The Obsession With Tiers

We humans love to categorize and label things. Are you an extrovert or introvert? Does your favorite band play rock or pop music? Is that movie you saw last night a drama or romcom? Are pancakes a breakfast food or the best dinner ever? So it’s no surprise that this infatuation with ensuring everything fits into a box has spread to fantasy baseball. But I just don’t get it.

In fact, I think creating fantasy baseball tiers is a silly waste of time that provides no additional value and there are numerous reasons why. Let me explain.

Tiers Are Subjective, Arbitrary, and Random

Let’s begin with a table. The below values are calculated using the default FanGraphs Auction Calculator settings.

Top 11 SP Dollar Values
Player Dollars
Chris Sale $48.90
Max Scherzer $39.70
Jacob deGrom $39.00
Justin Verlander $33.20
Corey Kluber $27.70
Gerrit Cole $26.60
Carlos Carrasco $26.30
Luis Severino $25.90
Clayton Kershaw $25.50
Blake Snell $24.90
James Paxton $22.00

Now, being the tier enthusiast you are, you would like to group these pitchers into tiers. How do you go about it? Does Chris Sale, projected to be worth $9 more than the second highest valued pitcher, deserve to sit in Tier 1, all by himself? Does that make Tier 2 double the size, composed of just Max Scherzer and Jacob deGrom? Do we have another one man tier at 3 with Justin Verlander? Then where do we draw the line from Corey Kluber on down? Do I drop down to $25 to include Clayton Kershaw, but exclude Blake Snell, who happens to sit just 10 cents below my arbitrary cutoff for Tier 4? Why not cut off Tier 4 at $26 and stop at Carlos Carrasco? Does James Paxton begin a new tier, even though SP12 is projected for $20.60, meaning there’s actually a small gap between Paxton and the next pitcher?

If I sent this table to 10 different fantasy owners requesting it be returned with clearly delineated tiers, I would likely get at least five different sets. That owners would create varying tiers when we already know our projected dollar values proves how subjective the exercise is. Succeeding in a draft/auction requires minimizing subjectivity.

Tiers Remove Information, Thereby Reducing Accuracy

We can all agree that the draft/auction plays a significant role in the ultimate success of our fantasy team, right? If an owner somehow awoke one morning with the power to perfectly see the future and learned exactly how every player performed during the upcoming season, he would win the league, right? Of course. That’s because his projections were 100% accurate since they weren’t really projections, but actual results known before the season began.

So if we agree that arriving at the draft/auction with the best projections that have been converted into dollar values provides an enormous advantage, why would we then perform an exercise that removes information and decreases the accuracy of our rankings by reducing our player list into tier groups? How can we make the best decision with less information?

Let’s look at a restaurant menu. First, a standard menu with prices.

A Menu With Prices
Item Price
Steak $29.00
Fish $32.00
Chicken $18.00
Pasta $20.00

You’re a budget minded diner and therefore pass on the more expensive steak and fish dishes. You decide to opt for the pasta, hoping your $20 gets you a perfectly al dente plate that reminds you of your trips to Italy.

But what if instead this restaurant listed price tiers instead of specific prices?

A Menu With Price Tiers
Item Price Tier
Steak $20s
Fish $30s
Chicken $10s
Pasta $20s

Well hey, the steak is priced in the same tier as the pasta! Pasta isn’t typically expensive, and I love steak, so I’m going to order the steak since being in the same tier suggests a similar price.

Oops, you just spent $29 on your entrée, resulting in a final bill well above your budget. You are not happy and vow to never return to a restaurant that lists price tiers, rather than specific prices. How can you make an informed menu decision without complete information?!

The menu example is a perfect analogy for the use of tiers. Of course, I picked an extreme one as it’s unlikely that you choose to group a $20 player with a $29 player in the same tier. But there are differences in projected dollar values between players in a tier that are washed out when these players are grouped together.

You Can’t Compare Players Across Positions With Tiers

Tiers are generally created across positions. So you have the catcher tier, first base tier, starting pitcher tier, etc. But if you arrive at your snake draft with a bunch of position tiers, how do you know which position to draft for your pick?

Let’s compare an arbitrary Tier 1 for catcher and shortstop:

Tier 1 Players
Player Position Dollars Player Position Dollars
J.T. Realmuto C $23.90 Francisco Lindor SS $30.80
Gary Sanchez C $23.80 Trea Turner SS $29.10
Salvador Perez C $21.20 Manny Machado SS $28.70
Buster Posey C $20.80

With only a set of tiers at your disposal, how do you decide whether to draft a catcher or shortstop next if all players are still available? Since all seven players belong to a Tier 1, they should be interchangeable, right? What if only Buster Posey and Manny Machado, representing the last of Tier 1 for each position, are still left on the board? Obviously with dollar values, the choice is simple. But tiers aren’t nearly as specific, as they merely group names together. The assumption when using tiers is that the same tier in each position is roughly equivalent, so all Tier 1s are composed of similar valued players. That’s definitely not the case in this example and likely not in the vast majority of leagues.

So without specific dollar values attached to those player names and only a tier number, how can you possibly make the best decision for your next pick? The answer: you can’t. Don’t make the mistake of thinking you can draft the steak at the same price as the pasta like your tiers are telling you.

Challenge: Convince me that tiers without attached dollar values are worth creating. If you include dollar values with your tiers, convince me that adding a tier number provides additional benefits beyond what those dollar values already provide.

Think you can beat a Tout Wars Champion? This is your chance! Join the “Beat Mike Podhorzer” league, an NFBC 12-team mixed format eligible for the $125,000 grand prize. The online draft takes place on Fri, Mar 8 at 9 PM EST. Full details here.

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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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Brad Lipton
Brad Lipton

I have $5 tiers and having them at the draft (and even before…with projected/announced keepers) really helps me identify where big gaps exist. Thus, I am not comparing pasta with steak.

I also tend to place the players in the tiers by where they fit in the tier (i.e. the name of the $20 player is at the top of the tier). Later in the draft, this helps me quickly identify where value exists.

Binning, which is what you are talking about in the article, has a useful bin size in a particular problem. Too coarse (i.e. bins of $20) and you really have the steak/pasta issue. Too fine ($2 bins) and you have not really helped yourself much. For me, $5 bins seem to be the sweet spot.

If Chris Sale is in a bin by himself, he’s earned it.

Skin Blues
Skin Blues

Why would you use tiers to identify where value is if you already have dollar values?