Like many of you, I'm really psyched for my fantasy baseball draft, which is coming up this week.
I enjoy it because it makes me think about the game of baseball in a different way than I otherwise would as I watch the season play out.
But this isn't your traditional fantasy baseball league. I play in another type of league, one that focuses not on the offensive side of the game, but the defensive side.
It's a contemporary approach to fantasy yet with old-school logistics. We use the good ol' pen-and-paper route -- OK, so we use our computers some, too -- of the days of yore because no website offers a league like this, in part because the defense metric we use isn't even available real-time. If you want to start a similar league, you'll have to do it manually. In a way, that adds to the appeal.
Defensive stats fantasy league: Key points
This will be the second year of ESPN Stats & Information's "Defensive Stats Fantasy Baseball" league, and I thought I would share the idea behind the game so that others could play along, as well.
How to play
The rules are fairly simple. Gather between eight and 14 of your friends and set up a 10-round snake draft. Each owner drafts a team of 10 players, one at each of the positions on the field and one "wild card" who can play any position.
However, the way we play it, this wild-card slot is not like a DH/UTIL slot in fantasy. Instead of looking for the best player at any position, the goal from the wild-card spot is to start the worst player statistically. More on that in a moment.
Scoring is based on adding up one category -- defensive runs saved (DRS) -- for the nine players at their drafted position. Defensive runs saved totals can be found at Baseball-Reference ("Rdrs" at the bottom of player pages) or Fangraphs (2012 can be found here) .
Players accumulate "runs saved" by turning batted balls into outs, and performing position-specific skills (such as turning double plays, defensing bunts or throwing out baserunners) more effectively than their peers. A full explanation can be found here.
Obviously, some players accrue negative defensive value, and that's where the "wild card" comes into play. The value for your wild-card slot is the inverse of his defensive runs saved total. In other words, if a player is worth minus-20 runs, you receive 20 runs for his contribution. Wild cards with positive DRS totals should have their totals subtracted from their team's tally. In other words, we've found a way in which we can root for mediocrity.
Those are the basic rules. We compile our standings once a month, but feel free to check them more often. We don't do any in-season player moves; who we get on draft day is who we get for the season. But feel free to adjust to your wishes if you start such a league.
How to draft well
The keys to success in "Defensive Stats Fantasy Baseball" are the same as in regular fantasy baseball:
Do your homework: Read up on who rates well statistically (or use our rankings below!). You would never consider drafting Brendan Ryan in a traditional fantasy league. But as long as the Mariners are committed to playing him every day, he's worthy of a top-3 pick.
Keep track of positional changes and playing-time projections. Learn from my mistake: I got burned last year by drafting Ben Zobrist at second base, and because our rules allow me to collect points at just one position, I lost out on his value in right field.
Value positional scarcity: Just as you would look hard to find great offensive players at positions at which there are few (middle infield, catcher) in fantasy leagues, you'd do the same on the defensive side.
For instance, left field is one position at which defensive talent was significantly lacking last season. That makes Alex Gordon, Brett Gardner and now Mike Trout extra-valuable in a defensive stats league.
Also be aware of which positions have an abundance of good defenders. If you don't get the best of the center fielders in the first two rounds, you can wait a few rounds, because there are a number of good ones out there. Last year, 18 center fielders were worth at least five defensive runs saved.
Have fun: This is intended to be an enjoyable alternative to fantasy baseball and one that can be educational, as well. Learn about what goes into the defensive metrics. Cheer on your favorite player when he makes a "Web Gem," regardless of which team you root for. Trash-talk with your friend, who, in a fit of confusion, drafted both Derek Jeter and Ryan Howard.
And, of course, play to win. With that, here are my top 90 rankings for this league, with a little added analysis below:
Defensive Stats Fantasy Baseball rankings
The Top 90 across all positions (including pitchers), including positional rank and each player's defensive runs saved (DRS) in 2012.
