Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy

1. Do Your Research

A. Know the relevant player pool cold. – That might sound obvious, but I'd bet most people still trust in their general knowledge of baseball, pick a good cheat sheet and research players about whom they're unsure during the draft.

You can do this, but it's not optimal for a few reasons:

  1. In a timed draft, you won't be able to do the research quickly enough, and you'll end up making panic picks. In an untimed draft, you'll annoy the hell out of everyone waiting for you to pick;
  2. Cheat sheets are usually based on projected stats, and those stats are usually simple expected returns (the 50th percentile season in a player's range) and don't separately take into account volatility. As you go deeper in your drafts, you'll want to target volatile players with high ceilings and low floors. Without knowing the back end of the player pool, you'll wind up drafting low upside players whose rankings are based simply on playing time or modest track records. In other words, you'll be drafting useless players, while the knowledgeable owners are mining late-round sleepers;
  3. Even the players you think you know are not exactly as you imagine them. Did you know, for example, Miguel Cabrera, who has battled injuries the last two years and missed 43 games in 2015, batted .338, the best mark in the major leagues? Or that Matt Carpenter's 28-homer power breakout was accompanied by 44 doubles? Looking more closely even at the players with whom we're familiar can yield important insights and counter unfounded assumptions we might have about them; and
  4. You won't learn from your mistakes if you were simply going off someone else's list. If you make your own rankings for your own reasons, you can look back and evaluate where you were right, where you were wrong and why. Through this process, you'll have a chance to get better, something on which you'll miss out if you don't learn the player pool for yourself.

B. Materials – I would strongly suggest you build you own cheat sheet from scratch, using the following resources:

  1. Team Depth Charts & Player Pages: Even though baseball is largely a game of individual matchups (one pitcher vs. one hitter), its structure as a team game governs playing time and job description. It's not enough simply to know each player's skill set in a vacuum - you need to know where he fits in around the diamond, the players with whom he's competing for playing time, who in the organization might be blocking his opportunity for full-time at-bats and what his role is in the lineup. Moreover, it's far easier to remember who has what role when you organize players by position on each team.

    For that reason I build my cheat sheet each season in a spreadsheet by painstakingly clicking on every player linked to the depth charts team by team. In shallower mixed leagues, you don't have to go through every middle reliever and all of the prospects, but in deep AL or NL ones, it's worth clicking on every single player to read the latest news, outlook and stat profile for him on his player page.

  2. Stats Pages: Use pages like our sortable MLB stats, three-year averages, and advanced MLB stats. You can use the advanced stats – including BABIP, strand-rate and fastball velocity – to help separate skill from luck in a player's stat profile. You can go deeper than that by looking at batted-ball data on Fangraphs.

2. Know Your League Parameters

A. Categories – Most leagues are 5 x 5, which means five hitting and five pitching categories. The standard hitting ones are batting average, home runs, runs batted in, runs and stolen bases. The standard pitching ones are wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA and WHIP. Some leagues add categories like on-base percentage and slugging for hitters, walks and losses for pitchers, making them 7 x 7. This affects player value, as it creates new areas for players to contribute or detract from your team. Make sure you're valuing your players according to their contributions in the specific categories used by your league. A simple example is a 5 x 5 league that scraps batting average for on-base percentage, a growing trend as owners want to approximate real-life baseball value more closely. In such a league, players who hit for a decent average but don't walk a lot like Adam Jones are worth quite a bit less, while players like Carlos Santana who hit for a low average but walk frequently are more valuable.

B. Starting Rosters – Leagues vary greatly in terms of what positions you're required to start. One of the biggest variables is between Yahoo!-style leagues that require only one catcher and NFBC-style leagues that require two. In a 12-team mixed, one-catcher league, the last starting catcher is likely going to be someone who hits 20-odd home runs (in 2015 it was Wellington Castillo) or hits for a decent average, so the difference between him and the top catchers won't be that great. But in a league that requires two starting catchers, the replacement value backstop is going to be the No. 24 player at the position, widening the gap between him and the upper-tier options. As such, you should draft catchers far earlier in the NFBC than in a typical Yahoo! league.

Other roster requirements range from the number of outfielders, to the number of utility (all-purpose) slots to the designated number of starting and relief pitchers. Each of these permutations has particular (and often significant) ramifications for player value, and you'd be wise to plug your specific parameters into our draft software that will help you sort it out.

C. Position eligibility – To the extent the configuration of your league's starting rosters matters, then of course, it's important to know which players qualify for what positions. A common set-up is 20 games played the previous year or 10 played in the current one. For example, in that type of league Daniel Murphy, who played 17 games at first base, 69 at second and 42 at third in 2015, would be eligible at 2B and 3B but not 1B in 2016. However, some leagues are more liberal and allow players to qualify if they played five, three or even one game at a given position. Because Murphy is slightly more valuable as a 2B-3B-1B than simply a 2B-3B, it's important to know what your eligibility settings are in order to value him accurately.

Players with multiple eligibility have added value, of course, because they offer roster flexibility. If you own Chris Davis, for example, who qualifies at both 1B and OF, he allows you to back up both OF and 1B slots with only one player (either an outfielder or a first baseman, depending on where you slot him). That might allow you to carry an extra starting pitcher on your bench, or an extra middle reliever who has a chance to win a closer job.

D. Bench – The size of the bench has important implications for player value and draft strategy. For example, if you're allowed only a couple reserve slots, and no DL, i.e., injured players count as regular reserves, then players slated to miss a significant chunk of the season like Alex Cobb are much tougher to roster. You will have injuries to players who are too good to drop, and you will want to bench pitchers against elite offenses, so you simply cannot have a player out for half a season clogging one of your two or three available bench spots.

