There's an old adage that fantasy championships aren't won in the first round but they can be lost in it.
As a result, most fantasy owners generally fall back on the tried-and-true players, the ones sure to get you 30-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs while not destroying your batting average in the process. That's why Albert Pujols will be taken first overall in most leagues, with sluggers such as Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Braun, Ryan Howard, Prince Fielder and Mark Teixeira not too far behind.
Throw in Chase Utley and Hanley Ramirez, whose already-high values are further inflated by the relative weakness of power stats from their respective positions, and you have the names of the hitters most likely to be taken off the board in Round 1.
If you were to go against this "common wisdom" and select Jacoby Ellsbury, laughter, or at least chuckles, would most likely fill your draft room. After all, while the rest of your fantasy leaguemates are loading up on power, you're selecting somewhere in the neighborhood of eight homers and 60 RBIs, immediately putting you well behind in two of the five hitting categories.
And yet, if you can endure the heckling, that's exactly the selection you should make, at least in the latter half of the round. They might have mainstream public opinion on their side, but you would have mathematics. Allow me to explain why you just can't let him get past you with, say, the seventh, eighth or ninth pick in the first round and leave open the possibility that he might not make it back to you. You need to take him with that first-round pick. The purpose of this feature is not to explain whether you should; it's why you should.
First, let's compare Ellsbury's 2009 stats with those of the average upper-echelon fantasy baseball hitter:
Ellsbury versus the field
Jacoby Ellsbury's numbers compared with the top 200 fantasy hitters in 2009.
Yes, Ellsbury is a bit lacking in terms of power, but in each of the other three categories, he gives you more than the average hitter on a (deep) fantasy roster. (It should be noted that the percentage for batting average is calculated in a slightly different manner because it is a ratio determined by a combination of both at-bats and hits, and not a singular category total, which explains the dash above. But those of you who are mathematically inclined should be able to determine what that number is for each player, if you so choose.) More importantly, those 70 stolen bases are far more valuable than any other player's 40 home runs. Why? Because in terms of rotisserie value, the stolen base category is equal to the home run category; each is one of five fantasy categories.
There were 2,970 total steals in the majors in 2009. Ellsbury's 70 steals were 2.36 percent of that total, an amazingly high number when you consider he's just one player in an entire league of players. Of course, not all of those 2,970 steals were accounted for in fantasy, especially in mixed leagues. Fantasy rosters are usually limited; in a standard ESPN league, each team is required to start only 13 offensive players. That severely cuts back on the number of players who contribute to your league's stat pool.
So we drop the number of usable hitters to 200. Why 200? For several reasons. First, it makes for a more accurate number of hitters who would be used during the course of the season in a standard-sized or even a slightly deeper league. You don't just start the same 130 (in our standard) or 168 (in 12-team leagues with 14 active spots) hitters all season. Second, we are talking about drafting, and that means more of the player pool should be considered. If we were doing a retrospective 2009 argument, it would be obvious which players would be considered the top 130 or top 150. But since we don't just put those players on our draft lists -- we include more players, using 2010 projections instead of 2009 stats -- we must expand our draft scope to include those similarly valued players. And finally, this allows us to get deeper into each position to more accurately determine value. For instance, there are only 10 active catchers at a given time in a standard ESPN league, but it's not always the same 10 catchers. Because of injuries, ineffectiveness or platoons, a good 15 or even 20 catchers could be used often. Expanding the pool includes these additional players who have fantasy relevance even if they're not in the top 130 or top 150.
OK, back to Ellsbury. Using just the top-200 hitters' stats, Ellsbury's steals would comprise 3.21 percent of the total pool of stolen bases. As you can see from the table below, that's more than double the impact of having the top home run hitter on your roster.
The impact of Ellsbury's steals
The number of homers, runs and RBIs the 2009 major league leaders would have had to reach to match Ellsbury's impact in stolen bases.
In fact, just to give you a more comparable view of how overwhelmingly valuable Ellsbury's stolen bases are, look at the bottom row of the table above and see what kind of numbers the major league leader in that category would have to post to equal the category dominance Ellsbury has in steals. Uh, I doubt we'll be seeing a 100-plus-homer season anytime soon, even if we declared all performance-enhancing drugs to be fair game from this point forward.
Certainly we're not suggesting that you take Ellsbury over Pujols or Braun, each of whom also can give you around 20 steals to go with the power numbers. But if we're comparing Ellsbury to a guy who is all power and no speed (such as Howard or Fielder), it's obvious who can affect your team more.
Let's take that a step further. Here's a list of the top players as determined by something I call "Total Impact," based on the 2009 statistics for all players:
Mass Effect and Total Impact: 2009
Determining Ellsbury's true value to a fantasy team, according to 2009 numbers.
The "Mass Effect" is the total of each player's percentage of the top 200 hitters' stats in each offensive category. For example, Ellsbury would have his 3.21 percent of steals added to his 0.22 percent of home runs, and so forth, to get his league-leading total of 5.48.
Now, one flaw of my Mass Effect formula is that this rating unfairly skews Ellsbury's overall value because there clearly are diminishing returns from his high stolen base total as the season goes on. Since you get the same number of points for winning the stolen base category by one steal as you do if you win it by 50, and since we also recognize that the majority of stolen bases do tend to come from so few sources, once you have a certain "cushion" in this particular category, each subsequent stolen base has less value than the ones that came before. (This is only true for rotisserie-style leagues, of course. If you're in a weekly head-to-head format, Ellsbury's value throughout the season remains constant and his Mass Effect fully reflects his overall worth to your team.)
That's where Total Impact comes in. It's the same percentage total, only with stolen bases adjusted downward by 50 percent to reflect the lighter value of stolen bases to a single fantasy team as the season goes on. Even with this huge deduction in Ellsbury's value under this adjustment, you can see he still ranks in the top 10 and is barely distinguishable from Fielder.
Of course, this all is based on last season's statistics, but when you go by our early ESPN 2010 projections, you still see Ellsbury is more than worthy of serious first-round consideration:
Mass Effect and Total Impact: 2010 projections
Determing Ellsbury's true value to a fantasy team, according to 2010 projections.
We're not saying that all speed guys should be mentioned in the same conversation. Certainly there are other one-category specialists in the league, such as Michael Bourn, Juan Pierre, Brett Gardner and Nyjer Morgan, just to name a few. But none of those other options can compare as favorably among the true fantasy baseball elite as Ellsbury can and whereas Carl Crawford has shown signs of possibly losing a bit of his stolen-base prowess (44 of 51 steals in the first half of 2009 versus only 16 of 25 in the second half), the sky still seems to be the limit for Boston's leadoff hitter.
If you're looking for a safe, conventional first-round pick, by all means, take Fielder and concern yourself with steals later on. But if you believe our projected stat line for Ellsbury is an accurate outlook for 2010, it makes far more sense to grab him instead. Is it unconventional? Sure, but it also could be the pick that proves fantasy championships can be won in the first round.