We've all been there. You're in the middle of your draft, rummaging through spreadsheets, books, magazines and written notes, and all of a sudden, you realize your pick is up. Worse yet, you see that your options are not what you would call optimal. In a matter of seconds, how do you choose between, say, the injury-prone shorstop, the aging outfielder and the young third baseman who may or may not take that big step forward this year?
Be sure to catch Fantasy Baseball 360 LIVE at 5 p.m. ET every weekday to dominate your Fantasy leagues. Our writers will have the latest news, analysis and roster trends each afternoon.
What you're dealing with is uncertainty, and every pick you make requires you to evaluate it to one degree or another. Arraying the player pool into tiers is a useful strategy for managing uncertainty. Seeing which positions offer the broadest range of similar choices helps to manage a dizzying number of factors to consider by giving you a single task to focus on. That task, namely, is to identify the positions where there aren't so many similar options that you can't wait much longer to fill them without sacrificing production. Also, if you think of each tier as a control group for expected production, that frees you up to focus more on how players within a tier differ in terms of their risk levels.
The hitter tiers presented here are designed to help you do both things. For each non-pitching position, I have clustered players together according to how I think they will produce this year. To help identify risks, I have zeroed in on a handful of players at each position who have had some of the highest and lowest walk-to-strikeout ratios (BB/K) in recent seasons. Of all the skills that a hitter literally brings to the plate, his strike zone recognition is the one that tends to be most consistent from year-to-year (as has been shown in research by Bill Petti). Other skills, particularly home run and gap power, are more prone to external factors, like venue, climate and random fluctuation. By singling out the players who have been the best and worst at making contact and drawing walks, we know who not only puts themselves in the best position to maximize their batting average and on-base percentage, but also to hit for power and have stolen base opportunities.
Overview: While Carlos Santana is far ahead of his peers, the second tier of catchers has really beefed up. Those looking to draft Mike Napoli soon after Santana is taken should note that, though he made some gains last season, he's been one of the lesser catchers in terms of BB/K ratio in recent years. Last season's breakout had a strong basis in the stats (i.e., BABIP, home run per flyball ratio) that fluctuate more. With so many second-tier options, there is no reason to overpay. On the other hand, if Joe Mauer recaptures even part of his power, his strong BA and OBP foundation helps to make him a solid member of this tier, even if he misses time again due to injuries.
In a class by himself: Carlos Santana.
Second tier: Brian McCann, Mike Napoli, Alex Avila, Matt Wieters, Miguel Montero, Joe Mauer, Buster Posey.
Third tier: Russell Martin, Jesus Montero, J.P. Arencibia, Yadier Molina, Wilson Ramos, Geovany Soto, Jonathan Lucroy, Kurt Suzuki.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Devin Mesoraco, John Buck, Jarrod Saltalamachhia, Ryan Doumit, A.J. Pierzynski, Carlos Ruiz.
For deeper leagues only: Chris Iannetta, Miguel Olivo, Nick Hundley, Rod Barajas, A.J. Ellis, Wilin Rosario, Yorvit Torrealba, Josh Donaldson, Josh Thole, Ramon Hernandez, Tyler Flowers, Jason Castro, Ryan Hanigan.
Overview: Not surprisingly, every member of the first two tiers is among the top players in BB/K ratio at the position. Right up there with them, though, is Lance Berkman. Many owners still worry about Berkman's age and poor 2010 campaign, but that year aside, his peripherals have been highly consistent going back to 2007. He is a worthy reach early in the third tier. So far, Michael Cuddyer is going early among the fourth-tier first basemen, but there's no reason to pursue him too eagerly. Not only does he own a mediocre BB/K ratio, but his tendency to hit grounders makes him a poor candidate to benefit from a Coors Field boost.
First tier: Miguel Cabrera, Albert Pujols
Second tier: Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez, Prince Fielder, Mark Teixeira.
Third tier: Carlos Santana, Paul Konerko, Lance Berkman, Michael Morse, Eric Hosmer, Michael Young.
Fourth tier: Freddie Freeman, Mike Napoli, Gaby Sanchez, Michael Cuddyer, Ike Davis.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Carlos Lee, Adam Lind, Paul Goldschmidt, Carlos Pena, Mark Reynolds, Justin Morneau, Lucas Duda, James Loney, Ryan Howard.
