Focus on perfecting your process; don’t sweat the results.
The result of the 2016 League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) American League — a 12-team, American League-only auction league of industry analysts that has been around for more than 20 years — wasn’t decided until the final hours of the season. In the end, it was a Jefry Marte home run that made the difference; the resulting home run and RBI pushed the league’s eventual champion into third- and fourth-place ties in those categories, earning it one whole Rotisserie point — a half-point gain in each — and swinging its half-point deficit into a half-point lead (and ultimately its victory margin).
Congratulations to Larry Schechter, Marte’s owner and the 2016 LABR-AL champion. Unfortunately, this columnist fell short by that half-point, which elicits one proper response: You extend very hearty congratulations to the champ on a season well played and an enjoyable pennant race, you shrug your shoulders about your own team’s rough result and you refocus your efforts toward next year’s championship quest.
Besides, whatever amount the defeat might sting, I cannot complain: Another team of mine, this one from our in-house fantasy baseball league, benefited from a similarly unexpected twist and turn.
The difference there was an Alex Colome blown save that his Tampa Bay Rays quickly reversed and turned into a win for their closer that moved another team into a third-place tie in wins, stealing a half-point from yet another team, dropping that team out of a tie for the title and resulting in a half-point victory for mine. (Incidentally, dozens of fantasy baseball owners have chimed in during the offseason about their own league championships having been decided by the Colome blown save-turned-win. There’s nothing quite like a great title-chase story.)
This is the awesomeness of fantasy baseball: Every individual play has the potential to swing a result. The season spans 2,430 games, which equates to roughly 21,870 innings and 184,000 individual plays, which presents a lot of opportunity for random variance to take hold, be it on a macro — such as when No. 2 catcher in ADP (average draft position) Kyle Schwarber tore his ACL and LCL just two games and 7⅔ innings played into the season — or micro — besides the above two examples, another was when No. 3 starting pitcher on the ESPN Player Rater Jon Lester allowed eight consecutive New York Mets to reach base in the second inning of a July 3 start en route to nightmarish 1 1/3-inning, eight-run stat line — level.
These unexpected results represent the “noise” a successful fantasy baseball owner needs to ignore, disappointments that have no bearing on the decision-making process.
After all, we have absolutely no right whatsoever to expect a damned thing from our fantasy baseball teams. The truth is that even a perfectly crafted process is subject to unraveling by entirely fluky results and that one can only expect to be right a little more often than 60 percent of the time.
That’s not to say there aren’t potential lessons to be learned, both from our defeats as well as victories, but it’s all about setting our teams up to win and hoping things break on the right side of that 60 percent.
I attribute a fine-tuned process to having won five experts league titles, which included three consecutive Tout Wars championships from 2012-14 and two LABR titles. Once that “W” popped up beside Colome’s name in the digital box score on the evening of Oct. 2, I began my preparations for my 2017 title run.
Come join me on the journey.
“I am going to win my league”
By the literal definition of this statement, I’m a big, fat liar. I won neither LABR nor Tout Wars last season — and in the latter, I didn’t even come close.
Again, past results are irrelevant to this part of the process. Each new season is a blank slate, and this introductory rule determines your mindset. Scoff at my 2016 results or laugh this whole section off as “rah-rah,” Zen-like nonsense, but I can promise you on Oct. 1 when the final results are tallied and you’re sitting in sixth place wondering, “Gee, what went wrong,” a big reason might well be your lack of belief in the opening rule. Oh, you might nab a league title every now and then while laughing off this section, but the best players — year-over-year title contenders — believe they’re always going to win.
Why else would you play? Sure, “for fun,” but isn’t winning the most fun? If you’re only playing to pass the time, then this isn’t the column for you. You’re here because you plan to win, so repeat Rule No. 1 before we go any further: I am going to win my league.
You’re going to get some things wrong — so will I
That 60 percent success rate on calls might be all you need to win your league. I prefer to set a more aggressive bar and recommend you do too: 65 percent.
That 5 percent edge is often the difference between being oh-so-close and the champion, and it’s that teeny-tiny edge, that one small step ahead of your competition, that one useful piece of information you have that they don’t, that’s paramount.
