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Back to Basics: Draft Strategy 101

Draft Strategy 101 Part 2

There is no one-size-fits-all strategy that will automatically win you any league.  Any strategy can be effective if enough research is put into it, the right picks are made, and the team is actively managed throughout the season.  I’ve seen leagues won with all sorts of different draft strategies and management styles used to construct and run the team, but they almost always implemented some form of the general draft strategy principles I will outline.

In this series, I’ll be covering in detail many of the factors you should consider when putting together your draft strategy.  A lot of this stuff may be review for experienced fantasy players, but it never hurts to take a refresher course.  For newer players, many of these tenets may be unfamiliar, so this will be a good resource to keep handy leading up to your drafts.  The idea here isn’t just to make a list of things to consider when coming up with a draft strategy, but to explain why these concepts are so important to draft strategy in general, and give you the basis from which to mold your own.

You must also be very aware of your league’s particular scoring and lineup settings when making a draft strategy, as these factors can alter players’ values, sometimes significantly.  For this series, assume standard 5x5 Roto league settings (or 6x6 with OPS and CG), but feel free to tweak and adjust as you see fit to apply these principles to your own league’s settings.

All that said, here are some principles of general draft strategy that I think everyone should be aware of, and that can apply to whatever individual strategy you intend to pursue.  Our first tenet is one that fantasy owners hear about plenty…

Floor vs. Ceiling

Most fantasy players should be familiar with the concept of floor vs. ceiling by now, and understanding the range of possible outcomes for any given player is crucial in putting together ranks and formulating draft strategy.  What you think a player can do if things break right is only half the story, we must also consider what returns we’ll get if things break the other way – what a player’s worst case scenario is – and the likelihood that scenario will happen.

Many factors must be considered when trying to determine a player’s theoretical downside, or floor.  How long a player has produced at a certain level helps give us an idea not only of what numbers to expect from him, but also how likely he is to reach those expectations.  Chris Davis almost matched Miguel Cabrera’s production last year, but since it was his first year of elite production (ignoring for now the strong signs of growth he showed in 2012) there’s still some risk he’ll regress from last year’s numbers and produce less than our expectations this year.  Cabrera, on the other hand, has established a very reliable floor over the last decade or so, and that’s why he’s taken at the start of the first round and Davis closer to the end of the first round.

Injury Risk

Another major factor in determining floor is injury risk.  Obviously, many injuries are fluky and impossible to predict, but these kinds of setbacks are not what we are trying to foresee when assessing a player’s floor.  The possibility of Miggy missing half the season with a fluke injury is barely worth considering for his floor value, because he has established over his career an extreme likelihood of avoiding injuries and giving us a full season of stats.

However, when assessing the floor of a guy like Troy Tulowitzki, for example, the possibility of an extended absence due to injury (fluky or otherwise) is something that we must consider, because he has shown a propensity to find a way to get hurt almost every year of his career.  We all love Tulo’s production while healthy, and we love the leg up he gives us at a scarce position, but it’s this heightened injury risk that pushes him into the 2nd round of most drafts.  I’m sure most agree: if we were guaranteed a full season of Tulo, he would be a slam dunk top-5 pick.

So injury history is an important part of assessing injury risk when determining a player’s floor, but there is even more we can look at as well.  Different positions present significantly different probabilities of suffering a major injury.  Players who play positions where collisions occur (like C, 2B, and SS) are obviously much more likely to get hurt than players who don’t.  This is a good argument against the position scarcity draft strategy, but we’ll talk more on that later.

Pitchers, generally, are also more likely to get hurt than hitters, because of the unnatural strain pitching a ball 90+ MPH puts on the body (more on that later as well).  Additionally, players who draw a lot of HBPs are heightened injury risks, as every time they take one for the team the possibility of breaking one of the little bones in their hand or wrist is present.  Finally, the max effort guys, the guys who will run through a wall for their team (guys like Josh Hamilton, Bryce Harper, etc.), bring added risk to the table as well.  As much as we like to root for this type of player in real life, he’s always one wall away from a concussion or worse, and that hole he leaves in our fantasy lineup is not going to be easy to fill, especially if he was an early round pick.

