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May 31, 2009

Prospectus Idol Entry

Value Over Fantasy Player

by Brian Oakchunas

If you had the first pick of your draft this year and you took Jose Reyes over Hanley Ramirez, you probably (definitely) aren't very happy right now. But that doesn't mean it wasn't the right choice at the time. You made a choice to take a whole lot of speed with a nice splash of power thrown in over the more balanced power/speed combo. And even those descriptions, as difficult as they are to differentiate in terms of fantasy value, don't tell the whole story. We have to worry about runs, RBIs, and batting average (and those are just the typical roto stats-if your league uses sac flies as a category, you're really in trouble). While it is easy to look at two players' homerun totals and be able to tell who will provide you with more power, it is considerably more difficult to weigh five stats and know which player has more value.

Plenty of fantasy analysts have tried to solve the five stat problem by coming up with what we call a valuation-a single number that tells us how much value a player has. This is very similar to VORP, value over replacement player, except it is designed for the fantasy player. If you know that Hanley is worth $38 and Jose is worth $34 then you probably want Hanley because he has more value.

There are some problems with valuations, however. One is that as you can see from the Jose/Hanley example, values are often given in monetary amounts. This is because so many people play in auction leagues... just no one you know. I'm half-kidding. If you are deep into fantasy, you may be more familiar with auctions, but the vast majority of players are more invested in snake drafts than in auctions. Unfortunately, if you're not in an auction, these values look completely arbitrary. They tell you who is worth more but the actual number does not have any relevance to your fantasy league, the way VORP does to MLB. Ramirez isn't worth 38 extra points in your league or make you 38 times more likely to win. He's merely worth an arbitrary 38 dollars.

The other problem with valuations is that the people who create them don't necessarily know what a player's valuation should be any better than you do. I asked one person in the industry how his group determines the amounts they publish and he said, "We just choose what we think he is worth based on our experience." Some of the better websites have a system for creating valuations but their information is proprietary and you have to rely on your own experience with their website to determine whether you trust their numbers.

Fed up with trying to determine whether a steal or a homerun is more valuable a few years ago (yes, a dinger is worth much more in real baseball, but in fantasy, maybe not so much), I set out to create a better system for evaluating fantasy players, which I like to call VOFP or value over fantasy player.

One problem with finding fantasy value is a lack of data (couldn't help the pun). Some of you out there might be in 40 leagues but my four aren't cutting it in terms of sample size. Fortunately, though, I play in the National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC), which currently has 390 owners in its "main event". Using the NFBC data, it is much easier to see how much specific numbers help you and therefore what players are worth.

VOFP can be used in the NFBC or in a regular Yahoo league, but to understand how VOFP is derived, you must first understand how the NFBC works. It is split up into 15 team leagues that are organized just like your regular roto league. The leagues have 14 hitters and nine pitchers with the usual ten stat categories. The difference is that along with your league competition you are also in an overall competition with all 390 teams that works the same way. If you have the most homeruns, you get 390 points. If you have the least, you get one. My goal every year is to finish in first place and win the $100,000. In order to do that I need to average around 40th place in each category or score 350 of the 390 possible points (yeah, I know, but it's harder than it sounds).

The idea is that you need a certain amount in each statistical category in order to reach 40th place (or 350 points). Let's take homeruns, for example. You'd need about 294 homers to land 40th place most years. That means you typically need to get 21 jacks from each of your position players. Some might give you 31 and some might give you 11, but the players need to average 21.

With this in mind, you can assign a point value to the number of long balls you get from each guy on your team. While there is a larger discrepancy at the extremes of the standings (the #1 guy had 19 more homeruns than the #2 guy last year), once you get to 40th place, point values stay more consistent. Testing this, I found that each homer usually moves you up and down the rankings by about four places.

Let's take a look at how many points each stat is worth. Ideal is how many each player in your lineup has to average to ensure you of a highly successful season:

Category   Ideal   Points

Run          84     1.69
Homerun      21     4.08
RBI          81     1.66
Average    .286     1.3
Steal        13     4.13

If you had 14 players who put up the "ideal" line at the end of the season in the NFBC (and you had pitchers who were equally good), you'd not only have a great chance of winning your league, you'd have a great chance of winning the $100,000. For smaller leagues, you'd have to get more out of each player, but you'd have to get proportionally more in each category. In other words, these values are applicable to most leagues (though not Hacking Mass!). For the purpose of finding values of players we'll consider this our baseline. Players with this exact line have a VOFP of 0. So, really, rather than replacement players, we're talking about ideal players because that is what you want your fantasy team to have. The metric would more appropriately be named VOIFP but that is more than a mouthful.

The points are how much a player's VOFP moves up and down depending on his stats. For example, if you have a player with the ideal line exactly except that he had 22 homers, his VOFP would be 4.08 and he'd be worth four points more in the competition than an ideal player. On the other hand, if your guy only had 20 dingers, his VOFP would be -4.08.

Let's use VOFP to explore this year's PECOTA projections. We'll look at players from a typical 2009 first round in the NFBC:

Pick  Player           PECOTA   VOFP To Date
#                      VOFP     (prorated)

 1    Hanley Ramirez   273      156
 2    Jose Reyes       309      -30
 3    Albert Pujols    250      382
 4    David Wright     205      248
 5    Miguel Cabrera    83      264
 6    Grady Sizemore   146       21
 7    Ryan Braun       170      149
 8    Jimmy Rollins    100      -91
 9    Ian Kinsler       74      305
10    Ryan Howard       75      146
11    Josh Hamilton     28      -80
12    Chase Utley       86      191
13    Mark Teixeira     25      173
14    Carlos Beltran   121      273
15    BJ Upton          35     -109

The 'VOFP to date' is for entertainment purposes only. The sample is too small for us to draw any firm conclusions, except to give a big woot, woot to Pujols for being so consistently great. Looking at the PECOTA values, however, can be very informative. For one, we have an answer to our initial question: it seems like if we put our faith in PECOTA, Reyes was actually more valuable than Ramirez. Both were good bets, but Hanley seemed like the bigger health risk at the time, so the line of thought that said Hanley was too valuable to pass up for Reyes was probably borne of the theory that homeruns are far more valuable than stolen bases, which we now know is incorrect, based on the first table.

We also see that Cabrera, Hamilton, and Teixeira were likely overvalued, while you'd be better off with Beltran-or Soriano, who didn't even make the list but had a VOFP of 127. Trading for these guys over someone higher on the list right now-like Cabrera who won't hit .377 all year-is probably a good idea.

While we are on the topic of Cabrera, let's see why he had such a low VOFP. PECOTA had him with 94 runs, 32 homeruns, and 111 RBIs, good for 112 VOFP just from those three stats. A .294 batting average, weighted for the number of at bats, gains him another 12 points. So how does a guy with 124 VOFP end up with 83? Simple. He doesn't steal bases. With only two projected bags, he loses 41 points. It is easy to think we can draft speed elsewhere, but why avoid it now when you can get similar numbers from Beltran along with the steals at a later draft position? It helps your team a lot more in the coming rounds if those swipes are already in the bank.

There is an almost unlimited amount of information we can look at with VOFP. In the future, I'd like to discuss VOFP for pitchers, VOFP and injuries, VOFP alterations for different size leagues, VOFP and positional scarcity, VOFP vs. Godzilla. For now, it will have to be enough to learn that VOFP tells us steals are worth a whole lot in fantasy, Ramirez and Reyes aren't much different, first round draft picks don't always progressively lose value, and Pujols is the only player who is consistently a god.

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