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Break the League: The ESPN Points League Ranker

It might always be in fashion to go after the worldwide leader but this not just some critique de rigueur of their points game and coverage. I actually have a soft spot for ESPN as they were home to my original league for years and our scoring is somewhat similar to their default settings. When the Doubleday Legacy League began a decade ago none of us knew what we were doing. There wasn't a ton of information out there but at least ESPN had point rankings. And for that I was grateful.

The first lesson I learned was that those rankings didn't seem to work for our league. The projected points they offered seemed a little better but at the end of the year, the player's results never quite seemed to jive. Sweet, naive Nicklaus didn't understand anything about replacement levels and positional scarcities. Or how to use Excel, for that matter. But I wanted to learn. Yada, yada, yada, here we are. Trust is the message I continue to preach. Points players must be able to trust their content more than any other format. And to that end, it is incumbent on fantasy platforms to - at a minimum - make sure their content comes close to matching likely outcomes, given how certain player profiles will perform in their scoring system.  I suppose you could say I don't think they always hold up their end of the bargain.

This article will present RotoBaller's ESPN Points League Ranker Tool, which is designed to give ESPN Points League players a leg up on their competition. To read a general overview of our Points League Ranker tool, and the methodology behind it, check out this intro article we just published. You can read various analysis on fantasy baseball points leagues including undervalued / overvalued players and draft targets / avoids. And you can of course read the rest of this Point League Ranker series as well covering Yahoo, Fantrax and CBS platforms.

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Bristol, We Have a Problem

There are two direct resources that ESPN makes available to points players for draft prep. The projected points based off of their site player projections (and the subsequent rankings) as well A.J. Mass's top-300 rankings. With few options available (if only there were a better one ;), these are the sources most new points players will lean on when drafting.

Unfortunately, there are not only the expected value differences between roto and points but there's also a real disconnect between ESPN's two sets of rankings: 1) Mass's rankings, and 2) the rankings based on EPSN's projected points). Taking a look at Mass's top-25 players, compared to ESPN's projected top-25 for points leagues, and it's easy to see how players new to points leagues might get confused about which players to target in a draft.

AJ Mass's Top-300 Ranks  - ESPN Projected Points Ranks 

PLAYER POS Mass Top-25 Projected Top-25
Ronald Acuna Jr. OF 1 26
Christian Yelich OF 2 10
Gerrit Cole SP 3 1
Jacob deGrom SP 4 3
Justin Verlander SP 5 2
Max Scherzer SP 6 4
Trea Turner SS 7 52
Mookie Betts OF 8 7
Francisco Lindor SS 9 20
Mike Trout OF 10 5
Cody Bellinger OF/1B 11 13
Jose Ramirez 3B 12 22
Shane Bieber SP 13 19
Trevor Story SS 14 78
Freddie Freeman 1B 15 14
Juan Soto OF 16 11
Nolan Arenado 3B 17 8
Walker Buehler SP 18 15
Adalberto Mondesi SS 19 255
Alex Bregman 3B/SS 20 6
Fernando Tatis Jr. SS 21 124
Starling Marte OF 22 67
Jonathan Villar 2B/SS 23 204
Whit Merrifield 2B/OF 24 82
Bryce Harper OF 25 27

 

We talked about Acuna already but what about Trevor Story? He's ranked #14 by Mass but is projected to score the 78th-most points. Or how about there being a 58-spot difference for Whit Merrifield? How is there a 181-spot difference for Jonathan Villar? I mean, I'm always okay with hating on Villar but how can these values be reconciled by the average user? And it's not just the top-25; the discrepancies are arguably more important the further you travel down the list.

Is it any wonder that people play points for the first time and are totally turned off by the experience and/or think the game is mostly luck? What's the player to believe? The projected-points ranks or the site expert ranks? Either? Neither?  Whether you're completely new to fantasy or are a convert from roto, good luck trying to wrestle any actionable intel out of what ESPN is offering you for research. Because unless you know how players fit into your particular system and draft accordingly, you'll be behind the eight-ball before the season even begins. You have to know your system before you can exploit it.

 

Strings That Control the System

There are really only two components that control a player's value in a given points system. What categories are scored and how rosters are required to be constructed. Both are supremely important and must be accounted for when judging player's worth.

