What ranking players taught me; favorite fantasy baseball experts; reflecting on initial top 100

What day is it? Hell, I don’t even know. We’re all walking – actually, couch-surfing is probably the appropriate mode of “transportation” – through a world we’ve never experienced before. A week and a half ago, I was sitting at Pluckers for weekly trivia, and one of the many well-positioned television screens, a very important item at sports bars, showed NBA players being pulled off the floor with eventual news of Rudy Gobert testing positive for COVID-19. (Yeah, that guy. What a jackass. Let’s put Vernon Maxwell in a hazmat suite and give him 10 minutes with the big Frenchmen. No one hates Utah like Mad Max. Kidding. Kind of. And definitely not about the hating Jazz part. Mad Max treated some nice words encouraging Gobert to get better soon.) Anyway, watching the news unfold feels like it was early February. Seriously. It hasn’t even been two freaking weeks since a global pandemic finally became too much for most of the idiots to ignore. Florida gonna Florida. Predictably, like the rest of the sports world, baseball hit the pause button as well.

When I first decided to start this blog with 80-grade ambition, I did so during a more normal workload period. Frankly, I underestimated how busy I am in February and March. Well, how busy I was. My calendar went from more crowded than the Dodgers lineup and Reds outfield to as barren as the Rockies list of successful free agent signings. Kids, if you want to write about sports and be a beat writer, just know there will be certain months of the calendar you’ll begin to wear the same clothes multiple times a week and will spend more time with your computer than any human being, including any you live with. Covering college basketball, recruiting, college baseball, writing a column, doing podcasts, and preparing for the birth of my son, who will arrive any day now, means quite literally no days off most weeks for months; obviously, that meant little-to-no free time for fantasy baseball blogging, although I still listened to experts podcasts, did a couple drafts, and did as much research as I could. Here are a few things I learned about the process of ranking players:

1) Ranking individual players is a giant pain in the ass when it comes to creating the content the way I decided with a short paragraph about each guy, ADP, projections, and last year’s end-of-season rankings. I wanted to be different, and the rankings I publish are. Nowhere will you find a written explanation accompanying every single player ranked (I just published 101-125 and have outlined 126-200, which will soon arrive). However, the method requires a lot of time spent on doing simple things like finding projections and writing them with the profile. 2) Ranking individual players is the best thing I’ve ever done to prepare myself for drafts. I’ve never been more intimately knowledgeable about the draft pool than I currently am. With a background in sports journalism/reporting, I’m naturally curious, especially about sports statistics. It’s one thing to look up the stats and projections. It’s another, more important, thing to ask yourself an important question – why are the stats what they are? Asking questions is more important than familiarizing yourself with data because one of the best ways – probably the best – to distance yourself from competition is predicting who gets better, who gets worse, who plays often, and identifying signs to make those projections. For example, if Chris Archer ditched his sinker at the end of the season and suddenly saw a dramatic improvement in K-BB% and results, there’s good reason to believe similar results could occur in the future with the same adjustment to pitch arsenal. And if Pittsburgh replaced player development and pitching coach dinosaurs with people like Ben Cherington, there’s good reason to believe an adjusted pitch arsenal will continue along with better player development thanks to the inclusion of modern-day analytics. Hint, hint, HINT. By the way, my eighth-grade Science teacher presented an enormous research project at a conference supporting the theory dinosaurs died from eating too many opium plants. And she never even met Ray Searage. 3) Mostly, I’ve found I use a few things during each ranking exercise: Razzball/Steamer projections; Baseball Savant and Statcast data; Fangraphs.com player pages because of the multiple projections; applying my amateur scouting background to film; collective knowledge gained from listening to or reading some of my favorite experts in the industry, like Grey Albright, Rudy Gamble, Matt Modica, Derek Van Riper, Paul Sporer, Vlad Sedler, and more. I can’t recommend those guys enough. It’s not because they’ve been playing fantasy baseball longer than me. I imagine I’ve actually been playing longer – I think this will be, assuming we have a MLB season, year 23 for me – than some. However, they pour so much time and energy into thinking, writing, and talking about fantasy baseball, and they have an impressive track record of success. Perhaps most importantly, they’re not victim of group-think. The more I immerse myself in data and information, the more I believe creating your own thinking is more important to generating success while also understanding what your strengths are.