But if you're allowed 10 reserves, or if injured players can be stashed on your DL without affecting your active roster, then Cobb should be on your radar in the later rounds because you'll have plenty of room to maneuver with your other slots and the possibility of a big pitching boost in the season's second half.

E. Depth of Player Pool – If you're in a 12-team mixed league, you don't have to worry much about prospects like Yoan Moncada who could get an in-season call-up at some point. In a 12-team AL-only league, you'll need to know Moncada's chances for playing time, who stands in his way and what he'd likely deliver should he get the call. Player-pool depth is determined by four factors:

  1. The universe of eligible players, e.g., AL-only or mixed;
  2. Number of teams in your league;
  3. Number of starters on each roster; and
  4. Size of each team's bench.

If there are 12 teams in your league, and each team starts 14 offensive players, then you know 168 offensive players will be starting. If you also have five bench spots, you figured another 42 or so offensive players will be drafted, bringing the total to 210, not including pitching. So you'll need to have a cheat sheet that's at least that deep. In an AL-only universe, that's pretty much every active player including a few prospects.

League depth determines replacement value, i.e., the value of the highest-ranked player available to you on your waiver wire. That replacement value player serves as the baseline to which all other players compared and valued (more on this in our subsequent piece on player valuation).

Replacement value at each position helps you identify how steep the drop off is if you pass on one player in favor of another. For example, in a 12-team mixed league that starts nine pitchers of any kind, I know that the 108th-ranked pitcher (including relievers) will be the last one used in a starting lineup. If we posit that roughly 30 relievers will be used, that means if I pass up drafting Sonny Gray in Round 7 and instead take Brian Dozier, I know I can get the 78th ranked starting pitcher as a worst-case scenario with my last pick (in leagues where starters are drafted separately from reserves). I know that had I taken Gray instead of Dozier, the worst-case scenario (assuming 1 2B, 1 SS and 1 MI (2B or SS) per team) might be the 18-20th ranked second baseman like Jonathan Schoop or Joe Panik. By knowing the depth of the player pool at each position, I know not only the value of the players I'm contemplating drafting, but also the opportunity cost of the ones I let pass.

F. Trades – Whether your league allows trades (and whether your league-mates are apt to trade for anything resembling fair value) will determine the importance of drafting balance across your league's categories. If trading is liberal, you can largely opt for value, even if that means nabbing four top-10 closers at a bargain. If trading is not allowed, you'll have to shore up categorical weaknesses at the expense of marketable surplus. As such, you'll need to have some idea of how many home runs, RBI, saves, steals, etc. it takes to be competitive in your non-trading league, so that you know where you're out of balance. For example, if 250 home runs is typically good enough for an "9" out of "12" in that category, then when you get to 230 projected homers in the 14th round (with five hitters left to draft), you should probably switch gears and target another category in Round 15.

G. FAAB/waivers – Most leagues are of the weekly variety with a Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) bidding or waiver pick-ups every Sunday night and lineups set Monday before the first game starts. But leagues with daily moves change the equation as they typically come with pitching innings limits, and therefore high-strikeout pitchers gain value and even good low-strikeout pitchers are largely undraftable in shallower leagues. Leagues with bi-weekly or monthly FAAB/waivers elevate the importance of having backups at most positions and enhance the value of players with multiple position eligibility.

H. Advanced Considerations

  1. Historical data for your league – It's worth having at least a general idea of what it takes to win each category, e.g., 250 HR, 120 wins, etc. It'll help you get a sense of what combinations of players it will take to contend.
  2. Other Owners' Proclivities – Over time, you might observe that certain owners take a lot of Yankees or Red Sox, and others always go for the top prospects. Depending on your draft slot and the round, you'll have some idea who those owners might take, and if you like a particular player, you'll know to reach for him before that owner's turn.
  3. Have a Draft Plan

    Draft Slot – Many drafts like the NFBC give you the choice of where you'd want to pick and also advance notice of the slot from which you're picking. Most years there's an advantage to picking early in the first round as the drop-off in production is typically biggest at the top. But if you're especially high on a player whose ADP is toward the end of the first round and would rather not take him at No. 3 when he'll likely be there at No. 13, it makes sense for you to move down, get your player later and also pick early in the second-round. No matter where it seems the drop-off is, often the market is wrong anyway, and so we wouldn't get too wrapped up in where you pick.

    But once you know your slot, you have a chance to plan your draft to an extent. You can't know what people ahead of you will do, but say you pick fourth in 2016, you might have a shot at Clayton Kershaw and can map out your strategy for subsequent rounds to decide whether you really want to use your first pick on a pitcher (there's nothing wrong with it, but it will significantly alter the rest of your draft).

    Mock Draft – You can go to various mock draft sites, practice drafting from different slots and see what you wind up with. It'll give you a sense of whether you really can lock up middle infield with Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa with your first two picks. Of course, every draft is different, but seeing owners react in real time and the decisions with which you're likely to be faced – and their consequences – will keep you clear-headed during your real drafts and reduce the chance you get stuck and make a panic pick.

    ADP – Looking at results drawn from thousands of drafts gives you a sense of what a player's Average Draft Position (ADP) will be. Every draft differs, but ADP is a good general barometer of market value. If you're under the delusion you'll get Kris Bryant in Round 3, think again. As of this writing, his Yahoo! ADP is No. 10 overall (though ADP like any other market is dynamic and will change until Opening Day). Being realistic about who will be available when allows you to plan for the likely choices with which you'll be faced. It'll also let you know whether a certain strategy – wait on starting pitching, but get 2016 bounce-back candidates like Adam Wainwright (ADP 76) in the sixth round (probably) and Jeff Samardzija (ADP 157) in the 14th (probably not) – is viable.

