On Best Player Available vs. Position Scarcity

Draft season is fast approaching. That means that draft strategy will once again be a hot topic, as fantasy enthusiasts argue the merits of one philosophy versus another. But one particular debate threatens to make my head explode every single year. That is the notion of making your draft selection based on “best player available” (BPA) versus “position scarcity” (PS). The decision makes no sense to me. This is why.

The idea here is the fantasy owner must choose to employ one of these two strategies (or perhaps others) when making his pick in a snake draft. If the owner decides to go with BPA, he is simply selecting the best (most valuable?) player regardless of position. Though it’s not always made clear, the assumption is that best is determined without accounting for any sort of position adjustment. A .300-20-80-80-2 stat line is worth the exact same amount whether it’s projected to come from a catcher or a first baseman.

On the other hand, it seems that those espousing the PS strategy have their rankings in hand, but will purposely bypass a higher ranked player in order to select one from a so-called “scarce” position. Those positions, of course, are typically catcher, second base and shortstop. By executing this strategy, the players at a scarce position are given an arbitrary boost in value. I shall assume that fans of this strategy have a similar ranking list as the BPAers that ignores position, but makes those position adjustments in their head on the fly during the draft.

From my understanding, these are the two sides of the coin. I might very well be wrong and am therefore describing it incorrectly. This is because I don’t draft using this either-or scenario. And that is because the strategy of choosing either BPA or PS isn’t logical or mathematically sound.

Instead, BPA must incorporate position. Essentially, the strategy combines both. Actually, it’s not a strategy at all, it’s simply how dollar values should be generated and a resulting ranking list derived. In the second paragraph, I put “most valuable?” in parentheses and ended it with a question for a reason. When I define “best”, it’s equivalent to most valuable. And my most valuable player is going to account for the player’s stat line, of course, and his position. If your rankings and valuations don’t incorporate position, you’re only doing half the work.

The PS only strategy is similarly flawed. During the draft, there should be no need to give a player at a scarce position an arbitrary value boost. That value boost, if any, should already be accounted for in your dollar values, which would then be sorted in descending order to create your rankings. I’m by no means suggesting you then draft straight down your rankings list, obviously. But that’s an entirely different subject and one I discussed a year ago.

Let’s look at an example so we’re all clear on these various strategies. Assume a league with two teams, two positions required (catcher and 1B) and one category, home runs. Here is your player pool:

Player Projected HRs
1B A 45
1B B 40
Catcher A 35
Catcher B 25

Following BPA, Owner 1 selects 1B A. He ignores position and simply selects the player expected to hit the most homers. Owner 2’s valuations incorporate position and so rather than following a BPA strategy which would lead to a selection of 1B B, he picks Catcher A. Owner 2 then picks again and takes the other first baseman, 1B B, as Owner 1 finishes the draft with Catcher B. Let’s see how they did:

Owner 1:

Player Projected HRs
1B A 45
Catcher B 25
Total 70

Owner 2:

Player Projected HRs
1B B 40
Catcher 35
Total 75

Surprise, surprise. Despite picking first, Owner 1 ended up with 70 expected homers, five short of Owner 2’s projected 75 homers. That’s because Owner 1’s rankings should have looked like this:

Player Projected HRs Useful HRs
Catcher A 35 10
1B A 45 5
Catcher B 25 0
1B B 40 0

Rather than comparing home run totals to every player, one must compare those totals to players at the position. You can’t draft a first baseman and slot him in as a catcher, right? So why are we comparing apples to oranges? In order to convert home runs between two positions into the same currency, we subtract out the replacement level’s expected contribution, or in this case, the last player picked. That leaves us with the player’s useful home runs, what will actually provide a positive contribution. Because what we care about is how many more home runs my catcher hits than yours does and my first baseman than yours. I don’t care if my first baseman hits more homers than your catcher because I can’t start my first baseman in the catcher slot. Again, apples and oranges.

Now let’s look at the PS strategy. Assume this time that this is your standard 12-team league with normal rosters and 5×5 categories. Below are the players sitting at the top of your rankings, with dollar values calculated that are not adjusted for position, as your pick is up.

Player Dollar Value
1B B 20
3B B 19
OF A 19
1B A 18
SP B 18
3B A 17
OF B 16
SP A 16
Shortstop A 15

Following a PS strategy, you might think long and hard about drafting SS A. Sure, your values say he’s worth $5 less than your top player still on the board, 1B B, but he plays a scarce position, man! You then decide you don’t want to be left choosing between Jed Lowrie and J.J. Hardy and draft SS A. You give up $5 in value according to your calculations, with the thinking that you could still draft a decent player at 1B, 3B and OF later.

Was this the correct move? Maybe, maybe not. A shortstop’s stat line could very well deserve a boost of more than $5, which would have made the choice correct, or perhaps the true boost was just $2, which would have made the pick wrong. But you don’t know because you’re just guessing! How do you decide where to draw the line? When is the value gap too great to go for the scarcer position and just go with the top value? $6? $7? $10? A valuation system that accounts for position will do the math for you so there’s no need to guess. Nor will there be a need to give an additional position scarcity boost, because that has already been done by your trusty spreadsheet.

So in the end, the best strategy is technically a combination of both. Most of the time, you’re going to want to select the player at the top of your rankings, which many dub the BPA strategy. But that assumes your valuations are calculated correctly. And to be correct, they absolutely must account for the player’s position.

Mike Podhorzer is the 2015 Fantasy Sports Writers Association Baseball Writer of the Year. He produces player projections using his own forecasting system and is the author of the eBook Projecting X 2.0: How to Forecast Baseball Player Performance, which teaches you how to project players yourself. His projections helped him win the inaugural 2013 Tout Wars mixed draft league. Follow Mike on Twitter @MikePodhorzer and contact him via email.

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Y's Guy
Y's Guy

What about statistic scarcity? I’m looking for big power at the top of the draft because it seems to come with too much downside later in the draft.