Fantasy Baseball 101: Drafting to Win in H2H, Auction, and Rotisserie Leagues
In today’s column, instead of trying to get too flashy with stat projections, player rankings, mock drafts, or sleeper projections (not to say these are unimportant fantasy tools, as this is untrue), we’re going back to basics. I know the classroom isn’t the most popular place to be on a Friday afternoon as we all have our minds on the weekend, but it is important to get this memo out there as more and more people near their fantasy baseball drafts for the ever-nearing 2011 season.
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Some of us like to overestimate our abilities, or take success to our heads if we get a good find in our fantasy baseball drafts. For example, let’s say you ended up with Josh Hamilton in 2008 or Joey Votto in 2010. First, you most likely won that your fantasy league in those years making picks like that, and also, because you struck gold and got something like a 10000000% return on investment from these players, there’s also a pretty good chance that in prior drafts, you expected your sleeper picks to be sure things rather than crapshoots.
Then you can start reaching on guys whom you think are way better than they actually are. Not that it’s a bad thing to be confident in your guys, but you need to examine your fantasy sleepers objectively, which can be hard to do once you draft them, because you always want to look on the bright side of things with your own players. But let’s be real. Desmond Jennings is pretty good, but is he going to be the next Carl Crawford right away? Jake Arrieta may be a high upside pitcher, but is he the next Roy Halladay? With all due respect to these two players, the answer is probably not.
When I break this post down into three sections to illustrate how to dominate your competition in the three different league set-ups, the gambits and strategies will start to get pretty different, but no matter what kind of fantasy baseball you’re playing, the easiest way to win is to keep this one common idea in mind: the key to victory rests in a proper valuation of your players, which applies to everything from the draft, to the waiver wire, to trades. Everything.
How to dominate your Head-to-Head draft:
The saying that you don’t win leagues on draft day may be fully true, but that doesn’t mean you can’t win drafts. The key to doing this in a H2H league is simple, but many don’t figure it out. However, the key does vary based on league settings. If you have a fixed free agent budget or weekly-set rosters, you need to focus a bit more on pitching than on offense, because there are always plenty of serviceable hitters riding a hot streak on waivers during the season. As we all know, more supply means a lower price, and with pitching, the inverse is true. While there are always breakout pitchers during the year, pitching will always come at a premium, so if you have a free agent budget, priority waivers, or weekly rosters, you need to make sure you have enough pitching in the tank to “live off your fat,” so to speak, in case you can’t add enough pitching in-season.
But since most H2H leagues feature daily lineup changes, we’ll focus more on that format. In the early rounds, the key to victory is offense, offense, offense. Many people like to take an ace pitcher or two in the earlier rounds of the draft, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it will cost those people a cornerstone bat or two. While there admittedly a lot of serviceable hitters available mid-season, very few of them, if any, are going to be able to carry your offense. This is what the first five rounds are for. Spend at least your first four of you first five picks on the best hitters out there, focus more on filling out your offense with good players even as you build up your pitching staff, and don’t look back. Offense is the most predictable category in fantasy baseball, and if you follow this strategy, barring injuries your offense will be dominant. The key to compensating for being thinner on starting pitching is simply to improvise by playing matchups on the free agent wire. All you need to do is fortify your existing core group of starters with a couple of free agent starters every week who are looking at very favorable matchups. It is a foolproof key to victory, yet not enough people follow this blueprint. If you put the effort into maintaining a pitching staff like this and your team stays healthy, you almost can’t lose.
When it comes to relief pitching, it is important to grab one of the top tier closers in the draft, but don’t fret if you don’t end up being deep at the position. As many of last year’s owners of Jon Broxton and Jonathan Papelbon will tell you, being considered a top tier player at a position as volatile as relief pitcher is still no guarantee of anything, and every year there are always several relief pitchers who go undrafted, become closers in Spring Training or midseason, and evolve into fantasy studs while racking up 30-40 saves just like the higher rated guys. Last year the biggest two guys under this category were Matt Capps and John Axford, for example. Since the elite closers go anywhere from round 7 to round 9, you’re better off using the pick on something else unless you’re picking up Mariano Rivera or Brian Wilson.
A helpful tidbit to some would be to keep in mind that the season ERA or batting average is not as important to focus on in this kind of draft. A player might finish with a 3.00 ERA or .300 batting average at the end of the year, but an ERA or batting average will vary greatly from week-to-week, so keep in mind that having a bunch of low-ERA starters or high-batting average hitters doesn’t guarantee consistent success in those categories.
One last little bit of strategy to keep in mind, you need to think about position scarcity. Say you have Joe Mauer at catcher, are looking for a top, top shelf starting pitcher, and have to choose between Francisco Liriano, Yovani Gallardo, or Zack Greinke. Those are all very good pitchers, but if Brian McCann is also available, you would be better served to take McCann. Why? Because production is scarce at catcher, and if you take Liriano, Gallardo, or Greinke, that’s what you get. But if you take McCann, you either got another stud to boost your offense, or you can trade him to someone who wants an upgrade at catcher and get multiple players and get even more value. Remember, value is everything in fantasy.
