Looking beyond surplus value for keeper decisions

I stared at the two options for a long time.

Russell Martin as a 21st-round pick.
Dee Gordon as a 3rd-round pick.

I referred to my projections for each, the replacement level at their position, the surplus value over the expected return in each draft slot. I stared. I went for a run. I came back, stared.

Keeper decisions shouldn’t take this large a toll, but there were extenuating circumstances in this case. I’d just inherited a team, one I’d named Revenge of the Nameless Ranger in anticipation of Modern Baseball’s upcoming May album release, and I was still acclimating myself with the league format and rules. It seems like a great league, a 12-team 8X8 (OBP, SLG, K, QS, HLD, HR) with a high enough buy-in to prevent malaise, with a hybrid roto-head-to-head scoring system and well-developed keeper rules.

I also took last year off, to a degree, putting aside fantasy analysis due to an exclusivity clause that kept me bound to basketball only a season ago. I still played, of course, but not to the depth I had in previous years. I’ve spent most of the offseason shaking any residual rust off, but this was still my first major keeper decision of the year (and my first kick at the can at self-made projections instead of just self-made values built from Mike Podhorzer’s projections).

There was also the matter of Martin and Gordon being two of my favorite players in baseball, the former a similarly well-bearded Canadian for my Toronto Blue Jays and the latter one of those past sleeper hits that sticks with you for the residual hubris. Looking at fantasy in strictly analytical terms, that shouldn’t matter in the least, as numbers are numbers and value is value. But fantasy sports are also supposed to be fun, and an attachment to a player is an entirely justifiable tie-breaker, at least in my books.

But it was no help in this case, because they’re both great.

The decision, then, came down to factors outside of just perceived surplus value or fandom – they weren’t exactly even in each, but close enough that the decision remained difficult.

Even if the surplus value of one had appreciably outstripped the other, there are mitigating factors that can complicate a decision beyond just the raw numbers. I know there are some analysts and players who employ a strategy that would disagree with that, but in most league formats, there’s nuance beyond just Production Over Cost.

In this case, a few other factors come in to play.

The primary one I considered was where either player would fit with my other keepers, all of who were much easier decisions. All four also happen to be hitters, and since my fifth keeper would also be a hitter, I know going in that the draft is going to be paramount to my pitching staff. Given the top-heavy nature of pitching this year, with as many as 18 ace-calibre arms, I grew more confident in keeping Martin, because the value of that third-round pick to my staff was too high.

Gordon has a first-round average draft position, and getting a player like that who can help dominate an individual category in the third round is great. But the 29th overall pick is also likely to land me a quality arm, and “Martin+3rd-round arm” felt like a better proposition than “Gordon+SP flier in the 21st round.”

There was also the matter of replacement-level at either position. I had quantified it already in creating my values, but looking beyond the numbers was instructive. In a 12-team league with one catcher, no middle infield, and only one utility spot (and eight bench spots), the replacement level at either position is going to be roughly the No. 15 or 16 player at the position, maybe higher.

At catcher, that’s getting into Nick HundleyWilson RamosFrancisco Cervelli territory (or, in some leagues, Yadier Molina Flier territory), solid players, to be sure. At second, you might get a Ben Zobrist or Logan Forsythe, and it’s where you could take a moderately trendy sleeper in Jonathan Schoop. I actually don’t mind the replacement-level options at either spot, and in the event Martin were to get hurt, there are reasonable short-term fill-ins likely to be on the wire.

In terms of who may be draftable at each spot, the ADPs break down something like this for a 12-team.

2nd: Buster Posey
9th: Salvador Perez, Jonathan Lucroy
10th: Brian McCann, Russell Martin
12th: Travis d’Arnaud
13th: Devin Mesoraco, Matt Wieters
14th: Stephen Vogt, J.T. Realmuto
15th: Yan Gomes
16th: Yasmani Grandal
17th: Blake Swihart

1st: Jose Altuve
2nd: Dee Gordon
4th: Robinson Cano
6th: Brian Dozier, Anthony Rendon
7th: Jason Kipnis
8th: Ian Kinsler, Rougned Odor
11th: Addison Russell
12th: Kolten Wong
13th: D.J. LeMahieu
14th: Daniel Murphy, Dustin Pedroia
16th: Starlin Castro, Ben Zobrist

There are a couple of ways to look at those lists. One is to note that catchers, in general, are going later than their second-base counterparts, by ranking, and then Gordon might make more sense to beat a tough keystone market. That’s a strong argument against Martin, as you can generally wait longer on a catcher than a second-baseman.

But again, the martin keeper comes 18 rounds later, and instead of Martin or Gordon, the decision starts to build to something like this:

An SP in the third round, a second baseman in the sixth round, a starter in the 13th round, and Martin in the 21st round
Gordon in the 3rd round, an SP in the sixth round, a catcher in the 13th round, and an SP flier in the 21st round

(This is all just rough and obviously you’re not going to hold yourself to a certain position with each pick, but it’s meant as an illustration of how building out the entire roster will happen.)

My personal preference is to have a sure thing with a very late pick and then a top-30 overall pick in hand. Gordon is awesome, and I’m not in the camp that foresees a 2016 decline, but I also think Martin could wind up the No. 2 catcher in fantasy this season, especially if he eventually winds up leading off for the Blue Jays. The flexibility having that third-round pick provides – especially in my first year having inherited a team – is big to me.

And so I chose Martin. I’d be interested to hear if and why people disagree, though that’s not really why I wrote this. After spending the bulk of a week sorting through numbers and creating projections and rankings, the decision on my fifth keeper served as a reminder that draft decisions extend beyond the spreadsheet.

And that it’s OK to just make a gut call and go with the best smile in baseball.

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Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

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If it was independent of the pick where you selected the player, would you still go with Martin or does the 18 round difference not make up as much ground?