    Position Scarcity – Obviously, big-hitting outfielders are easier to come by than big-hitting shortstops. The question is how much one should adjust for the scarcity of production at certain positions. In an NFBC-style 12-team league with five outfielders (and a utility player, who is an outfielder roughly half the time), you're dealing with the 66th OF as replacement level. In 2016, is Kevin Kiermaier (NFBC ADP 66 among OF, 268 overall) that much better than the 18th SS (assuming 12 SS, and six SS filling middle infield slots)? The 17-19 SS by NFBC ADP are Alcides Escobar, Eugenio Suarez and Asdrubal Cabrera as of mid-February 2016. Scarcity matters to an extent, but as you can see, you don't want to overdo it.

    Position/Category Depth – It's important to know what constitutes rough replacement value at each position across the board – Kiermaier at OF in a 12-team mixed league, Escobar/Suarez/Cabrera at SS, Clay Buchholz at SP, etc. As you get deeper into your drafts, and you need to shore up a particular category, it's also important to be aware of the depth in categories. There are 21 players – given healthy seasons – projected for 30 or more homers, there are 12 players (assuming health) projected for 30 or more stolen bases. (And 30 is obviously an arbitrary cut-off, but it illustrates the point).

In sum – there's no substitute for deeply researching the player pool, and you absolutely must know your league parameters and their ramifications. How specific you get with your draft plan is a matter of personal preference – I usually prefer to target a few players I think will overperform in the context of what the draft gives me, but I see no problem with being more precise about category and positional targets. Either way, you should have a good grasp of market values and your league's positional and categorical depth.

Next up, we'll take on the topic of player valuation.

Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy – Part II

How To Value Players Going Into Your Draft

There are but three components to player valuation: (1) Assessing a player's skills and situation; (2) Creating a stat-line for him for the upcoming season; and (3) Figuring out what those stats are worth in your league's particular context.

1. Assessing Skills and Situation

A number of factors go into deciding whether a player will grow or regress and by how much:

A. Skills

  1. Stats – last year's numbers, three-year averages, BABIP/strand rate to determine how reliable those stats were, home/road splits, left/right splits, steals/caught stealings, K:BB ratio, ground ball/fly ball rates, etc.
  2. Scouting – raw power, speed, defense (affects opportunity), batting eye. For pitchers, velocity, repertoire, command, movement.
  3. Pedigree – Where a player was drafted, how he's viewed in the organization, what the team has already invested in him - this will buy him more patience when he slumps and more chances to succeed.
  4. Health

B. Historical Comps/Career Arcs

A player's personal history isn't always enough, especially with younger players like Jorge Soler or even Yasiel Puig. One must look at how baseball players at certain ages, experience levels and skill sets perform generally.

  1. Age – Hitters traditionally got better until about age 27 and declined slowly into their mid-to-late 30s until they fell off a cliff. Pitchers often peak early for velocity, but were thought to be at the top of their overall games in their early 30s in terms of mastery and repertoire.
  2. Experience – Often hitters with 700-1000 career at-bats seemed to "get it." Pitchers often took a few seasons before the light bulb went on. It's worth noting, however, some recent research on post-steroid era (2006-2013) players (both pitchers and hitters) shows them peaking right away and starting to decline around age 26. One theory is players are more physically and fundamentally ready these days, so there's no growth left once they reach the majors. In any event, the overall aging curves for players are important to take into account apart from any one player's personal performance history.

C. Context

  1. Teammates – RBI and runs depend on lineup. Wins depend on run support, ERA and WHIP depend on defense. Who's on the roster and in the organization helps determine playing time, batting-order slot and opportunity.
  2. Stadium dimensions – Some stadiums favor different hitters and/or pitchers significantly.
  3. League/Division – NL East pitchers have it far easier than AL East ones, for example - in fact the difference is about half a run in ERA.

2. Creating a 2015 Stat-Line

Once you've gathered the relevant facts about a player's skills and context, you might want to translate that into a statistical line for the upcoming season. There are two kinds of stastical lines one can create, and each has its merits and flaws.

A. Projections – a player is given a stat line that's the average of his many possible 2013 seasons. It's his 50th percentile season, neither exceeding nor falling short of what his skill set and situation likely portend. The virtue of doing projections for every player is the process is ostensibly unbiased - i.e., you give everyone his middle-of-the-road season based on the relevant and probative research. You're not playing favorites, giving one player his 75th percentile season and another his 25th.

The problem with this is two-fold:

  1. You may think you're giving a player his 50th percentile season, but your reading of his skills and context are more generous than someone else's. As such, your opinion of Yasiel Puig's 50th percentile numbers might be someone else's 75th-percentile ones. Essentially, your projections aren't much less subjective than someone's hunches or predictions; the subjectivity just occurs at the input phase rather then the output phase of the process; and
  2. If you used a formula taking three-year averages and regressing players to the mean, then you'd be more objective, but your projections would look very little like the actual distribution of stats in a given season. To take a simple example, let's say I win $1 if a coin flip comes up heads, and you win a dollar if it comes up tails. My expected return, i.e., my 50th percentile outcome, is 50 cents. I should project myself to win 50 cents. But clearly that will never happen. I'm either going to win $1 or nothing. So by projecting 50 cents as my stat line, I ensure I get it wrong no matter what happens.

Put in baseball terms, someone will probably win 20 games, hit .330 or rack up 40 home runs. If we give everyone his 50th percentile season, it's likely no one will achieve those numbers. But we know that someone will have his 95th-percentile season, and someone will have his 25th percentile one. As such, we'd like to have a set of numbers that reflects that. Which brings us to:

B. Predictions – Here we assign players stat lines that mimic the real distribution of player stats in an actual season. We predict who will have his 75th-percentile season and who will have his 25th. We give someone 20 wins and someone just as good 13 wins because that's how it goes in real baseball.