Default Roster Size: 1 C - 1B - 2B - 3B - SS - OF (5) - MI - CI - UT - P (9)

While most will give consideration to how players can score points, not as many consider the roster restrictions of their platform. Head on over here for a more thorough explanation but roster size must be accounted for so replacement levels can be set.  Comparing 12-team leagues in ESPN to CBS, for example, the latter only uses three outfielders with no middle infield or corner infield slot. That translates to CBS players requiring 24 fewer starting outfielders, 12 fewer corner infielders, and 12 fewer middle infielders. That's 48 fewer starters total; 48 players that would be starters in ESPN but are on the waiver-wire in CBS, with default roster construction.

Default Point Scoring

Batting Points Pitching Points
Total Base 1 Inning 3
Run 1 Win 5
RBI 1 Loss -5
Stolen Base 1 Save 5
Walk 1 Strikeout 1
Strikeout -1 Earned Run -2
Hit Allow -1
Walk Allow -1

Hitter Takeaways

There's nothing in the scoring for total bases, runs, and RBI that throws the system out of wack, relative to the other point platforms. However, ESPN rewards players for stolen bases the least (1 point) and punishes strikeouts (-1) the most; it's these two categories that drive player values the most in the ESPN scoring system.

Pitcher Takeaways

Compared to the other platforms, ESPN rewards the most for an inning pitched (3 points) but the least for strikeouts (1 point), while punishing pitchers the most for earned runs (-2 points) and the most for hits and walks allowed (-1 point).

 

Solving the ESPN Points Puzzle

Even more important than projecting a player's statistics, points players must understand the language of how those statistics are translated into points in your system. Not only do you need to understand how different kinds of profiles will score, but you also need to understand what kind of changes in a player's scoring profile can be reasonably expected. For example, it's not just seeing that Ronald Acuna Jr. is was only the 28th-highest scorer on ESPN last year. It's also understanding why his highlight-reel season scored so poorly and what kind of improvements Acuna would actually need to make in order to justify the top-five pick required to roster him.

As mentioned above, the two biggest drivers of value for ESPN batters compared to other platforms are strikeouts and stolen bases. As it relates to actual point totals, it's really only the former in which a player can drastically improve his value. Each fewer strikeout is one less point that has to made up elsewhere so shaving points off of your K-rate can jump your point total up quickly. Acuna had a 26.3% K-rate last season, for a total of 188 K and 477 points. If Acuna dropped to a 20% K-rate, his point total would go up to 522 points, taking him from the 28th-highest scorer to the 19th-highest.

On the other hand, the only way that Acuna will significantly increase the number of points he earns from stolen bases is if ESPN changes the scoring to the two-points given at Fantrax and CBS. Think of it this way, even if Acuna had stolen 50 bases in 2019, he would've only scored 13 more points.  Acuna could've had 50 SB with a 20% K-rate last year and would've still just barely be a top-five batter, with his 535 points tying him Nolan Arenado for the 13th-highest scorer.

Are you starting to pick up what I'm laying down, in regards to it being difficult to change one's scoring profile? If Acuna had finished last season with 50 HR and 50 SB, his 544 points would've made him the 10th-highest scorer...Or, just nine points behind Marcus Semien. Can you hear me cluckin', big chicken? Know. Your. Platform.

 

Handling Your Staff

The public narrative of pitching being king in points is mostly true but also misunderstood. For one, not all pitching is as kingly from one platform to the next, not only in how they compare to batters but also how they compare to other pitchers. For two, scoring might not be as disparate as one would think. According to the ATC projections of recently crowned #1-ranker (and resident RotoBaller) Ariel Cohen, the top-100 scorers will consist of 31 pitchers and 69 hitters. The top-50 is projected to consist of 18 pitchers and 32 hitters. Overall, ATC projects the top 50 pitchers to score 19,562 points in 2020 and the top-50 hitters to score 21,745 points.

That's not to say you should draft only hitters; the pitchers that really separate themselves from their hitting counterparts are in the top tiers, both the elite hurlers and the ones right below. According to ATC, the top-three projected scorers in ESPN are pitchers, as well as four of the top-six. Elite starters are very, very valuable in a head-to-head format. But pitching isn't everything and there are many different ways to win in points; not all of them include just loading up on as many pitchers as you can grab.

 

Forced to Cheat

One of my biggest complaints about standard ESPN leagues is that they allow (and almost necessarily require) players to easily cheat the 12 starts per-week limit. Once you've reached the 12-start limit for the week, you will no longer get points from starting pitchers, regardless of them being in a starting slot. But not until the next day. Any extra starts that are made the day you cross the threshold will still be counted towards your total. So if you start the day having made 11 of your 12 starts and start five pitchers that day, you will show as having made 16/12 starts but will still get all of the points.

