Draft strategies: Five pillars to help owners execute an ideal fantasy draft
Fantasy baseball draft season is still about three weeks away from hitting its apex, but now is the time that owners need to start thinking of approaches so a few different prongs can coalesce into one over-arching strategy by the end of March. Almost every good season begins with a good draft, and a good draft doesn’t just happen. It takes patience and planning, and that starts long before Mike Trout’s name is called first in every single fantasy baseball draft this season.
Remember, the points made below are strategy, not tactics. The latter are specific and targeted. The former is broad. The latter represent one or two brush strokes. The former paints an entire picture. Adopting the following strategies will help you deploy the correct tactics, no matter how many unexpected turns your draft takes. Tactical mistakes, such as those warned against within, often derive from faulty strategy. The two must work in concert, but you cannot have appropriate tactics if the strategy veers off course. Don’t let that happen. Go forth with the following five pillars of a successful fantasy baseball draft.
Don’t be a prisoner of consensus rankings and average draft position
Average draft position stats, which are readily available for an enterprising owner, are valuable in a macro sense. We use them here frequently, and with good reason. It’s beneficial to know where every player is going in a typical draft. That can help you understand when you can wait on a player you like, or put off jumping in on a position if there remains a tier of similar players available. Observing changes in ADP data can give you the information you need to know that your favorite sleeper isn’t quite the secret he was when you started your draft prep. There is truly no downside to have a good handle on ADP when you sit down at your draft table. Unless you hew to it too closely.
However, it’s also important to understand that all ADP stats represent the amalgamation of thousands of drafts. Your own personal draft will be anecdotal, and anything can happen in a one-off scenario. All it takes is for one rival owner to be just as big a fan as one of your desired targets, and slightly more aggressive, for your ADP study to come back to haunt you.
This is where your player evaluation factors into the equation. If you have a player valued higher than his ADP suggests, do not be afraid to grab him before the room would make a move. You have to walk a fine line, here, as you don’t want to act too early and miss out on some of the value said player would bring by outperforming his average price, but nothing is worse than watching one of your targets thrive on someone else’s roster. You should feel comfortable taking a player above his ADP or consensus ranking once your draft reaches the point where he’d still be delivering a profit.
Tiers of Rage
By average draft position, Anthony Rizzo is the No. 5 first baseman, while Freddie Freeman is No. 6. That doesn’t mean they’re anywhere near each other in draft stock, however. Rizzo’s ADP is 15.32, early in the second round of a 12-team league. Freeman’s, meanwhile, is 39.29, or the middle of the fourth round. And therein lies the importance of dividing your rankings into tiers.
Every single position has multiple groups of similar players. Sure, you may like this one or that one better than the others, but, ultimately, there isn’t a huge difference among them. By splitting every position into tiers, you can avoid taking an unnecessary plunge at a spot just after it has fallen into a new group of players.
Let’s stick with first base as an example. Say you have the sixth overall pick in your 12-team league, and use your first selection on Giancarlo Stanton. Nice job, he should hit somewhere on the order of 35 or 40 homers. Yet, you’re power hungry and you want some more. You’ve got your eye on the position with the most pop early in the draft, first base, with both Rizzo and Edwin Encarnacion as possibilities to fall to you at 19. Unfortunately, they get snatched up before your pick, so you’ll have to go in a different direction. An unprepared owner may force the issue with a first baseman, especially as the draft clock ticks like a menace in the upper corner of their computer screen. Selecting one of the next first basemen, Freeman or Adrian Gonzalez, would represent a gross overpay. Tiering your rankings will help you see that right away, and lead you to a more appropriate selection, such as Troy Tulowitzki or Michael Brantley.
Using tiers is especially helpful at starting pitcher. Everyone in your league is going to emerge from the draft with about seven starters, but the way those rotations are built will be different. If in one of the early rounds of your draft there isn’t a hitter jumping off the page at you, take a look at your starting pitcher tiers. If you’re getting to the end of one, it may make sense to grab a pitcher, knowing that by time the draft rolls back around to you, the hitter values will be more palatable.
Mitigate or eliminate your risk in hitters
Even with pitching rising back to preeminence in baseball, hitting remains paramount in the fantasy game. A prime reason why fantasy owners have always preferred investing precious resources in hitting rather than pitching is the volatility of the latter. There’s typically far less fluctuation in hitting performance from year to year, and no owner can afford for one of their top picks to go bust. In general, a hitter selected in the first three rounds has a much better chance of performing up to his average draft position than a pitcher selected equally as high.