The flaw in this is that it's completely subjective and arbitrary to decide what player will have a breakout and what player will be a bust when both have similar skill sets and find themselves in similar situations. Instead of giving us each 50 cents, you're saying you're going to win a dollar, and I'm going to win nothing – when it's just as likely that I win the dollar and you win nothing.

In the end, if you're going to create stat lines for the entire player pool and use them as the basis for your draft/auction rankings, you'll probably have to settle for projections, but I like to mix in a few predictions based on hunches. A hunch can be considered a disproportionate emphasis on a particular skill, stat or contextual detail, one you wouldn't apply generally but that jumps out on you in a particular case. Aggregating the disparate facts – not all of them easily quantifiable – into a projection is part art as well as science, and we know that certain factors work in combination, so that a beneficial change in ballpark doesn't affect all players the same way or to the same degree, for example. Leave room for hunches, but be realistic about their fallibility.

C. Volatility and Reliability – By condensing an array of disparate numbers and facts about a player into a 50th percentile statline, you lose some important information. A projection by itself just tells you the player's average season. But not all averages comprise the same distribution of highs and lows. Although the numbers might be similar, Adrian Gonzalez's projection is more reliable than Puig's. Puig has more upside and more downside. Early in your draft (or in an auction when you pay top dollar for a player), you might want to pay more for reliability and less for upside, (though I'd probably still opt for Puig because I project him more highly than most.)

In the middle and especially toward the end of your draft (and with cheaper players at auction), the projected average numbers aren't nearly as valuable. You want the player to be capable of far more in his 80th or 90th percentile season, even if the possibility that he loses his job outright, i.e., his 20th-percentile season drags down his average. For that reason, 22-year old Trea Turner, who didn't do much in 2015, is worth having on your 12-team mixed league bench, while 33-year old J.J. Hardy is probably not.

Straight projections alone are not enough to inform a cheat sheet. You must know about a player's volatility and reliability.

3. Translating Performance into Value

Once you've put together your 2016 projections for the entire player pool, you need to figure out how to turn that into a cheat sheet or list of dollar values. While it's pretty easy to see Miguel Cabrera's projected stats put him near the top of your list, it's not obvious whether they're better than Andrew McCutchen's, and if so, by how much. It's also not immediately evident whether a .330 batting average in 500 at-bats does more for you in batting average than 38 home runs does for you in homers. The problem of comparing players relative to the overall player pool and across categories isn't something we can solve by eyeballing it.

To address that, we need two key concepts:

A. Value Over Replacement – This is the margin by which a player is better than those who are freely available on the league's waiver wire. In other words, if you're in a 12-team mixed league that starts 14 offensive players, that means the top 168 offensive players are starting at any given time. Because the 169th player might be a steals specialist with no power, or a big power bat who hits .200, it's best to use an average of the next 10-20 players to generate a baseline for replacement value. Let's say players 169-188 average 10 HR, 50 RBI, 60 runs, 7 SB and a .255 average. Now we have our rough estimate of replacement value*.

As such, any starter's value is determined by the extent to which his stats exceed or fall below these benchmarks (again assuming these are the numbers you came up with for your league parameters). So if Cabrera is projected for 30 HR, he's 20 HR above replacement. You would subtract his RBI, runs, SB and average (adjusting for at-bats) accordingly. Once we subtract out replacement value stats from all of the hitters on our list, we now have their real stats insofar as they inform our values. A player like Ben Revere might be projected for 1 HR, and thus his true home run total is -9 for purposes of his value.

But this still doesn't help us answer the original question as to whether a .330 average in 500 at-bats is worth more than 38 HR, or in this case 75 points of batting average over 500 at-bats vs. 28 home runs. Essentially, we're asking which stat is a bigger outlier relative to the player pool, i.e., which stat is likely to have a bigger impact on the standings. For that we need our second concept: Standard Deviation.

* There are many nuances here I'm omitting, including but not limited to: some starting catchers will be worse than replacement value, I'm ignoring position scarcity, the size of one's bench and whether the bench or the waiver wire should be considered the starting point for calculating replacement value, that prospects who play half a season will often be more valuable than replacement value because you get the other half of a season from someone else, or that shuttling in two-start pitchers or platoon players also changes the baseline, etc.

B. Standard Deviation – this measures the average amount the data points, i.e., players' stats in a given category, differ from the mean in that category. For example, if the average number of homers in the usable player pool is 15, and the player pool consists of four players, two with 20 HR and two with 10 HR, then the standard deviation is five HR. But if the average were 15, but there were two players with 30 and two with zero, then the standard deviation would be 15.

As you can see, in the former case, the data points are more clustered together, and in the latter, they're further apart. This has implications for the value of stat-lines because in a case where the data points are clustered together, e.g., in 1921, players ranked No. 2 – No. 14 in HR had between 24 and 16 HR. The standard deviation for that player pool was fairly small. But Babe Ruth led the league in HR that year with 59! You can see what Ruth would do for your fantasy team in that context - he'd win homers for you virtually all by himself. Looked at in terms of standard deviation and value above replacement, we can see why this is. If we say replacement value was roughly five homers, then Ruth had 54 homers above replacement. And if the standard deviation was about four, then Ruth was a whopping 13.5 standard deviations above replacement!

Had the players been less clustered together, and the standard deviation were 10 HR, then Ruth would have been "only" 5.4 standard deviations – still a huge number – above replacement. The more clustered together the data points are, the bigger the impact of the rare outliers.

We can do this for every player in every category, figuring out his outlier-ness (both positive and negative) in each and add up the true extent to which he helps or hurts your team.

Which brings us back to the original question: Is 28 HR above replacement worth more than 75 points of batting average in 500 at-bats (let's assume 500 at-bats is the average number of at-bats in the pool so we don't need to make a volume adjustment)?

