It's almost March! Teams are gathering in Florida and Arizona to see what kind of rosters they have, and similarly, with your fantasy league's draft day right around the corner, it's time to start compiling your draft list to try to figure out which players might be a tad overrated and which ones might be hidden gems.
Now certainly, the start of most people's lists is going to look the same. After all, it's not hard to surmise that your top 10 should include players like Albert Pujols, Ryan Braun and Chase Utley. These players clearly are going to provide help in all five offensive categories in a 5x5 league. But what about guys who excel at one particular skill, players who can go a long way toward winning you a category all by themselves? At what point do they enter the mix? How valuable are Michael Bourn's 61 steals if they bring only a handful of home runs along with them? How much stock should you put in Ichiro Suzuki's .352 batting average when he's not likely to do much in the way of RBIs? Adam Dunn's 38 dingers in 2009 were nice, but he's not exactly what you'd call fleet of foot. Forget about him helping your stolen base totals. What value should you place on the guys like Josh Anderson and Emilio Bonifacio?
That's why we announce the return of our Pierre Rankings, named after Juan Pierre, the speedy outfielder with a toothpick for a bat, the epitome of a player with plenty of speed who doesn't do you a lick of good in the rest of the standard rotisserie categories. And while Pierre certainly lived up to his reputation yet again in 2009, stealing 30 bases with but a single round-tripper to his name, it was Bourn who carried the "run swiftly and carry a weak stick" crown.
Now, there's no question that if you had Bourn on your team last season, you did well in steals. There were only 46 players with 20 or more stolen bases last season. Compare that with 87 players who hit 20 or more homers, and it would be reasonable to assume Bourn's 61 swipes were more valuable to your team than, say, Prince Fielder's 46 homers, simply because there were fewer steals to go around.
While it might not hold sway in every league, the top stolen base artists can have a greater influence on final standings than the elite home run hitters. Take a look at the following chart:
If we were to assume Bourn was on the first-place team in steals and swap him out for a 20-steal player on the sixth-place team, the move instantly would change both teams' fortunes, with the current sixth-place team shooting past the category leader, 195.3 to 183.8. By contrast, if we were to perform the same swap for Fielder in home runs, the first place team still holds the advantage, 300.3 to 297.8.
An argument I often hear raised to invalidate this "head-to-head" comparison of steals to homers is that each home run also brings with it a run scored and at least one -- if not more -- RBI. If each home run helps in four categories (it's also a hit, so it increases batting average), how could a home run NOT be more valuable than a stolen base, which helps in only one category?
So, how much is each stat actually worth in terms of fantasy? Take a look at the following table:
What we've done is very simple. We've taken the league-wide totals from last season to create a statistical universe for our players to inhabit. We determined the expected statistical output of the average player, assuming even distribution among the lineup spots. From this, we were able to extrapolate the relative value of each hit, each run scored and so on. In other words, since there were more home runs than stolen bases in 2009, by a ratio in the neighborhood of 7-to-4, the value of each stolen base was about seven-fourths that of a home run, matching the relative frequency of the event.
Even if you were to add the value of a run, RBI, hit and at-bat to each home run, you'd still have only a value of 0.083, less than that of a single stolen base. Stolen bases are simply more valuable than home runs.
Using these statistical values, we can create a raw ranking based on each player's actual relative 2009 output. Here are our top 25 hitters, based on this information:
So we see that Bourn's raw value was third overall in the majors last season. But it would be a big mistake to stop here and assume that means we're saying he's a fantasy first-rounder. (Top-ranked Jacoby Ellsbury is a different story, but for different reasons.) These numbers are only half the story. Why? Because although Bourn will help you win that steals category, you have to factor in that with three homers and only 35 RBIs, he'll be an anchor dragging you down to the ocean floor in two other categories. How do we figure out where that balance is? At what point does the scale tip from Bourn being a benefit to an albatross? Clearly, it's not going to be at the third overall pick.
What you have to do is figure out where each player would rank if you removed, one at a time, each category from the equation. In other words, if steals weren't a category, where would we pick Bourn? A far cry from third; try more along the lines of No. 136. If we took RBIs out of the mix, however, Bourn clearly would be worthy of a top-three pick. By balancing all these mini rankings, we can adjust our initial rankings to reflect the law of diminishing returns, to avoid having too many eggs in one statistical basket. After doing all the math, we're left with the following top 25:
In a 10-team league and factoring in the drafting of pitchers, Bourn now looks more like a third- or fourth-rounder. We're not saying you have to draft him there. In any draft room, there are going to be as many different opinions on player value as there are owners. If you know you're the only one who is putting Bourn's statistical output in the same neighborhood as Evan Longoria's, you certainly can wait much longer in your draft to select him.
Also, say you've already selected Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford. At this point, Bourn's steals don't have as much value to you as they would if you selected Ryan Howard or Price Fielder. Draft lists are merely a starting point and need to be massaged as each individual draft plays out. Because these rankings are based on last season's numbers, there's plenty of room for adjustment.
Pick No. 25 is where you should start to consider drafting Bourn if you think his 2010 season will be identical to his 2009 season or if you think his on-base percentage will continue to grow from last season's career-high .354, yielding him even more opportunity to run. Conversely, if you think he'll return to his impatient ways and his number of walks will return to the 2008 level, you can drop him considerably.
Personal adjustments will help this list be of far greater use to you on draft day. Obviously, if you believe Aaron Hill had a career year last season, you should lower him a bit for 2010. If a player had an unusually down 2009 or missed time because of injury, like Alex Rodriguez (No. 40) or Jose Reyes (No. 310), you will need to move them far higher on the list than their current slots. Ultimately, those are the kinds of decisions every person has to make for himself or herself. However, I believe that as a starting point, this is the truest way to establish the value of a player with a high batting average (Ichiro, No. 35) versus one with a large home run total (Dunn, No. 64) versus a speed demon like our old friend Mr. Pierre (No. 109).
In case you're curious, you can check out the entire Pierre Rankings list here.
Good luck, everyone, and happy drafting!