Do you enter drafts like Zach Galifianakis sits down at the Blackjack table in The Hangover, with numbers graced with an immense sense of clarity dancing through his head? Are you confident in your ability to find production in FAAB? Do you fancy yourself a pitching guru? Can a draft tool, like Razzball.com’s War Room, greatly benefit your fantasy draft life because you’re not strong at roster-building math in the heat of the moment? Do you want speed or a specific position early, and do you know who could be realistically attainable given your draft position? Can you strike a balance between upside and safety or are you shooting for the stars consistently? The questions go on, and they need answers in order to be successful. No one is going to get everything right in fantasy baseball. Not even close. And that’s okay. Disagreement with even the best, most successful players isn’t necessarily a sign you’re doing something wrong. That said, you better have something to back up your belief. 4) Did I mention ranking players this way takes a lot of time? Originally, I thought an outline of something like a top 250 overall before individually ranking players would be enough. However, I’ve found that a deep dig on individual players can dramatically change rankings opinions. You’ll see some examples below when I go back and discuss adjustments to my initial top 100, which was published 13 years ago. Okay, it feels like 13 years ago, but it was about a month and a half ago, give or take. I would have found a way to rank 200 players 1-200 and then complete position rankings for 450 players before the season began at its original start date, but it would have been tough. A plus to living an unfamiliar life immersed in a global pandemic is more than enough time to finish these rankings at my own speed. 5) Establishing a tier where you would select top players is important. For example, I didn’t anticipate owning Luis Robert in any league this season because the price, in my opinion, was too high based on his NFBC ADP. The rent was too damn high! Predictably, I’ve drafted two teams and own Robert on one because he lasted to pick 114 in a 14-team league, reached a point where, in my opinion, he became a value play, and my roster construction allowed for a high-upside “gamble” in that area. Sure, we all have players we’re completely “out” on. I will not draft Eugenio Suarez because I don’t trust power hitters with shoulder issues, and I think some of his previous season was a fluke. Hey, look there… he’s right beside Giancarlo Stanton in ADP, another guy I will not draft under any realistic circumstance. It’s important, though, to establish when being “out” on a player expires. For example, Victor Robles’s batted ball profile scares me; specifically, his lack of any exit velocity is worrisome, and so is his unpredictable status in the batting order. On average in NFBC Online drafts, based on the last 12 days of data, he’s being selected 64th with a high of 42. I like a guy like Ramon Laureano, selected about seven spots later on average, more than Robles and further down the list, Oscar Mercado. So, at Robles’s current ADP, I’m out. In a Razzball Fantrax league draft I did, Robles was still sitting there at pick 89. At that price, I’m in, and I selected him. My opinion of the player didn’t change, but the price and potential value did. 6) At a certain point, roster construction becomes more important than overall player ranking and/or average draft position. I actually think I’ll use position ranking lists more than overall player lists or ADP because getting correct value is just as important as constructing a balanced roster capable of winning the league, and if you’re competing for an overall, a chance at that too. Can you tell I operate without a world limit at Orangebloods.com? Newspaper editors would fire me. All that said, a few things on what I’d change about my original top 100: * Obviously, injuries are playing a big role, and guys out with season-ending injuries shouldn’t be drafted. Duh. If you’re still drafting Chris Sale, chances are you spent a week on a beach in Florida and were interviewed by CNN to display your starring role in current day Idiocracy. Just hours after Texas announced you could order margaritas to go, the Red Sox announced Chris Sale would undergo Tommy John surgery. Yes, those two news items are intimately related. Then there’s Luis Severino out for the season as well, and then the injuries that aren’t season-ending, but are concerning like Aaron Judge, Stanton, Mike Clevinger, Justin Verlander, etc. I'd move all of them down. By the way, how did Verlander go from a strained lat to groin surgery? Hmmm...