It's always been like this, everyone knows about it, and most exploit it as fully as they can. If you play in a private league then there's no issue because your commissioner can make corrections to anyone that makes too many starts. But that's not an option in public leagues. No wonder people get turned off by point leagues considering BS cheats like that exist. How mad would you be the first time you lost an important matchup because your opponent finagled the system to get 17 starts in a week?

Deep breath, Nick. Try to forget that the world's largest fantasy provider cares so little about their users that they refuse to make a simple fix to their scorekeeping that would greatly improve their product. Moving past the nefarious cheating that ESPN almost requires of its public players, let's cover some ways to make sure you don't sink your championship aspirations before the season even begins. For example, if you ever find yourself wanting to draft Adalberto Mondesi and it's not at least the 20th round, go ahead and just click, "remove from queue".

 

Keep Your Head On a Swivel

You have to go into any points draft as prepared as possible, with a good idea of how the system scores. But what you really need to avoid are the calamitous pitfalls that can quickly turn your championship dreams into nightmares, like wasting a premium pick(s) on players with real-life skills that are unlikely to ever translate to success in your chosen point system.

To help point out these most dangerous of players, I turned ATC projections into ESPN projected points, adjusted those points for replacement-levels, turned those adjusted points into dollar values, and then ranked players accordingly. I then compared those values to typical draft prices along with ESPN's featured points rankings, scanning for traps, on your behalf. And now, a public service announcement.

WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING! WARNING!

You CANNOT draft the following high-profile names from ESPN's top-300 list. I don't care how much you want them, they won't be worth the price. Barring an extreme change in profile, drafting the players below will be just like being snatched up in a bear trap...Crack! No more fantasy season.

Players to Avoid in ESPN Points Leagues

1. Ronald Acuna, OF, Atlanta Braves

ADP: Top-Five
ESPN Top 300: #1
ATC Dollar Rank: #26

We already covered this but if a 50/50 season and 20% K-rate wouldn't have made Acuna a top-10 player last season, then how exactly will he be worth a top-five pick in 2020?

2. Trea Turner, SS, Washington Nationals

ADP: Late First-Round
ESPN Top 300: #7
ATC Dollar Rank: #58

  • Fact #1: ATC projects Turner for 20 HR - 99 R - 69 RBI - 40 SB - .286 AVG.
  • Fact #2: This is right in line with other major projection systems and would give Turner elite value in roto.
  • Fact #3: The above line won't make Turner a top-50 player in ESPN points.

3. Trevor Story, SS, Colorado Rockies

ADP: Late Second/Early Third-Round
ESPN Top 300: #14
ATC Dollar Rank: #70

While I'm worried that Nick Mariano might challenge me to a duel over voicing such a grievous insult, you absolutely cannot draft Trevor Story. He's not going to be taken in the first round like in roto but you'll still likely need to use a second or third-round pick in order to roster the Colorado dynamo. Unfortunately, Story's never going to be able to out-slug or out-steal his way past his perennially high strikeout-rate.

4. Fernando Tatis Jr., SS, San Diego Padres

ADP: Late Second/Early Third-Round
ESPN Top 300: #21
ATC Dollar Rank: #138

Woof. Imagine how stoked you would be if you started your draft off by getting Acuna and Tatis. Bad news chummy; your team sucks.

5. Keston Hiura, 2B, Milwaukee Brewers

ADP: Sixth/Seventh Round
ESPN Top 300: #35
ATC Dollar Rank: #165

It's just nearly impossible to be elite on ESPN if you carry a strikeout-rate north of 25%. Like Trevor Story-lite, Hiura will have a hard time out-hitting the 30.7% K-rate that he posted in his rookie campaign.

 

The Points Pipeline Keeps Flowing

That wraps up this edition of Break the League but we've upped the ante on points coverage here at RotoBaller and now have dedicated tools and focused analysis to help you bring home the gold in 2020. Read about our platform-specific Points League Rankers here. If you're in an ESPN Points league, these rankers, which set behind our premium wall, are essential draft tools for you.

Our premium tools include customized rankings for each platform and utilize the exclusive projections of RotoBaller's Nick Mariano (2018's most accurate MLB ranker), to calculate projected points, points-above-replacement, and per-PA rates of scoring In the coming weeks, we'll have more and more analysis articles with the specificity you need to identify the best and worst players on your particular platforms. Stay with us, ye long-neglected points players. We come bearing gifts.

More Points Leagues Analysis