For deeper leagues only: Edwin Encarnacion, Mark Trumbo, Daniel Murphy, Adam LaRoche, Adam Dunn, Kendrys Morales, Brandon Belt, Chris Davis, Justin Smoak, Mitch Moreland, Garrett Jones, Todd Helton, Aubrey Huff, Mike Carp, Casey Kotchman, Juan Rivera, Brett Wallace.
Overview: Robinson Cano isn't the walker or base stealer that Dustin Pedroia or Ian Kinsler is, but it's not as if he's worked his way into the top tier through fluky home run or BABIP rates. He is still very much in the discussion for the top second baseman overall. Owners shouldn't expect Ben Zobrist to revert back to his 2009 form, when he improbably hit eight line drive homers, but given his strong BB/K history and last season's sustainable BABIP and home run per flyball (HR/FB) rates, a repeat of 2011 is highly likely. That really puts Zobrist in a mini-tier by himself -- call it "1a" -- between Kinsler and Rickie Weeks. Further down in the second tier, I like Howard Kendrick for his emerging power, but he does put up abysmal walk rates. If last season's 18 homers prove to be a fluke, Kendrick has little to fall back on to prop up his value.
First tier: Dustin Pedroia, Robinson Cano, Ian Kinsler.
Second tier: Ben Zobrist, Rickie Weeks, Dan Uggla, Brandon Phillips, Howard Kendrick, Dustin Ackley.
Third tier: Chase Utley, Jemile Weeks, Neil Walker, Ryan Roberts.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Kelly Johnson, Danny Espinosa, Aaron Hill, Jason Kipnis, Omar Infante, Daniel Murphy.
For deeper leagues only: Johnny Giavotella, Jose Altuve, Ryan Raburn, Tyler Greene, Orlando Hudson, Gordon Beckham, Freddy Sanchez, Mike Aviles, Darwin Barney, Alexi Casilla, Mark Ellis, Jamey Carroll.
Overview: Jose Bautista doesn't just blow away the field with his power, as he is far and away the best of the top options in terms of BB/K ratio. After Bautista and Evan Longoria is a crowded second tier, loaded with players who practically ooze risk. Kevin Youkilis is no exception, as he has played in no more than 136 games in any of the last three seasons. A sports hernia and hip bursitis sapped Youkilis' power last season, but he is reportedly healthy again this spring. He could easily surprise owners with his first 25-plus homer season since 2009, and meanwhile, he continues to live up to his "Greek God of Walks" moniker. With Youkilis going after Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Brett Lawrie and Alex Rodriguez in many leagues, it could pay huge dividends to wait out much of the second tier to land him.
First tier: Jose Bautista, Evan Longoria.
Second tier: Adrian Beltre, Ryan Zimmerman, David Wright, Kevin Youkilis, Brett Lawrie, Pablo Sandoval, Michael Young.
Third tier: Alex Rodriguez, Mark Reynolds, Aramis Ramirez, Emilio Bonifacio, Ryan Roberts, Martin Prado.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Mike Moustakas, Chase Headley, Danny Valencia, Edwin Encarnacion, Mat Gamel, David Freese.
For deeper leagues only: Placido Polanco, Chipper Jones, Lonnie Chisenhall, Daniel Murphy, Chris Davis, Ian Stewart, Scott Rolen, Wilson Betemit, Brent Morel, Pedro Alvarez, Mike Aviles, Alberto Callaspo, Jimmy Paredes, Chone Figgins, Juan Uribe, Casey Blake, Jack Hannahan.
Overview: More than any other position, it's useful to have a handle on who has good strike zone recognition among shortstops. Frankly, there aren't many choosy hitters among the bunch. Jose Reyes, Troy Tulowitzki and Hanley Ramirez all rank fairly high in BB/K ratio at the position, which further bolsters their position as elites. Further down the tiers, Jimmy Rollins stands out as a strong contact hitter with good walk rates, which has helped him to maintain his value in the face of fluctuating popup rates. While the younger Starlin Castro and Asdrubal Cabrera have had more allure for owners in this year's drafts, Rollins could outproduce both of them more well-placed flyballs. In fact, Castro's low walk rates could render him a huge disappointment, especially if his path towards stardom takes an unexpected detour (which often happens to hitters in their early 20s). Down in the "last call" category, highly selective Yunel Escobar and Marco Scutaro offer some safety, while Jhonny Peralta's mediocre batting eye makes him a risk to keep his rebound from 2011 going. His bounce-back was fueled largely by an inflated .333 BABIP, not by improved contact skills.
