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How to Deal with Positional Scarcity in Straight & Snake Drafts (Fantasy Baseball)

Feb 15, 2020

Fantasy drafts are usually judged through the lens of value.

We obsess not only about the players we want to select but when to select them. Too early and we think we paid too much. Too late and it’s… well… too late.

This is why we prepare. We run mock drafts to get a general idea of the players typically available in a certain round. We check rankings. Create tiers. We do research so that we aren’t caught off-guard when things go awry.

And then the draft begins and things go awry.

Someone went off-script. And then another. And a third. Now, we’re left debating between the fourth-best second baseman – whom we don’t even like – or a third baseman – even though your research determined that you’d be happy with almost any starting third baseman.

Despite the preparations, people acted differently than expected. Perhaps it was due to panic. Perhaps it was a calculated strategy. Whatever it is, positional requirements for a fantasy roster likely aided in some decision-making. And this is often found in the form of position scarcity.

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Position scarcity exists for two reasons. The first is supply. For a position to be scarce, there needs to be fewer viable options than starting slots across all fantasy rosters. For example, there might only be seven or eight desirable catchers in a given year. If you’re playing in a league of 12 teams and each must start two catchers, there isn’t enough supply to fill the 24 slots. Not with anyone good, anyway. Conversely, many fantasy leagues only require three outfielders and, if there are 10 total teams, it won’t be overly difficult to identify 30 outfielders worth owning. Simple math. Simple formula.

What gets complicated is the second reason: demand. Like economics, the more demand for an asset, the higher the price goes – all else being equal. In fantasy baseball, the demand is partly driven by supply, but arguably more driven by the fantasy league’s requirements. One fantasy league can vary wildly from another and, if we’re comparing leagues using the aforementioned examples, we can see that the ‘demand’ for an outfielder is low – because only 30 are needed – while the ‘demand’ for a catcher is high – every team must own at least two.

I’ve already laid out two hypothetical examples of positions and how they may or may not be scarce, but the same exercise can be applied to any position in a given year. We simply take the fantasy league’s requirements – demand – and compare it to our pre-draft rankings – supply. These rankings can be in the form of tiers, prices, average draft position, or some combination of all three.

Using FantasyPros’ Average Draft Position as a guide, I went back to 2019 and compiled some trends by position. For the sake of limiting variables, I excluded pitchers entirely and assumed that a round was comprised of ten hitters.

Roughly four loose rounds later, a pattern emerged. There were enough outfielders taken to start the process of filling the position, and almost every team had a third baseman. First base and shortstop were somewhat split, while a few teams would have had either a catcher or second basemen.

More importantly, the positions appeared to be ‘grouped.’ When the first shortstop was taken, the rest of the shortstops followed closely, by comparison to other positions.

Which brings us to our next question. “Why?”

The answer can be most easily found when looking at outfielders, the one position least ‘grouped’ and found in abundance in nearly every round. Because of the direct requirement to start at least one outfielder – demand – it forces owners to address the position early. But, some owners take the opposite approach and determine that because of the abundance of viable options – supply – it isn’t necessary to take an outfielder before a better player at another position.

There are many terms to describe what we’re trying to accomplish by comparing supply and demand on a position-by-position basis. The more viable options per lineup slots, the more plentiful said position is. We call this ‘deep.’ Think of a swimming pool where we have more room to explore. Naturally, the opposite ratio – fewer viable options per lineup slots – would be called ‘shallow’ or ‘thin.’

Or, to use the term around which this article revolves, ‘scarce.’

Position scarcity comes into play during the draft when it creates ‘runs’ – when one player from a particular position is selected and others from the same position follow – e.g. if closers start to get drafted in bunches, it would be referred to as a “closer run.” It will happen in almost every draft, so let’s approach the actions we can take from two different angles.

If the “run” begins and you weren’t the one who started it, you are, by nature, only able to select a player worse than the best at said position. You could be fortunate enough to get someone you value just as much as the top player, but it’s more likely that you will have missed the bulk of the run and are left with comparatively worse selections.

Conversely, if you start the run – specifically looking at positions that are scarce – you presumably have the leg up on the competition because of how quickly the position gets thin. The downside here is timing, where you are intentionally over-valuing a player solely because of position. It’s not necessarily the wrong approach, but it is a risky one.

The good news is that risk is part of the game. Risk in a fantasy draft is what can produce some of the best rewards.

The two main risks inherent with drafting a player at the ‘wrong time’ – a false narrative but one that is important here – is simply overpaying for someone you could have taken later and missing out on someone who wouldn’t be available in the next round – essentially, opportunity cost. But, our opportunity is the same as everyone else’s.

Remember, a team can only make one selection at-a-time. If a player is drafted because of the ‘run,’ another player in a different position will have dropped by exactly one draft slot. The stronger the run, the more draft slots a player can fall. Which means that we have to ask ourselves, “Would we rather draft the fourth-best player in the position run or try to gain value by someone falling too far?”

Really, the deeper question is, “Can we get an approximation of the same player now available due to the player run in later rounds?” If so, then we have a possible win-win scenario. We draft the better value – the player falling too far – and move down the list of players at the “running” position.

Most of the time, this is the ideal way to work around position scarcity. As much as we have established that it is real and almost impossible to avoid at one point or another, we can also avoid falling victim to it. Drafting is a mental game played by humans. Have the right mindset to look past the easy pitfall.

There is another strategic play to the “position run” that requires some preparation and calculation, but can be a metaphorical ‘home run.’ That is, bury one ‘run’ inside another. We won’t always have perfect timing with starting the run, but we can make an aggressive move and play off the rising level of panic.

For example, if catchers and second basemen are “scarce” in a given year, as soon as the second base run begins, target the top catcher on the list. As long as it doesn’t throw off the rest of your draft plan, taking the top catcher will almost certainly force at least one owner to take the next. This pushes one player down the list from the catcher run and however many were falling due to the second base run one additional spot. It’s subtle, but it’s a way to set the tone as well as restrain from jumping aboard a speeding train.

While fantasy owners will gladly take pride in where and when a particular player was drafted, the final roster is almost always the most important component – with the exception of some rule-based twists. As long as you can assemble the best collective group of players within your control, you’ve taken the first steps to a fantasy championship.

But, before you can even place your feet on the ground to take the steps, you have to know where the traps lie. One of those is in the fear of chasing a position because it is scarce.

Maybe it is. But you now know how to recognize and exploit it.

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Mario Mergola is a featured writer at FantasyPros, as well as the creator and content-editor of Sporfolio. For more from Mario, check out his archive and follow him @MarioMergola.

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