On Tuesday, I let slip a little secret I’ve been nursing for a few months – namely that replacement level middle infielders appear to be one WAR players. The incongruity of that statement – that replacement level equals one – has led to some public misadventures in player analysis. That’s a real world problem.
From a fantasy perspective, my conclusion was simple: don’t go out of your way to draft middle infielders. For somebody completely new to fantasy baseball, that seems like a big ol’ DUH! However, for most of my life, fantasy gospel stated that middle infield is scarce and therefore production up the middle is worth more than the same production at another position. Now it has flipped, although not enough to bother over-drafting other positions.
My advice for 2019: draft the best statistical fits for your roster. Don’t worry about position. And for Ruth’s sake, don’t worry about catchers. Now, let’s peek at replacement level for catcher, first base, and third base.
Well we knew this would look terrible because 2018 was an unusually bad season for the weakest hitting position on the diamond. As with the previous article, I’m going to take a shortcut by using offensive WAR rather than converting category production into values. We’re shooting for “good enough.”
No surprise, J.T. Realmuto led the league. Any guesses on number two? That’s Francisco Cervelli. I bet he went undrafted in your league. Ditto fourth ranked Omar Narvaez. Possibly sixth ranked Kurt Suzuki (I picked up last round/$1 shares in virtually every league). Definitely seventh best Mitch Garver. Oh, hello there Buster Posey. He’s eighth-best.
For a 12-team, one catcher format, replacement level was in the range of Robinson Chirinos, John Hicks, Willson Contreras, and Gary Sanchez. Oh my. Two catcher leagues and deeper formats had Jonathan Lucroy’s four home runs and .241/.291/.325 batting line available.
The position was a catastrophe. One might think selecting an early catcher would be advisable. We tried that last year. Refer back to Sanchez, Contreras, and Posey. They weren’t zeroes on the stat sheet, but they were massive losses. In my TGFBI league, Sanchez was selected in the second round between Cody Bellinger and J.D. Martinez. Contreras was a couple picks ahead of Lorenzo Cain in the fifth round. Posey went ahead of Travis Shaw, Khris Davis, Gerrit Cole, and Ronald Acuna.
In short, the improvement from one of these guys over Lucroy was not worth the opportunity cost of skipping a star. We can’t assume 2019 will be this terrible. Nor can we be sure you’ll avoid other landmines like Yoenis Cespedes and Chris Archer. However, I think it’s pretty safe to shy away from the position. Get a free guy like Willians Astudillo.
The real world replacement level at first base was exactly zero WAR. Neil Walker, John Hicks, Greg Bird, and Lucas Duda were the poster children. There weren’t enough catchers with 300 or more plate appearances to derive a replacement level. It was probably sub-zero WAR.
In shallow formats, fantasy replacement level at first base was in the area of David Freese, Jose Abreu, Justin Smoak, and Carlos Santana. Not bad. Deeper leagues were looking at Matt Adams, Matt Davidson, Jake Bauers, and Joe Mauer. In other words, one category guys. If you refer back to the middle infield lists, you’ll notice some freely available multi-category weapons.
Any argument towards a scarcity-driven approach to the draft should be built around first base. However, my personal approach is to bet on more breakout performers like Luke Voit.
Actual replacement level at third base checked in similarly to the middle infield – ranging from half a win (Evan Longoria) to 1.2 WAR (Adrian Beltre). I honestly didn’t expect this. Multi-position players are partially to blame. Interestingly, first base had just as many utility guys on the list, underscore how much they underperformed as a group.
Shallow formats had a replacement level around Kris Bryant, Eduardo Escobar, and Brian Anderson. Deepen the league and you needed Maikel Franco, Christian Villanueva, and Jeimer Candelario. Regardless of league depth, you were using a pretty good player. Four of the top seven performers – Max Muncy, Matt Carpenter, Matt Chapman, and Justin Turner – were either free or cheaply available at one point in the season.
Much I advised caution before you overreact to poor performance of first basemen, I would be careful about counting on cheap third basemen.