Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Fantasy vs. Reality

We're now exactly halfway through the season (as measured by games played by the Red Sox), so this is a good time to check in on who the most valuable fantasy players have been at each position this year. For want of a better metric, I'm using the Yahoo! season-to-date rankings for our fantasy league (which is a typical 5x5 league, except that we use OBP instead of BA). Those fantasy ranking seem like a good proxy for the generally-accepted wisdom on player performance. But how do the fantasy rankings stack up against the cutting-edge of basement-dweller technology?

To see how much the ideal fantasy offense and the ideal real-life offense have differed this year, I'm also going to toss in the positional leaders by Baseball Prospectus's VORP metric (chosen because it is a metric that: (a) actually reflects real-life value; and (b) like fantasy ball, leaves out defense). Let's see how much roto ball distorts the true value of players at the top of the spectrum. Onwards. .

C: Russell Martin, LAD (VORP leader: Victor Martinez, CLE)

Martin has improved on his already-impressive rookie numbers in just about the best way possible: by adding extra-base hits (XBH). Martin already has 9 dingers in 78 games this year, after hitting 10 in 120 games last year, and has also edged up his doubles rate slightly. And he's done all this while keeping his overall contact and walk rates at their previous levels.

All of which is a long way of saying that Martin's performance is neither a fluke nor an artifact of the way fantasy stats measure player value. He might not hold off Martinez for the full-season title, but he's younger and a valuable commodity going forward.

Of course, the best thing about Martin is that his chosen career is probably a fantastic way of pissing off his absentee father, who is an itinerant subway musician in Montreal. I can't think of a more complete way for the son of a French-Canadian jazz musician to reject his father's values than to become a big-league ballplayer. The rough American equivalent would be if Donald Rumsfeld's son fled to Brittany to take up a career in Camembert making. Cat's in the cradle, etc., etc.

1B: Gary Sheffield, DET (VORP leader: Prince Fielder, MIL)

I'm not sure anybody saw this one coming. Sheffield was terrible for the first chunk of the season, but has come on strong lately to take the lead among fantasy first baseman. Sheff's lead is due in large part to his 11 steals, which are tops among all 1B-eligible players this season. For those wondering why Sheffield is on this list, I should note that among players who have played a majority of their games at 1B, Fielder is the fantasy leader.

Also, Yankee fans might want to take note that the highest-ranking Yankee first baseman this year for fantasy purposes is Jason "I Do Not Recall, Senator" Giambi, who comes in at a cool 53rd on the Yahoo list. But, hey, Andy Phillips is here to save the day!

2B: Chase Utley, PHI (VORP leader: Utley)


SS: Jose Reyes, NYM (VORP leader: Hanley Ramirez, FLA)

It's basically a 1A/1B situation between Reyes and Hanley, with Hanley getting a little bit of a VORP bump from the fact that he plays his home games in a slightly worse offensive environment. Reyes's huge dependence on his wheels probably makes Hanley the slightly better bet going forward, as he'd still have enough power to be valuable even without a ton of steals. Still, can't really argue against either guy.

3B: Alex Rodriguez, NYY (VORP leader: Rodriguez)

A-Rod is in the midst of putting up another gigantic walk-year line for a mediocre team in order to make himself more attractive to franchises that have the chance to compete for a ring next year. Giggle.

OF1: Magglio Ordonez, DET (VORP leader: Ordonez)
OF2: Grady Sizemore, CLE (VORP 2nd place: Ichiro)
OF3: Tie: Ichiro Suzuki, SEA/Sheffield (VORP 3rd place: Barry Bonds)

The VORP comparison here is a little screwy because CFs are measured from a different baseline than corner OFs, which makes any list that combines CFs and corner OFs a bit of an apples-to-oranges deal. The USS Mariner guys have been beating the "Ichiro for MVP" drum for about a month now, and it's starting to look like they're on to something. Ichiro's defense is certainly better than that of Bonds and Magglio, and he now plays a more difficult defensive position. Not a lot of guys climb back up the defensive spectrum after age 30, so we've identified yet another way in which Ichiro appears to be a freak.

When I saw the fantasy and VORP lists side-by-side, I was struck by how closely they overlapped. Leaving aside quirks of positional eligibility, the top of an OBP 5x5 league look almost exactly like the top of the VORP rankings. It turns out that, for the casual fan, just following a properly-constructed fantasy league can give you a pretty solid idea of the who the top guys are at each position.
So perhaps it's not surprising that both the Yahoo! and VORP lists look an awful lot like the All-Star starters this year, with only Sheffield, VMart, and Sizemore not in the starting lineup (and only Sheff not at the game at all). For all the value that advanced metrics like VORP provide (and we here at the GRBG will go on record as loving BP), the fans got the All-Star starters pretty close to right just by dicking around at work on their fantasy teams. That sure seems like progress right there.


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