Fantasy Baseball Position Eligibility: The Secret Competitive Edge

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Fantasy Baseball Position Eligibility is a fickle beast in the world of fantasy baseball. If you’re not paying attention, you could get bitten. Players lose and gain eligibility at different positions every season, sometimes to their detriment. As an owner, especially in dynasty or keeper formats, there is some sweet value to be extracted from these particular situations. To unearth these hidden fantasy treasures, means also to get a leg up on your fellow team owners.

You might be thinking, how could a player’s position make any sort of difference in the success of my team compared to someone else’s? Before we evaluate the most inapparent gems and most dangerous time bombs for 2016, lets first dig in to how and why position eligibility, for better or for worse, matters.

The first step in all of this to understand and accept that position eligibility needs to be carefully dissected in order to enjoy its benefits. When you break it down to one key theme, fantasy, no matter the sport, is all about value-based production. The more players you draft that significantly outperform their ADP, the better your team will be. Conversely, the more players you draft who don’t perform up to their ADP, can indelibly harm your season’s production.

Position flexibility can also be an undervalued strategy as far as counting stats. The more productive players you have that play multiple positions, the less empty spots you will have in your daily lineup. When players inevitably get injured, have off days, get benched, etc., having an asset that you already own to plug in their spot is a decided advantage over the other teams, who will need to scour the often depleted waiver wire. The deeper your league, the more this type of strategy can benefit you.

So, bearing in mind those concepts, the optimal strategy for every team is to fill their starting fantasy lineup with as many versatile, wealthy value-based players as possible. Here’s where the strategy comes into play, because fantasy baseball assets are broken down into positional sub-categories. Some, historically 1B and OF, are abundant with strong players and annually produce the strongest fantasy batters; among the top 15 ranked batters the past three seasons, twelve have been 1B or OF. While other positions, such as middle IF and C, remain destitute for multiple years; among the top 30 ranked batters the past three season, only three have been a SS, 2B, or catcher. (Cano in 2013, Altuve in 2014, and D. Gordon in 2014).

For the more fervorous owners, positional eligibility tells us that when a player moves into or out of these sub-categories, value is ripe for the picking. For those giving an inattentive glance at the player pool, good players are good players, and bad players are bad players.

“Therein, as the Bard would tell us, lies the rub.”

Take Advantage, While You Still Can

Kyle Schwarber

The first year player showed some monster power in the second half of 2016 and in the Cubbies’ postseason run. Despite his below-average play behind the plate, and disastrous efforts against the Mets has a left fielder, his bat was impossible to take out of the lineup,. Schwarber just barely made the qualifications as a catcher, but he will in fact enter 2016 both C, and OF eligible.

However, his time as a fantasy catcher could be short-lived.

When organizations are gifted an elite power-hitting catcher, which Schwarber by all standards clearly is, they are faced with a predicament. Do you allow him to continue at the position? Or do you convert him to another position for the sake of his long-term health? A famous benchmark for this situation is Bryce Harper. He was drafted as a catcher, and immediately converted to an outfielder due to the harsh effects of squatting behind home plate 4-6 times per week.

Furthermore, Miguel Montero’s mid-July thumb injury opened the door for Schwarber to be permanently recalled to the majors. However, despite his limited experience in left field, Schwarber was swiftly removed from the catcher position when Montero was healthy enough to play.

Despite his limitations as a fielder in general, Schwarber is poised to have a historic offensive fantasy season as an everyday fantasy catcher. At the very least, it will be for the entirety of 2016. This is a dream scenario from a value-based positional standpoint. Schwarber will provide the production of a top notch power hitting 1B, 3B, or OF, at the catcher position, without the drawbacks of actually playing the position (i.e. wear and tear related injuries, days off to rest, etc.). If he ever loses his catcher eligibility, he’ll still be a great talent, but might lose a little shine among the dozen or so, elite power corner-infielders and outfielders.

For the short-term, though, Schwarber will be the alpha-male of fantasy catchers.

It may sound like too fantastic of a notion, but Schwarber could be poised for one of the greatest fantasy seasons, from the catching position we’ve ever seen. To put this into context, arguably the best power-hitting catcher of the past ten years is Brian McCann. He has never finished higher than 31st in league home runs. Devin Mesoraco had the best single home run hitting season by a catcher in the past 10 seasons in 2014 tallying 25. He still only finished tied for 21st.

Schwarber not only cracked 16 HR in just 69 games, (which would put him on pace for somewhere between 35-40 HR over a full season), but he visibly crushed the baseball, something you don’t need a statistician to tell you. In the one-game Wild Card elimination game against the Pirates, Schwarber tattooed a ball down the left-field line with a BBS, (batted ball speed), of 111.3 mph and a projected 450 feet. This puts him in elite BBS territory, and in only his third month on the job.

His bat will find his way into the Cubs lineup, one way or another. Maybe he qualifies in 2017 as a catcher, maybe he doesn’t. One thing is for certain; Schwarber represents a huge leg up in a catcher pool that remains a scarce source of legitimate fantasy contributors.

