our original question is, “YES.”  The market does appear to overvalue the MI position.  Using the 1 to N method, it’s pretty clear to see it – as just about all of the MI numbers are in RED.  But even using the 5-point surrounding method, you can see that for MI – more of the slots lie in favor of the RED, whereas for CI, and especially for OFs – more slots lie in the GREEN.

 

It is no surprise, that many of the fantasy teams which I have constructed in recent years lack middle infield superstars at the top, and focus more on the OF position up top.  The chart above should show why that’s true, as I typically buy the players where the ATC vs Market ratio is the greatest, and have had great success in doing so.

 

The piece goes on to note some specific league formats where there's a small bit of scarcity, but in most cases, assuming Cohen's ADP data is an accurate reflection of the market, the market really is overvaluing middle infielders.

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Good stuff to chew on guys-

I think -as with all leagues- it comes down to amount of teams and starting roster spaces.

It's relative to that first and foremost. In my 20 team leagues with MI spots the hot-shot SS/2B guys are most always gonna command most value-

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Well, that post is from 2011.  The debate has moved on a lot since then.  In fact, Mike Podhorzer, who wrote that post, showed up in the comments of the Cohen post to say he also believes MIs are overvalued.

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Posted (edited)
15 hours ago, ST. STEVEN said:

Good stuff to chew on guys-

I think -as with all leagues- it comes down to amount of teams and starting roster spaces.

It's relative to that first and foremost. In my 20 team leagues with MI spots the hot-shot SS/2B guys are most always gonna command most value-

 

You know, I was almost think the opposite. In a shallow league have an elite guy at 2b/ss is very important. In deeper leagues? I don't know. You certainly need a starter in   20 team league, but I would be perfectly fine having Neil walker as my starting 2b or asdrubal Cabrera as my ss in a 20 teamer under the implication I got them super late and they are starters for a team. 

 

 

Edited by brockpapersizer

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Posted (edited)

I'm all for risk management analysis, and much of this has to do with positional eligibility, but how in the world can anyone say that 2b or SS is deeper than 3b?  

Edited by kidtwentytwo

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1 hour ago, brockpapersizer said:

 

You know, I was almost think the opposite. In a shallow league have an elite guy at 2b/ss is very important. In deeper leagues? I don't know. You certainly need a starter in   20 team league, but I would be perfectly fine having Neil walker as my starting 2b or asdrubal Cabrera as my ss in a 20 teamer under the implication I got them super late and they are starters for a team. 

 

 

 

Yeah its hard to debate this topic in a general sense, each league format will change how MI are perceptually valued and actually valued. In a standard 12 teamer I do think MI are overvalued.

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Posted (edited)
10 hours ago, brockpapersizer said:

You know, I was almost think the opposite. In a shallow league have an elite guy at 2b/ss is very important. In deeper leagues?

 

Based on Cohen's analysis, which is the most in-depth I've seen so far, I don't even think there's any sort of linear relationship like "shallow league means scarcity matters more, deep league means it doesn't", or vice versa.  There are just too many variables that affect the scarcity equation -- number of slots for each position, whether your platform has a larger pool of multi-eligible players due to a low games played threshold, etc.  These variables factor into how many players at each position to use for the "replacement level" cutoff, which factors into the scarcity bump.

 

There does come a point in deep leagues when you're at the "long tail" of a position where there's very little difference between the 20th best player and the 30th best, but at that point, you know you're way behind the team that happens to have the 3rd best, so you've already lost a lot of value.  Of course, you probably have them beat at another position (say, OF) because you were happy to wait for Walker or whoever, so they're rolling with a McCutchen or something as their OF1 while you're sitting pretty with someone like JD or Upton.  Generally speaking, the gap between the extremes at the scarce position is less than the gap between the extremes of the non-scarce position, but then you have to somehow account for the fact that you can't easily pull a Lindor-level shortstop off of waivers the way you might be able to pull a McCutchen-level OF, especially in 3 OF leagues.

 

So.. yeah, it's complicated.  The only actionable thing I'm getting from this for now is to be mindful of runs on positions seen as scarce, and to maybe try to zag when everyone else is zigging.  In RW forum mock #2 I found that taking Trea Turner with my #1 overall put me behind at other positions, while others were getting great value from their 2B/MI picks when I was getting middling OFs and SPs.  Anecdotal, but something that will inform my drafts in a couple of months.