As I do annually, I compared my 2016 rankings to the results — we’ll use the Player Rater — at season’s end to get a handle on how realistic meeting this measure. The first two columns provide the total number and percentage of “draft-worthy” players in a standard ESPN mixed league in my estimation who earned that status; this means the top 250 ranked players who finished among the top 250 on the final Player Rater. The final two columns provide the total number and percentage of “draft-worthy” players who were almost perfectly projected; this means the top 250 ranked players who finished no more than 50 spots away from their rankings on the Player Rater.
That 64.2 percent number illustrates two things: One, it establishes my historical success rate on picks, and two, it shows that — even if you swing it a few percentage points in either direction depending on how good you are at the prediction game — no one has any right to expect much more than 60 percent of your production to come from your draft-day roster. That’s how important in-season management is, at least in a mixed league format like ESPN’s standard game.
For some specifics, since I believe in accountability with predictions, here are a few of the notable calls I got right:
Alex Colome will have twice as many saves as anyone else in the Rays’ bullpen, and he’ll finish among the top 30 relief pitchers on the Player Rater.
And here are a few of the notable calls I got horribly, horribly wrong:
Even after his record-setting seven home runs in his first six big-league games, Trevor Story will be neither a top-100 overall player nor top-10 shortstop in fantasy. (Take your pick on any Story-related prediction of mine, column- or podcast-wise, but I wasn’t a big buyer even after his opening-week outburst.)
The American League’s Rookie of the Year race will be a runaway, won by Byron Buxton, who will display elite defense, 30-steal speed and 15-homer power.
Yasiel Puig will win the National League’s Most Valu … kidding, kidding, I can’t go back there, but Puig will rebound for his first 25-homer season and a top-10 outfielder finish on our Player Rater. (One of these years I’ll get the Puig call correct.)
What was the common thread with these predictions? They all represented strong opinions on the individual players, yet formulated on supporting evidence. It’s something I annually encourage: Feel free to take a stand, so long as you’ve done the requisite research. Do not be afraid to be wrong.
After all, it’s your team.
Position scarcity is overrated
Prepare to hear much chatter this preseason regarding position scarcity, especially in light of the ever-thinning catcher pool which was headlined by Gary Sanchez‘s 20-homers-in-53-games hot streak during the final weeks of the 2016 season.
If it’s not chasing young players with upside or trying too hard to uncover the next big thing, the greatest source of wasted draft-day resources might be owners overpaying for perceived “position scarcity.” We think of first base as a super-deep position but second base a precariously thin position, mainly because we’ve heard them characterized that way for so long. Long-held perceptions, though, are a poor way to judge.
To better determine the relative depth at a position, consider running your projections through a dollar valuation system with the players’ eligible positions stripped; this would be the equivalent of having 14 DH/utility spots rather than the traditional arrangement. Then, separate players into their respective positions, taking care to maximize values when assigning multi-position qualifiers to specific spots, and examine things like the total value accrued by each position as well as the value of a “replacement level” — the first at each position to fall short of a projected starting lineup spot — player.
Even better: Ask me to do it with my own projections. Here’s a snapshot, with the data encompassing the 10-team mixed league ESPN standard format.
Total projected positional earnings method — this is the total dollar earning of every player from that position projected to be drafted to a starting lineup:
Bearing in mind that outfield has the most allocated spots, scaling its per-player earnings to only 15 players, the minimum number from each of first, second, third base and shortstop who project to occupy an active lineup spot, would result in a total of $192.39. That’d place it second, behind first base.
Earnings-per-player method — this is the average value of every player from that position projected to warrant a lineup spot:
“Replacement level” method — this identifies the dollar earning of the top-projected player at the position who would be drafted to your bench/left to the free-agent list:
Another key takeaway: More second basemen and shortstops — five total, or four from second base and one from shortstop — projected to warrant your DH/utility spot than outfielders (3), first basemen (0), third basemen (0) or catchers (0). That eases the sting of second base having a negative-earning replacement value in the example above, as more players were drawn from that position, forcing replacement level down.
A case could be made, then, that a “replacement level” player is relatively close, and at worst within $2, in value at every position except catcher. That bolsters the case for buying the best players regardless of position rather than investing additional resources at “weaker” positions in an attempt to avoid absorbing negative value; replacement levels in a mixed league are simply not as damaging in the middle infield than they might have been in the past.
