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February 19, 2007

Fantasy Focus

Draft Depth Soundings

by Alex Carnevale

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With Yahoo! Fantasy Baseball live drafts starting tomorrow (February 20th), ESPN Fantasy Baseball opening its doors for drafting on March 5th, and Mock Draft Central decreasing productivity in offices everywhere this week, the never-ending annual debate rages-which positions are deep this year, and which are shallow?

The answers to these two questions are a partial guide to which elite players you want to target in the early rounds, especially in keeper leagues. There may not be a need to take Garrett Atkins in the first round if Kevin Kouzmanoff's available in the 18th, for example. The difference between the two, despite the different hitting environments they'll call home, may not be 17 rounds' worth.

I could explain EqA in gorgeous prose that makes you feeling like you're really there, and see how it reflects a player's entire offensive output in a single statistic. Instead, let's turn to the master, when back in Baseball Prospectus 2000, Clay Davenport noted:

EqA is similar to metrics like Runs Created or Linear Weights. It evaluates a player's statistical line to estimate how many runs the performance is worth to the league as a whole. In the case of a very bad hitter, the performance might even be worth negative runs. This is the player's Equivalent Runs, or EqR. EqA is basically EqR per out, although there's some extra math thrown in.

Q: And the extra math is there because…?

A: Because I want the final answer to look like a batting average. The problem with many new metrics is that people don't know, just by looking at how the player scores, whether it is a performance that should lead the league or get him sent down to Triple-A. There is little to no sense of context for on-base-plus-slugging (OPS) or Runs Created per 27 outs (RC/27).

Despite its many flaws as an evaluation tool, batting average is the best-known scale of any statistic in sports: .225 stinks, .300 is a recognized achievement, .350 puts you at or near the top of the league, and .400 is almost mythic. EqA shamelessly copies that. Think of how good .330 is as a batting average; that's almost exactly how good a .330 EqA is.

Clay explains how EqA is derived and talks more about why EqA is so darn useful here.

To quickly and dirtily ascertain the depth of this year's pool of players, I like using EqA (see sidebar). It's a valuable statistic for evaluating player performance, and used in context, it can be an excellent fantasy tool-a way to identify players who may be having that fluke year early in the season before their counting stats start to show it, or in the case of young players, a way to measure potentially dramatic improvements at the plate. (The 2007 Player Forecast Manager is perfect for tracking either development.)

In roto leagues it matters far more that Chase Utley pounds out extra base hits and rarely misses games than the fact that his career high in walks is 69, of course. For our purposes, a catch-all stat that is not a counting statistic does nicely.


POS  .300+ EqA .299-.290 EqA .289-.280 EqA .279-.270 EqA
1B       9          6              4             2
2B       0          4              2             4
SS       2          1              3             7
3B       6          8              3             7
LF       6          8              2             3
CF       2          5              6             5
RF       6          4              8             3

I removed players unlikely to get a full season's worth of at-bats at their position, guys like Dan Johnson, Juan Rivera, and Shin-Soo Choo, and also took out prospects like Matt Kemp, Eric Patterson, and Joey Votto. I also counted players at their most desirable position of eligibility, so Alfonso Soriano landed in center field, and Nick Swisher in right.

As expected, first base is a veritable Grand Canyon for offensive talent, but what really jumps out is the unbelievable depth at third base. With this many third basemen who can rake locked into regular playing time, it's hard to justify taking a third baseman in the first round of a draft, unless you're in a straight 4 x 4 roto league, and the extra 20 stolen bases David Wright provides will give you a competitive advantage.

In the long-running debate over which group of players is the weaker one this year, shortstops or second base, you may as well be choosing between Neve Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar-as in baseball, both were a lot more interesting in 1998. The difference is this-shortstop does have a few elite performers that may be worth grabbing with a top pick, while second base has a solid chewy middle with a lower profile-think Howie Kendrick, Ray Durham, Jeff Kent, Ian Kinsler.