 

9 hours ago, kidtwentytwo said:

I'm all for risk management analysis, and much of this has to do with positional eligibility, but how in the world can anyone say that SS is deeper than 3b?  


The 3B thing comes up in the bit where he's talking about replacement value.  The idea of using replacement value for calculating z-scores is similar to how you want a "replacement player" for WAR so that you're measuring the player's value over whatever production you can get for free, not the player's value over nothing at all.  Doing it the latter way would make the difference between elite and middling players look much larger than it is.

 

So, I think what Cohen's saying is something like this: yeah, obviously 3B5 is more valuable than SS5, but when you get to the difference between 3B5 and 3B(whatever the replacement level cutoff is for 3B), that could end up being more than what you're getting by drafting SS5 instead of SS(whatever the replacement cutoff is for SS).

 

Just to take a quick peek at this, here are some numbers using FantasyPros ECR ADP from 2017 and ESPN player rater values:

 

image.png.d8b1c539e7328f233c7dbcbaf8a73293.png

 

This is a bit crude, but let's say that the top 5 players at each position are "elite" options (that you try to grab earlier in drafts) while the 20-25 guys are close to replacement level.  In the first row, we see the average ESPN player rater value of the SS drafted in the top 5 was around 6.9, while the average value of the top 5 3B was around 7.2.  That means the elite 3B are a bit more valuable than the elite SS, but only marginally so.

 

However!  The second row shows the kind of value you might get by waiting until the later rounds at each position in some formats, or even the kind of player you might get on waivers in some shallower leagues.  Here we see that the middling / back-end SS options in 2017 returned a lot more value than the middling/back-end 3B options.  The "difference" row shows that the gap between high and low-end 3B is a lot larger than that between high and low-end SS.  The "Net value" row shows that a player who takes an elite SS and a back-end 3B ends up with a player rater value across those positions of ~8.1, while the team that took an elite 3B and a back-end SS ended up with ~10.6 -- confirming (albeit with one small test case) Cohen's findings that 3B isn't as deep.

Edited by tonycpsu
Fixed typo
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24 minutes ago, this guy right here said:

Draft OF and early.

 

Eh, I think this is also really format-dependent.  I did well last season waiting on OF in a 12-team, 3 OF league, because the replacement value (OF45-50, say) isn't too bad.  I'd never do that in a 12-team, 5 OF league where 80+ OF are being drafted, though.  There's really no "standard" league configuration out there, and I think these scarcity arguments get muddled when people don't consider these things.

 

Same goes for leagues with and without CI/MI slots.  It's all about what the value of the best player at the position is going to be on the wire, and, yeah, that's often been 2B/SS in recent years with out-of-nowhere guys like Nunez, Merrifield, DeJong.  No guarantee that will be true going forward, of course.

 

I think some of the more advanced cheat sheet / auction value calculators at FantasyPros and Fangraphs try to do some of the math on this by figuring out scarcity in your format, but it's definitely not an exact science.

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Posted (edited)

Because I hate myself, I plugged different projections into excel and compared 3b 1-5 and 3b 15-19 to SS1-5 and SS15-19.  I have no idea if these will format or not and you can argue about the projections, but it did indeed come up with 3b being more scarce than SS.  The Proj $ amount is the project $ they'll earn this year.  I took the average of the 5 and subtracted it from each other to get the difference.  The average is weighted for the more at bats one player is projected to receive.  So dip me in dog sh** today...

 

Position Player AB Run HR RBI  SB AVG Hits Proj $
                   
3B1 N Arenado 607 101 39 127 2 0.301 182.707 31
3B2 K Bryant 580 113 31 90 9 0.294 170.52 31
3B3 M Machado 617 96 32 95 9 0.259 159.803 28
3B4 J Turner 506 74 25 84 6 0.297 150.282 25
3B5 J Donaldson 511 89 35 92 4 0.278 142.058 25
  Total 2821 473 162 488 30 0.285 805.37 avg 28
                0  
3B15 M Moustakas 555 69 33 77 0 0.269 149.295 19
3B16 E Longoria 600 71 23 84 4 0.266 159.6 19
3B17 E Suarez 562 81 23 76 7 0.255 143.31 18
3B18 W Flores 504 60 25 79 1 0.263 132.552 16
3B19 J Gallo 484 79 39 80 6 0.221 106.964 14
    2705 360 143 396 18 0.256 691.721 avg 17.2
                Difference 10.8

