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Back to Basics: Draft Strategy 101 Part 4

Here are some final thoughts on draft strategy that don’t fit neatly into any of the topics we previously discussed.  Be sure to read Part 1(Floor vs Ceiling), Part 2(When to Draft Pitchers) and Part 3(Position Scarcity) as well for the complete fantasy baseball draft strategy guide.  Follow me on twitter @RotoClayton

Last year’s bums/Boring old vets

A place you can often find value in drafts is in established players coming off down years.  The general public tends to overreact to the most recent results – last year’s numbers – so we can find undervalued assets by overlooking these in favor of long track records.  Once a player has established a certain level of production as a norm (say, over 4-5 years), he usually produces somewhere near that level each year, barring injury, until his eventual decline.  So if a guy has been a 4th rounder or better his entire career and is now available in the mid-to-late rounds because of an injury or dip in production the previous year, there’s a pretty decent chance we can make a profit on him.

Obviously, some caveats apply to this principle.  If injury was the cause for the bad numbers the previous year, the player’s recovery and prognosis for the season must be considered.  We should also assess how likely he is to re-injure it or something else this season, i.e. his general injury-proneness.  If it was just a bad year, what was the cause of it?  There are enough advanced metrics out there to get an idea if a down year was due to some factors out of the player’s control (“bad luck”), or a regression/deterioration of skills.

If it was bad luck (low BABIP with a high LD%, poor BAw/RISP, very low HR/FB, etc.) it’s usually worth betting on regression back to career norms, especially if we’re getting a solid discount on the player.  If it’s signs of regression (rising K/BB, high GB/FB, very high IFFB%, etc.) we may have cause for concern.  With young players this may be a sign the league has adjusted to them and knows their strengths and weaknesses.  How well we think they can learn the MLB game and adjust back should go a long way in determining if they’re worth a draft pick or not.  For older players, this could be a sign that the decline phase has set in.

We’ve mentioned how older players have riskier floors because of decline/cliff season risk.  Look at Roy Halladay, who was humming along to the tune of 19-6, 220 K, 2.35 ERA, and 1.04 WHIP in 2011, hit his cliff season in 2012 (11-8, 4.49, 1.22), was injured and terrible last year, and is now out of the league, just three years after a potential Cy Young season.  But all players’ decline phases are different, and sometimes a player who the public thinks should be declining, or could hit a cliff season at any point, is another place to find decent value.  I like to think of these guys as the Boring Old Vets (if you play on Yahoo! you probably know them as the Ibanez All-Stars).

A great example is David Ortiz, who everyone thought was washed up a few years ago.  Since then, he has given us four straight seasons with an .899 OPS or better (admittedly while missing a few games to injury) while never costing more than a mid-round pick over that time, and sometimes even less.  His cliff season risk increases every season that goes by, but if the price is right his upside is worth that risk.  This year, finally, the price is not always right with Ortiz, but there are other guys who fit a similar Boring Old Vet mold who are quite affordable such as Jayson Werth, Brandon Phillips, Shane Victorino, Alfonso Soriano, Brian McCann, and others.

Paying for production levels not yet achieved

Conversely, people often get suckered into poor value by paying for expected gains in numbers that a player has never reached before.  Sure, Bryce Harper may hit 40+ bombs this year with his new physique, but he’s never done it before so it’s still quite possible he does not.  If you take him in the first round and he reaches that level of production, you’ve basically just broken even.  But if he’s your first rounder and he doesn’t make large improvements over his past numbers, or gets hurt again, then you’re looking at a pretty big loss.  Wil Myers is another guy poised to make a large jump in production this year, but he can usually be had in the 5th-6th round.  At this price, if he doesn’t make huge gains you’ve still pretty much broken even, but if he does you can make a very nice profit.

It all comes back to floor vs. ceiling.  Guys expected to make large gains in production have somewhat risky floors by definition – there is no guarantee that those gains will be realized.  But of course, these players have very high ceilings as well, and are often worth taking at the right price.  Just make sure those expected gains aren’t already factored into the price tag leaving you only room for downside and no profit.

Consider team context

When making your rankings, and especially when deciding between two similar players on draft day, it’s important to consider all the team factors at play for the player(s) in question.  How strong is their lineup expected to be?  Does their home park help or hurt offensive production?  Are they in the AL or NL (bigger offensive numbers tend to come from the AL, thanks to the DH)?

These shouldn’t necessarily be major factors in your rankings, just tie-breakers between players of similar value.  For your hitters, you’re looking for the best offensive environment possible between lineup and park factors, all else being equal.  Big numbers tend to come from places like COL, TEX, and the AL East, and this year teams like the Dodgers and Angels should put up big numbers simply because their lineups are stacked.

For pitchers, AL vs. NL is a pretty big factor.  Aside from the studs who’ve already established that they can handle pitching in the AL, it’s usually not worth trying to fight the DH-headwind with your speculative middle round pitchers (exception: Danny Salazar).  There’s just so much more offense in the AL, and a pitcher’s margin for error is smaller, so why walk uphill when there are plenty of NL pitchers of similar ability available?  Again, this should mostly be a tie-breaker for similar pitchers, and there are plenty of AL pitchers worth owning, but you’re usually taking less risk by filling out the back end of your fantasy rotation with NL guys over AL guys.  Other factors to consider for pitchers are park index (you want guys in pitcher’s parks, duh), lineup quality (are they likely to score enough to get your guy Ws?), and team defense (will they save some ERs for him to keep those ratios down?).