Albert Pujols

Perennial fantasy stud affectionately nicknamed “Fat Albert,” which makes reference to his big lumber, is still very relevant in 2016. Even after nearly a decade and a half of ML service time, he continues to terrorize major league pitching. He is coming off a terrific season where he eclipsed the 40 home run mark for the first time since 2010. His contact rate this past season was an impressive 85.6%, 22nd best in baseball. What’s even more impressive is in his age 36 season, that contact rate is a mere .1% points difference from his career contact rate of 85.7%. This speaks volumes about his unwavering, elite production over his 14-year career.

This past season though, Pujols reached a crossroads in his career. He was bothered for much of the second half with a foot injury, putting his future at 1B in question. He went under the knife in November to repair a plantar plate on his right big toe. He reached the qualification for 1B for this upcoming season, (as well as DH), but his future beyond that is in question. With emerging slugger and first basemen C.J. Cron rostered, Pujols could possibly remain strictly a DH for 2016 while he recovers from his foot injury. If he thrives as a designated hitter, there’s less incentive to push Pujols, who although is a very good defensive player, to risk re-injuring the foot while fielding. Manager Mike Scioscia was non-committal about Albert’s future at first base this past December:

“That conversation is a little premature, because we don’t know where he is,” Scioscia said when asked if Pujols will DH more frequently this coming season.”

He also recognized his contributions as a fielder:

“If Albert comes in and he’s healthy in the spring and can get out there and play first base during the season with us, we’re a better team,” Scioscia said. “There’s no doubt about that.”

As a fantasy owner, it’s not realistic to be correct all the time when predicting these types of things. More or less, the Angels themselves don’t even know how this will turn out regarding Pujols and his future in the field. What’s important though, is that the handwriting is on the wall for a shift in fantasy value. It’s better to be ahead of the curve, than behind it.

There are only a handful of players who are worthy of being rostered as DH eligible only. Yes, Pujols does fall into that category, but that is not the question. The question is: Would you rather own a DH eligible-only Pujols or a player with similar to better production, and eligible at 1B, corner infield, UTIL, and possibly more? The answer is an easy one: the latter.

Yes of course it is splitting hairs, but many times head-to-head playoff matchups come down to one home run, one walk, or one run scored. Position flexibility is an excellent way to optimize your daily baseball lineup and gain an edge over your head-to-head competition. Trade him now in keeper leagues or enjoy what could be his final season with 1B eligibility. Either way, be aware of this potential predicament and manage your roster accordingly.

Jonathan Villar

Consider this a super deep sleeper suggestion, but one that could produce in an evasive fantasy category: stolen bases. In re-draft snake and auction leagues alike, stolen bases are routinely overpaid for, simply because of supply and demand. There are only a few players capable of 40+ SB seasons. Most of them will be drafted in the top 100, cost you a significant portion of your auction budget, or will be kept in dynasty leagues. To compete for stolen bases, late round speed must be scavenged for. Look no further than Villar.

He has played the majority of his professional career at SS, with a spot start in the outfield every now and again. However, near the end of last season he made a handful of starts at third base for Houston, which not coincidentally was his first learned position.

Now Villar finds himself in Milwaukee as the Brewers projected starting 3B, with guaranteed SS eligibility. He could also find some starts during the year in the outfield. So that means we’re talking about a player eligible at 2-3 positions, with potential for 30-40 steals. That is value to jump all over in the later rounds or as a $1 bid at the end of your auction. That is all of course assuming Villar realizes this potential uptick in production:

To substantiate Villar’s potential stolen base production, look no further than his Spd (speed score). Speed score is an advanced statistic developed by the influential baseball historian/statistician, Bill James. It was created to measure a player’s “…Stolen Base Percentage, Frequency of Stolen Base Attempts, Percentage of Triples, and Runs Scored Percentage.” This formula boils down to one number and you are scored based on the following chart:

Rating Spd
Excellent 7.0
Great 6.0
Above Average 5.5
Average 4.5
Below Average 4.0
Poor 3.0
Awful 2.0

In the past three calendar years, only three shortstops have scored 6.9 or higher on the Spd chart, quantifying their excellent speed: Danny Santana, Jorge Polanco and Jonathan Villar. Only Villar stands to gets consistent at bats in 2016.

Don’t nod off on Villar as a great late value pick in any category-based fantasy format, or he’ll sprint right past you.

Part 2 coming soon: The wasteland of position eligibility; players set to lose an important position that affects their fantasy value for the worse.

Sources:

http://www.fangraphs.com

http://www.fangraphs.com/library/defense/def/

http://espn.go.com/mlb/statistics

http://m.mlb.com/news/article/153667276/statcast-tracks-kyle-schwarbers-wild-card-hr

Notes:

All position eligibility qualifications are taken straight from ESPN. Other sites may vary:

“A player must have played in a minimum of 20 games in a position [in his previous season] to be eligible for that position. The exception is rookies; they will be eligible for the position in which they begin the season.

Once a player has played 10 games in a position during the current season they will have that position added to their eligibility. This means that they will become eligible for the new position beginning on the eleventh game in that position. These games do not need to be continuous.”

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