All too often, however, fantasy owners who employ this strategy screw it up by targeting hitters with abnormally high risk. The point of focusing on hitting early is that you get known, bankable commodities. If you burn a high pick on a hitter who carries a significant amount of risk, you fail to take exploit the inherent advantage hitters have over pitchers in the fantasy world.
One great example for the 2015 season is Ryan Braun. We discussed a lot of the risk Braun presents in our Burning Questions series entry, but it’s well worth repeating the Reader’s Digest version here. Braun’s power has dipped in meaningful ways over the last two seasons, and not all of it is attributable to injury. Don’t sleep on the fact that he’s in his age-31 season and at least some of his prior success is now seen as dubious, at best. Braun is not, by any means, a player devoid of value. By the same token, his days as a fantasy stud may be in the rear-view mirror.
Steamer projects Braun to hit 24 homers, drive in 79 runs and swipe 12 bags. Those are fine numbers, indeed, but they also come with the price of 25 missed games. Given the maladies that have plagued him over the last two seasons, he carries a greater-than-average injury risk. If you’re going to buy him at his 27.06 average draft position, you have to believe he’s a former star who simply has lost just a step, rather than one who is fundamentally changed and a significant injury risk.
His ADP has him off the board before Yasiel Puig (30.32), Adrian Beltre (31.72), Bryce Harper (32.29), Justin Upton (32.69) and Starling Marte (36.83), not to mention legitimate aces Stephen Strasburg (27.59) and Madison Bumgarner (28.87). That’s a ridiculous amount of risk tied up in one of your first three picks. Braun can certainly live up to that price, but the chances of him doing so feel no better than a coin flip. If you’re going to take a risk that high in the draft, make it one that will anchor your pitching staff if it pays off, not one who will hit 27 homers at the deepest position in fantasy.
That sort of thinking should be at the backbone of your offensive philosophy. Hitters are valuable because they are predictable. Don’t remove that bankability from your roster.
Have late-round plans in place at second, third and short
First base is about as deep as a position gets, both in terms of quantity and quality, with numerous acceptable starters and six players who hear their names called within the first 15 picks of an average draft. The same cannot be said of the other positions around the horn. While second base, third base and shortstop all have their elite tiers, those positions tend to thin out quickly. Just six second basemen are in the top 90 in ADP. That number is seven for third basemen and three for shortstop. First basemen, outfielders and pitchers dominate the first nine rounds of a 12-team draft.
Assuming you don’t end up with Jose Altuve or Anthony Rendon or Troy Tulowitzki or Nolan Arenado (a guy for whom I would use the point above and reach above his ADP), you’re going to have to fill these positions in the 10th round or later. You need to have a plan of how you will tackle each position. Otherwise, as the options start to dwindle, you may make a rash decision that a modicum of pre-draft planning could keep from compromising your roster.
There’s one particular feature that the backend starting tiers of each of these positions has in common: They’re typically populated by specialists who contribute meaningfully to, at most, three categories. More often, we’re looking at one- or two-category players. Be it power (Neil Walker, Ryan Zimmerman), speed (Elvis Andrus, Alcides Escobar) or batting average (Howie Kendrick, Matt Carpenter), the players who fill out the starting ranks all have something very specific to offer, but can be a drag on the other categories. That means that the best player for your roster will depend on what you’ve done in the first half of the draft.
If you already have a lot of power, J.J. Hardy isn’t a fit. If you need some pop, perhaps Aramis Ramirez could be a nice, cheap option at third base. If your team lacks run scoring and speed, Erick Aybar could be your man at shortstop. In other words, remain flexible and make sure the player you’re drafting addresses a team need.
Do not overreact to starting pitcher runs
Here’s just a sampling of starting pitchers coming off the board after the 100th overall pick in a typical draft: Tyson Ross, Hisashi Iwakuma, Alex Wood, Jake Arrieta, James Shields, Jacob deGrom, Carlos Carrasco, Gio Gonzalez, Masahiro Tanaka, Marcus Stroman, Doug Fister and Hyun-jin Ryu. You may not be comfortable building your entire pitching staff from this group (though we covered how that can be effective in our starting pitcher primer), but most of the pitchers listed above have the ability to be top-20 starters this season.
Even if they don’t reach those heights, they all have relatively safe floors and should be able to, at the very least, break even on their draft-day price. There is a whole lot of depth at starting pitcher, and plenty of potential avenues for filling out a staff. Don’t feel pressured to jump in when second tier starters like Johnny Cueto, Zack Greinke and Jon Lester are being selected. If someone like that fits your roster given the way your draft is unfolding, that’s great. If not, you will have opportunities to strike in later rounds.