Tiers, not ranks

Individual ranks only tell a portion of the story – the 10th and 11th ranked players could be almost even while there could be a huge drop off between the 11th and 12th.  This is why it’s important to look at player lists in term of tiers instead of a sequential ordering.  Each tier should consist of players we consider relatively even, and we shouldn’t care much who we get out of any specific tier.  By doing this, we can maximize draft value by taking guys at the end of each tier.  This means we will have spent less (a later pick) for similar production than owners who took players out of the same tier earlier.  And once we feel a specific tier has been depleted, it’s pretty safe to wait on that position for a few rounds.  The next guys to go will be from the top of the next tier (less than ideal value), then we can swoop back in to take someone from towards the bottom of that tier to get the best value we can.

Know your league

While much of draft strategy is based on finding the best value we can, that value can vary (sometimes pretty greatly) depending on the setup of your league, so it’s very important to be familiar with your league’s settings and how they impact player values and strategy in general.  The depth of the league may be the most important factor, as shallower leagues have much better replacement value on the waiver wire, and therefore allow you to take more chances in the draft.  You still want some floor early on, but you can go looking for upside plays a little sooner than you would in a deeper league (12+ teams).  The opposite is true the deeper you get, as ofttimes you are just looking for guys who actually play instead of sitting on the bench.  In these cases you must be all the more focused on floor, as the waiver wire is much sparser, and if an upside play you were relying on crashes and burns, it could torpedo your season when you can’t find someone to replace him.

It’s also important to know what roster spots your league employs.  Leagues can be set up with any number of positional configurations – from 2 C, to 4 OF, to multiple UTIL, to any and all of IF, OF, CI, MI – and these changes can impact the value of players and how we approach positions.  Generally, the more of any position we the need, the more valuable that position becomes.  I almost never condone taking a C in the first 8-10 rounds, but in a 2 C league there’s a strong argument to do just that.  Same goes for 2B/SS in leagues that use a MI spot.  Also keep in mind that the more roster spots you use the deeper the league is, so the principles in the last paragraph about deep leagues may apply even if your league is only 10-12 players.

Finally, make sure you know what scoring categories you league uses.  Most leagues use standard 5x5 categories (R, HR, RBI, SB, BA, W, S, K, ERA, WHIP), but many other categories are available when setting up a league, and some can alter player values.  For example, many leagues these days are swapping out BA for OBP, which doesn’t have a giant impact but does make high-BB guys like Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo more valuable.  The key is simply to be aware of any different categories you are using, familiarize yourself with how players performed in those categories, then adjust your ranks accordingly (usually only slight adjustments are necessary).  Almost all rankings you’ll find out there are based on the default 5x5 categories.

Know your draft room

This may seem obvious, but it’s imperative to pay attention to what’s going on around you in the draft room.  You should frequently be checking other teams, especially those picking around you, to see what positions they’ve filled and what they’re still looking for.  If everyone in your neighborhood has already taken their 2B, for example, you can probably hold off for another round and fill another need elsewhere.  If not, and there’s a guy out there you want, you better pounce on him because he probably won’t be there when the draft makes it back to you.

If you play in a league with people you know, or you’ve just played with the same people for a while, try to learn their tendencies and predict their moves.  Everyone has their own strategy - maybe they have pet players or specific positions they like to fill early - and it’s often similar from year to year.  The more information you have, the bigger advantage you give yourself in the draft room.

H2H vs. Roto

This strategy guide has been geared toward Roto up to this point, but most of the same principles apply to H2H.  The biggest difference, in my opinion, comes from how to approach pitching.  In Roto leagues, you have 1250 (or however many) IP to use, and every single one of them goes on your permanent record.  In H2H, you get a clean slate every week.  This means we can take more risks with pitching and not invest as much in it at the draft table.

In H2H leagues, I usually like to take one anchor SP in the first 3-5 rounds, then just load up on hitting for the rest of the first 10 rounds.  I’ll take a couple closers around then, and a couple more upside starters later, but I have no problem leaving the draft with only three starters or so because I plan to stream them aggressively throughout the season.  Once upon a time streaming was sort of frowned upon, but now I believe if you ain’t streaming, you ain’t trying.  Some of these streamers will likely become permanent fixtures on your team as well.

Remember, in H2H all you have to do is win more than half the categories any given week.  If we build a very strong base in hitting we should win half the categories most weeks, and then we only need to find one more win in the pitching categories to win the week.  My preference is to go for saves (unless your setup only allows you to start 2 closers, in which case it’s a crapshoot) because they are cheaper to acquire than SP stats and can often be found in season.  But we should be able to get at least one of the other categories as well simply by actively managing our rotation.  If W or K are in reach, stream, stream, stream until you get enough.  If you have a lead already in ratios, then pull back, bench some starters, and play defense until the end of the week.  There’s no need to play for a 12-0 whitewash, we’re just in it for the Ws.

Trust Your Gut

This may seem weird coming from a guy who just wrote around 10,000 words on draft strategy, but the most important resource for making your ranks and strategy is you.  Watch the games, believe what your eyes tell you, and trust your instincts.  Experts (and guys like me too) can be useful in giving you a starting point for rankings, discussing general strategy principles, and uncovering and interpreting some deeper stats, but in the end it’s your team and you have to live with it.  It’s always easier to take a down year from a guy you liked and wanted on your team than from somebody you only drafted because some experts told you to.  So gather all the information you can, combine it with your own opinions and observations, and come up with some ranks and strategy that work for you.  You’ll find you’ll like your team more, which will keep you more active and engaged throughout the season.  And if you do end up winning your league, it will be all the more rewarding to do it with a team put together using your own insights, strategies, and personal ranks.

I’ll be in St. Louis next weekend doing the live draft for my biggest league, and I’ll be live-tweeting my picks and any other oddities that occur.  Follow me at @RotoClayton for that and any other fantasy baseball tidbits you want to talk about.