First tier: Troy Tulowitzki, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes.
Second tier: Starlin Castro, Asdrubal Cabrera, Jimmy Rollins.
Third tier: Elvis Andrus, Emilio Bonifacio, Derek Jeter, Erick Aybar, Alexei Ramirez.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Jhonny Peralta, Yunel Escobar, J.J. Hardy, Dee Gordon, Alcides Escobar, Marco Scutaro, Zack Cozart.
For deeper leagues only: Stephen Drew, Rafael Furcal, Jed Lowrie, Ian Desmond, Cliff Pennington, Jason Bartlett, Eduardo Nunez, Clint Barmes, Tyler Pastornicky, Alexi Casilla, Alex Gonzalez, Tyler Greene, Brendan Ryan, Jamey Carroll, Ruben Tejada, Sean Rodriguez, Brandon Crawford.
Overview: For many owners, it's no longer a new discovery that the pool of high-end outfielders is drying up in Fantasy. That makes the occupants of the first two tiers all the more valuable. Once the top options for your No. 1 outfielder become unavailable, Andrew McCutchen and Matt Holliday are worth a long look due to their high BB/K ratios. Holliday is an especially good target, as he is falling to the fourth round or later in many leagues, yet his 6.9 Runs Created per 27 Outs (RC/27) was not much different from that of Justin Upton (7.2) and Carlos Gonzalez (6.9) last season. Shane Victorino, Carlos Beltran, Carlos Lee, Coco Crisp and Nick Markakis are others who deserve at least a slight upgrade due to their selective approaches, while Jeff Francoeur, Adam Jones and Delmon Young are especially vulnerable to their success being built on favorable statistical fluctuations, as all historically have posted poor BB/K ratios.
First tier: Jose Bautista, Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, Jacoby Ellsbury, Curtis Granderson.
Second tier: Justin Upton, Carlos Gonzalez, Andrew McCutchen, Josh Hamilton, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Holliday.
Third tier: Shane Victorino, Carl Crawford, Michael Bourn, Ben Zobrist, Shin-Soo Choo, Lance Berkman.
Fourth tier: Andre Ethier, Hunter Pence, Nelson Cruz, Desmond Jennings, Chris Young, Jay Bruce, Ichiro Suzuki, Corey Hart, Alex Gordon, Michael Morse, Nick Markakis.
Fifth tier: B.J. Upton, Brett Gardner, Adam Jones, Drew Stubbs, Jason Heyward, Martin Prado, Emilio Bonifacio, Howard Kendrick, Jayson Werth, Melky Cabrera, Austin Jackson, Michael Cuddyer, Nick Swisher, Logan Morrison.
Sixth tier: Cameron Maybin, Coco Crisp, Jeff Francoeur, Angel Pagan, Jose Tabata, Peter Bourjos, Carlos Beltran.
Last call for standard mixed leagues: Delmon Young, Brennan Boesch, Matt Joyce, Lorenzo Cain, Yonder Alonso, Josh Willingham, Jason Kubel, Carlos Lee, Lucas Duda, Torii Hunter, Eric Thames, Alex Rios, Carlos Quentin, J.D. Martinez, Alejandro De Aza, Dexter Fowler, Brandon Belt.
Noteworthy deeper league options: Dayan Viciedo, Bobby Abreu, Alex Presley, Vernon Wells, John Mayberry, Michael Brantley, Nyjer Morgan, Jason Bay, Allen Craig, Will Venable, Nolan Reimold, David DeJesus, Colby Rasmus, Andres Torres, Alfonso Soriano, Denard Span, Ryan Ludwick, Rajai Davis, Ben Revere, Bryce Harper, Mike Trout, Jon Jay, Franklin Gutierrez.