The answer depends on what the standard deviation is for each category. Using the RotoWire projections from 2014 it was about nine for HR, and about 18 points for batting average. Based on those numbers, the 28 homers is 3.1 standard deviations above replacement while the 75 points of batting average is 4.17. Clearly, given these ballpark replacement levels and the 2014 RotoWire projections, the batting average would be worth substantially more than the HR.

Sticking with Cabrera's 2015 projection (last year's will work just fine to illustrate the point and saves me a lot of busy-work), he'd be about 20 HR, 58 RBI, 39 runs, -7 steals and 56 points of batting average in 570 at-bats (roughly 1.14 times the average) above replacement. So we go down the line and add up his contributions in each category.

Cabrera 30 108 99 0 0.311
Replacement 10 50 60 7 0.255
VORP 20 58 39 -7 0.066
SD 9 21 17 8 0.018
Value 2.22 2.76 2.29 -.88 3.67*

*Before we total up Cabrera's value in each category, we have to adjust for his at-bats, multiplying his batting average contribution by 1.14. That brings it to 4.18.

When you add it up, Cabrera's 2015 projection got you 2.2 in HR, 2.8 in RBI, 2.3 in runs, -0.9 in steals and 4.2 in average for a total of 10.6. We can compare that number to that of every other player in the league, e.g., Mike Trout's 2015 RotoWire projection came out to roughly 13.6 and McCutchen's 2015 roughly 11.5. Now we have a basis for our cheat sheet, i.e., we've converted the stats into values.

To generate dollar values for an auction, there are a couple further steps. You need to add up each player's total scores across the five categories for the top 168 offensive players, figure out what percentage of the league's collective budget ($260 x 12 = $3,120) is going to offense, e.g., 70% = $2,184, and divide that number ($2,184) by the sum of the scores. You'll probably end up with a result like 3.1 or so. Then you multiply each player's score by 3.1 (or whatever your number is) to get the dollar values.

C. Volatility – We discussed this earlier, and of course, it applies here. Carlos Correa's projection is worth roughly the same as Anthony Rizzo's this year, but Rizzo is probably the safer bet to live up to it, given his longer track record. So while Correa is the superior talent with an off-the-charts ceiling, early in your draft (with your most expensive investment), you might opt for stability over upside. (I happen to believe in Correa, but he's surely a volatile pick in the first round.) On the lower end of the pool, the consideration is just the opposite. A player might even have a negative dollar value taking into account his lack of prospective playing time, but his 90th-100th percentile seasons are so valuable you spend several dollars to acquire him.

D. Translating Performance into Value without Projected Stats – Having said all this and done all the math, I generally don't rely on projections to evaluate players. I do the research and aggregate the disparate factors into a slot on my cheat sheet. Having done enough auctions and drafts, I have a pretty good idea of what different stat lines are worth without crunching the numbers for each one, and I also know that each statline is based on a fictional rendering of the 2016 season and is usually not much more scientific than my placement of a player in a cheat-sheet slot.

Moreover, I'm not wedded to my cheat sheet order when the auction or draft starts – I might take my No. 12 SS ahead of my No. 10 one, when push comes to shove, given volatility considerations and arising hunches.

And even if you use three-year averages and regress players to the mean to create your projections, you're going to make choices based on playing time, park effects, age/experience/health related growth/regression that are less than scientific. And even if you were to automate those factors – park effects for gap-hitting lefties that are 6-2, 190 and score a 65 on the power scale, adjust it for a player's schedule, his historical comps for age-related career arc, you're making a lot of choices on the inputs that are imprecise. And even to the extent your model gained precision over time and backtested its results, there's no guarantee your conscious aggregation of the factors that comprise value will be better than the unconscious snap assessment of an experienced and open-minded evaluator – at least not without the conditions of baseball remaining static while you collect a larger sample of data over the next couple decades. (But I'm open to being proved wrong on this point.)

The bottom line – there's no substitute for gathering all the material facts you can find about a player, but how you translate those to a dollar value or cheat sheet is up to you. If you prefer to have the discipline of a cheat sheet based on projected stats, it's important to compare those stats to the replacement-value baseline and then to see what those results are worth based on their prospective categorical impact. A good way to measure that is by seeing how many standard deviations they are above the baseline.

Next up, we'll talk about the actual building of your team.

Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy – Part III

Building Your Team: Draft and Auction Strategy

Assuming you've read the other sections above, you know the player pool, have a good idea of what each player's prospective numbers are worth and have a good grasp of your league parameters. What's left is to execute on that understanding in your snake draft or auction.

1. Draft Strategy

The strategy for the first 2-3 rounds of every draft depends somewhat on where you're slotted. In subsequent rounds draft slot matters less as Average Draft Position (ADP), i.e., market value, is more fluid, and so there are more possibilities of what might be available to you.

A. Subjective Rankings vs. Average Draft Position (ADP) – You're going to have opinions on particular players, some of which are in line with market value, and some which are not. If the goal is to get the best players for their draft slots, then your opinion is the numerator (who you think the best players are) while market value is the denominator (what those players cost). As such, you need not only to have a good grasp of what players will do, but also what their going rate is.

My philosophy in a draft (as opposed to an auction) is to be aggressive. Take the players you think are best in a given round, so long as you're pretty sure they won't come back to you in a subsequent one. Don't worry about getting the player with the highest ADP for its own sake. ADP is useful only insofar as it tells you when you can wait until the next round on a player. The only way you can "reach" for a player, i.e., taking someone earlier than you should have, is when you draft a player in Round X when there's roughly an 80-plus percent chance he'd be available in Round X+1. Otherwise, always take the player you expect to be the best on the board for your team, irrespective of how the market values him.