As for catcher, one of the reasons for the much-lower total and replacement-level values is that catchers typically accumulate fewer plate appearances than hitters at other positions. The defensive wear and tear, as well as MLB teams’ increasing focus on defensive metrics such as pitch framing, certainly contributes. Though there’s an advantage to avoiding negative earners at the position, the top catchers’ contributions simply aren’t enough to warrant paying exorbitant amounts to acquire them.
In short, Buster Posey might earn $12.32 in a 10-team standard ESPN mixed if he meets my projection, but it’s not worth paying much more than a $3-4 premium to secure his services, and that’s only because of his high level of consistency. Other catchers don’t warrant more than an additional $1-2 — you can see my auction prices in my rankings — because you’d potentially be throwing resources at players with more flaws than comparably priced players from other positions. In an ESPN standard league, it makes quite a bit of sense to wait until your final pick to take your catcher, at least if your competition is addressing the position at or earlier than ADP.
I’ve projected Posey for just 570 plate appearances, after all, which is at least 100 fewer than other top players from the other field positions.
As far as scarce positions are concerned in deeper leagues, middle infield — not specifically second base or shortstop, but middle infield, or the 10-12 players required after those starting positions are full — in AL-only leagues is thinner than usual this season, while outfield — likely your fourth and fifth as well as your DH/utilityman — is somewhat thin in NL-only leagues. Those are two rare spots at which it’s worth tossing the extra dollar or two in order to avoid dipping into the replacement-level pool.
Another misstep I commonly see among fantasy owners is reliance upon historical, statistical benchmarks. For example: “He’s a 30-homer candidate.”
The problem with stat-specific benchmarks, however, is that they fail to account for the league’s environment at the given time. Last season, Major League Baseball enjoyed a single season-record home run rate (3.0 percent of all players’ combined trips to the plate), while the 5,610 total homers hit were second behind only 2000’s 5,692 — and keep in mind the latter year fell within what we now term the “steroid era.”
Returning to that 30-homer example, a whopping 38 hitters reached that threshold in 2016, only seven shy of the number to do it in the three years prior (45 from 2013-15 combined) and the most in a single year since 41 did it in 2001 (again falling within the “steroid era”). Lowering the bar, a record 111 hitters hit at least 20 homers in 2016, diminishing the value of a “20-homer candidate.”
This is also how phrases like “40 homers is the new 30” are born, and if you’re talking about the historical record, you’d be correct: Forty home runs in 2016 were indeed worth exactly 30.6 just two years prior (2014), using Player Rater valuations, which account for ESPN’s standard 10-team mixed league settings.
For a player-specific example, Mark Trumbo‘s major league-leading 47 home runs last season were 15 percent less valuable using Player Rater valuations than they would have been if hit in 2015.
With homers on the rise, the trend that didn’t seem to capture similar attention was the steep decline in stolen bases the past two seasons. The 2016 season, in fact, saw the lowest rate of stolen-base attempts per game since 1975 (0.729 per game). This has continued to create a scarcity of speed, and whereas a 30-homer performance was roughly equal in value to 30 steals just three short seasons ago (2014), it was worth 23.4 steals in 2015 and just 21.6 in 2016.
This is why all five players who stole at least 40 bases last season managed to finish among the Player Rater’s top 80 players overall, despite the fact that none of them hit as many as 20 home runs. It is also the reason that speedsters like Trea Turner, Jonathan Villar, Billy Hamilton and Dee Gordon are so generously ranked, despite the fact that all of them feel like players you’d want to draft two to three rounds later.
This means your strategy filling stolen bases is paramount, while all-or-nothing power hitters like Chris Davis, Chris Carter, Adam Duvall and Brandon Moss are much less attractive draft-day targets than they might have been even two years ago.
Where have all the workhorses gone?
On the pitching side, the increasing specialization of the game is making quality innings all the more precious. Last season, only 15 pitchers tallied at least 200 innings, easily the fewest in any non-strike year during the 162-game era, and fewer pitchers completed the seventh inning of a game than in any other year in history (including strike years). Only 23 percent of starts lasted at least seven frames.
