Valuing players in dynasty leagues is a very tricky enterprise, one that even the most experienced and accomplished owners struggles with. This article isn’t going to be a comprehensive explanation of how to derive player values; rather, it aims to be an introduction to some of the key concepts underpinning player value in a long-term fantasy setting. If you’re a newcomer to the dynasty format, consider this an introductory course for one of the most essential skills every dynasty owner must develop. If you’re an experienced dynasty league veteran, then hopefully this article can provide you with a language and a framework to help you think consciously about processes that have probably always just been intuitive. Regardless of experience level, hopefully all dynasty owners can benefit from asking the question…
WHAT MAKES PLAYERS VALUABLE IN DYNASTY LEAGUES?
While predicting a player’s value in a redraft league is exceedingly difficult, defining a player’s value in redraft leagues is really quite simple. Everyone shares a common goal - winning a championship in 2014 - so player value is simply a measure of how well he helps accomplish that goal. Players accomplish that goal by scoring more points than their peers, so player value is really just a simple question. Will a player score points? If yes, then he is valuable. If no, then he is not.
In dynasty, defining player value is much more of a morass. Simply scoring points is not enough. Everyone agrees that Adrian Peterson is likely to score a lot of fantasy points, but Peterson holds very little value to a team that is built to compete for titles starting in 2015. He’s scoring points, but he’s scoring them at the wrong time. In fact, if Adrian Peterson scores too many points in 2014, his owner will wind up with a worse pick in the 2015 draft and his team might actually be worse off in the long run. On the opposite end of the spectrum, 2015 rookie picks will not score a single point in 2014, yet there isn’t a dynasty owner who would say that their value was “zero”. Clearly there is a lot mores to player value than “how many points will he score this year?”
Moreover, trades are a much larger part of the fabric of dynasty leagues. In redraft leagues, teams can balance their rosters through the draft. In dynasty leagues, if a roster becomes unbalanced over time due to injuries or underperformance, owners have far fewer options for re-balancing it. Rookie picks often take years to provide production, provided they don’t bust entirely. Rosters are typically deeper and the waiver wire usually provides far less hope. If you have a hole in your roster today, trading is one of the few avenues available to fill it. Trade value, therefore, takes on an oversized role when discussing player value in dynasty leagues. The number of points your fifth receiver scores is far less important to you than what kind of value he could command on the trade market if you needed to trade him away to patch a hole somewhere else. If your starting quarterback goes down and your backup isn’t very good, you’d better hope that you have an extra player you can spare who will be coveted enough on the trade market.
These two concepts- the amount a player will contribute to winning championships when he’s in your starting lineup, and the quality of assets a player can command on the trade market- are the basis of player value in a dynasty league. In the interest of clarity, they are sometimes referred to in the dynasty community as “actual value” and “perceived value”. Do not let this dichotomy confuse you, though- both forms of value are quite related. In the example of an injury to your quarterback, perceived value functions as actual value in that it lets you trade for a player that will put points into your starting lineup. Simultaneously, actual value functions as perceived value in that the market’s opinion of a player is generally a reflection of the market’s expectation of how many points that player will score. Actual value tends to become perceived value (players who score a lot become highly coveted), and perceived value tends to become actual value (players who are highly coveted tend to start scoring a lot, or else they can be traded for players who will).
While the two concepts are highly related, the interplay between them and attitudes towards them creates the framework for the majority of strategic and philosophical approaches to dynasty fantasy football. Since perceived value falls sharply with age, an owner who prefers perceived value over actual value will constantly be divesting him- or herself of aging but still productive players like Andre Johnson or Frank Gore. You might see owners who argue that it’s time to sell Calvin Johnson because he will turn 30 next year, and players’ values always fall sharply upon their 30th birthdays. This analysis is accurate: Calvin Johnson will almost certainly command less in trade next year than he will today, regardless of how well he plays in 2014. This analysis is based entirely on perceived value, however, and makes no mention at all about Calvin’s actual value in 2014. Another owner might instead argue that Calvin Johnson will likely outscore all other wide receivers by a significant margin over the next three years, so now is an ideal time to buy him. This analysis is also accurate: Calvin Johnson has historically outscored the other tier-1 receivers by a substantial margin. This analysis is based entirely on actual value, however, and makes no mention at all of the looming drop in Calvin’s perceived value.
Taken to the extreme, owners who prize actual value and owners who prefer perceived value are often the subject of derision. Owners who cash in all of their trading chips for short-term production are said to be playing redraft in a dynasty league and are frequently looked upon by their fellow owners with suspicion, (due to the unfortunate habit of some owners to join a startup, buy a bunch of old-but-productive players, then quit after a year if their value crashes.) Owners who cash in all of their production to maximize trade value, though, are accused of playing fantasy “on paper”. Like Washington under Daniel Snyder, they are accused of making acquisitions that translate to a lot of buzz in the offseason and very little production in the regular season. They are said to be less concerned with winning championships than they are with assembling the prettiest roster.
Which approach is more accurate? Which type of value should be prioritized? Neither, and both. Short-term production is absolutely vital for winning championships. Perceived value is what allows a roster to sustain actual value over an extended timeframe, and the prettiest rosters typically become the most productive. Rosters loaded with perceived value have flexibility and agility, the ability to quickly adapt to any gains or setbacks. Rosters loaded with actual value have strength, the ability to overpower their opponent with raw unfiltered fantasy production. Just as the strongest offensive lineman in the world couldn’t succeed without the necessary speed and technique, and the most agile and technically proficient offensive lineman in the world couldn’t succeed if he simply wasn’t strong enough to hold up at the point of attack, a dominant dynasty squad needs both types of value to function.
Ultimately, the Calvin Johnson question must boil down to whether the short-term gains in actual value are worth the long-term losses in perceived value. Whether that tradeoff makes sense is going to depend a lot on what the rest of an owner’s team looks like, and what his timeline for competing is, and how risk averse he is, and what is core roster-building philosophy is, and a host of other factors. Is now the time to trade Calvin Johnson? There are no easy answers to that question, but a good place to start is making sure we at least understand what the question is really asking.
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