Things have done changed a little bit at third base since last offseason. Josh Donaldson won an MVP and put up the sixth best fantasy season of any hitter last season. Manny Machado (35 HR and 20 SB) and Nolan Arenado (42 HR and 130 RBI) broke out in 2015, and were the ninth- and 11th-most valuable fantasy-baseball position players. And in case you have not heard, Kris Bryant was everything we hoped for—providing top-25 fantasy position-player production despite being held in the minors for the first eight games of the season.
Consequently, 2016 ADP looks a lot different than 2015 ADP when it comes to third basemen. Last season, Donaldson was the top third baseman being taken and that was happening at the 20th-overall pick on average. This year, though, Donaldson (five), Arenado (nine), Bryant (11), and Machado (15) are all going in the first or early-second round. Such a shift is warranted, so we should all give ourselves a pat on the back for making this year-to-year adjustment. That said, such shifts can cause decision-making and strategic errors elsewhere; and, as we know, we want to avoid those errors. We will take a look at these possible errors below and see how we can best avoid making them.
During first-base week last year, we looked at the effects of our tendency to overrate having options and thus keeping options open. This year, this is more likely to apply to third basemen, particularly in shallower (10-12 team) leagues. Why? Because in shallow leagues it is most likely (compared to deeper leagues) that a team taking one of the top four third basemen in the first round will have one or two of the other top four third basemen available for selection in the second round. Additionally, shallower leagues are less likely to have corner-infield roster spots, which means taking a second third baseman would entail filling a utility slot. While filling our corner-infield or utility slot in the second round (or with our two highest auction bids) seems like an unappetizing result, this has far more to do with us (and our bias toward having options open) than the result itself.
How so? Well for starters, our goal in a fantasy-baseball draft or auction is to build the best team we could possibly build, based on the decisions afforded to us by the construct of the game we are playing. Secondly, relatedly, and more importantly, these third basemen (and really any of the top 50 players) are not top draft picks because of the position they play, but rather because of their top-notch production regardless of position. This might give us pause, as third base has been a weak position in some prior years, but we need only to look at the fact that Donaldson, Machado, and Arenado were all top-11 hitters last year (and Bryant was a top-25 hitter in his rookie season). In other words, positional scarcity is not a factor in these players’ rankings, and we therefore should not be discounting their values even if we have already selected a third baseman.
The effects of the shift in third-base talent also go beyond the first two rounds. On a conceptual level, we use reference points to make decisions. The effect of having a lot of elite third base talent available in this year’s draft is that we seem to be underrating the next group or groups of third basemen. Todd Frazier (44), Matt Carpenter (67), Kyle Seager (72), and Adrian Beltre (95) are all going lower than where they produced last season (they were the nos. 38, 48, 63, and 64 hitters, respectively, in 2015), which is particularly odd for players with their (in other words, consistent) track records. This is not to say that we should not be drafting the top third basemen. Rather, this is to say that (i) we should not discount the value of this second group just because they are not as prolific as the first group, and (ii) even if our leaguemates choose to do so, we should be happy to take advantage of the discount, even if it means plugging one of these players in at corner infield or utility.
Lastly, if we are devaluing solid, albeit-not-elite third-base production because of the way we are framing decisions, then it is also likely that we might be overrating high-volatility, high-upside players. As we learned from prospect theory,
“[when] there are no players that meet or exceed our expectations, we tend to make our decision based on gains. Here we tend to overweight low-probability, positive outcomes. This is why we play the lottery and why heavy underdogs run trick plays in football. If we think there is nothing to gain, we will take on long odds instead of choosing lower yielding (perceived as meaningless), higher probability investments.”
In terms of the 2016 third-base landscape, if we cannot land one of the top players, we might feel compelled to reach later for a higher upside player over a lower-ceiling option, albeit one with a higher expected return. Again, the issue here is in framing the decision around the position instead of around picking the best player at each decision in order to have the best team. To reframe this decision, try to think about how missing out on an elite player at a particular position only means that we were able to select elite production elsewhere.
To borrow a golf term, it’s not about how, it’s about how many. Ultimately, we do not care where the production comes from; all that matters is how much production we get. So let us try to remember this during our drafts and auctions (and offseason trades), especially regarding third base where the temptation is probably greater this year than it has been in others.