Remarkably though, the Player Rater value of a strikeout or win scarcely changed despite this decline in starters’ workloads. Strikeouts, in fact, have remained almost identical in value for nine consecutive seasons.
It’s ERA and WHIP where values have swung significantly. Here are the closest ERA-qualified pitchers in either category to being “replacement level” using Player Rater valuations in the past three seasons:
2014: Shelby Miller, 3.74 ERA, 183 IP; Brandon McCarthy, 1.275 WHIP, 200 IP.
2015: Chris Heston, 3.95 ERA, 177 2/3 IP; Jeff Samardzija, 1.294 WHIP, 214 IP.
2016: Ivan Nova, 4.17 ERA, 162 IP; Hisashi Iwakuma, 1.327 WHIP, 199 IP.
For those wondering how Clayton Kershaw was able to manage a No. 7 overall finish despite making only 21 starts, here’s your reason: He produced career bests in terms of ERA (1.69) and WHIP (0.725) in a year in which the league’s numbers in both categories saw a significant rise. Kershaw is a good example of the adjustment we need to make accordingly: It’s the quality, not quantity, of innings that matter.
Chances are, you’re going to need to use a larger number of different pitchers to fill your season’s pitching spots — whether a daily or weekly transaction league — so don’t be afraid to take riskier options with the ability to give you elite production when available. If there was any year to do it, this is the year to take chances on Yu Darvish, Stephen Strasburg, Danny Salazar, Rich Hill, Steven Matz, Aaron Nola and Lance McCullers.
Cheat, cheat I say! CHEAT!!!
There’s absolutely nothing more vital to your fantasy baseball success than your draft-day cheat sheet. Nothing. I’ve played in several hundred leagues over the years that have had live drafts or auctions, and every single one of them shared a common trait: The league’s eventual champion used some sort of customized cheat sheet.
Feel free to pick your format — hardcopy or digital; basic or thoroughly detailed; big type or itty-bitty Times New Roman in 4-point type — make this the most important step in your draft-day preparation process. You can download our rankings that best fit your league or enter your league’s specifications in our Custom Dollar Value Generator to create yours, but for the best results, include your own adjustments to suit your own player preferences.
I prefer a hardcopy cheat sheet with lots of detail. Don’t get me wrong, I’m also that guy who brings his laptop to the draft or auction, but it’s there to track my competition’s rosters and available budget, not to manage my list of available players (though I do often have a digital backup copy of it). It’s much easier to navigate the player pool off a printed sheet — quickly crossing off names and/or jotting down notes — than it is to delete or highlight lines and type in notes.
Computers also come with an inherent risk: Catastrophic crashes and loss of data, which is a potential mid-draft disaster.
My cheat sheets always separate players into their eligible positions — one position per page (multi-eligible players included at every one of their positions) — and contain the following columns: Player name; team; auction dollar value; dollars earned the previous year; dollars paid the previous year (if applicable); basic projections (generally the categories counted by the league); and a column simply titled “Notes.”
Always include dollar values on your cheat sheet, whether your league is auction or draft format, and price players in both dollars and cents. If this seems too time-consuming, remember that we have a Custom Dollar Value Generator that does all the work for you, leaving you no excuse.
The reason this helps for drafts is that placing a specific price on a player helps quickly identify value tiers within a particular position. It also helps provide a reference point between two players at different positions, as a $14.17 Chris Davis will look like the much more obvious pick than a $12.58 Alex Bregman with prices included, despite the fact that Davis is my No. 13 first baseman, while Bregman is my No. 10 third baseman.
Since projections are a critical step in the process, feel free to manually adjust any you see fit after you run your league’s specs through our Dollar Generator. But if you’re truly hard-core — as I am, and I always go this route — craft your own projections and enter them into a dollar value calculator (or create your own). They’re out there; you just need to be handy with web searches. I do stand behind our Dollar Generator, however, and run every league in which I play through it beforehand.
Those creating their own dollar values must remember to account for every dollar available in the auction. This means that if you play in a 10-team league that uses a $260 cap — that’s the recommended amount I would use if your league uses a draft format, as it is the most common — your total player prices must equal $2,600.
