There's a philosophy that the collective opinion of a large group of people is more accurate than that of any one individual. This is commonly referred to as "the wisdom of the crowd."
You've probably seen an attempt at a practical application of this on the game show "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." On that program, a contestant who doesn't know the answer to a multiple-choice question can poll the audience to see which answer they believe to be correct. It seems to makes sense that if you ask enough people, the majority of them will tend to agree on the correct response, but of course, there are no guarantees.
We here in the ESPN Fantasy department take it upon ourselves to debate the merits of players every spring and afterward, presenting to you our mini-version of the "wisdom of the crowd" in the form of our Top 300. Each one of us who takes part in the construction of this list might not agree with each and every player's relative ranking, but the hope is that collectively, we've come up with a solid pecking order.
Of course, when it comes time to draft, nobody expects fantasy baseball owners to blindly follow our list. It's a solid starting point, but your personal preferences are surely going to allow you to adjust our list to fit your player evaluations. Additionally, when your league's draft day arrives, one "unexpected" pick is likely to cause a chain reaction that ultimately causes our Top 300 to bear no resemblance whatsoever to the order in which players landed on your league's rosters.
However, if you take the results from enough leagues that have already drafted and put them all together, you can certainly use this information to help better inform your own draft strategy. The Average Draft Position (ADP) compiled from all ESPN live drafts, when used in conjunction with the Top 300, can be a crucial tool that lets you know which sleepers you can probably keep in your back pocket for a few extra rounds and which ones you need to act on quickly, lest you miss out.
Again, it's by no means perfect, and each individual draft ends up having its own quirks and idiosyncrasies. But knowing in advance what the "crowds" have tended to do might well be enough insight to allow you to always be acting one step ahead of the competition, instead of always getting scooped for the guy you really wanted to take.
Let's take a position by position look at where the ADPs diverge from the starting point we've provided for you to see what wisdom can be learned:
Catchers: Yadier Molina may well be the No. 2 catcher according to both the ESPN rankings, as well as his rank in terms of ADP (46, 55) but in a 10-team league, he's being selected almost a full round lower than our projections. Additionally, the gap between Matt Wieters (54, 59) and Joe Mauer (64, 60) is all but nonexistent in practice, creating a clear tier of three where we saw a much more delineated order.
Mike Napoli's (155, 136) multipositional eligibility has him going 19 picks earlier than expected, but he still rests in a tier of his own as the seventh catcher off the board in most drafts. Brian McCann (270, 213) and A.J. Pierzynski (249, 227) are familiar names who you're going to have to take a round or two early if your heart is set on having them on your roster. Odds are fans of Jonathan Lucroy (220, 244) can wait a bit longer to get their man.
First Basemen: We've got three first basemen in our top 10, and the general consensus seems to agree with us. However, Joey Votto (9,10) is getting a little less love than Prince Fielder (10,9) in most leagues, with the Detroit Tigers slugger winning more of the coin tosses at pick No. 9 thus far.
People are definitely more bullish on the likes of Ryan Howard (146, 99) and Paul Konerko (138, 114) than they are likely to pull the trigger on Ike Davis (94, 101) or Eric Hosmer (104, 113). And Mark Trumbo (109, 83), perhaps because of his positional flexibility, is getting snatched up a good two and a half rounds earlier than expected, so if you're undecided between the Angel and another player who might well last a bit, make your move now or be prepared to miss out.
One thing to keep in mind when you see an ADP that seems completely out of place is that recent injury news might be skewing the results. Case in point: Mark Teixeira (196, 130). His partially torn tendon sheath prompted our rating of the Yankees' first baseman to plummet instantly. It will take some time for the corresponding ADP drop to catch up because his ranking in completed drafts isn't going to change.
Second Basemen: It probably speaks to the overall weakness of the position that for the most part, the ADP at second base sticks fairly close to the Top 300. It's chalk at the top and all the way through the top dozen names. When it comes to filling out that MI position in the fantasy lineup, most owners are perfectly fine waiting a bit to do so. Perhaps because he's playing for the league-swapping Houston Astros, Jose Altuve (84, 97) is going over a full round later than expected or it just might be a function of overall disillusionment after the top seven names go off the board.
Chase Utley (157, 131) in a contract year, is gaining some traction as a sleeper pick, having clearly passed Danny Espinosa (135, 140) and Rickie Weeks (149, 156) in the pecking order. Another player with a surge in popularity is Jedd Gyorko (262, 247), who has hit three home runs this spring. It just goes to show that if a player who you are targeting starts to consistently make the highlight reel just before you draft, you probably need to reach for him around earlier than if he hadn't been featured on "SportsCenter."
Shortstops: Overall, people are still waiting a bit on Hanley Ramirez (21, 25) but are still selecting him a bit more often than his former teammate, Jose Reyes (29, 26). However, the thumb injury Ramirez suffered in the World Baseball Classic might end up making the decision at No. 2 a lot clearer going forward. If Ramirez does have to miss some time, expect Starlin Castro (35, 40) to start to climb a lot higher, perhaps even all the way into the tail end of Round 3.
Once the top six shortstops are off the board, it's clear that owners are waiting a bit longer to fill that spot in the lineup. Players like Erick Aybar (121, 135) and Alcides Escobar (141, 160) are part of the group of names in consideration for the last few starting spots in standard leagues who are seemingly being selected because owners need a warm body, rather than being actively pursued.
The name value of Derek Jeter (185, 153) continues to keep the New York Yankees' captain
in the conversation despite his advanced age. Owners apparently would rather latch on to his expected 10 home runs and those "intangibles" than to take a chance that Everth Cabrera (230, 261) manages to boost his batting average above the league norm while racking up over 40 steals.