 

 

Position Player AB Run HR RBI  SB AVG Hits Proj $
                   
SS1 T Turner 551 95 16 60 50 0.286 157.586 39
SS2 F Lindor 611 100 23 79 20 0.283 172.913 30
SS3 E Andrus 609 89 13 76 25 0.289 176.001 30
SS4 C Correa 595 95 28 110 6 0.295 175.525 30
SS5 J Segura 564 81 11 50 26 0.289 162.996 27
    2930 460 91 375 127 0.288 845.021 avg 31.2
                   
SS15 M Gonzalez 456 60 18 67 8 0.282 128.592 19
SS16 Z Cozart 444 71 20 57 3 0.297 131.868 16
SS17 J Polanco 553 62 15 73 15 0.263 145.439 19
SS18 D Gregorius 533 68 19 73 4 0.271 144.443 17
SS19 M Semien 544 75 17 61 14 0.248 134.912 17
    2530 336 89 331 44 0.271 685.254 avg 17.6
                Difference  13.6
Edited by kidtwentytwo
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I just read in the baseball forecaster that one of the writers said something along the lines of someone being good at a shallow position (2B). 

 

So I guess Rob Shandler and co still believe in MI scarcity. 

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@kidtwentytwo dont those avg's and difference show that ss is more scarce? or i should say ss 15-19 have a bigger dropoff compared to ss 1-5

difference between 3b 15-19 and 3b 1-5 is 10 

difference between ss 15-19 and  ss 1-5 is 13

 

*not accounting for adp 

 

anyways unless your really reaching for a mi bat i dont see a huge advantage/disadvantage 

if you view correa as a top 10-8 player take him there, if you view trea as top 5-3 player take him there.  as most league have util spots

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7 hours ago, colepenhagen said:

@kidtwentytwo dont those avg's and difference show that ss is more scarce? or i should say ss 15-19 have a bigger dropoff compared to ss 1-5

difference between 3b 15-19 and 3b 1-5 is 10 

difference between ss 15-19 and  ss 1-5 is 13

 

*not accounting for adp 

 

anyways unless your really reaching for a mi bat i dont see a huge advantage/disadvantage 

if you view correa as a top 10-8 player take him there, if you view trea as top 5-3 player take him there.  as most league have util spots

 

Yes you are right...jeez.  Cold is getting to me :blink:

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The difference there is that my numbers are from 2017 actual performance, while @kidtwentytwo's numbers are from projected 2018 performance.  The auction dollar / ESPN player rater are also normalized for different "zero points" (I think auction $ have a lower bar for replacement value because they're calculated for leagues deeper than ESPN standard) so there could be some distortion between the two there as well.

 

I was also assuming that you'd be digging deeper than 15-19 for your SS if you went 3B early, and vice versa.  I guess that would depend on how you prioritize other positions.

 

What source did you use for ADP there, @kidtwentytwo?

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I used Shandler for the projections and "ADP".  I used his rankings as ADP...I could probably use NFBC at this point.   It's something I threw together rather quickly...evidenced by the fact I didn't even read my own results correctly! 

 

One thing that did stick out to me here is that the MI has become a prime source of SB.  I think it's worth considering that people are drafting MI early because of the SB and not because they believe MI is scarce.   So if this is a 5x5 league and you plan to sit back and wait on MI, you better have a good plan in place for SB.  

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I agree that category scarcity is hard to separate from positional scarcity, but auction dollars and player rater z-scores do account for category scarcity.  I don't know about Shandler's formula for converting to auction dollars specifically ,but most 5x5 value approaches I've seen place a very high value on guys that contribute a meaningful amount of SBs even if their other numbers are pedestrian.  e.g. Dee Gordon got 7.81 player rater points from his league-leading SB total last year, while Giancarlo Stanton "only" got 4.51 from his league-leading HR total.

 

So I guess what I'm saying is that, yeah, maybe people are worried about being shut out of steals, but the values should be accounting for that as being fair value (not a reach) unless you disagree with how the SB are weighted.

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