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The Most Head-Scratching Fantasy Baseball Positional Eligibility of 2018

Dear small-sample leagues: Anthony Rizzo is not a second baseman, and it’s time to get smarter about how players are classified

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

When Yahoo released its first batch of fantasy rankings earlier this month, few surprises populated the top of its lists. Mike Trout is the no. 1 overall player, Giancarlo Stanton rates as a top-five outfielder in Yankee Stadium, and—wait, José Ramírez isn’t the second-ranked second baseman behind José Altuve? Huh, that’s odd. Perhaps Yahoo’s fantasy team wasn’t convinced by his breakout performance last season, or maybe they’re bullish on Brian Dozier. Except, wait again—it’s not him, either?

It must be Daniel Murphy or Jonathan Schoop then, in a strangely optimistic outlook on I-95, or—wait a third time, it’s Anthony Rizzo????? That reaction might seem hyperbolic, and yet it contains the same number of question marks as a message my befuddled editor sent to The Ringer’s MLB Slack channel:

Mallory’s confusion makes sense, given that Rizzo has never in his professional career started a game at any position other than first base, nor does he project to in 2018. Yet he is still eligible at second in some 2018 leagues, after fitting in 10 appearances there last year. That’s where the confusion amplifies; behold, a representative Rizzo second-base appearance:

Yes, that’s it. He technically moved to second base, stood around while an opposing pitcher struck out, and moved back to first, where he remained for the rest of the game. This image, from a different game, shows what Rizzo looked like as a second baseman.

MLB.com

Here’s some background on the inanity: On occasion in obvious bunt situations, the Cubs warped their defense to such an extreme that Rizzo was no longer the defender closest to the first base bag, meaning he couldn’t use a first baseman’s mitt and was therefore, technically, no longer a first baseman. Thus, he artificially swapped positions with the actual second baseman—the new man closest to the bag—for as long as that formation persisted. A sac bunt that he fielded and then threw to first was ruled a 4-3 putout—second baseman throwing to first baseman.

That’s fine and maybe overly pedantic, but nothing really worth noting outside Rizzo’s Twitter bio and the odd fun fact. (They are fun! For instance, Rizzo is the first lefty in a century with even two appearances in a season at second base, let alone 10, and he’s the first lefty to play any second base since Don Mattingly in the protested George Brett pine-tar game in 1983.) Except it wreaks havoc for fantasy owners. Some fantasy sites, like ESPN, require a healthy 20 games played at a position during the previous season for that eligibility to carry over into the next year. Others, like Yahoo, are more lenient, with players needing just 10 games played or five starts at a position to qualify the following year.

So for fantasy purposes on some sites, Rizzo is just as much a second baseman as Altuve and Dozier (who play there exclusively), even though in 10 “appearances” at second base last year (comprising 4⅓ innings), Rizzo handled the ball just twice and never occupied that position for more than a single batter in a row. In one instance, against the Giants on May 22, he didn’t even last that long but rather switched back to first base mid-at-bat after a stolen base removed the sac-bunt probability.

Even more complicated fantasy leagues struggle to accommodate such positional quirks. For instance, FanGraphs’ Ottoneu setup, which caters to the hyper-involved, sabermetrically inclined fantasy player, has the same eligibility requirements as Yahoo, meaning leagues designed around realistic 40-man rosters and escalating arbitration prices still offer Rizzo as a second-base option.

Niv Shah, who runs Ottoneu, says he fears that changing eligibility guidelines for just one player would yield a slippery-slope problem of turning many players into special cases, and he doesn’t want to make sweeping changes to Ottoneu’s structure because of its potential domino effect. “Fantasy baseball can be fun when a player is able to say, ‘I can play multiple positions,’” Shah says. “If you have a daily lineup game, you have a lot of flexibility just with players who can play two, three, four positions. So I don’t want to lose that. I think it could be really bad to set a bar that’s so high that you lose multi-position players.”

Shah says he’d be open to changing the games-played guideline to an innings-played or batters-faced benchmark to remove cases like Rizzo’s, but only if the issue extends beyond “weird Joe Maddon tactics.” “Maybe we should see if that could actually happen first,” he said. “Maybe we should see if like, Joey Votto is going to be a second baseman before we start throwing out how we’ve—for many, many, many years—been able to establish position eligibility.”