Third Basemen: This is a very strong position, with 10 guys with an ADP in the top 100 (11, if you include Martin Prado). Miguel Cabrera (3,1) is the crowd's consensus No. 1 overall pick, but after he goes off the board, it looks like owners in the middle of the snake are content to play a game of chicken between Adrian Beltre (18, 19), David Wright (17, 22) and Evan Longoria (21,23), hoping that at least one of this trio lasts into Round 3. It's a dangerous game.
There's another clear shopping spree at third base in Round 7, with Brett Lawrie (55,66), Aramis Ramirez (69,69) and Pablo Sandoval (78,70) all getting lumped together in the same tier, along with the injured Chase Headley, whose ADP has yet to re-establish itself, but will likely settle around this point of the draft.
After that last feeding frenzy abates, the bottom drops out of the third base ADP. Generally speaking, once David Freese (125, 120) goes off the board, you can expect to wait another 3-4 rounds before any more names gets snagged off the remainder pile. The relative value of players like Todd Frazier (172, 186), Kyle Seager (164, 188) and Manny Machado (177, 189) simply does not require you to reach if you're eyeballing these players.
Outfielders: Apparently Carlos Gonzalez (8,11) is not a first-rounder in ESPN standard leagues after all. At least that's what ADP is telling us. I don't think that's really a comment on CarGo himself, but rather the perception that you either need to strike quickly at the corners or grab Robinson Cano before focusing on a loaded outfield position, at least at the very elite level.
As expected, drafters have a slightly higher opinion on the chances of Bryce Harper (37, 31) having a stellar sophomore season than we rankers did. If you want him, you're probably going to have to take him before you see Jay Bruce (36, 38) and Adam Jones (34, 37). Certainly, by the time you see Matt Holliday (44, 43) go off the board, you're going to be way too late.
The crowds don't have as much faith when it comes to Shin-Soo Choo (76, 88), Alex Gordon (81, 91) or Carlos Gomez (101, 116), all of whom take at least a one-round hit in the ADP assessment. But clearly, the big losers this season are the speed demons. Apparently the days when owners would reach for a Dexter Fowler ( 176, 190) or a Coco Crisp (179, 194) or a Lorenzo Cain (250, 289) in order to beat the league to some cheap steals have long since passed us by. Even Michael Bourn (56, 64) is lasting until Round 7.
Designated Hitters: There's only one DH of note in fantasy for 2013, and that's David Ortiz (132, 122). In certain formats, like points leagues, his expected statistical output might warrant top-50 consideration. However, the fact he can only fill that utility spot is what depresses his value, assuming a return to full health, to well outside the top 100 in ESPN Standard leagues.
Starting Pitchers: We don't have any pitchers in our first round, but that hasn't deterred many leagues from seeing an owner grab Justin Verlander (13, 8) as their No. 1 pick. Clayton Kershaw (14, 13) is the likely next name off the board, though it's clear that the "sexy" pick is Stephen Strasburg (24, 18), and it wouldn't be at all surprising to see owners grab him early in Round 2.
I like to use the "every 3-4 rounds" benchmark to see what an average staff might look like if you were to simply try to keep pace with the rest of your league when drafting pitchers in order to see what the viability of such a strategy might be. This season, that would result in a starting staff which kicks off with Gio Gonzalez (47, 42), Jordan Zimmermann (70, 73) and Dan Haren (106, 115). If it's good enough for the Washington Nationals, it should be good enough for you.
For the most part, starting pitching is sticking close to the ESPN rankings. There does seem to be an anti-Detroit Tigers bias surfacing late, with Doug Fister (98, 108) and Anibal Sanchez (119, 133) both going lower than expected. The lack of warm fuzzies seems to also be attached to Arizona and Ian Kennedy (102, 109), Wade Miley (148, 164) and Trevor Cahill (204, 216).
Roy Halladay (127, 68) is the biggest question mark. Because of his age, a poor spring performance (6.75 ERA) has caused some rethinking of his 2013 projections and the ADP has not quite caught up to his lackluster camp as of yet. But then again, the Phillies are saying that a stomach virus is to blame and that he is otherwise healthy and ready to go. We shall see.
Relief Pitchers: Don't pay for saves! You all know the ESPN Fantasy mantra by now. However, with Craig Kimbrel (42, 41), you're paying for both saves and a ton of strikeouts. That makes him all the more alluring to fantasy owners, and they're grabbing him earlier and earlier with each passing season.
Other than Kimbrel, the trend seems to be to "break the seal" on closers in Round 8, and at that point, it's a matter of personal preference with Jonathan Papelbon (77, 74), Jason Motte (80, 77) and Aroldis Chapman (79, 72) -- whom everybody seems to believe will be closing games in Cincinnati at some point this season -- all going in this neighborhood.
Because predicting saves can be such a roll of the dice, much of the ADP list seems to trust the general order our Top 300 has spelled out. However, if there are any "sleepers" in the midst, it does appear that Baltimore's Jim Johnson (129, 112) and Seattle's Tom Wilhelmsen (221, 203) are getting the largest amount of increased interest. On the flip side, Ryan Madson (168, 182) and Alexi Ogando (193, 205) are the two relievers with the most glaring lack of trust.
Remember that whether or not the "wisdom of the crowd" proves to be more accurate in evaluating talent is irrelevant on draft day. We won't know that one way or the other until the season is over. But what you can be fairly certain of is that once that player you want is off the board, you'll have to do without.
So while the "wisdom" itself may end up being wrong, what it is saying in terms of when to pull the trigger should be ignored at your own risk.