Let the complaining begin!
Once again, we here at ESPN.com have published our top 250 players in terms of fantasy value from this point forward, and already the fans are picking the list apart. And that's fine -- we're not psychics and certainly don't expect to be 100 percent accurate in our predictions. None of us takes a difference of opinion personally. Heck, look at our individual rankings -- we differ from one another quite a bit. In fact, one of the few places in which we all agree is that Albert Pujols is the No. 1 player on our list, and I expect nary a peep from the public at large with this choice. After all, Pujols is hitting .332 with 32 home runs and 87 runs batted in. Nobody can come close to those numbers. Why shouldn't he be our No. 1?
And yet, if you're nodding your head in agreement with me there, you're also falling victim to one of the most common fallacies when putting these lists together. Past performance doesn't count toward future value. We won't argue that Pujols hasn't had the most fantasy value to date so far in 2009, because he has. We won't argue that he isn't the most likely to have the most fantasy value going forward -- obviously we think he is, else he wouldn't be ranked No. 1. But we'll argue that it's not as big a slam dunk as you might think. Why? Because that word, "value," has a different meaning in fantasy baseball than it does in the real thing.
Indulge me in a little experiment in determining value, if you will. Suppose I told you that scientists have recently discovered life on planet Koosbane, where they play a sport called glorp. As you might imagine, not everyone is talented enough to become a professional glorper, but fantasy glorp has become a very popular thing in which fans take part. In the most basic form of fantasy glorp, leagues consist of only three owners, each with only one player on his roster. There are only three scoring categories (in this case: quarks, blargs and valgi), each weighted equally. In addition, Koosbanians hold their draft after the season has ended, so you already know each player's final stat line. You've drawn the third pick. Whom will you choose to guarantee victory?
Although Wrigo has the lowest number of combined stats, he is the only glorper you can take if you want to win the league outright. By contributing a little bit in two categories, including in blargs, the rarest of feats, Wrigo is worth far more to your team than Kurm, who might well be the most productive player in the sport. Best does not mean most valuable.
Now let's bring that lesson into fantasy baseball. Who has had the most value in fantasy so far this season?
Because home runs and stolen bases are each more difficult to come by than runs and RBIs, they hold far more fantasy value. In addition, batting average isn't a counting category -- it's a ratio -- and although the higher the average the better, a lower average in fewer at-bats doesn't hurt a player's value as much because it has far less impact on a fantasy team's total average. This is why Player C has produced the most fantasy value of the trio, even though you probably wouldn't consider him to be the best player of the group just by looking at the stats. In fantasy value, Players A and B follow closely after, in that order.
Yes, I assert that Nelson Cruz has been a more valuable fantasy player so far in 2009 than Hanley Ramirez and Chase Utley, even though I also believe Cruz to be the "worst" baseball player of the three and the least likely to continue this pace. That's why you will see both Ramirez and Utley in the top 10 of my personal top 250 but won't find Cruz until you get into the 60s. However, if you could guarantee that each of the three would put up the exact same numbers in the second half as the first, I'd take Cruz without hesitation. The value of value supersedes any personal prejudices I might have about what players are better in real life.
Which brings us back to The Machine. Do I think Pujols will be the NL MVP? Yes, I do. Do I think Pujols will be the No. 1 overall player in terms of fantasy value when 2009 is said and done? Yes, I do. Am I willing to bet that Pujols will be the most valuable fantasy player -- and here's the key phrase -- from this point forward? Here, I have to hesitate.
Take a look at the following four players, again in blind-taste-test style. Take a moment to rank them from most valuable to least valuable in terms of fantasy before reading any further. Don't worry, we'll wait.
Most of you probably ranked either A or C as your top pick, with the other one in second, followed by D, with B bringing up the rear. In actuality, all of these players are Albert Pujols. These are the month-by-month rankings from April, May, June and July to date as compared with all players who've accrued enough at-bats to qualify for comparison. In both April and June, pretty much no player could make an argument to be ranked ahead of Pujols in terms of fantasy value. In May, Joe Mauer, Justin Morneau, Justin Upton and Ryan Zimmerman each had better overall stats. So far in July, Ryan Ludwick, Utley, Bobby Abreu and Alex Rodriguez all have posted better numbers.
What does this mean? It means that although we still consider Pujols the best player in baseball, if we were to rank him in terms of value from the beginning of July to today, he would be, at best, No. 5. It doesn't mean we'll trade him even-up for Ludwick. It doesn't mean that he's due for a slump or won't finish the season at No. 1. It simply means that the Cardinals first baseman could hit .333 for the rest of the season but still not break the top 20 in that category. He could hit 20 more homers and not be in the top 10 in that category. It doesn't decrease his overall value for the season, but "from this point forward" opens the door for others to pass him by for a short time, and that becomes more and more true as the season moves on. That's why certain quality players might not be ranked in our top 250 where you might think they deserve to be.
One final note before I go, as it relates to pitchers. If you take a quick look at my rankings, you'll notice that I have much lower rankings for starting pitchers than most of my colleagues, and when it comes to closers, there are several I didn't rank at all. The reason for this is twofold.
First of all, starting pitchers contribute in only four categories (because they don't get saves except in extremely rare circumstances) as compared with hitters, who have a chance to contribute in all five offensive categories. That automatically puts starters at a value disadvantage. The second reason once again relates to the impact of ratio stats versus that of counting stats as a season moves along. Suppose your team pitching stats as of the All-Star break look like this:
If a batter hits a home run, that helps your overall team numbers. If he steals a base, your total increases. Not so for pitchers. Let's say Zack Greinke is on your fantasy staff. What kind of impact will he have on your second-half numbers? Assume for a moment that the rest of your staff performs at the same level the rest of the way, and that Greinke throws nothing but perfect games. Your new team stat line looks like this:
Overall, he wouldn't hugely impact the two ratio categories at all, would he? And that's from an unattainable level of performance. Now take a look at Greinke's impact if he posts "only" decent numbers -- say, an ERA of 3.18 and a WHIP of 1.14 -- the rest of the way.
Your team would end up with worse overall stats from this top-20 level of performance. That's why I don't value pitchers all that highly at this point of the season. They are, at their best, caretakers of the status quo, and all they can do is hurt you less than other pitchers, rather than actually contribute value to your team.
And as for closers, with even less workload than starters, the chances that one catastrophic outing would kill your team totals are magnified tenfold. Their value comes in only one category -- saves -- and the difference between the No. 1 closer and the No. 15 closer in that category is negligible. (Brian Fuentes currently has 26, six pitchers have 23, and 11 pitchers have between 18 and 22 saves.) Add to that the fact that some owners have tanked the category altogether, and the fantasy value of each individual closer is simply not that great relative to the rest of the player pool. The number of points you stand to lose by not having a closer from this point of the season on (very few) as compared with the number of points you can gain by having one (also very few) makes the value of having one insignificant.
But hey, if you don't agree with me, that's all well and good. It just means we have a different set of values, and that's what makes fantasy baseball so fun to play. Let the complaining begin!
AJ Mass is a fantasy football, baseball and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. You can e-mail him here.