B. League Depth – The depth of your league, i.e., the size of the player universe (AL-only, or mixed, for example), the number of teams in it and the size of the rosters and benches, matters a great deal. In shallower leagues, e.g., 10-team or fewer mixed, there will always be quality players late in the draft and on the waiver wire. As such, the difference-makers are mostly elite players, and merely productive players are only marginally valuable. In that case, you'll want to aggressively draft players with the maximum possible upside, like Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, earlier than usual even if their downsides are steep. You can always find adequate replacements, so there's a smaller penalty if they don't pan out.

In deeper mixed leagues, or especially "only" leagues, the equation changes dramatically. The waiver wire is thinner, and blandly productive players like Hunter Pence and Adrian Gonzalez are actually significant upgrades from what's freely available. In that case, you should focus more on a player's floor than his ceiling - at least until you get into the later rounds. If a player doesn't pan out, he is not easily replaced, and missing on middle-round picks is more costly.

C. First Round – The first round sets the tone for your draft, largely determining the base of your categorical and positional strengths and weaknesses. Each slot is different, but for the sake of simplicity, let's divide it into early, middle and late positions.

  1. Early Position

    This could be slots 1-3 or even 1-5 depending on the depth of the elite player pool. This year (2016), there seems to be a consensus top-three hitters, (Mike Trout, Paul Goldschmidt and Bryce Harper) and Clayton Kershaw in any order. In early position, my preference is largely to ignore position scarcity and get a player who will deliver you massive stats in four – or preferably five – categories - even if that player is a pitcher.

    Wherever one falls on the positional scarcity question generally, I especially don't think it's a good idea to worry about it early in the first round where the per-pick drop-off in value is greatest. If you're going to draft a shortstop in the first three picks, it better be one like Hanley Ramirez circa 2009 where his projected stats merit the selection apart from the slot he fills on your roster. Consider the positional scarcity a bonus.

  2. Middle position

    This is after the initial drop-off from the consensus top group - picks 5-8 in some seasons or later as the case may be - where the non-elite first rounders are roughly interchangeable.

    My feelings are more or less the same as in early position, but you won't get quite as much across-the-board production. You typically want a rock solid 3.5-to-4-category hitter (Giancarlo Stanton) or a slightly risky 4.5-to-5-category hitter (Manny Machado.)

  3. Late position

    This is usually the last 3-5 picks of the first round. You'll usually have the choice of an upside player with less experience (Carlos Correa), a more modest five category producer (Andrew McCutchen), a superstar coming off a down or injury-marred year (Miguel Cabrera or another top pitcher (Max Scherzer.) Of course, where you'd be willing to take a pitcher will change depending upon the era and the degree to which a pitcher is an outlier – in the early 2000's, for example, Randy Johnson and Pedro Martinez were perennial top-five picks and well worth it, and Kershaw certainly earned his early draft slot the last few years.

    I don't have a problem with any of these choices. Playing it safe with McCutchen, for example, isn't my style, but there's a case to be made that you shouldn't gamble on a pick where you have the most to lose. I'd rather take a player on the rise late in the first round like Correa or Mookie Betts where there could be another level than a reliable one at his late peak. And taking a pitcher can work, but you might have to forgo subsequent pitching bargains as you catch up on hitting if the entire league – as many do – devalues pitching.

D. Rounds 2-3 – Some people like to get 70 homers and 70 steals in the first three rounds, while others like to get two hitters and one elite pitcher. Still others try to shore up scarce positions and fill in later with more plentiful outfield and pitching options. I subscribe to none of these rules, preferring to go best available player for three rounds, no matter what that looks like. To me, Rounds 1-3 are simply about maximum stat gathering, and shoring up weaknesses is something you do later in the draft and during the regular season via waiver wire and trades.

E. Middle Rounds

  1. Roster Flexibility

    Many leagues force you to draft your entire starting roster before you can take a reserve. In cases like this, you'll want to maintain as much roster flexibility as practicable. That means if you have four outfielders by Round 8, you probably don't want to take a fifth OF in Round 9 unless he's the best player available by a decent margin because doing so cuts you off from future OF bargains. (Unless you want to use your utility spot which limits your flexibility further). Likewise, getting two first basemen early cuts you out of potential first and third base bargains later in the draft by filling up your corner slot. You don't want to take this too far – at some point, you'll necessarily be locked out of certain positions. But all things being equal, it's better to have one 1B and one 3B with your corner open, and one second baseman and one shortstop with your MI open for the maximum ability to capitalize on bargains.

  2. Category balance vs. Surplus

    Whereas your first few picks are about getting the most overall stats, the middle rounds are about balancing out your categorical strengths and weaknesses. In a no-trade format like the NFBC, this is even more important as you can't easily convert a surplus into value later in the year. In a trading league - so long as people are reasonable - you can come out of your draft with four closers or nine starters or a team with tons of power and too little speed. By season's end, you'll want balance as you don't get extra credit for margin of victory across the categories, but it doesn't matter when you get your numbers. If you have nine starting pitchers and accumulate huge surpluses in wins and strikeouts by July, you can trade for five closers and get all of your saves in August and September. Again, it doesn't matter when you get your numbers, only that you get them at some point.

    Just keep in mind there's not always a perfect trade fit for your team, so you'll often have to pay a premium to re-align the categories later in the year.

F. Positional Scarcity – Jeff Erickson and I discussed this topic in detail two years ago:

There are three types of players that are scarce (one can make an argument for third base and even outfield where you need five of them, but both are more marginal these days):

  1. Middle Infielders

    Because you typically need one second baseman, one shortstop and one middle infielder, and second base and shortstop are comparably scarce, plan to draft 1.5 times as many of each as the the number of teams in your league. For example, in a 12-team league, expect roughly 18 second basemen and 18 shortstops to be drafted, making players 16-20 the rough baseline at the positions. While the 16-20th second baseman is probably ever-so-slightly less productive than the 60-70th OF (5 OF * 12 plus half the UT slot), it's not by a wide margin in most formats - at least in this era. All stats being equal, always take the middle infielder over the OF or first baseman, but don't give up a significant amount of production just to fill a middle infield slot.

