Commentary

Hindsight definitely not 20/20 in fantasy

Updated: February 11, 2011, 12:58 PM ET
By AJ Mass | ESPN.com

As expected, the results of our first mock draft have generated a lot of buzz. Certainly, at every pick along the way, arguments could be made for and against the selection that was made, and that kind of debate is what ESPN Conversations was made for. However, a large amount of the criticism nevertheless tends to fall into the category of: "How could anyone possibly think about drafting Player X ahead of Player Y? Everybody knows Player Y is going to be more valuable!"

Now, the easy response to this kind of feedback would be to simply say that we disagree and expect Player X to be more valuable than Player Y and leave it at that -- but that's not being totally honest.

The fact is that when we draft, be it a January mock or a "for real" draft just before Opening Day, we're guessing. We can't see the future, so we don't know exactly what stats each player will give us. So we look at the track record, the potential for growth/decline, any change in scenery and all those other intangibles, throw them all into the hopper, then decide between Jose Bautista and Ryan Howard, between Dan Uggla and Ian Kinsler, between all those Player X's and Player Y's out there.

If we are being totally honest, even though we've done tons of homework, made our fantasy draft lists and checked them all twice, the best we can hope for is that we're right more often than we're wrong. But here's the kicker: Even if we look back at the end of the season to see how well we did, it would still be almost impossible to come to a consensus as to whether we made the right calls.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
Rich Pilling/MLB Photos via Getty ImagesRobinson Cano was one of just three unanimous selections by our experts.

The old saying goes that "hindsight is 20/20," but I wanted to try a little experiment to see exactly how accurate that sentiment truly is. So I asked several of my colleagues to stage another sort of mock draft. The rules were as follows: "You are drafting today in an ESPN standard (5x5) league. The catch is, this league is using 2010 stats, so you have the benefit of knowing every player's final numbers. I'll even let you pick whoever you want at each position … so what would you consider to be your optimal offensive lineup for a starting eight: one catcher, one each of 1B, 2B, SS, 3B and three outfielders?"

As you read along, go ahead and take a moment to choose your own team if you like.

Responding to my call were Nate Ravitz, Pierre Becquey, Keith Lipscomb, Eric Karabell, Tristan Cockcroft, Brendan Roberts and Christopher Harris. Now, although you might think that, armed with the benefit of hindsight, there would be an obvious optimal lineup to select, that ended up not being the case. Even knowing the final statistics of every player you could possibly choose from, there was still room for debate as to who was the "most valuable" at each position.

Here's how the "voting" at each position ultimately broke down. The number in parentheses after each player's name is his overall rank according to the ESPN Player Rater. Names in parentheses are the experts who selected a player who did not appear on the majority of rosters.

Catcher: Joe Mauer (92) - 5, Victor Martinez (113) - 2 (Becquey, Lipscomb)

First Base: Albert Pujols (3) - 5, Joey Votto (4) - 2 (Becquey, Ravitz)

Second Base: Robinson Cano (11) - 7

Shortstop: Hanley Ramirez (12) - 5, Troy Tulowitzki (22) - 2 (Becquey, Roberts)

Third Base: Jose Bautista (9) - 5, David Wright (20) - 1 (Karabell), Evan Longoria (27) - 1 (Ravitz)

Outfield: Carlos Gonzalez (1) - 7, Carl Crawford (2) - 7, Josh Hamilton (6) - 6, Ryan Braun (13) - 1 (Harris)

As you can see, the pool of players was not all that varied, yet only Cano, Gonzalez and Crawford were chosen by all seven experts. Tristan was the only one whose picks completely mirrored the Player Rater rankings, and you can see in the table below how each expert's lineup was valued in terms of combined Player Rater score:

Cockcroft 91.96
Lipscomb 91.16
Roberts 91.14
Karabell 90.27
Becquey 90.03
Ravitz 89.68
Harris 89.65

But what is value? At the end of the day, or at the end of the season, isn't "winning your league" the only thing that matters? If that's the case, and you can achieve that goal without selecting the "best" players at each position, wouldn't you do it?

All of which brings me to my lineup for this experiment. I'll concede that I need Cano and CarGo in order to compete. I'll also latch onto Hamilton and his .359 batting average. However, I'll pass on Crawford entirely and, in his outfield spot, I'll use home run champion Bautista, who has eligibility there as well as at third base. At shortstop, I'll pass on Ramirez and go with Tulowitzki, who gives me more power and a higher batting average.

Now, here's where I go off the board entirely. At catcher, I go with Buster Posey (160). I'll take Miguel Cabrera (5) at first base and Adrian Beltre (21) at third base. In no way do I believe these three players were "better than" or had more "overall value" than the trio of Mauer, Pujols and Crawford -- and in fact, my combined Player Rater score of 84.38 would have me with the "worst" team of the bunch.

But a funny thing happens if you use these lineups to determine a champion using a rotisserie format. My team might not have been the most valuable, but it did well enough to finish in a tie at the top of the leaderboard:

Obviously, in a "real" league, not everybody would be able to share many of the same players, as in this experiment, but the takeaway from this should still be clear. Even with the benefit of hindsight, the definition of value is subject to interpretation, and even with free rein to select whatever players you want, there's no guarantee you'll end up with the best overall team. At the very best, I'd say that, for fantasy baseball, hindsight is closer to 50/50.

And if you can't even be sure about your assessment of the past, how absolutely confident can you be in your view of the future? Just something to think about when you're on the clock and everyone is telling you to take Player X instead of Player Y.

AJ Mass is a fantasy baseball, football and college basketball analyst for ESPN.com. His book, "How Fantasy Sports Explains the World" will be released in August. You can e-mail him here.

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