Random thoughts on one-trick ponies, tradeability, and ‘value’

Last month, fellow THT writer Derek Ambrosino wrote a couple of articles that spurred some debate in the comments (Approaching unconscious competence and One category roar, five category snore). I had some of my own thoughts on a few of the concepts and theories discussed and wanted to share them.

As some quick background, most of the discussion centered around the relative value of one-category players and players who are a little above replacement in all five categories but spectacular in none.

Drafting to trade

In the comment section of Derek A.’s first article, there was a little talk about drafting with the intent to trade. As a general rule of thumb, most fantasy analysts will warn against “drafting to trade.” Still, Derek A. argued that “the chances that somebody needs a 40-steal guy regardless of the rest of that player’s (lack of) skill set (or at least feels that they need such a player) is probably higher than the likelihood that somebody feels they need a Garrett Anderson.” I think most of us would agree with this statement (I certainly do), so the question then becomes: “Should this be a consideration when we’re initially drafting our players?” My answer to this question is a definite “yes.”

A couple years ago, I discussed one of my favorite mixed-league strategies: that of drafting high-upside players late in the draft. This seems to be a very popular strategy these days, and I think the principles of the strategy are very closely related to our discussion on the trade value of one-category studs.

When we discuss “high-upside” players, we generally think about young, toolsy players who have a higher probability of significantly outperforming their projections than an established, 30-something-year-old veteran does. However, I don’t believe that upside must be constrained to pure production. Why shouldn’t potential future trade value be incorporated in the “upside” bucket? After all, it all leads to the same goal: winning. Whether that win comes as a result of your 20th-round pick hitting like a third-rounder or as a result of you trading your 20th-round speedster for a top-notch SP shouldn’t matter one ounce.

Value is dynamic

Another facet of the comment section discussion dealt with whether or not we should be drafting one-category players in the first place. Reader Andrew P. talked about how he disliked the idea of forgoing “more valuable” players in order to achieve balance by taking a one-trick pony. Not to pick on Andrew, but I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that.

Value is a funny thing, in that it is never static. I think when a lot of people talk about draft-day value, they think of it in a vacuum—as a precise, static number—but this couldn’t be further from the case. Value is dynamic and is unique to every team at every pick.

If you print out a list of players and dollar values and take that to your draft, the truth of the matter is, those dollar values will only truly be accurate until the first pick of the draft is made. After players have been removed from the pool and/or added to your team, the value of the remaining players will change. It will change—even if only slightly—every single time a player is removed from the pool. Over the course of an entire draft, those values can change quite drastically, especially if you’ve overloaded on one category and are short in another.

Here’s an extreme example to ponder: Let’s say the ghost of Ricky Henderson (from his 130-steal season) is resurrected and you draft him. Then you add a 118-SB Lou Brock clone. With your next pick, your pre-draft cheat sheet may say that the 110-SB Vince Coleman impostor is the best player on the board, but in the context of your team (which now sports phantom Ricky and Lou), Vince Coleman is significantly less valuable.

Why? Because you don’t need those steals! You’ve got 250 under your belt already—quite possibly enough to win the category outright. So the value of the remaining steals in the player pool is essentially zero for your team. For some other team participating in the draft, Coleman will be very appealing. But for you, the relative value of steals is extremely low, in turn raising the relative value of all the other categories. And this happens every time a player is selected (just not as drastically)—supply changes, your team needs change, and thus, every player’s value changes.

I actually just had a similar situation play out in a mock draft I participated in for USA Today’s preseason magazine. I ended up with Adam Dunn, Russell Branyan and Chris Davis on the power side and Michael Bourn, Nyjer Morgan and Luis Castillo on the average/steals side. Once you take a player who will contribute heavily to HRs and RBIs but little to average and steals, the relative value of HRs and RBIs to your team decreases, and the relative value of average and steals increases.

