You cannot win a league in the first three rounds, you can only lose it.
We have all heard that axiom. Most of the time, we ponder it for a second, then gently nod our head in agreement, mainly because we do not know what else to do. I mean, it sounds pithy enough. And it is not egregiously wrong. The basic message is that the first few rounds are loaded with talent; it is pretty hard to mess that up. Leagues are won in the later rounds with value picks and sleepers. It makes intuitive sense, but there is something about the expression that has always bothered me. It is too cliché, too cute, too convenient. Then it hit me. The real mantra should be:
You cannot win a league in the first few rounds, but you can surely make the job a whole lot easier.
Do not worry; this is not going to be your standard "draft the best available player" lecture or "pay attention to scarcity early" essay. Instead, the real key to snake drafts will be revealed, followed by the manner to best utilize your first few selections.
We may as well jump right to the chase. The key to a snake draft is keeping the maximum number of assets available at every turn. This way, you can almost always combine great value with need. The more options available that satisfy a need, the better the chance one is available when you are on the clock. You never want to be in the position of having to chase something specific. Remember, you are at the mercy of your fellow combatants. Nothing is guaranteed. You cannot pass on Smith, because you know Jones will be there later. All it takes is one other competitor to have a jones for, um, Jones. You can however, pass on a position or a statistic because you feel they will be available later.
It really is a case of good old fashioned supply-and-demand economics. The value of an entity is greatest when supply is high and demand is low. Having the most options available is akin to having a large supply. And you only chase something when it is in demand. So maximizing your assets maximizes the potential return on your investment.
So what does this have to do with the first few rounds of a draft? These first few rounds should set you up for the rest of the draft. And while we all place different values on different players so an all-encompassing plan is not possible, we can talk in general terms, allowing you to adapt to how you rank the players and to take advantage of your specific strength and weaknesses.
Before deciding on the players to select early, you need a strong handle on what you can select later, both in terms of positions and statistics. The best way to accomplish this is via tiered ranking. By ranking players first within each position, then lining them up with players of similar value across positions, you can best visualize the gaps in value as well as the relative strength of each player pool. What you are looking for is pockets of players you favor at each position. Targeting a pocket of players increases your supply.
Color coding each player by primary statistical contribution is a great way to further your understanding of the pool. Perhaps using red for speedsters, blue for power hitters, green for high average guys and orange for five-tool players might help you ascertain where you can find specific contributions from certain players. Like above, you are looking for regions where a significant level of a statistic is likely available.
After constructing your color-coded tiers, perhaps it is apparent to you the second base pool is stronger and deeper than normal, with a couple of different pockets where there are multiple players. Maybe you observe the third base is a little weaker than normal and there are not really any pockets of value anywhere. If you are up in the first or second round and Chase Utley or Ian Kinsler are raising their hand, exclaiming "pick me", as difficult as this may be, the best call is to select Alex Rodriguez, Evan Longoria or David Wright.
If after checking out some mock drafts, you note a lot of second and third round outfield talent is being drafted in the fourth and fifth round, it is best to pass on Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and Matt Holliday, so you will have a few outfield spots available a little later for some serious value picks.
Maybe you are awed by the plethora of speed available this season from mid to late rounders like Rajai Davis, Nyjer Morgan, Juan Pierre, Everth Cabrera, Julio Borbon, Brett Gardner, Elvis Andrus, etc. If you invested an early selection in Jacoby Ellsbury or Carl Crawford, you are not able to take maximum advantage of this available asset.
Over the years, you have come to realize there are always guys like Placido Polanco, Marco Scutaro or Martin Prado available late, guys with pedestrian counting stats, but very good batting averages. This means that someone like Dustin Pedroia is not as intrinsically useful to you as someone like Brandon Phillips. In a vacuum, they have similar value, but Phillips beats Pedroia in counting stats while Pedroia makes that up in batting average. The pair of Phillips early and Scutaro late is better than Pedroia and Scutaro.
For the record, all of the above are indeed my own personal evaluations of the 2010 player pool. The important point is not whether or not you agree with my player analysis. The take home lesson is to really dissect the player pool according to your own league specifications, using your own means of analysis. Then employ the general theme of picking smartly early, to maximize your ability to take advantage of this depth of knowledge you have accrued later. To paraphrase the Grail Knight in Indiana Jones, "But choose wisely, for while a true selection will bring you life, a false one will take it from you."