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February 8, 2016

The Quinton

Shortstops, Uncertainty, and Scarcity

by Jeff Quinton

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In looking at third base last week, we took a look at the effects of the position’s suddenly deep base of elite talent on our decision-making and strategy. This week, we take a look at a position that is in a different state of productivity. The shortstop position saw its long-standing fantasy baseball leaders— Troy Tulowitzki, Jose Reyes, and Ian Desmond—fade, while some long-awaited new faces emerged in Xander Bogaerts, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, and Corey Seager (although Bogaerts is the only one to have done it over an entire season). The net result of this was that only one shortstop provided top-50 mixed league value last season, and that was Bogaerts coming in at 36th. That said, fantasy teams that got $6-plus out of the shortstop position prior to activating Correa or Lindor when they were promoted would have gotten as much or more production from the position as would the fantasy teams who played Bogaerts all season.

All in all, this adds up to a lot of uncertainty at the position. Will Lindor and Correa be able to extend their elite production over a full season? Will Seager be able to translate his minor league prolificness to the major leagues as Lindor and Correa did? Will Boegarts be able to repeat or improve upon his first full season as a shortstop? And what do we do with Tulowitzki, Reyes, and Desmond? Should we expect further slides in production, a new normal, or a bounce back?

The better we can answer these questions, the better we are going to perform in our drafts and auctions this year. Striving for better forecasts and valuations is certainly a noble goal, but the fact is that most of us will be reading the same analyses and lists as everyone else and, consequently, we will likely be unable to significantly differentiate on anything beyond results (luck). What we can do then, as we have discussed previously, is differentiate on process. How can we do so? By recognizing how the circumstances faced at shortstop will likely affect our process and decision-making. The circumstance we face is that there are very few elite or even very-good options at shortstop when compared to other positions. Specifically, we will take a look at how the scarcity at the position is likely influencing our shortstop related decisions on draft and auction day. So let’s get to it.

Over at my old and first stomping grounds, Fantasy Assembly, Josh Coleman wrote last Friday about how scarcity is likely inflating the price of the previously mentioned young shortstops. While Coleman focused on reasons for caution regarding Correa and Lindor, this article will focus on why this happens—how scarcity affects our decision-making mechanism—and how that is changing the more general fantasy landscape. As for how scarcity affects our decision-making, we are going to call on Robert B. Cialdini’s masterpiece, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. Regarding our “psychological reactance” to scarcity, Cialdini writes:

“In the instance of the scarcity principle, [the power to influence] comes from two major sources. The first is familiar. Like the [previously discussed] weapons of influence, the scarcity principle trades on our weaknesses for shortcuts. The weakness is, as before, an enlightened one. In this case, because we know that the things that are difficult to possess are typically better than those that are easy to possess, we can often use an item’s availability to help us quickly and correctly decide on its quality. Thus, one reason for the potency of the scarcity we are usually and efficiently right.”

You all see where this is going, but let us elaborate anyway. Using scarcity as a part of our valuation mechanism is usually correct. The problem with these shortcuts, as we have discussed at nausea, is that we often allow them to take the place of actual analysis. Regarding shortstops, we appear to pumping up the prices of players with a potential to be excellent because so few shortstops seem likely to do so. The issue with this analysis is that ignores the value of mediocrity. Sure Jhonny Peralta, Erick Aybar, Asdrubal Cabrera, and others do not have the upside of the youngsters being discussed, but all of these lower-ceiling options were double-digit earners in mixed leagues last season. In fact, there were a dozen shortstops not named Bogaerts, Correa, and Lindor who earned between $11 and $16 in mixed leagues last season. Moreover, only one of them, Tulowitzki, given his considerable upside, is likely to cost you anything more than a pick in the 115 to 250 range. The larger point though is not that scarcity is being considered when deciding to take Carlos Corrrea in the top 10, but rather that scarcity is being overweighted and that it might be causing us to ignore other factors.

Using Correa as an example, if we take the $17 he earned in mixed leagues over 387 at-bats and stretch that over 600 at-bats (which is very generous of us), we would get a $26 earner. $26 at a weak position is great, but is that enough to warrant taking him over the likes of Nolan Arenado, Andrew McCutchen, Anthony Rizzo, Manny Machado, or even Jose Altuve (who earned $30, $26, $28, $32, and $35 respectively last season), all of whom have longer track records of major-league success? Most likely, this is not enough of a reason. This is not to say that Correa, Lindor, and Seager are not excellent and exciting players; rather, it is to say that we might be allowing scarcity to blind us from some of the risk involved or at least cause us to assess the risk of such players differently than we would if they played a different position.

Beyond being a “shortcut,” as Cialdini mentions previously, Cialdini also notes that scarcity biases our decision-making ability in a second way. Cialdini writes (in a quote we have looked at in past articles):

“There is a unique, secondary source of power within the scarcity principle: As opportunities become less available, we lose freedoms; and we hate to lose the freedoms we already have. This desire to preserve our established prerogatives is the centerpiece of psychological reactance theory, developed by psychologist Jack Brehm to explain the human response to diminishing control. According to the theory, whenever free choice is limited or threatened, the need to retain our freedoms makes us desire them significantly more than previously.”

As mentioned above, the opportunities to select a shortstop who can provide top-50 value are extremely limited outside of a handful of shortstops. Our desire to have excellent players at every position is a flawed desire from the start given the nature of drafts (rounds) and auctions (budgets), and the effect of this desire is increased when combined with our hatred for losing choices as seen in the shortstops previously discussed.

The point of all this is not to devalue these shortstops, but rather to look at how this year’s shortstop landscape is likely causing us to improperly value different types of players. In this case, it is likely that we are overrating the likes of Correa, Lindor, and Seager, not because their ceilings are not as excellent as we are imagining them, but because scarcity is likely causing us to assess their risk differently (less) than we would in other, often safer, players (in this case, non-shortstops). Should we happily draft these players should they fall to us at our scarcity principle-corrected prices? Of course, but we just need to make sure to do the de-biasing to begin with.

Sources:

Cialdini, R. (2007). Influence: The psychology of persuasion (Rev. ed.; 1st Collins business essentials ed.). New York: Collins.

Jeff Quinton is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jeff's other articles. You can contact Jeff by clicking here

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