I ended up doing a lot of “balancing” in this draft. I put balancing in quotes because it’s a word that often gets used without full understanding of what it means or why/when it should be done. I wasn’t just taking these one-trick ponies because I felt I needed “balance” (something I don’t feel is necessary just for the sake of it); I was taking them because their relative value was higher to my team because of its current makeup at that point in the draft.

The tradeability of different players

My last point today deals with the ability to trade a one-trick pony versus a guy who will help out a little bit in each category. Derek A. used Melky Cabrera as an example of the latter, so I’ll continue using him. He posited that Melky would be a lot harder to trade than, say, Elvis Andrus or Scott Podsednik who have much of their value tied up in one category. I absolutely agree, but I have a couple ideas of my own as to why this is the case.

The first is a pretty obvious one (and one Derek A. touched on briefly). Midseason, teams are often looking to trade for categories as opposed to players. If acquiring one player can catapult your team three or four points in the standings, that’s going to be a lot more appealing than acquiring a player who merely helps in acquiring three or four points across several categories. It’s a matter of leverage.

One other important consideration, though, is that in our 12-team mixed league example, players like Melky and Garrett Anderson are end-of-the-bench guys. They are the guys drafted in the last few rounds or taken off the waiver wire during the season. While opinions of the top players in the league rarely differ from owner-to-owner (I think we can all agree that Albert Pujols and Mark Teixeira and Jacoby Ellsbury are worthy of a pick in the first few rounds), opinions of the guys taken at the end of draft differ greatly. One owner’s late-round bargain is viewed as should-be-waiver-wire-fodder by another owner.

Feel free to compare rankings between different sites and you’ll see exactly what I mean. Guys appearing in spots Nos. 248, 249 and 250 on one site’s list might not appear at all on another’s. Last year, Baseball HQ loved Mike Jacobs; I hated him. I loved Nyjer Morgan; my own readers hated him smile.

May I Have Your Autograph, Please?
The payoff of being polite.

Opinions diverge greatly at the end of drafts, so if you’re the guy who owns Melky Cabrera, there’s a very good chance you like him more than anyone else in your league (this is true to an extent for all players you draft, but particularly among late-round selections). And if that’s the case, how are you going to get what you consider equal (or greater) value in a trade? While Melky’s worth is open to interpretation, Andrus’ ability to steal a base is much less so.

Further compounding this reality is something called the endowment effect—the tendency for people to overvalue or grow attached to what they already have. As a result of this, owners are going to be more likely to want to keep their own, unspectacular end-of-bench guys than to acquire yours.

Concluding thoughts

Just some stuff to think about. I realize these ideas weren’t completely related, but I think they were all worth putting out there. If anyone has any of their own thoughts or questions, feel free to comment.