Team / Lineup Situation

Another factor to consider when trying to ascertain a player’s floor is his team/lineup situation.  Does a team have a highly touted prospect they are hoping to get MLB ABs this year?  If that team struggles, they may call up said prospect and his ABs may come at the expense of one of your fantasy team’s anchors.  Is a player’s spot in his team’s lineup secure?  Billy Hamilton may score 100 runs and steal 100 bases hitting atop the Reds lineup this year, but if he struggles and gets dropped to 8th, you can pretty safely reduce those projections to 75 R and 75 SB, max (of course, he also has the possibility of a complete demotion to the minors, the biggest factor in Hamilton’s risky floor this year, but I digress).

These are just a couple examples of how team situations can impact a player’s value, but the idea is that you should be considering any and all possible scenarios, both in and out of that player’s control, that could impact the security of his current situation when trying to project a player’s floor.

Player Age

Finally, a player’s age needs to be taken into account as well when predicting his floor.  Obviously, everyone’s career ends at some point, and the older a player is the more likely he is to hit that “cliff” season that often foretells the end of one’s career.  So named because the player’s production stops following his normal career trajectory and completely falls off a cliff, you do not want to be a part of a player’s cliff season if you can avoid it.

Of course, everyone ages differently and no particular age is an automatic death knell for a player’s production, but the older players get the more you have to be aware of the possibility and factor it into your floor projection.

Now that we’ve defined floor, and given an idea of how to project it, let’s see how to use the concept in your draft strategy.

In the early rounds of drafts, and especially the first round, we should be much more focused on this floor (downside) than ceiling (upside).  It’s been said that you can’t win your league in the first few rounds of your draft, but I say you can definitely lose it then.  Your first 3-4 picks should be safe, guys you can just put in your lineup and forget about.  Ideally, you’ll never have to worry about their production levels, an injury cropping up, or a change in their team situation costing them ABs or production opportunities.

There’s a reason Dustin Pedroia is a perennial 2nd round pick, and it’s not because any year now he might explode with a 35-homer season from the 2B position.  It’s because he’s proven over his career that he’s good for close to 20-20-.300 with some good run production for a 2B, and he’ll also play through injuries or whatever else comes up to give us his 600 ABs each year.  This is basically the definition of a safe floor.

Using this principle of floor over ceiling early, here are a couple other picks I like in the early rounds:

Ryan Braun over Carlos Gonzalez, Hanley Ramirez, and Chris Davis

Cargo and HanRam are injury risks as we well know, and Chris Davis has that regression risk I mentioned earlier.  As I mentioned in my Early Values piece, I don’t think the suspension affects Braun’s floor at all.

Evan Longoria over Giancarlo Stanton, Edwin Encarnacion, and Carlos Gomez

While Stanton could give us a 50-homer season any year now, his team is terrible and he was hurt last year, making him far from a sure thing.  Edwin also dealt with injuries last year and is getting older.  Cargo Lite is still not established enough to avoid regression risk, plus he’s a max effort guy and a possible BA risk.  Longo gave us a full season last year, is entering his prime years, and the lineup is built around him.

Dustin Pedroia over Justin Upton, Freddie Freeman, Jose Bautista and Jason Kipnis

Upton gets hurt frequently (high HBP guy) and hasn’t put together a full season’s worth of production yet.  Freeman, while pretty safe, does not put up elite numbers for his position (which you want in the early rounds).  Bautista and Kipnis are heightened injury risks, and I’ve already sung Pedroia’s praises above.

Jay Bruce over Jean Segura and Jose Reyes

Both Segura and Reyes play a risky position, and Reyes has an extensive injury history already while Segura has only given us one season of production ever.  Bruce has provided at least 30 HR and no fewer than 97 RBI each of the last three years, while never hitting below .252 or playing in fewer than 155 games.

Obviously, who you’ve taken so far and what positions you still need to fill will impact your choices at these picks, but all else equal, I like the safe floor of Braun, Longo, Pedroia, and Bruce over the higher ceilings of the listed guys ranked ahead of them.