How to dominate your Rotisserie draft:
There may be a good number of people out there who don’t believe this, but the idea behind drafting for rotisserie is not nearly as different from H2H as some would have you believe. There are typically just ten stats involved: batting average, runs, home runs, RBI, stolen bases, ERA, wins, saves, WHIP, and strikeouts. Roto essentially gives you points for having the best stats possible in comparison to the rest of your league, but nobody can win every category. The key is zeroing in on the stats that you want to win and draft to win those stats. I suggest focusing on home runs, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP. The easiest way to focus on and win these stats is by going after power hitters, ace starters, and set up pitchers. You can ignore saves and dominate ERA, strikeouts, and WHIP with your aces (do not draft any mid tier starters) and middle relievers, while you won’t be hurting in wins. On offense, you will dominate home runs if you stick with power hitters, and the more clever among us will remember that each home run also counts as an RBI (or multiple RBI) and a run. You can add speed later in the draft by getting a couple one tool, 40 stolen base players, or draft a bunch of mixed-tool players who are capable of stealing 10 bases each, and you will be in the middle of the pack in stolen bases.
It is imperative in rotisserie style leagues to stay away from high-WHIP or low-batting average players. While these sort of average stats can vary from week-to-week and the total stats aren’t as crucial to pay attention to in H2H leagues, in Roto you need to maximize your chance to win by focusing on guys who don’t kill you in these departments. This is where one tool middle infielders and outfielders who can only really offer steals and average, or middle relievers come in. When focusing on middle relievers, it is best to zero in on guys who have a chance to become closers, who offer tiny ERA and WHIP numbers and gaudy strikeouts. They will help you win your league, for sure.
How to dominate your auction draft:
In your typical 5-by-5, 10 team auction draft on ESPN, you start out with a budget of $260. As wacky as it sounds, spend at least $190-$200 on offense. My new favorite league style is an auction rotisserie setup, which means that to nail that previous rotisserie strategy I outlined in the previous section, all you need to do is get the right offensive players. While ESPN cheat sheets do provide suggested dollar values next to players, that by no means suggests that you should not pay more than that amount for the player in question.
For example, if Albert Pujols is up for auction and has a dollar value of say, $35, there is going to be some intense bidding because he is pretty much the best hitter in the game today. That doesn’t mean drop out of the bidding once it reaches $35, and the price is only significant during the draft. Just make sure you don’t commit too large a percentage of your budget to too few an amount of players. Sure, it is a nice luxury to be able to bypass the constraints of a normal snake draft and get Pujols, Evan Longoria, and Ryan Braun, but you’ll soon find after doing that that you’ve tied up nearly $100 in just three players, which means the rest of your roster will be filled out with significantly less talent. Yes, you can use the auction system to your advantage, but if you get too luxurious too early, you’ll be hurting in the end.
Also, the problem of scarcity reappears with a greater magnitude in the auction format. For most players, barring impulse-driven bidding wars over real stud players, prices are naturally kept low at the deeper positions, while players at weak positions will come at a premium price. You may not feel the need to shell out $20 in your auction for an outfielder who can hit 20/20, but for middle infielders like Dustin Pedroia, Ian Kinsler, Troy Tulowitzki, and Chase Utley, who offer lethal power/speed combos at thin positions, their price will escalate quickly. However, at thin positions like shortstop and catcher, you need to be prepared to overpay if you want to have production from these spots in your lineup.
Some people in auction drafts like to kick back and relax, letting everyone else spend their money while they wait to have an empty salary cap while most other players need to resort to paying a couple dollars per player, but this is not anywhere near as efficient as it seems. I mean, late in auction drafts there are some stud players who have yet to be put up for bid, but not enough to warrant going the first 100 selections or so with a small handful or no picks. In the end, this causes inflation in player value as the teams who take this approach have more money chasing less talent, making all players more expensive for everyone.
While traditional fantasy draft mentality will have you fretting for a lot of the draft because of your lack of pitching, it will be hard not to feel good about your team at the end of the draft. Having just wrapped up an auction rotisserie league draft, I can show you how the final roster shakes out with this strategy:
C- Geovany Soto $9
1B- Albert Pujols $40
2B- Brian Roberts $10
3B- David Wright $30
SS- Yunel Escobar $1
Corner Inf- Kevin Youkilis $24
Middle Inf- Aaron Hill $9
OF- Adam Jones $13, Josh Hamilton $25, Jay Bruce $18, Carlos Quentin $11, Mike Stanton $14
UTL- Justin Morneau $18
P- Ryan Dempster $5, Mariano Rivera $11, Brett Myers $6, Edinson Volquez $4, Luke Gregerson $1, Huston Street $5, Dan Bard $1, Rafael Soriano $1, Gio Gonzalez $1
Bench- Jose Tabata $1, Jonny Venters $1, Reid Brignac $1
Budget left- $0
It may not look like the most well-rounded team, with all of the roster’s strength coming from the lineup, but with proper management this team can be taken to first place. Staying true to my strategy, I for the most part neglected stolen bases and saves (not entirely, but for the most part), only jumping on Mariano Rivera because of his value relative to other closers who were going for closer to $20 a pop. The starting pitching is by no means “good” in the traditional sense, but it is serviceable and should provide the things I need out of a staff: good WHIP, good strikeout numbers, and at the very minimum, an ERA I can live with. Nothing flashy, but like I said, with streamed pitchers and proper lineup management, this team can be a juggernaut.
Wins and steals will definitely be the weak points of this team, but this is offset by the fact that I have a lineup full of hitters who will give me a bunch of home runs, and with it a boatload of runs and RBI. That’s three stats right there, and at the very worst my team should be in the middle of the pack in batting average. My group of relievers will help me excel in ERA and WHIP, and despite my lack of starting depth I can probably finish in the middle of the pack in strikeouts, while saves shouldn’t be a problem with Rivera, Street, and Venters in the fold.
So out of 10 categories, that’s 2 that my team is pretty much guaranteed to be deficient in, 5 I should be at or near the top of the pack in, and 2 that I should be around the middle. This is how you win rotisserie baseball. I hate to act so sure of myself, but you can take this to the bank.