I Still Hate Rankings

I told you once, and I’m going to tell you again – I hate rankings. They create a number of disadvantages. Most trivially, rankings help less prepared owners chase down my sleepers too early in the draft. They anchor our valuations of a player to a one-size-fits-all analysis – often without regard to the specific quirks in our own leagues. Perhaps most importantly, rankings can smother creativity in the draft room.

As much as rankings annoy me, I still create my own custom set for multiple websites. I’m an offender. Here’s a very rough set from early December. My next update is due later today (the timing of this article is no coincidence).

Ideally, every league would consist of X owners putting in exactly the same amount of effort. In reality, there are always a few people who hustle much more than their rivals. This is where a good set of rankings can help to level the playing field on draft day. If you know you’re behind on preparation, plan to lean on the rankings crutch.

That’s awfully obnoxious if you’re the guy who put in the prep. Take last winter. We at FanGraphs noticed several players well before the herd – Mookie Betts, Carlos Carrasco, Jake Arrieta, and Jacob deGrom jump to mind. Between January and March, all four players climbed roughly six rounds in a 12 team draft.

Draft helium can be a real problem. All rankings come equipped with inherent biases. Typically, one of two conditions is present – either the ranker doesn’t predict any changes in playing time, or the ranker is too bullish about players without uncertain playing time.

Greg Bird is an excellent example this year. On another site I work for, seven writers ranked Bird between the 25th to the 42nd first baseman. Some were even higher on him before I talked them off the ledge. Bird would be highly productive as the Yankees first baseman. With his 2015 success, it’s easy to jump on the bandwagon.

Unfortunately, Bird has two problems. If he plays, there’s no guarantee he’ll play well. The sophomore slump is a real thing, and Bird played just enough in 2015 for the league to be ready to adjust. Even worse, Bird is thoroughly blocked. Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira aren’t going anywhere (unless it’s the disabled list). If they do happen to get hurt, Carlos Beltran is first in line to take their place. An injury to Tex or ARod is a boon to Aaron Hicks, not Bird.

Now, in the case of Bird, I don’t expect the helium to ever kick in. It’s too easy to see that he’s blocked from playing time. Returning to Betts last winter, he came with real risk. If you wanted to draft him, you had to pretend the risk didn’t exist. In the end, it worked out. But those who relied solely on the rankings may never have realized he was a risky asset.

The anchoring effect is pernicious. Whether you know it or not, you are affected by it. Don’t worry, I am too. In short, the anchoring effect dictates that established prices are sticky. Let’s say ARod, Tex, and Beltran all sustain season ending injuries on March 1. Bird should immediately jump from the late-30s to the late-teens in first base rankings. Instead of an instantaneous adjustment, it will take a couple weeks before a new price is cemented. That’s because the old price was sticky.

Theoretically, the less you rely upon rankings, the less sticky your prices. The Bird example was extreme, but there’s another common scenario that is regularly affected by anchoring – atypical category leagues. And by this, I mean every league but the standard 5×5 roto.

Most public ranking sheets are made for this one specific format. If you play anything else, you’re at risk of anchoring yourself to faulty valuations. Even something as simple as switching out average for OPS can create massive value swings. To combat this, you have to make your own custom rankings for each league.

Rankings do provide a useful service – they let you prepare a meaningful draft plan. You need to know when to target certain positions. You do not want to miss the top 14 third basemen this year. Alternatively, if you don’t roster a top second baseman, the position is very flat from picks eight through 23. These are things to know before entering your draft. Without rankings, you might not be aware of those little positional quirks.

I like to remain flexible in the draft room. I find if I’m too married to my draft plan, I’m not ready to adapt to challenges. I know some fantasy experts recommend targeting a few specific players with each pick. My draft plan usually consists of avoiding value troughs, i.e. don’t get stuck with Justin Turner (15th) or Matt Duffy (16th) instead of Mike Moustakas (14th).

When it’s all said and done, you’re going to use rankings, I’m going to use rankings, we’re all going to use rankings. I don’t have to like it. The key is to be aware of the various shortcomings and pitfalls of your preferred set of values. If you can stay nimble in the draft room, you’ll probably outperform the competition.

We hoped you liked reading I Still Hate Rankings by Brad Johnson!

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2014 success? Do you mean 2015?