  2. Catchers

    If you're going to attach a significant premium to a scarce position, the place to do it is at catcher – at least in standard leagues that require you to carry two of them. (In one-catcher Yahoo! leagues, feel free to ignore this). Even in a 12-team mixed league, you're going 24 catchers deep, and that means the back end of the draft will have either catchers who produce very little or ones who hit for some power but harm your batting average. In 15-team mixed leagues, the back-end of the pool is even more stark. You don't necessarily need to get the top catchers on the board – often those are overpriced given the elevated injury risk and limited upside at the position – but you might want to get two competent ones who contribute without hurting you.

  3. Closers

    Closers are unique in that they're the only players in the pool who get you saves. You can punt catchers and middle infielders so long as your other offensive players carry you in the five hitting categories, but no matter how good your starting pitching is, it can never help you in saves. In leagues where you can tank categories and still win, there's a point at which you can forgo closers, but in most leagues - where the teams at the bottom quit, and teams at the top are strong across the board – you're probably going to have to acquire saves at some point.

G. Categorical Scarcity

  1. 1. Averages

    It's worth being aware of how common each stat category is for your format. For example, in 2012 14-team mixed leagues, the average offensive starter had roughly 77 runs, 20 homers, 74 RBI, 12 steals and batted .280 (Those numbers have declined slightly across the board since then.) That means steals were the most scarce commodity on offense, though cheap speed is available late because it comes divorced from other categories. There's not much cheap power late (unless you're willing to take on a crippling batting average) because it's connected to RBI and runs.

    On the pitching side, the prevalence of relievers no one uses who outperform starters like Rick Porcello and Andrew Cashner (who many people used) makes it hard to come up with reliable averages (that and the fact that the distribution of starters and relievers varies roster by roster).

  2. 2. Chasing Categorical Targets

    By looking at the last 1-3 years of your league results, you can get a sense of how many homers, RBI, runs, steals, wins, etc. it takes to finish in the top-4 in every category, and you can tailor your draft accordingly. So if 250 home runs is typically good for fourth place, and your projections have you at 270 homers through Round 20, you might want to take a stolen base specialist instead of potential power hitter late.

    Personally, in trade leagues, I don't mind having a surplus, and in any event, your projections might not be accurate, there will be injuries, and you'll get more than you think out of your last few roster spots if you stay active. But it can't hurt to have an idea of what it takes to perform well in each category.

H. Later Rounds/End Game – The later rounds are all about upside because the players you're considering aren't all that much more valuable than what's freely available on the waiver wire. In other words, there's very little downside if they don't pan out. So it's important to take players whose best-case scenarios are useful to you even if they're not guaranteed to have jobs.

In fact, if you were to do minimal preparation for your draft and simply downloaded a projections-based cheat sheet, you would still need to identify the upside plays in the middle and late rounds so you're not simply ceding all the potential sleepers to more knowledgeable drafters.

I. Injured Players

When considering an injured player there are three questions to ask:

  1. How long will he be out?
  2. Will he be 100 percent when he returns?

    Just because Ryan Braun is slated to be back by Opening Day from his back injury doesn't mean he'll steal 20 bases again this year.

  3. What kind of production can I expect in his place?

    Yu Darvish will be farther down everyone's cheat sheets than usual as he's slated to miss a month or so. But in a shallower league, where you're likely to have a productive pitcher to slot in his place, and one where you can stash players on the DL, he's worth a look in the middle rounds. When you add the replacement stats you get from streaming to Darvish's stats for the rest of the year (should he resemble his former self), he should be a difference-maker for you. In a deeper league where you'd lose out almost entirely on Darvish's missed starts (or where you can't stash him on the DL, and he clogs a roster spot), the cost of carrying him would be more significant, dropping his value a few rounds.

J. End Slots vs. Middle Slots – Earlier I broke down the draft into early, middle and late slots, but one could also break it down to "end slots," "middle slots" and "in between." In a 12-team league, the end slots would be picks 1, 2, 11 and 12. The middle would be 5-8, and the in-between would be 3, 4, 9 and 10. On the end slots, you pick twice in a row (or in the span of four picks), and then you wait a long time for the draft to get back to you. The advantage is that you can plan two picks at a time, and the disadvantage is you can miss out on long catcher or closer runs, as you're essentially waiting two rounds before you pick again. The middle slots are more likely to get in on positional runs, but have to wait an entire round after every pick. The "in between" slots have elements of both. There's no hard and fast rule about how to draft from the various slots, but it does very much affect the results.

One tip I'd have for the end slots is not to panic if you miss out on a run of good closers and simply take a mediocre one to make sure you get saves. Sometimes where you're slotted cuts you out of a certain strategy, and your best bet is to change course and take the best available player even if it's a starting pitcher, and you're already strong in pitching. Never be bullied into taking a player you think is a poor value at that slot. Instead, embrace your fate by taking the best player even if it costs you roster balance at the time. Admittedly this is a tougher call in no-trade leagues like the NFBC, but that just means you might have to jump into the closer pool earlier if you're on the ends.

2. Auction Strategy

While drafts are about being aggressive - more so even than you might be comfortable with - auctions are usually about patience and often excruciating discipline. While you can still target the players you like, you have to be willing to let them go when the bidding gets too high, and you have to be willing to wait as long as necessary for bargains to arrive (assuming the bargains aren't available early as is sometimes the case).

A. Mixed Leagues – Most mixed leagues are drafts, but when they're auctions, you need to realize how much higher replacement value is and therefore how much more valuable superstars are. Never use AL-only dollar values for your mixed-league auction. While Mike Trout might be a $42 player in AL-only leagues, he's worth closer to $48 in mixed ones as you need not fear rostering more $1 and $2 players in the mixed-league end game. Even players on the waiver wire often have full-time jobs in 14-team (or fewer) mixed leagues.

