Draft strategy: Injury risks can lead to big rewards (Part 1)

On draft day, one of the primary goals of all fantasy owners should be to acquire value. While the theoretical definition of value is a discussion for another time, and while the strategy you’re using will alter who you select, it will be very difficult to win a competitive league without hitting on a couple of high-upside players.

While there are different categories of high-upside players, one such category that can pay high dividends is players with injury risks. I talked about this a bit last offseason, but I’d like to expand on it a little today.

The basic premise

Late in a draft, you’ll likely see an owner select a player like Rickie Weeks or Gary Sheffield. Both are far from locks to play even 120 games, but both also have good underlying skills. If either manages to reach 150 games or more, they could provide significant value to their owners. This is the allure of players like these: if they get injured in May, they’ll be easy to drop because the cost was maybe an 18th-round pick. If they stay healthy though, an owner can continue riding them out and collecting those stats.

This is a pretty simple concept, and seeing as how you’re reading The Hardball Times Fantasy, you are probably already familiar with it. Today’s discussion is more of a theoretical one, discussing which category of high upside player is preferable. Before we get into it, what’s your initial impression? Late in a draft, would you rather select a player with significant injury risk or a healthy player with skills upside?

Injury risk or skills risk?

Take a look at these two lines. They represent the (hypothetical) absolute true talent levels of two players. Ask yourself which is better:

| PLAYER   | BA   | HR/500 AB | SB/500 AB |
| Player A | .300 |        25 |        20 |
| Player B | .265 |        13 |        10 |

For simplicity’s sake, we’ll say both are corner outfielders. Obviously, Player A is superior to Player B. However, it is not inconceivable that both players would be drafted in the same round of your fantasy draft. If we imagine that Player A has a reputation for being fragile and injury-prone, and that Player B is young and has a lot of perceived upside, the draft day value of these two could be very similar.

What we need to ask ourselves, though, is which would make the better draft choice. Is there a difference? Both will have marginal value—at best—if nothing changes. Player A will only reach 300 at-bats and Player B will reach 550 at-bats with sub-par skills. If either is to have value, therefore, it will be because he reaches (or comes close to reaching) his upside.

How far away is the upside?

The question then becomes, what’s more likely, that Player A reaches 550 at-bats, or that Player B’s true talent level rises enough to match the value of 300 Player A at-bats?

To put things in perspective, by plugging these numbers into my player value calculator (for a traditional 12-team mixed league), we get the following results:

  • Over 300 at-bats, Player A would be worth almost exactly $0 (assuming 90 RBI and 90 runs per 500 at-bats).
  • Over 550 at-bats (and no skill change), Player A’s value rises to $31.
  • Over 550-bats, Player B’s value would be roughly $0 (assuming 70 RBI and 70 runs per 500 at-bats).
  • To be worth $31, Player B would need something like .300/25/25/100/100 (or .275/30/30/100/100)

In other words, to reach his upside, Player A would need a 183 percent increase in at-bats. Player B would need a 192 percent increase in home runs, a 250 percent increase in steals, and a 113 percent increase in batting average (plus the associated RBI and run gains).

Deciding which of these two things is more likely to happen can be a somewhat subjective exercise (and is dependent on circumstances not mentioned in our hypothetical example). Holding all else constant, though, personally (and keep in mind that I have not done any detailed studies on this subject), I’d bet on the injury risk player. To me, it seems that one player is more likely to stay healthy than another player is to see his true talent level rise so drastically.

Even if you disagree, though, there is one consideration that I haven’t yet mentioned that really pushes the tide in favor of the injury risk player. There is a hidden value to injury risk players—and a very big one at that. Unfortunately, you’re going to have to wait until Wednesday to read about it.

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14 years ago

In addition to upside, it is also important to take into consideration how deep into the player pool your league drafts.  In a shallow league, taking the injured player is an even better strategy because you have a good chance to replace this player with a talented reserve from the free agent pool (assuming you have an IR).  On the other hand, if you have a deep league, you would be left to let your roster spot sit or pick up a below replacement level player, in which case I’d rather go with the younger player with a good health record and some upside.

go zips
14 years ago

i disagree.  in a deep league, it makes sense to take the injury risk because IF he stays healthy, you have a tremendous advantage over the rest of the league. deeper leagues are all about finding that “gem” who noone else has.  the injury risk is just as good, if not better than, that rookie you draft and takes off.

14 years ago

Brian’s got it right, a shallower league allows you to draft riskier players.

14 years ago

I think deep leagues are all about drafting safe the first 10 – 12 rounds or so, with obviously taking some “upside players” in there… But I think Go Zips is right in that you have to at least attempt to try the hidden gem with your later picks because if you do hit, you get to add their production to your (hopefully) solid picks. A good example (for both this article and with what I’m talking about is Carlos Quentin). He was a major risk for several different reasons including playing time and injuries, however we all knew he could hit. In a deep league, if you grabbed him and threw him in a 3rd OF/ util spot, you did very well. In a shallow league, I doubt Quentin would have even been drafted…

I think shallow leagues lets you take chances earlier (you might pick a Jay Bruce type over a equivalent veteran.. or even draft Joey Votto or Chris Davis significantly earlier then established veteran like Derek Lee/ Atkins/ etc.. but the “gem” types I think belong to deeper leagues…

14 years ago

Seems to be a bit of a truism that a more skilled player with more ABs will outperform a lesser skilled player with the same number of ABs…

I also think that this analysis neglects the value of taking the 300 above-average ABs from the injury risk player PLUS an injury pickup of an average player at the same position.

Ultimately, we arrive at the same decision: upside player with injury risk is more valuable than an average reliable player. Not sure it was worthy of any detailed statistical analysis though…

As with most things, moderation is key to this strategy. Too many high-risk or injury-prone players can leave you high and dry…

Derek Carty
14 years ago

Good call, Sean.  Check back here is a few hours as part two deals with the very concept you mention smile