Right up front, I’ve got to acknowledge I’m not going to beat Bill James at this, unless he decides to get too clever by half and pick guys that he believes are perpetually underrated but “just as good.” I doubt he’s going to do that.
But for the rest of you schmoes, I don’t need to pick first, or even near the top. However you want to design this imaginary all-time league – 8 teams, 16 teams, 28 teams; 5 years of play, 10 years, or 20; 15 players or 25 per team – doesn’t matter. The only requirement is that everyone has to draft without any reference materials nearby.
In the 12th spot, or wherever I’m drafting, I’m going to pick Josh Gibson. Someone has to catch, and I’ve got outfield guys I can draft all night. All the other fantasy managers at the table will groan and bang their heads, realizing that they forgot to take the Negro Leagues into consideration. Some will adjust and draft Satchel Paige, or Buck Leonard, or maybe Cool Papa Bell, but then the well runs dry.
The strategy works because it exploits two ideas at once. Not only does it draw on Negro League players – which I can keep coming up with and you can’t – but it notices that there are a very few positions where the talent doesn’t run that deep. The 20th best first baseman isn’t far behind the first best. But the 20th best catcher, or shortstop, or second baseman, is a big dropoff in talent from the first few. Third base and CF have middling depth. I can come back to them later. I won’t get Willie Mays or Junior Griffey – those are the guys you folks sitting at the bar with dumb looks on your faces are going to pick. You won’t realize your mistake until you have to pick a catcher or a second baseman in the 7th round, and you’re hoping that Tony Pena was actually a good catcher and not just someone whose name you remember. Or that Jeff Kent will have a coupla good seasons for you in the Iowa cornfields.
But I’ve still got Monte Irvin hidden in my back pocket, or if someone’s that good and remembers Irvin first, I’ll take Pete Hill. Similarly, Edd Roush or Hugh Duffy are never going to occur to you. If I get driven to having to take them late in the draft, I’ve still got a fine centerfielder. And you’ve got Eddie Bressoud at shortstop because you had his baseball card.
If one of you other wiseguys comes armed with the same idea to this draft, and takes Josh Gibson or Smokey Joe Williams before I get him, I’m still good. Because I’m taking Martin Dihigo, who pitched and played every position except catcher – and played them well. So I can slot Martin in anywhere I need to, as sort of a wild card. I’ll take my chances drafting against the other few guys who were smart enough to remember black baseball. At least I’ll know I’m with my guys, there. We’ll have a great time laughing when you pick Carlos Baerga.
So, do I want Hilton Smith or Kid Nichols as my 4th starter? Heck, I can probably get both. Or I can pick Leon Day and get a backup 2B and middle reliever who is better than your regular 2B and 3rd starter.
This will be a no-steroids league, so don’t hope that Bonds is going to bail you out.