Does it make a difference as to a fantasy baseball team’s starting draft position? Are all draft slots created equally? Is it better to be at the ends (wheel/turn), or rather, is it more opportune to make one’s selections from the middle of the order?
To try and help us answer these questions, let’s look at what happened in 2019. Now, of course, the current season isn’t over just yet – there are still a few more weeks of baseball. However, now in mid-September, it is sufficiently late in the season for us to analyze how the draft positions played out over the course of 2019.
For this study, we will observe the standings for three different league types:
- TGFBI – 21 Leagues
- NFBC Main Event – 38 Leagues
- NFBC Draft Champions – 230 Leagues
TGBFI (The Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational) is our own Justin Mason’s creation. It is a compilation of 315 fantasy baseball experts, divided into 21 NFBC-Style divisions. The 315 experts are also pitted against each other in a large overall competition. [I am the host of the TGFBI Beat the Shift Podcast, which can be found right here.]
The NFBC (National Fantasy Baseball Championship) Main Event is a set of high money entry leagues, with large financial payouts for the victors. As with TGFBI, the teams are all additionally entered into an overall contest with even larger payouts for the top finishers.
The NFBC Draft Champion leagues are money league contests as well (although their cost and payouts are far less than that of the main event leagues). As I will further describe below, they are 50-round slow drafts.
The nice thing about using NFBC data is that all leagues have the identical setup as far as active roster/lineup constraints and scoring categories go. Mike Trout theoretically provides owners with the very same benefit in each of the league types. Furthermore, all leagues in this study institute an “overall” component. All three formats do not allow for in-season trading, all are standard 5×5 mixed leagues, and all are 15-team deep.
There are of course a few league differences worth noting. The first is their mode and time of draft. Both TGFBI leagues and NFBC Draft Champion leagues are slow drafts. Each team is given a 4-hour clock per selection, and the draft runs over multiple weeks. Some NFBC Draft Champion leagues started all the way back in January, while some took place in February and/or March. NFBC Main event leagues are traditional snake draft leagues. They allow for a 1-minute maximum time limit per selection, with most league drafts taking place in March.
One other major difference between the three leagues is the use of the waiver wire. Draft Champion leagues do not allow for in-season pickups, and therefore draft a much larger roster of players (50 players per team). TGFBI and the NFBC Main Event are each restricted to 30-man rosters, but allow waiver claims via FAAB during the season.
TGFBI and NFBC Main Event Leagues
Let’s start by looking at where the current league leading teams emanated from in TGFBI and in the NFBC Main Event.
The above graph displays the percentage of league leading teams according to their initial draft position. The average figure, if all draft slots were created equal would be 6.7%, or 1 in 15.
TGFBI drafters from the first 3 slots did not fare well in terms of leading their leagues. Only 5% of first place teams came from slots #1-3, which is about one-fourth of the average figure. NFBC Main Event teams fared slightly better but are still below half of the expected average.
Across the two formats, the 13th slot was the one that fared the best, accounting for 14% of league leading teams – about double the expected rate. Slot #4 also faired quite well for both TGFBI and NFBC Main Event players.
Simply looking at 1st place teams may not give us enough evidence of how the draft slots fared. To further aid us, above are the current results for “Money Finish” fantasy teams. I use the term “Money Finish” to denote a top three team in leagues.
One additional note. For clarity – the percentages listed in the graph add up to 100%, and not to 300%. The percentages here refer to number of teams divided by the total number of top three teams (instead of by the number of leagues).
The first three slots (#1-3) once again performed quite poorly for both formats, especially for TGBFI. For the NFBC Main Event, teams were about half as likely to finish in the money drafting from the first 3 slots, as compared to average.
Slots #7-9 performed quite well. In TGFBI, 29% of top-3 teams emanated from these middle draft slots – about 50% better than expected. For the main event, the #7-10 slots were the prime area to draft from.
NFBC Draft Champion Leagues
Now onto the NFBC Draft Champions. With 230 leagues (a larger sample size), the DC league results should be less prone to random fluctuations than the TGFBI / Main Event results.
For first place teams, the #1 and #14 slots were the worst two positions to draft from. The two combined for just a 7.4% share of the leading teams – about half of expected. The #3 and #15 slots were the following two underperforming draft positions. It seems that the end positions of the draft champion leagues were not favorable. The #10 slot was the clear place to be with nearly 11% of all leading teams starting from the 10th position.