Whichever position around the keystone you perhaps inevitably end up punting now that the golden age of shortstops is over, we're fully immersed in the golden age of third baseman. Between Wright, Ryan Zimmerman, A-Rod, Alex Gordon, Evan Longoria, and Miguel Cabrera, organizations are looking at third base as a position where a mediocre bat is unacceptable. At the same time, second base is increasingly a position at which teams are reluctant to place promising position players as they climb levels. With the struggles that guys like Rickie Weeks and Marcus Giles have gone through to stay healthy, it's hard to argue with that philosophy.

So, when do you take an it-guy shortstop? However tasty it might appear, Jose Reyes' .294 EqA line last year (and overal numbers of .300/.354/.487 with 64 SB) was far from being anywhere near as valuable as Albert Pujols' ungodly .357 EqA and career high in home runs. Even if that distance narrows to only 40 points of EqA, passing on Pujols is likely to be the last mistake you ever make in fantasy, at least in the deathmatch leagues Will Carroll plays in.

Once you have that impact difference-making hitter in the first round, it is more than appropriate to reach for a guy like Hanley Ramirez, especially in the most conventional of roto leagues. While Ramirez is a longshot to better his .294 EqA of 2006, he remains a good bet to tally 50 steals leading off in a lineup that features a few nice bats.

The number of teams in your league should also be a high-priority consideration when you're thinking about whether to pick Derek Jeter from the board. In a twelve-team league, the disparity between the 12th-best shortstop and the best shortshop is going to far exceed the same gap in a 16-team league.

---

Changing gears from the question of positional scarcity...with everybody's eyes peering at new PECOTAs, the projection of one-time BP coverboy and Three True Outcomes paragon Adam Dunn stands out. This year's version of Dunn comes with a weighted mean projection of .267/.390/.574. Dunn will also have the benefit of a new hitting coach, Brook Jacoby, not that PECOTA knows that. Like Dunn, Jacoby was a slow power hitter who recorded strikeouts in bunches. His performance record indicates he might have an idea of how to get Dunn to cut down on strikeouts:

Brook Jacoby
Year    Age   AB     K     BB    EqA
1985    25    606   120    48   .272
1986    26    583   137    56   .286
1987    27    540    73    75   .317
1988    28    552   101    48   .239
1989    29    519    90    62   .284
1990    30    553    58    63   .293

During the homer-happy 1987 season, Jacoby was able to radically improve his strikeout to walk ratio, and he made a similar leap in that department in the subsequent less-inlated 1990 season. Whether he's able to teach the ability to that adjustment is an open question, but credit the Reds for trying something.

Though Dunn's already the team's best hitter, plenty hinges on whether they can get him to improve (and fulfill that projection) over the long grind of the season. Despite a pathetic end to the season as the Reds fell out of contention-Dunn posted .188/.284/.416 rates in August, and .157/.333/.265 in September-PECOTA is still all over Dunn. (This will be the last pun of that kind, lest Dunn prank call me.) As Dunn went into a bad slump, the Reds followed suit, hitting .251/.328/.409 as a team after a .263/.342/.451 first half, although dealing Austin Kearns and Felipe Lopez didn't do them any favors.

If you examine Dunn's PECOTA comparables, the Reds outfielder's mutually beneficial relationship with PECOTA is easily explainable. Dunn's top comparable is Troy Glaus, with a similarity score of 41, but after that, meaningfully similar players disappear. A hitter who strikes out as often as Dunn does simply doesn't often get a full season's worth of at-bats at the major league level. And if he does strike out that much while getting all those at-bats, he's probably a very valuable player.

At any rate, PECOTA's probably understating Dunn's potential walks total. Even his highest PECOTA projection only envisions him walking 105 times, which would be the lowest free pass total in any full MLB season in his career. The system similarly thinks he will strike out "only" 151 times-last year Dunn was punched out in a much-more impressive 194 at-bats. If Jacoby is aiming to light a fire under Dunn, he might consider tucking Dunn into his Sarasota bed with the story of another slugger that could.

Alex Carnevale is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can reach Alex by clicking here. You can also find his Football Outsiders work here.

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