Determine the percentage of your total budget that you plan to spend on hitters and pitchers beforehand. The majority of leagues will spend roughly 65 to 70 percent on hitting, with experts leagues being notorious for having a higher percentage spent on hitting and more casual leagues tending to spend more on pitching. In the 2017 LABR leagues, the American League-only league spent 68.7 percent of its funds on hitting, while the National League-only one spent 71.3 percent. We use 65 percent as the default percentage in the Dollar Generator, but I’d suggest 68 as a fair across-the-board number.
If you use 68 percent, be aware that in addition to your total players equaling $2,600 in value in the previous example, your hitters must total $1,768 in value.
What about that “Notes” column? It’s a great place to jot down any quick reference point for during your draft: Strategic and/or nomination plans; high-ceiling or low-floor players; last-ditch targets at a certain position; players you know an opponent might overvalue; reminders; or anything else. But keep them short! You don’t need to be restarting your draft preparation at the table.
Some examples of my notes for this year:
For Tom Murphy: “A catcher I’d want in standard; high ceiling, low floor, easy to replace in-season, if need be.”
For Jurickson Profar: “OF-only, but has a shot at an IF elig., and if not, he might play vs. RHP in LF.”
For Raisel Iglesias (my local points league with SP/RP designations): “In a weak year for closers with SP eligibility, Iglesias is one to get; bump up a couple bucks.
For Carlos Martinez: “Here’s where SP drops off; try hard to get one from here up.”
Tristan’s winter calendar
The “offseason” doesn’t exist.
The “championship season” — this is Major League Baseball’s term for what we call the regular season, and I think it’s a pretty apt one for fantasy purposes too — is a 183-day, or 26-week, or six-month, marathon with minimal respite.
The other half of the calendar represents draft-prep season, during which time news constantly affects player value, generally at least one major happening per week and usually several dozen during the peak of the Hot Stove season (usually leading into, during and immediately after the winter meetings). The news only accumulates during these six months, and it is your prerogative how frequently you wish to keep up with them and make necessary adjustments. If you wish to harken back to your college days and cram with an all-nighter on the eve of your draft, feel free, but I don’t recommend it.
Here’s my winter calendar. Feel free to make whatever scheduling adjustments you wish, though don’t forget any of the key elements.
October: Rest (two or three days), review, revel in playoff baseball.
Being realistic, the vast majority of us play fantasy football, a sport that arrives at a most inconvenient time for us fantasy baseballers. To a lesser extent, fantasy hockey, with an opening night often within a couple of days of baseball’s regular-season conclusion, also falls into this department. Even for a full-time fantasy baseball and fantasy football writer such as myself, what might’ve been 75 hours’ worth of attention on the former during the season’s early stages must dip to 50 or perhaps even 25 during the peak fantasy football draft weeks of late August and early September. Some fantasy baseball owners, especially those already out of contention, allow that number to dip to zero. That’s why October — a few weeks into the fantasy football season, when trades and add/drops are your focus — is an ideal time to rest (for those who didn’t fully tune out), review (for those who did) and enjoy the usually exciting playoff baseball.
November: Winter player analysis.
This is the best time of year to do initial player research, once all the games, including the playoffs, are in the books. During this stage, I’m examining every possible piece of a player’s skill set and statistical performance seeking an edge, jotting down notes on every possibly relevant player for the upcoming season into a file I call my “Playbook.” It is the most important ingredient for my championship quests.
For example, this research stage is where I discovered Jose Ramirez‘s high floor and likelihood to repeat his 2016 breakthrough. A telling stat: He improved his contact rate in each of the past two seasons, culminating in a career-best 89 percent in 2016, and 91 percent after the All-Star break, and he did it while also decreasing his ground ball rate in each of those two years.
December: Transaction reactions.
This sometimes bleeds into November and often into January and February, as well, just as the winter player analysis process can extend backward into October while always continuing until Opening Day. But it’s December during which we’re most often to witness the greatest volume of player transactions, because it’s the month of the annual MLB winter meetings. Mid-December — or roughly the week after the aforementioned meetings — is an excellent time to do a roundup of all the significant transactions and adjust your player values accordingly.
For example, Kendrys Morales‘ decision to sign with the Toronto Blue Jays was a significant boon to his power potential, as he left one of the worst ballparks for power in Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium to one of the better ones in Toronto’s Rogers Centre. In his two seasons with the Royals, Morales saw 4 percent more of his fly balls clear the fence during his road games than in his home games.