Five players to target
1. Andrelton Simmons, SS, Braves: If his 49-game debut season is any indication, Simmons has a chance to be the next Ozzie Smith. We reviewed his incredible body of work (19 defensive runs saved in 49 games) last July in a SweetSpot blog while naming him Defensive Player of the Month for June, his first month as a big leaguer. He obviously doesn't have the track record of those we ranked ahead of him, but we wouldn't be at all surprised if he broke the single-season record for defensive runs saved by a shortstop, which is 34, set by Adam Everett in 2006.
2. Manny Machado, 3B, Orioles: Much like Simmons, Machado had an impressive debut on the defensive side, with seven defensive runs saved in 51 games. Remember the fake-throw-to-first, turn-and-throw-to-third play he made to save the late-season win against the Rays? We expect he has more like that to show the baseball world.
3. Craig Gentry, CF, Rangers: Though Leonys Martin may win the Rangers' starting center-field job, Gentry looms should his services be needed. "Baseball Tonight" analyst Doug Glanville has raved about Gentry in the past, and considering Doug was a pretty good defensive outfielder during his time in the bigs, we'll put our trust in his assessment.
4. Ryan Hanigan, C, Reds: If you don't get Yadier Molina, sit back and snag Hanigan, whose performance has thus far kept former prospect Devin Mesoraco from playing more regularly. Hanigan is solid defensively, and has one of the best throwing arms in the game. He nailed nearly half the baserunners attempting to steal against him last season, and that deterrent value will serve his owner well.
5. Franklin Gutierrez, CF, Mariners: Injuries have significantly limited Gutierrez the past couple of years, but the guy who brought back the "Death to Flying Things" nickname (which was most popular in 19th-century baseball) rates statistically among the very best when healthy. He might not get back to the same caliber he was in 2008 and 2009, when he totaled 55 defensive runs saved, but he could make for a valuable late-round steal.
Drafting the "wild card"
Picking the wild card is tricky. Ideally you want someone who is going to play every day (i.e. their defensive shortcomings, realized or not, don't get in the way of their playing time). Here are 10 players to consider:
1. Matt Kemp, CF, Dodgers: Kemp's defensive issues started surfacing three seasons ago (2010) when he had one of the worst years a defender could ever have (minus-37 defensive runs saved). We outlined some of those issues in this blog post, and there haven't been any significant improvements to Kemp's game since then. Though he's not prone to committing errors, Kemp has a tendency to miss a lot of catchable balls, and that hurts his advanced defensive stats.
2. Ryan Howard, 1B, Phillies: Big lumbering first basemen (especially ones with a history of Achilles issues) make for ideal targets. Howard rates the worst at the first-base position over the past three seasons with minus-32 defensive runs saved. A sensible alternative is Prince Fielder (minus-30 since 2010), whose everyday playing history actually works against him and makes him a capable choice here.
3. Derek Jeter, SS, Yankees: The topic of whether Jeter is a good defender is one that has been subject to plenty of debate -- he does some things defensively very well -- but numbers are numbers: Jeter has posted a negative defensive runs saved total in three straight seasons and seven of his past eight. And as age (and injuries) impacts his game, the chance that this changes is minimal.
4. Michael Young, 3B, Phillies: Phils GM Ruben Amaro Jr. can talk all he wants about the value of having a player like Young in his clubhouse, but he's not going to help much defensively. In just more than 3,100 career innings at the hot corner, Young has been credited with minus-35 defensive runs saved. Phillies fans used to seeing Scott Rolen and Placido Polanco in past seasons might have to accept that Young doesn't quite have their capabilities.
5. Alfonso Soriano, LF, Chicago Cubs: Soriano has gotten better defensively, but he still rates poorly on a year-to-year basis. Over the past four seasons, he has totaled minus-42 defensive runs saved. With Soriano getting older, he's unlikely to get better, and thus seems like a safe pick at this spot.