FANTASY PLAYS: Strategy heading into fantasy baseball prep

Fantasy Baseball is a grind, but winning doesn't have to be difficult. With the proper tools and knowledge, you can easily become one of the best owners in your leagues.

There's always a lot of noise heading into each season: don't draft pitchers early, stolen bases are down, etc. Time to sort through that and preview the 2017 season with a winning strategy.

YOU CAN DRAFT PITCHING EARLY

For years, you've heard to avoid pitchers early in drafts. That was true until last year, when the tide turned and owners started diving into the pitching pool earlier. But should you do the same?

Clayton Kershaw proved last year that you can gain a significant edge over your competition with an early pitching pick. But that carries significant risk, as investing that capital can backfire if the pitcher misses time. Over the past five seasons, an average of 1.8 pitchers have finished among the top 10 players in fantasy baseball, while roughly 25 percent of the top 25 and top 50 players have been pitchers.

Two recent expert drafts, the League of Alternative Baseball Reality (LABR) and the high-stakes National Fantasy Baseball Championship (NFBC), each saw two pitchers taken inside the top 10 and about a dozen pitchers gone after 50 picks.

While the right top-end pitcher can lead to winning results, it's still easier to overcome an injury or bad performance by a top tier hitter.

PAY ATTENTION TO CATEGORIES

Unlike fantasy football, a ''best player available'' can yield poorer results. Unless you play in points leagues, you have to build your team with categories in mind. An all-around hitter might be the best value in the draft, but if you drafted a power-heavy team early and need stolen bases, a lower-ranked speedster is the better draft choice.

Speed has been slowly decreasing since 2012, with 47 players stealing 15 or more bases last year, down from 72 in 2012. As with pitching, don't be afraid to target a stolen base specialist early. With only five players topping 40 SBs last year, speed is a premium.

THERE ARE ENDLESS AVAILABLE STATS - USE THEM!

It's easy to feel overwhelmed when beginning your journey into advanced statistics. The good news is that you don't need to know all 100-plus stats and their meanings on a player's FanGraphs page.

With pitching, the most important and predictive statistic is SOBB (strikeout percentage minus base on balls percentage). Using percentages versus per-9 stats for pitchers gives you a clearer picture on his pure ability to get hitters out. There are statistics that predict what a pitcher's ERA should be with normalized luck and defense: FIP (fielding independent pitching) and xFIP (which is similar but normalizes home runs based on average rates of home runs across the league). Percentages such as line drive, ground ball, hard-hit, etc., will all tell you how well or poorly a pitcher is dominating hitters, or how well hitters are making contact.

BABIP (batting average on balls in play) is valuable for pitchers and hitters by telling us if the player has been lucky or not. Some hitter-only stats include ISO, which gauges a player's raw power, and wOBA, which judges overall talent by weighing extra base hits differently.

Studying those statistics will make you a terrific fantasy owner but you can go even further down the rabbit hole if you want. Just take care to not get lost in the numbers.

DON'T WASTE YOUR BENCH

This is the biggest mistake owners make, and it's a simple fix: Don't draft players that will never see your starting lineup.

If a player is in a position battle and his value would see a significant boost by winning said battle, that's a great bench option. If a pitcher could take over the closer's role or is blocked by an injury-prone player, that's another great bench option. If your bench is deep enough, stashing high-end prospects that will see a June call-up is a smart move, too.

Utilize your bench and don't waste it for players you can find on the waiver wire any given week.

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This column was provided to The Associated Press by the Fantasy Sports Network, http://FNTSY.com

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