* Nick Castellanos needs to be inside the top 100, and probably inside the top 80. I’m all-in on Castellanos, and especially because of his profile in Great American Ballpark. I’d move Yuli Gurriel out of the top 100 and put Castellanos in and then move Castellanos up into Stanton’s spot at No. 80. * I’m pretty content with how I ranked my starting pitchers, minus the season-ending injuries of course. Normally, I’m not opposed to taking a big-time SP in the first round. I owned two shares of deGrom last season; one team won an 18-team league, and the other finished 258th overall among NFBC Online Championship teams. However, I was already leaning to avoiding an early SP besides deGrom and maybe Walker Buehler beyond pick 20. Prior to the season being shortened, I really liked the collection of pitchers around picks 60-90. Now, I’m even more opposed to drafting a pitcher early. Those pitchers more likely – yes, injury risk isn’t the same across the board for pitchers – to throw a ton of innings, very important for season-long roto leagues, now fall closer to the pack because there simply won’t be as many innings to throw. According to Razzball’s upgraded projections based on a 100-game season, only three pitchers are projected to eclipse 120 innings – deGrom, Gerrit Cole, and Zack Greinke. There are 68 pitchers projected to throw between 110.0 innings and 90 innings; also, 48 pitchers are projected to accumulate 100 or more strikeouts, but only six above 140. Chris Paddack is projected to throw just over 105.0 innings now. How different is he from Buehler, who is now projected to throw 115.0? Consider what happens if you take an ace early and he missed three of his projected 18 starts. Now, consider missing three projected starts is just half a month. What if he’s out two months? Yes, I realize top hitters can miss time too, but they’re not as likely to. * Originally, I thought life without a first baseman early would be hell because of question marks attached to those inside the top 100 rankings. However, there are some intriguing options beyond the top 100, like Carlos Santana, Christian Walker, and even much deeper in the draft with players like C.J. Cron. In the case of Cron, playing time isn’t an issue, which is often an overlooked aspect of season-long roto leagues; you need guys who play everyday or close to it. * I’ve probably ranked some closers too low because I believe there’s a lot of value this year in locking up a steady closer given the volatility of the position around baseball, which is influenced by some front offices moving away from just one designed ninth-inning guy, who is their best reliever. Plus, a top closer can significantly impact your ratios and even strikeouts. Guys like Kirby Yates and Liam Hendriks have sexy Statcast pages; Hendriks’s page should just bring up a picture of Christina Hendricks from Mad Men. * Speaking of Christina Hendricks, let’s talk about the Twins. After my initial dive into the top 100, I thought the Twins were severely underrated. The more I dig, the more I come back to the same conclusion. * Shortstop is so silly deep. I picked fifth in a draft and went with Francisco Lindor without hesitation. Later, Bo Bichette was sitting at pick 65 and it was too much to pass. I don’t quite know what the answer is because I love Lindor and could take Fernando Tatis, Jr. early if I’m feeling spicy or drank just enough to loosen up before the draft. But I also really like Xander Bogaerts, Javier Baez, Bichette, Tim Anderson, Manny Machado, Jorge Polanco, Corey, Seager, etc. I think drafting shortstops this year is a good exercise in draft position mattering. The reality is you’re only going to have exposure to some of those guys and not all of them, but it’s going to be difficult to avoid picking two early because there should be value present at the middle rounds. Is the correct move avoiding the position entirely in the first two rounds? I’m not sure.

* I need to move Keston Hiura up, and he’s a great example of the importance of eyeballs and data. Purely based off his stats, Hiura has an obvious red flag and limited history. But then you flip on the television and he’s driving the ball to the wall in right field off Buehler one at-bat, and then smoking a ball to the other side of the field the next at-bat. The guy can flat out hit, and his talent strongly suggests his strikeout and whiff percentages will eventually improve. Another infielder I need to move up: Gleyber Torres. I’m not far behind the average draft consensus, just four spots in fact, and I think the concerns I have about his batted ball data didn’t disappear into quarantine. However, second base is a wasteland, and his 2B/SS eligibility is enormous. Plus, Torres is a good example of distinction between fantasy baseball and real baseball. While his batted ball data might scare me a tad, he’s projected to hit third for the Yankees and should accumulate an elite number of counting stats even if he stays the same, or slightly regresses. But he’s also 23-years-old and could improve too given the elite prospect pedigree.

Photos courtesy of AP Images.

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