Using Positional Scarcity and Depth to Develop Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategies

By looking at data from 2014, we can see for which positions you need to pay up and on which ones you can wait until the middle-to-later rounds.

When formulating a strategy for a fantasy baseball draft, a good majority of the planning surrounds which position you should take and when. Is it worth it to roll with a first baseman in the first round, or should you pick up a position that has more scarcity?

A good deal of this mystery can be solved by looking at what happened the previous year. By looking at the positional distribution of points for the players in 2014, we can make some conclusions about how to attack the draft in 2015. It can also just give me a solid reason to stare at spreadsheets all day, and I'm down with either explanation.

To look at this, I jotted down the fantasy point totals for each of the relevant positional players from last year. The point totals were based on ESPN standard scoring, in which a player receives one point per total base, run scored, stolen base, walk, or run batted in and loses one per strikeout.

The purpose of this was to see which positions had the most depth and which ones had the lowest deviation from the top to the bottom. Here are the main takeaways I got.

Catcher Drops off Quickly

This may seem obvious, but the data backs it up: depth is not the most abundant resource at catcher.

For each position, I found the standard deviation of the position from the top player to the player at the bottom end of the starting range (10th for all positions except for outfield, which was 30th, as most leagues start three outfielders). Catcher had -- by far -- the largest deviation.

The standard deviation for the top ten catchers was 59.88 points. The second highest total was outfield at 49.60 with most positions sitting in the 40's.

In 2014, only three catchers totaled more than 300 fantasy points, and they were all above 375. Those three -- Jonathan Lucroy, Buster Posey, and Carlos Santana (who loses his catcher eligibility for 2015) -- all were eligible at multiple positions. Coincidence? I would assume not, my good homies.

The interesting thing about this, though, is that after these three, the pack gets significantly tighter. Nine catchers scored between 250 and 300 fantasy points, including six of those from 250 to 270. Basically, the conclusion here is that if you don't end up getting an elite catcher with eligibility at multiple positions, feel free to wait as there is not a huge difference between a catcher ranked fifth and one ranked tenth.

There Are Points to Be Had at Second Base

We all knew that first base would be the highest-scoring position, and it was with the top five players averaging 484.8 fantasy points last year. But would you have expected second base to clock in as the runner-up?

The top five second basemen last year averaged 445.2 fantasy points last year. And this wasn't entirely top-heavy, either, as five players topped 400 points, and each of the top 13 were above 340.

If we look at the top-tier outfielders, the ones ranked in the top 15, the average output was 426.1 fantasy points. This is significantly less than second base and a notch below the average of third base (427.8). Outfield only had 26 players above 340 points, twice as many as second base, even though you start three times as many outfielders.

Overall, the top 10 players at second base averaged 403.2 fantasy points last year. The top 30 outfielders, on the other hand, averaged 386.2 points.

This means two things. First, there is significant depth at second base. Second, depth is not quite as plentiful in the outfield. If you're going to start three outfielders, you need to stock up early before the drop-off.

The point of that drop-off was after the top six outfielders. Giancarlo Stanton (despite missing the end of the year with a broken face) was in that sixth spot with 430 points. The next player was Matt Holliday at 404. That's a decent decline after those top six. If you can snag someone like Stanton, Mike Trout or Andrew McCutchen early on, it might not be a terrible idea to do so.

As for second base, this may be a position where you can afford to wait. Sure, it'd be great to have Jose Altuve or Robinson Cano, but you can get Ian Kinsler a few rounds later or Neil Walker even later than that. Considering the production you can get from those guys, the need for top-end outfield production seems more pressing.

Third base is similar to second base in that it has a good amount of parity. This makes it another position on which you can wait and potentially pick up someone like Matt Carpenter in the middle rounds. You can certainly pay up for a guy like Adrian Beltre, but that will hurt you when it comes to filling your outfield with three quality options.

Shortstop Is Gross but Tightly Grouped

Any year in which Troy Tulowitzki sustains an injury, which is pretty much always, the scoring at shortstop is going to make you squirm a bit. Last year was no exception.

The top shortstop (Jose Reyes at 383 points) didn't even out-pace the average of the top 10 second basemen. That should tell you all you need to know here.

The average of the top five shortstops was 364 points last year. Outside of catcher, the second lowest position was the outfield at 426.1 within the top tier. The interesting thing here, though, is how close the shortstops were in comparison with the other positions.

Referring back to our discussion on standard deviation, shortstop had the smallest standard deviation among the top 10 players at 24.36. The second lowest was third base at 40.95. Part of this is certainly due to the smaller scores (less room for deviation), but it's also partially because the position was just super tight last year.

The aforementioned Reyes led the position at 383. There were 13 other players within 100 points of him. The difference between Dee Gordon in fifth and Starlin Castro in 14th was just 51 points. That's parity, my friend.

The issue with this, obviously, is that it's backwards-looking. It doesn't account for Hanley Ramirez's move to Boston (where he should pick up outfield eligibility fairly quickly) and an assumed decline in Ian Desmond's strikeout percentage. Returns to normalcy for those two could put them in the Tulosphere, but beyond that, there's a whole lot of blech at shortstop.

Despite Plethora of Options, You Can't Ignore First Base

Because there are so many high-output players at first base, it would be understandable to develop a strategy in which you push the position aside for the first few rounds. That's flirting with something dangerous because there is still a limitation to that depth.

In 2014, Freddie Freeman ranked 11th among first basemen with 399 points scored. By the time we reach the 20th-ranked player (Brian McCann), that number was already down to 288.

Once you get past guys like Victor Martinez in this year's draft, then things start to get shaky real quick. The next player after Martinez (who is 36 years old himself and ranked seventh in Tristan H. Cockcroft's Top 250 for ESPN) who is younger than 28 is Matt Adams in 17th. These are all guys who could have durability concerns due to their age, as evidenced by the drop-off after the top 11 in our 2014 data.

For me, these numbers from last year mean that I'm going in search of outfielders and first basemen early on in drafts. I can find quality second basemen deep into the draft, and unless I get one of the top two or three at shortstop or catcher, there's no point in drafting someone until much later.

Sure, this data is based on just one year, but it shows clear differences in the scoring patterns of different positions. If you can properly evaluate each position based on these numbers and the scarcity or depth at each position, you automatically have a leg up on the competition.