B. Only leagues – In only leagues, one can still buy superstars, but one must be much more careful about running out of money as even mid-level players like Jhonny Peralta and Adam Lind offer significant value over replacement. In only leagues, the freely available talent pool is nearly zero – the waiver wire has a few punchless back-up catchers, middle infielders, low-end No. 5 starters and middle relievers.

C. Agnostic vs. Genius – A few years ago, I wrote an article highlighting two different auction strategies: Agnostic and Genius. The former simply bids on players up to a certain profitable price point below market value and lets them go after that. If the bidding stops, he gets a player. If the bidding keeps going, he doesn't. The agnostic has no preference as to which players he acquires so long as they're a couple dollars cheaper than market value. He has no idea who he wants or who he'll wind up with - he lets the auction dictate that.

The "genius" believes he knows better than the market and will target certain players he believes to be undervalued and bid on them aggressively. He will also avoid certain players even if they come at a slight bargain. There are limits to the genius strategy, of course - if a target gets overbid to the point where all the likely profit is squeezed out, or if an unfavored player is so far below market value he's an obvious profit. But for the most part, if things go as expected, the genius will get his guys.

Most owners are a combination of the two approaches, both of which are viable. The key to doing both well is knowing when to let your target go and when to jump in on a player in whom you previously had no interest. It requires a grasp of player valuation and also a sense of the auction dynamics – what's left on the board and how players have been valued relative to one another thus far.

D. Nominating Players – When it's your turn to nominate, you should do one of two things: (1) Nominate a player you don't like or don't need, so you force other people to spend money on him; or (2) Nominate a player you like or need so you find out whether you can get him at a reasonable price, or need to let him go and move onto another target. I like to do the former typically as I want to get as much money off the table on other players, so the competition for my targeted players will be diminished.

E. Knowing the Player Pool – As your auction goes on, you'll be faced with many snap decisions requiring you to bid or drop out. In order to make the right choices, you'll need to know what's left in the player pool at the various positions, how much money you have left and how much money your competitors, who might be targeting similar players, have left.

F. Pre-planning/Slotting vs. Improvising – Some people slot themselves players of certain values, e.g., one $30 player, two $20 players, etc. Others want two big batting average players, one productive catcher, etc. Some owners make precise auction plans and other owners fly by the seat of their pants, grabbing bargains as they go and targeting players within a reasonable price range.

Personally, I'll take some ideas into the auction - for example, I felt batting average was undervalued in AL LABR in 2013, and I wanted to fill my offense with as many at-bats as possible. As such, I wound up with two productive catchers (Joe Mauer and Victor Martinez) both of whom hit for average. But I didn't have a rigid plan. I wanted Ichiro for batting average, too, but (fortunately) let him go when the bidding got to $20.

Even if you prefer to have a careful plan worked out, you'll always have to be somewhat flexible because you can't predict what other owners will do. Moreover, when a player is brought up can drastically alter his value, and no one knows who 12 different owners will bring up according to team needs at various times.

E. Budgeting - Middle and End Game – You have two goals with your money in an auction: (1) Spend all of it; and (2) Spend it judiciously so you acquire as many bargains as possible. These goals can run into conflict with one another as many owners wait forever for bargains that never arrive and leave money on the table, and others spend money too fast and are frozen out of the better deals that often come late in the auction.

The key is to have a good sense of player values and the depth of the player pool so you know when to pounce and when to keep your mouth shut even when you like a player and even when you can afford him.

One easy strategy is to buy 4-5 big-ticket players from $25-$40 early, spending two-thirds of your budget on proven commodities and then to hold your tongue for a couple hours until you're one of the owners with the most money left in the end game and use it to pick and choose carefully among the $1 - $10 players remaining. That way you ensure you've spent all your money, and you still have a chance to bargain hunt late. It can backfire if the biggest bargains are in the middle of the draft, but it's unlikely to sink you as you're not leaving money on the table, and you'll have some control over the end game.

F. End-game nominating strategy. – When you get down to the very end of the auction, you'll have tough nominating decisions. If you're down to $1 bids, you obviously have to choose players you like, lest you get stuck with someone you don't want. But by doing so you run the risk that someone with $2 takes them from you.

Even more tricky is when you're targeting a particular third baseman, for example, and have a few dollars left, when someone brings up the only other viable third baseman for $1. If you bid $2, you might get him, but then you won't have room for the player you're targeting. But if you don't bid $2, you'll miss out, and when your target comes up, someone might outbid you anyway, leaving you with an even worse option. (This actually happened to me in 2013 LABR as I was waiting on Scott Sizemore with my $2, passed on Wilson Betemit, got outbid on Sizemore later and wound up stuck with Pedro Ciriaco instead. Not that it mattered in the end.)

It helps to look at other people's rosters to see if they have more money than you and to check whether they need a third baseman, but often those owners need several players and don't particularly care for the player you're targeting anyway.

For this reason, it's sometimes worth nominating the player you hoped to get earlier, running the risk that someone will outbid you because at least you'll find out where you stand. If you're outbid, you know that ship has sailed, and you can move on to the next best player.

G. Keeping track of others' situations – As mentioned above, it's helpful in the end game to know who has what money left and what positional needs. It can inform whether you hold out for a target or cave in for a lesser option, knowing you probably won't get your targeted player anyway.

The downside of keeping track of everyone else's budget and roster is it's a distraction from the auction itself, and it's not always informative anyway – as sometimes owners with money are targeting other positions than you'd think, or simply have wildly different opinions than you about players.

Chris Liss
Chris Liss was RotoWire's Managing Editor and Host of RotoWIre Fantasy Sports Today on Sirius XM radio from 2001-2022.
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