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Andrew P
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Andrew P
In your Henderson/Brock/Coleman example, Coleman’s value to your team wouldn’t be 0, it would be whatever his trade value is to the rest of the league.  To me, the question isn’t what value Coleman has to your team, it’s what value does a player you might acquire have.  Since each player taken alters the value available in the remaining player pool, taking Coleman would increase the value of the remaining SBs for your leaguemates.  Trading only 1 your speedsters, then, would allow your trade partner to jump up multiple places (from last to 2nd isn’t unfathomable in this hypothetical).  This… Read more »
Biggy
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Biggy
Good points, Andrew P, especially about bench players.  A guy in our league this year dropped Kendry Morales early.  I picked him up as a bench player, behind Hawpe and BJ Upton.  When Kendry heated up, I could then trade the more established players for other established players that fit my needs better. Another caveat about your later, high upside players is the tendecy to overrate them, not dropping them because you believe in them.  I had Fontenot this past year, and missed on Aaron Hill because I “knew” Fonty would turn it around.  Value is important, but don’t overvalue… Read more »
GTWMA
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GTWMA
To extend Andrew’s point in a roto environment, the estimate of Coleman’s value to you during the draft is likely to be his estimated standing gains points based upon your league settings.  Through the season (and even dynamically during the draft) a player’s worth to any team may vary, which is Derek’s point.  If I’m looking to trade him, how other team’s value him is the key.  I agree that one-tricks offer greater trade value.  But, I would argue that they also involve greater risk.  A team that builds its SBs on one player loses a lot if that player… Read more »
Eric
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Eric
This discussion begins to lead into what I have always thought was an interesting strategy but one that I never had the courage to try.  Namely, that you do in fact draft Vince Coleman, and then you continue to draft SBs throughout the draft in the hopes of creating a league-wide scarcity in a category.  In practice, you would probably need to focus on a combination of categories such as SB/R.  The aim would be to create a “monopoly” on a statistical category.  Via this monopoly, you would leverage the relative scarcity of the category in your league to make… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
I started writing out responses and realized I have long responses for several of you. For the sake of readability, I will post each as their own post, but some of the ideas mentioned relate to each other. Derek, Thanks for posting on this topic as well. I think it is an interesting discussion, and clearly we have several highly intelligent people contributing thoughts and theories. That is what THT Fantasy is about! I appreciate and agree with your comments (obviously) and think the endowment effect is certainly relevant. A certain quip about stuff vs. um, excrement, by the greatest… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Andrew, Good points. It just goes to show you that you can come at these discussions from many different directions. The observation about being the endowment effect implying it is better to upgrade your starters, consolidate stars into super-duper studs and fill in with undervalued lower tier guys is particularly salient, IMO. The whole goal is to have a plan right? Do I intend to try to maximize the trade value of my bench, or maximize my own replacement value? Two different goals, two different plans. I will say this (going back to basketball again). The Iverson owner won our… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Eric (if you are still reading), I have to get drunk before a draft because I’ve really thought about this idea too (I talked in the columns referenced above about artificially manipulating the market for low-volume categories), but I don’t think I’d have the guts to try it unless I was drunk. I’d like to try it just to see what happens… for research purposes. The thing is, if you’re playing in a really competent league, the other owners maybe just effectively collude to stonewall you (kinda like in the Iverson-owner example I mention above) and you’ll be stuck with… Read more »
Andrew
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Andrew

Haha, Derek (Ambrosino), that line about having to be drunk to employ that strategy cracked me up.

On an unrelated note, Derek Carty, I noticed Mock Draft Central held its first Experts Draft tonight. Any chance the current NL LABR champ will be participating in one of those drafts in the near future?

Jimbo
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Jimbo
I’ve come to really dislike one-trick players. It is SO easy for an “average” 4 or 5 category player to produce better stats. Who ranked higher on the 2009 ESPN Player Rater, Adrian Gonzalez or Denard Span? Interesting. Later in a draft I’ll take a sleeper or two that might get onto my team for power or speed, but I still like them to have some shot at a decent average…otherwise they’re a net “no-win” pony. Last year it was A. Hill, this year I like Alcides. But before taking that sort of player, I ask myself if I’m missing… Read more »
Bresh
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Bresh
I have found lately that after the 1st round, I draft for weaker hitting positions (usually SS, 2B, C).  This affords me the opportunity to obtain elite position players at a premium, without jeopardizing the farm in any one catagory, as usually these players have good R/SB or HR/RBI numbers anyway.  The difficulty I find is targeting the round where I start drafting starting pitching and relief pitching.  I usually wait for a run on relievers, and either go pitcher/player or player/pitcher depending on when I grab my stud starter.  I scour the waiver wire constantly, and am not afraid… Read more »
Derek Ambrosino
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Derek Ambrosino
Jimbo, A recurring question underlying much of this discussion is whether one is going to maximize replacement value relative to one’s own team with late round draft picks or attempt to stock potential trade chips. Going back to the example I set forth in a previous article, Melky Cabrera may provide me with better replacement value relative to my own team than, say, Elvis Andrus, especially not knowing the make-up of the roster position-eligibility-wise. But, there’s probably a better trade market for Andrus than Melky because there are lots of players on the wire similar in skill set to Melky… Read more »
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