The crack of the virtual bat and the sight of pristinely trimmed e-grass can only mean that fantasy baseball season is just a few days away*.
I have a checkered fantasy baseball past. While I’ve always had a knack for football, my baseball acumen isn’t quite up to the same lofty level. That said, my performance is disproportionately bad. The Gypsy Scholar League of which I am a member is a highly competitive league populated by professional writers and academics.** In fact, James Frey was a very strong member of the GSL up until a couple of years ago, when he had, uh, some other matters to which he had to attend.
I usually finish somewhere in the bottom half of the league. I had easily my best season ever in 2010, but still slumped down the stretch and finished only in fifth. This lack of success in baseball would frustrate me even more were it not for the fact that football season descends like a deus ex machina right around the time I cease being competitive in baseball (shortly after the all-star break). Since there may not be football this year, I know that I better give baseball a little more effort than I have in the past.
Yet, my gameplan will include almost zero preparation.
Why? My league is changing formats this season. For the first time ever in the long, illustrious history of the GSL, we’ll be using an auction rather than a standard snake draft.
I’ll provide the following recap of our auction draft in the hopes that it will be of some use to those of you who play fantasy baseball. One proviso: We’re an AL-only league. However, as you’ll see below, what I write is applicable to any auction league.
Since none of us had done an auction before in this league, we did a “test run” with an NL-only league on Yahoo. I learned several important things about auction drafts that day. Namley:
1. Don’t get caught “holding the bag.” Auction drafts are a lot like musical chairs. You don’t want to be standing up after the music stops. Feel free to bid Albert Pujols up to $60, but don’t be the guy who pays $65 for him unless you really want him.
2. Nominate wisely. There was an tendency by our members to nominate guys in the rough order in which they would have been picked in a snake draft. This isn’t necessary, and, in fact, is a bad strategy once you get past a few elite players (see below).
3. No more “runs.” Unlike a snake draft, wherein player scarcity will often drive the selection tendencies of a round or two, that’s not an issue with an auction. So, if the two players taken before it’s your turn to nominate were closers, don’t panic and try to overbid for a closer. This is one of the major advantages of auctions over snake drafts: If you pick tenth, and there are going to be fifteen more picks before your turn when the closer run begins, you’re more or less out of luck.
4. You can’t take it with you. While it’s important not to blow your money early, don’t hold back in later rounds. There’s no bonus for having money left over.
5. THE MOST IMPORTANT THING is that basic fiscal strategy and principles of game theory trump knowledge about players. I can’t emphasize this point enough. Yes, you need to know something about baseball. And, yes, you need to be up to speed on serious injuries. However, just understanding human behavior and simple math go even further than knowledge of player stats. In fact, I didn’t even buy a magazine this year.
With all of that in mind, my strategy coming into today’s auction was as follows:
1. Often nominate players I didn’t want, but whom I knew would be overpriced.
2. Bid players up, but be cautious in doing so unless I would feel good about having that guy on my team.
3. Make sure I got a couple of very productive hitters fairly early on, BUT . . .
4. In general, try to have an edge in money for the middle and later rounds so that my eighth-, ninth-, tenth-best players were significantly better than the rest of the league’s.
The fourth point is key. We have a $260 budget in our league, which I think is standard for Yahoo. Owners who have spent freely or overpaid early are going to be limited in their ability to get any players by the immutable laws of math once you get into the middle-to-late rounds. To wit, if you have $20 left to spend on ten players, you will be prevented by bidding more than $11 on any player. You can therefore pick up some very good (but not elite) players in the middle rounds for reasonable prices if you’re able to get your elite guys without paying too much.
Putting all of that into practice, take a look at the list of players I nominated in the early going. Most of these guys I had no intention of winning myself. My goal was to nominate them at a lowball price, drive the bidding up a bit, then force others to overpay to give myself a monetary advantage in the middle rounds. The first number is Yahoo’s “estimated value,” the second was my opening bid, and the third was what that player ultimately cost. Keep in mind that we have ten owners. Each of my nominations comes ten picks apart. Put another way, Hamilton was the 20th player taken, Upton the 50th, and so on. Bolded players wound up on my team.
1. Joakim Soria (RP, KC): $15 / $13 / $24
2. Josh Hamilton (OF, Tex): $38/ $37 / $37 (See below for explanation)
3. Justin Verlander (SP, Det): $19 / $24 / $36
4. Clay Bucholtz (SP, Bos): $7 / $8 / $22
5. B. J. Upton (OF, TB): $15 / $12 / $24
6. Josh Beckett (SP, Bos): $3 / $8 / $13
7. Mike Napoli (C/1B, Ana): $10 / $8 / $12
8. Nick Swisher (OF, NYY): $9 / $8 / $11
The Josh Hamilton one caught me a little by surprise. He was a player I definitely wanted, and I “overpaid” in the sense that no one even touched my opening bid of $37. However, I still got him at a bargain considering his projected value and production in 2010 (over .350 BA, league MVP). As I said, I wanted to make sure I got a couple of heavy-hitters early, and he was one of them.
I also wanted Bucholz, as indicated by my bidding up to $22. Keep in mind that, at the point at which I got Bucholz, I still had the most money remaining of any owner.
