Positional Scarcity Isn’t A One-Time Study

If you’re reading FanGraphs+, you could probably explain the idea of positional scarcity with relative confidence. But simply knowing that it exists is not really enough, because positional scarcity is a fluid, evolving idea. In the mid-2000s, the league was flush with power-hitting third basemen, but now the position is scarcer than outfielders and first basemen. It’s not enough to have read about scarcity and committed it to memory, because position scarcity changes all the time.

Now, if you are unclear on what positional scarcity is, allow us to explain (don’t just search it, less you end up on the player page for early-30s Red Sox legend Russ Scarritt, who was once worth more than two wins below replacement level just with his bat).

Back in 2011, our own Mike Podhorzer described position scarcity as follows:

In the simplest terms, position scarcity exists when there are not enough positively valued players at a position to fill up every active roster. In a standard 12-team league with 14 hitters, a total of 168 hitters will be drafted as starters and each must be valued and purchased at $1, at the very least. If you projected every hitter and valued their raw stats based on a $260 salary cap per team, there is virtually no chance that 24 catchers will make your top 168. There is also a possibility that there won’t be the required minimum of 36 middle infielders.

In short, some positions are deeper than others, and because positive fantasy value at some positions is less available (“scarcer”), the price for said value increases. If there’s only one shortstop who will help your team, your willingness to pay for him is a lot greater than an outfielder with the same stat line.

But again, the abundance or scarcity of value at positions changes over time. Looking at the 2013 end of season rankings, it’s pretty obvious that outfielders dominate, making up 20 of the top-40 players. That doesn’t mean outfield production isn’t valuable, because most formats start three-to-five times as many outfielders as any other position. But also note that in the top-40 there are no catchers or shortstops and, most surprisingly, just a single first baseman.

To set the stage for analyzing scarcity, it’s important to know how the league has changed recently, too. You don’t want 2012 production in your head when you look at 2014 projections. The table below shows the average production of batters since 2004, using all players with a minimum of 350 plate appearances:

2004 482 17 71 67 8 0.276
2005 474 16 67 64 8 0.274
2006 485 17 72 69 8 0.278
2007 484 16 71 68 9 0.278
2008 475 16 69 66 8 0.274
2009 473 16 68 65 9 0.272
2010 481 15 66 63 9 0.268
2011 474 15 63 61 10 0.267
2012 485 17 67 64 10 0.266
2013 478 15 62 60 8 0.266

Notice that an average player in 2013 put up far less impressive stats than one in 2012. The bar has been shifted pretty low for the average fantasy player.

Now look at the average statistical production for each position in 2013 (again, using the 350-plate appearance cut-off):

C 24 0.260 15 51 60 2
1B 34 0.261 22 65 75 3
2B 33 0.266 10 58 52 8
3B 37 0.265 15 56 59 3
SS 29 0.262 10 58 50 12
OF 94 0.266 15 65 57 12
AVERAGE 0.266 15 62 60 8

That’s hardly surprising. Catchers are giving you relatively less than other positions, but there are so few that even manage 350 plate appearances, they become relatively more valuable. A third baseman who can net you some stolen bases has a distinct advantage over other players at the hot-corner. Power in the middle infield is still pretty rare. And so on.

But it’s not just the baseline that’s important – the distribution of value matters, too. Maybe Miguel Cabrera is way better than his counterparts, skewing the entire group’s average upwards and masking the fact that third base production is still scarce. As another example, look at the drop-off between Paul Goldschmidt and Edwin Encarnacion, the second- and third-ranked first basemen this season:

Goldschmidt: 36 HR, 103 R, 125 RBI, 15 SB, .302 AVG, $31
Encarnacion: 36 HR, 90 R, 104 RBI, 7 SB, .272 AVG, $18

And that’s not picking two random players from the pool; that’s the gap between second-best and third-best.

The distribution of value is just as important for evaluating scarcity as the number of players is. If talent is scarce at shortstop but every qualified shortstop puts up the exact same line, none is particularly more valuable than the other and that same stat line is easy to replicate with a replacement.

And so, a visualization of the spread of talent at each position can help with preparation. The graph below shows auction values based on Steamer projections (up on the projections page now) for every player for the 2014 season in a standard 12-team mixed league. On the Y-axis is the projected auction value and the X-axis corresponds to position (using standard fielding codes, with all outfielders being called “7” and relievers being called “8” to distinguish them from starters).
auction values all
That is (hopefully) a helpful visualization, but it’s a bit noisier than it needs to be because it includes all players. It’s unlikely that many players with negative values get drafted (remember that these values are based on a particular format and would shift for deeper leagues).

The graph below shows only those players with a positive value in such a format. The green bar represents the number of “positive-value players” at each position, the blue circles represent each individual value and the orange line denotes the average value at each position.
auction values positive
If tables are more your thing, here are the number of positive-value players and the average value of said players in table format:

POS N>0 average >0
SP 86 10.02
C 13 7.25
1B 25 13.87
2B 19 14.76
3B 22 10.68
SS 21 7.03
OF 78 10.15
RP 39 9.36

Hopefully, the second visualization helps showcase the scarcity and distribution of talent at each position heading into 2014. Hopefully it also shows that it’s not enough to just remember that second basemen were once a scarce position; you also need to know that there are a handful of elite options, a cluster of names worth more than $10 and then a complete lack of production whatsoever.

Positional scarcity isn’t a one-time study, it changes as much as any other element of fantasy baseball.

Blake Murphy is a freelance sportswriter based out of Toronto. Formerly of the Score, he's the managing editor at Raptors Republic and frequently pops up at Sportsnet, Vice, and around here. Follow him on Twitter @BlakeMurphyODC.

4 Responses to “Positional Scarcity Isn’t A One-Time Study”

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  1. tylersnotes says:

    on the one hand, the conclusions here seem to be fairly straightforward– every year there are countless articles pointing out that Position A is more scarce this year, Position B is deeper than people think, etc. It’s helpful to see these anecdotal analyses backed up with some data heading into the year. But I imagine people will come to 2 wildly different conclusions from the data set here based on common philosophies.

    One method of evaluating positional depth/scarcity is to see it as a reason to reach higher or spend more on the scarce positions. In this method, if I think the best 2b projection is valued at $25, and the next best is $10, I may want to spend $30 to ensure I get the best 2b.

    The second method is to view positional scarcity as a reason to ignore position and go for the best. Some people punt categories, but some people punt positions. For instance, maybe the best Catcher is projected to be worth twice as much as any other catcher, but at another position he’d be replacement level. Here, I may focus on spending the money/draft pick on a better talent at another position and be content with a replacement level catcher, assuming they even out.

    This is helpful information to have, and certainly there are probably those owners who come to a draft completely unprepared and just take the guys off the board based on anecdotal thoughts from previous years based on name recognition. But it would have been great to hear the authors thoughts on how best to apply this information. This reads like a data-rich update on Zach Saunders’ fVARz pieces on identifying replacement level at each position, but is missing the next series of articles about adjusting player value accordingly.

  2. mdecav says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    Excluding the catchers, positional scarcity is bunk in 95% of fantasy leagues. For catchers, yes, there is reason to overbid their actual value, but for every other position it has little relevance.

    A $3 catcher will have the same Z-value as a $3 outfielder, but a $1 catcher often will have much less Z-value than a $1 OF.

  3. schoenbl says:

    why does the green bar not reach the top blue dots in the second to last graph? or, have i missed something?

  4. Blake Murphy says:
    FanGraphs Supporting Member

    @schoenbl – the green bar represents # of players (secondary axis), while the blue dots represent individual values (primary axis)