Shah’s explanation makes sense, but in the meantime, Rizzo’s flexibility makes him a more attractive player to Yahoo owners, who can benefit from pairing Rizzo with a replacement-level first baseman like Eric Hosmer rather than a replacement-level second baseman like Javier Báez. Due to positional scarcity, some examples of multi-position eligibility won’t impact the fantasy realm; even though Russell Martin qualifies in two places, no owner is going to play him at third base and draft another catcher when they can play him at catcher and draft another third baseman.

But for those who draft Rizzo and others in similar—if not quite so technical—situations, it’s an undeniable advantage, and it renders fantasy baseball even more arbitrary than it already inherently is. Even made-up games need sensible rules, dang it, lest we all end up playing Calvinball for money. In that vein, here are the most egregious examples of small-sample position eligibility in 2018.

Rizzo, 2B

Michael Baumann, who won The Ringer’s fantasy league last season, gets the last word on Rizzo.

Kris Bryant, OF

Bryant’s case for positional flexibility isn’t quite as nonsensical as Rizzo’s, if only because Bryant has some experience in the outfield and played there in reality, not via technicality. But it’s still suspicious given that Bryant started only eight games in the outfield last season and completed just three. The Cubs’ depth chart at FanGraphs lists seven players as potentially receiving outfield innings in 2018, including such depth options as Peter Bourjos, who’s on a minor league deal; Bryant isn’t one of them.

Carlos Santana, OF

The Phillies’ newest hitter had made one single outfield appearance for four innings in 962 games before last season, when he made seven outfield starts. Those seven games came in special circumstances: Five were interleague contests in National League parks, meaning Santana moved to the outfield to squeeze both his bat and Edwin Encarnación’s into the lineup, and the other two were in doubleheaders, with Terry Francona shuffling position players around to keep them fresh. Santana is unlikely to receive any outfield innings in 2018, but especially in OBP leagues, he’s a valuable bat to slot in a fantasy outfield.

Nelson Cruz, OF

The Mariners’ designated hitter made five outfield appearances last season, all—like Santana—in NL parks. A wide gulf emerges between Cruz’s value in a Yahoo-style league (where he retains outfield eligibility) and an ESPN-style league (where he’s inflexible and can feature only in a utility spot), thus blocking a fantasy owner from doubling and tripling down on high-scoring hitters who play the same position.

Freddie Freeman, 3B

Freeman played 16 games at third base last season, all in July during that brief stretch when Matt Adams, whose own defensive experimentation last year screeched to a halt, was a hitter worth starting. Freeman actually held his own at third, tallying three defensive runs saved in limited time—that’s more than some established third basemen, like Bryant and Alex Bregman, had all season—but he has about as good a chance of manning Atlanta’s hot corner in 2018 as Eddie Mathews.

Jonathan Villar, OF

Villar faded last season but represents a decent bounce-back candidate and source of speed in 2018, which keeps him fantasy-relevant—especially in leagues that supply him as a source of speed and multi-position flexibility. Yet he played in the outfield in just six games last year, five of them on consecutive days from September 1-5, after which he didn’t nab an outfield spot again. Then the Brewers traded for Christian Yelich and signed Lorenzo Cain, meaning Villar wouldn’t even play in the outfield on Milwaukee’s B team in 2018.

Bud Norris, SP

The distinction between starting and relief pitcher eligibility carries binary importance in fantasy: It doesn’t matter at all in leagues that lump every hurler into a generic “pitcher” designation, and it matters an immense deal in leagues that reserve spots strictly for starters or relievers. In the latter case, sneaking a starting-eligible closer into an SP slot gives a fantasy owner the saves advantage over every other team in the league, while reversing that strategy with a relief-eligible starter in an RP slot yields a hard-to-match boost in wins and strikeouts.

Norris saved 19 games for the Angels last year and could collect more in an unsettled Cardinals bullpen in 2018, but he qualifies as a starter in some leagues after tallying three September starts. What makes his dual eligibility particularly egregious is that he pitched just 8⅓ combined innings in those starts and likely only made them so the Angels could save $500,000 in a relief-based incentives clause in his contract.

David Price, RP

The reverse example to Norris is Price, who qualifies at both SP and RP in lenient leagues after making five relief appearances late last season. However, Price only pitched in relief because he didn’t have enough time to rebuild his starting stamina before the playoffs after missing all of August and the first half of September due to injury. He was a stellar bullpen option for Boston in its ALDS loss to Houston, but also hadn’t relieved in any other regular-season game since 2010. He shouldn’t be a relief possibility this season, but in applicable fantasy leagues, he could give a lucky and strategic owner a crucial categorical advantage.