I would nominate players at a bid that approximated their projected value, get in on the bidding early, then back off and watch the war unfold. Most of the picks made by my fellow owners ranged from slightly overpriced to significantly overpriced. I was able to encourage speculative inflation by often using the nomination strategy of picking “name” players who had bad years last season.
I was far from perfect, however. I wound up being too “loyal” to my own strategy, finishing with far too much money in the last three nomination cycles. I failed on the “can’t take it with you” criteria. I do think I did pretty well in the middle-to-late rounds as I accumulated players upon which about half the league mathematically could no longer bid. Here’s a look at my final team, by draft order, with the price I paid and the overall pick number:
1 (#6 overall). Jose Bautista (3B/OF – Tor), $33
2 (#20). Josh Hamilton (OF – Tex), $37
3 (#40). Clay Bucholz (SP – Bos), $22
4 (#46). Carlos Santana (C – Cle), $18
5 (#72). Matt Capps (RP – Min), $14
6 (#73). Gordon Beckham (2B – CWS), $14
7 (#76). David Aardsma (RP – Sea), $12
8 (#80). Nick Swisher (OF – NYY), $11
9 (#81). Vlad Guerrero (OF – Bal), $13
10 (#90). Michael Cuddyer (1B/3B/OF – Min), $12
11 (#96). Rafael Soriano (RP – NYY), $8
12 (#98). Colby Lewis (SP – Tex), $16
13 (#101). Asdrubal Cabrera (SS – Cle), $8
14 (#102). John Lackey (SP – Bos), $12
15 (#116). Desmond Jennings (OF – TB), $2
16 (#140). Jim Thome (DH – Min), $3
17 (#151). Rick Porcello (SP – Det), $2
18. (#154). Jed Lowrie (2B/SS – Bos), $4
19. (#171). Jeff Niemann (SP – TB), $4
20. (#176). John Jaso (C – TB), $3
21. (#179). Tommy Hunter (SP – Tex), $3
22. (#187). Kevin Kouzmanoff (3B – Oak), $2
As I said, I think I had some missteps in the later rounds. Not so much in whom I took, but, rather, in not fully-utilizing my funds slightly earlier. On the other hand, I did extremely well in the area of the auction I had targeted as ripe for shoring up my team. I took ten of those thirty-one players from picks #72–#102. Of the ten, I think I underpaid for three or four, based on the “going rate” for comparable players among our owners. I think I got good value out of nine of the picks***. Picking up two closers and a third potential closer, along with two solid middle infielders, three potentially-good outfielders (albeit with injury concerns), and two quality starting pitchers (a high-strikeout guy and Boston’s number two starter) for a total of less than half my total budget constituted a successful implementation of the strategy.
I would also recommend a general strategy of having two players who play every position on your roster at all times. Baseball just has too many day-to-day, nagging injuries to justify carrying only one catcher, shortstop, etc. Furthermore, because baseball has such a unique and constant schedule, having flexibility in your lineup allows you to maximize potential each day. For example, if Oakland and Minnesota have games, but Toronto doesn’t, Kouzmanoff can play third and Cuddyer can play first.
Yes, this is a very basic point. But I can’t tell you the number of “games lost” even decent fantasy players have every year as a result of not being able to patch holes in their lineup on a daily basis.
I’ll conclude with a couple of obligatory sleeper picks in both leagues.
Gordon Beckham – I’m pretty sure this is either the dude from Wall Street or that guy who’s married to one of the Spice Girls. Either way, he’s 24, this is his third full season in the majors, and that often means a breakthrough year. He had a down season in 2010 thanks in part to some injuries, but I think he’ll bounce back to give you great value as a middle infielder, with something like 15 home runs and a .280 batting average.
Erik Bedard – Don’t waste an early pick on him (or a high auction bid), but Bedard is looking like he’s very much on-track to being back to the form he had pre-injury. He’s struck out ten batters in 10.2 innings of work in spring training, and there are no signs that he’s anything other than 100% healthy. He’ll also be eased into the Seattle rotation as the number four guy, so he should see some pretty favorable matchups during the early part of the year (albeit on a team that was horrendous offensively last year).
Drew Stubbs – I fully admit that I follow the NL only in passing before October. However, Stubbs is even more off my radar than most of the good players in the NL. But guess what? He was a 20 HR / 30 SB guys last year. He’ll be 26 this season, and may hit leadoff for a good Reds team.
Javier Vazquez – I know, I know. But hear me out. He was awful in 2010, but I always keep an eye out for players changing leagues. As an AL guy, I’m very wary of picking any player (especially pitchers) who were in the senior circuit the prior year. Movement the other way, however, is a great opportunity to get value out of a pick. I’m not saying Vazquez will suddenly be a 20-game winner for the Marlins. What I am saying is that I would not be surprised to see him shave about a run-and-a-half off of his atrocious ERA from last season. That still wouldn’t make him an elite pitcher, but it would make him someone worth picking up for fantasy purposes.
In closing, here’s a final bit of advice: Fantasy baseball always comes down to injuries. So, good luck with the crapshoot and enjoy the season! Especially since baseball may be the only major professional sport in operation come the fall. Play ball!