January: Projections (if applicable) and rankings.
Yes, I traditionally publish my first set of the next season’s rankings at the conclusion of the previous season, then I keep them updated regularly throughout the offseason; but January is the month during which these rankings crystallize. This is a stage of the winter during which transactions tend to slow, and it’s also a time when ESPN’s best minds are sharing thoughts on players that could further educate and refine some of my own player thoughts, as we prepare our projections, player profiles and columns.
February: Track spring news and identify the players you’re questioning.
Spring games begin, but before that, it’s a good idea to quickly craft your list of players you would like to track, whether it’s watching live games or merely reading beat reporters’ stories about their progress. One place to quickly keep account of your players’ news is on our ESPN Fantasy Player News feed.
What you don’t want to get caught up in is the annual rash of mid-February “I’m in the best shape of my life” comments from players. Instead, what you’re looking for is information on Michael Brantley‘s health; the Cincinnati Reds‘, Los Angeles Angels‘ and Washington Nationals‘ closer battles; and whether Jason Heyward has fixed the issues with his swing that caused his horrible 2016 campaign.
March: Track draft trends, watch spring games and finalize draft sheets.
Spring games can be another pitfall — at least the statistical portion of them. Remember, many spring stats are accrued against low-level minor league competition — players who have no chance whatsoever of gracing a major league roster in that given year, or perhaps in the next one, either. There’s no greater example of this than Nick Ahmed‘s .433 batting average and 50 total bases during the 2016 Cactus League season.
Spring stats are only relevant when they illustrate a specific skills change by the player. For example, strikeout-to-walk ratios might matter for pitchers, if they’re vastly different from their past years’ numbers, as they could indicate a change in either pitch selection, velocity or movement. Felix Hernandez, for example, might be worth tracking during his spring starts to determine whether he can recapture some of his lost velocity or make some other adjustment to compensate for it.
Mid-March is also the time that ADPs (average draft positions) firm up. It’s always a good idea to check the “7-day trend” column to identify market changes, and it’s wise, as well, to collect the ADP data as a whole and compare it to your own cheat sheet to find outliers. For example, Matt Shoemaker‘s ADP will almost assuredly finish 200th or later, but in my rankings, I grade him a good four rounds better. I know I’ve got good odds of acquiring him, but I might even be able to wait a little longer to draft him than where I valued him.
I can’t stress it enough: Value, value, value
Don’t get cute on draft day.
Everyone seems to think you have to have a creative strategy in order to win your fantasy baseball league, but most of the time, that’s merely forcing it. Here’s the best strategy: Draft value. Period.
This is why process is so important. If you did your homework and have detailed projections, rankings and dollar values, drafting value is easy. This is why I say it’s your team; you can bring someone else’s cheat sheet to the draft — even ours — but then you’re selecting ESPN’s ideal fantasy baseball team. If you don’t agree with something we’ve written, then change it!
In an auction, try to get every player for no more than your listed price, while aggressively pursuing any player up until $1 to $2 beneath his price, with some exceptions, depending upon how wide his potential range of outcomes. Don’t overbid, except for the very best players in the game, and even then, if you’ve crafted a proper projection, then there’s no reason to exceed your price points.
In a draft, try not to dig more than one to two rounds beneath your highest available players, except in instances of positions becoming more rapidly scarce. Again, if you’ve valued players properly, you shouldn’t stray too far from your sheet. But there’s no reason to draft Jose Abreu to a team as your DH/utility when you took Paul Goldschmidt and Edwin Encarnacion in the first two rounds, not if Trevor Story is on the board and it’s the sixth round. The same applies to stolen bases, where you’re in the greatest danger of getting cornered into having to overspend on single-category speedsters like Jarrod Dyson, Travis Jankowski or Mallex Smith.
It’s those late-round picks that are often the source of the best bargains, especially since in many drafts, that’s the stage when your competition is most likely to be focusing attention on what’s after the draft. We’re human, after all. Grab an extra cup of coffee and focus as hard on your 25th-round pick as your first-rounder.
Consistency, focus and readiness: These are central to your process.
And with a little luck — keeping things on the 65 percent side — you’re going to get the right result: a league championship.
Best of luck to you this season.