The “money finish” results are a bit more stable and depicts the same story. Teams from the #5 through the #10 slots were the most favorable, whereas the endpoints (#1-3 & #14-15) were the least favorable.
All Three Formats
Let’s now accumulate all the various leagues together and take a closer look at the money finish teams across all three formats:
The above data now originates from 289 leagues, and from a combined 867 teams – which should provide a large sample size. Most of the leagues are that of the Draft Champion style; the other formats provide some smoothing.
It isn’t hard to visually see that the bars are low on the ends and are higher in the middle. The resulting difference between slot ranges (middle vs end) is significant and meaningful. For example, the average percentage from the six end slots (#1-3, #13-15) was 5.8%, versus 7.4% for the middle seven slots (#5-11). That’s a 28% difference – a 28% advantage for making player selections in the middle of drafts.
The analysis thus far has only showed the standings at the top of leagues – leaders and money finishers. Let’s now also look at the bottom of the standings.
Above are the results of teams currently in the bottom three of league standings, displayed by originating draft position. What is interesting in the above, is twofold.
One, the distribution of the “bottom three” teams is far less volatile than that of the “money finishers.” That is, there is far less of an importance between draft slots for teams at the bottom, than there is for teams at the top.
Second, the chart is NOT the mirror image of the “money finish” chart. For example, the #10 slot which led to the largest number of “money finish” teams – also led to the most “bottom three” teams. The #10 slot was apparently highly variable in 2019 – either it was a highly profitable team, or a complete disaster.
Slots #1 & #2 were the two worst slots to draft from, with slots #3, #14-15 closely behind. The general trend that we saw earlier still continues.
The above analysis only looks at one year of data, and only at a few limited formats hosted by the NFBC. It is entirely possible that other fantasy formats would behave differently. Of course, it is also difficult to generalize and make conclusions about draft positions on a going forward basis from just the one year.
But since dynamics don’t often change dramatically from year to year, this is an excellent starting point. We must start somewhere. The results from 2019 are significant enough to form a conclusion on the current year. Those who drafted in the middle of the draft order were at an advantage over teams drafting from an end slot. The advantage was on the order of around nearly 25%, which is not small.
It is difficult to pinpoint and explain the cause of this result, as there a few possible reasons for the empirical advantage. Though one impetus may be that players selected near the endpoints in 2019 contained many of the large underperformers – I will offer up my own alternative conjecture as to the cause.
In many ways, draft management and maintaining team balance is easier and is more effective from a middle draft slot. Fantasy owners near the endpoints this season likely selected players earlier than they should have, given their expected projections. Owners pushed up speedsters such as Dee Gordon and Mallex Smith in fear of losing out on obtaining stolen bases. Closers may have been taken a round early in fear of losing out on a run of stoppers, etc.
Endpoint drafting teams have long durations between selections. Because of the fear of losing out on needed or wanted players – those teams may have over drafted players and were less able to take advantage of bargains more present for middle slot drafters.
One other thought. At the very top of the draft (#1-3 slots), values do not spike as high as in fantasy football. In football, having a top 3 overall pick is a large advantage. By my valuation, the #3 overall pick this season (a high end running back) was worth $85 in an auction as compared to the #7 overall pick worth $60. That’s over a 40% difference. In baseball, the difference between the #3 and #7 picks may be closer to only 15%.
What will your draft slot preference be in 2020? Will it be #7 in a 15-team league, or will it still be #1?
Ariel was a finalist in 2018 & 2019 for the FSWA Baseball Writer of the Year award. He was also nominated for Baseball Article of the Year in 2018, and Best Baseball Series in 2019. Ariel is the creator of the ATC (Average Total Cost) Projection System. Ariel also writes for CBS Sports, SportsLine, and is the host of the Great Fantasy Baseball Invitational - Beat the Shift Podcast (@TGFBI). Ariel is a member of the inaugural Tout Wars Draft & Hold League and plays high stakes contests in the NFBC. Ariel Cohen is a fellow of the Casualty Actuarial Society (CAS) and the Society of Actuaries (SOA). He is a Vice President of Risk Management for a large international insurance and reinsurance company. Follow Ariel on Twitter at @ATCNY.