Starting around the 5th round, there are fewer players with “safe” floors left so it’s time to start considering ceiling as much as floor.  If one of your first 3-4 picks doesn’t pan out (for whatever reason) it is much harder to fill his shoes because he is one of the anchors of your team from whom you were expecting substantial production.  But as we get later in the draft, the level of production we are expecting decreases until it is not far from a replacement level player we can find on the waiver wire.  At this point, a player not panning out is much less likely to wreck your season, because you were less reliant on his production to begin with, and you can probably find a reasonable replacement for his stats.  So we like to start swinging for the fences a bit here because, while you can’t really lose your league in these middle rounds, you may just be able to win it.

To illustrate this point, I’d like to briefly analyze a draft I did last year for a league which I eventually won (it’s my most important league, $175 buy-in and been going on about 10 years).  I had the 2nd pick and went with Miguel Cabrera, Evan Longoria, Josh Hamilton, and Adrian Gonzalez with my first four picks.  I felt very comfortable with the safety of these first four picks, and knew that I had a nice, solid base in the hitting categories.  But it was not here that I won this league, as Hamilton disappointed and Longo and AGonz were merely good.  I simply didn’t lose it here by taking someone who ended up being a zero for the year.

In the 5th, realizing I needed a pitcher and that all the “safe” ones were gone, I grabbed Yu Darvish as a guy with a reasonable floor but a ridiculously high ceiling, a ceiling that he ended the year pretty darn close to.  Obviously, this helped a lot as it gave me a solid base in pitching to go with my bats, but it still wasn’t enough to win this league.

Where I really won the league was in the middle rounds.  Knowing that I already had a safe floor to work with offensively, I was able to take some chances on some high upside, high risk guys.  I whiffed on Desmond Jennings in the 7th round, but then made solid contact on Hanley Ramirez in the 9th (he was injured at the time) and Chris Davis in the 10th (nobody believed in his 33 bombs the year before).

After that, I just needed to pull off a couple trades to shore up my rotation (Hamilton for Masterson/Greinke late-April, and AGonz for Strasburg mid-July), which was easy because I now had a surplus of big bats from which to deal.  The rest, as they say, was history (and Billy Hamilton’s September).

I tell this story not to toot my own horn, but to demonstrate how taking safe guys with high floors early sort of earns you the right to take chances on high risk/high reward guys in the middle rounds.  If I had not built that base early, I might not have been comfortable taking Hanley or Davis where I did over safer picks like Alex Gordon or Asdrubal Cabrera.  Tulo may seem like a great start to a team when you think about how great he can be when he’s on the field, but when you’re forced to start looking for a backup SS in the 9th round because you know you wont get a full season from him, you may be missing out on your chance at this year’s Chris Davis.

(This is not to say that Tulo isn’t worth an early pick, just that if you take a guy like him early you will want to focus that much more on floor with some of your later picks.)

Finally, once you get to the double-digit rounds and beyond, nobody is particularly safe and everyone is expendable.  It’s at this point that the draft becomes all about plausible upside (and closers, but we’ll discuss them later when we talk about position scarcity). In the 12th round, I think it makes way more sense to take a chance on a guy like Jose Abreu, who’s an unknown but could hit 40 HR this year, than boring old vets like Aramis Ramirez, Martin Prado, or Mike Napoli from whom you know what you’re getting, but it’s not particularly exciting.  If Abreu doesn’t pan out you haven’t lost much and can probably find a replacement on the waiver wire, but if he does he might just win your league for you.

So when you are preparing for drafts this year, keep in mind that your projections for a player should factor in both what will happen if things go right for him and what can happen if things go wrong.  This floor value can help give you an idea of how safe a guy you want to draft is, or how likely it is he will actually provide the numbers that you are expecting from him.  You should be looking for high floor (safe) players early on, in the first 4-5 rounds of your draft.  After that, you can start considering some higher risk (low floor)/higher upside guys, especially if you already locked in some safe guys for your lineup early on.  But if you took risky guys early, you’re going to want to look for safer guys later so you’re not pulling out your hair all season, and this might cause you to miss out on some of the biggest profits in the draft.  Finally, when all the safe floor guys are gone (usually around the 10th round or so), it’s time to start looking for any plausible upside.  Everyone is replaceable at this point, so you might as well take your chances and swing for the fences.