There is a great debate out there in the fantasy sports community about whether draft strategy is actually important. Many terrific fantasy baseball experts stick to their values and projections and say with absolute conviction: “Let the draft come to you.” We respect those of our peers who follow that path, but when we hear that, we turn into John Beckwith and Jeremy Ryan of “Wedding Crashers” fame and think: “Stop projecting.” (See what I did there?)
Seriously, we have found that we need a system — a set of guiding principles and a plan that stays true to those principles in order to succeed in the cutthroat world of fantasy baseball. Not surprisingly (at least to us), when we stick to our S.M.A.R.T. System, things tend to go well. When we don’t, well, it gets ugly in a hurry.
Stated another way that loyal readers and listeners will understand: “Never, ever leave your wingman”. That is simple “Top Gun” code for sticking to what works, stick the fundamentals, and staying S.M.A.R.T. Admittedly, it is not always easy to stay S.M.A.R.T., but if you want to maximize your chances of winning a fantasy baseball title in 2021, play S.M.A.R.T. and follow the Rules of Engagement. (After all, in the words of Tom Skerritt’s “Viper,” “Those rules exist for your safety and the safety of your fantasy baseball team.”)
Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Tips, advice for winning your league
S in S.M.A.R.T. stands for “scarcity”
Each year, different positions or categories in different formats are scarce. The first step is to identify those scarce positions/categories and adjust the prices that you pay. By successfully rostering a top-flight producer at a scarce position, you gain an immediate advantage over your opponents and avoid bottom feeding in the waiver trough trying to find someone to give you anything at that weak position. Warning: Paying for scarcity does not mean paying for mediocrity. Rather, it means paying a scarcity premium for top-quality players or proven performers at scarce positions. In 2020, we ended up with a lot of Jose Abreu given the weakness of first base.
Scarcity also looks at scarce categories like steals.This means go the extra mile for guys who will get you those swipes while producing in other categories (e.g. Trevor Story, Jose Ramirez, Francisco Lindor, and more). If you don’t, you will either be at the bottom of a category or be forced to roster a one-trick pony like Myles Straw whose swipes might be nice but lack of HRs and RBIs will not.
M in S.M.A.R.T. stands for “management”
Management means managing not only the draft but the entire season. In the draft, that means religiously following the S.M.A.R.T. System and the Rules of Engagement. Specifically, it is critical to have a plan and contingency plans. One should never be so surprised by the currents of a draft or auction that you are forced to deviate from your plan or one of your contingency plans. Bottom line here is that if you make reasonable plans, you will never, ever have to leave your wingman!
If you plan on paying $20 each for Fernando Tatis and Mookie Betts, well, that plan will not work. If you want both those guys, you better budget around $90 and stay close to that range. You get the point. One thing my radio partner Rick Wolf and I have been doing over the past couple of years that has really helped is make a list of the guys we want at certain price levels rather than guys we think are just properly priced at those levels. Managing your auction or snake draft in this manner allows you to take full advantage and roster the guys you believe in. In other words, don’t just budget by numbers; budget by numbers with lists of players you actually like and think you can realistically get at those numbers. If the guy is not on your list, don’t reach. After all, it took you three months to make that carefully crafted list, so why would you throw all that work away on a split-second whim?
As noted above, many fantasy experts advocate that you “let the draft come to you” or “take what the draft gives you.” Ha! That always reminds me of the old TV commercials where the announcer solemnly states, “Do not try this at home.” Yes, if you are one of the true greats like Fantasy Alarm’s Adam Ronis, Jason Grey, Steve Gardner, or the late, great Lawr Michaels, you can probably react on the fly and survive “trying this [in your] home [league].” Rick Wolf and I cannot do it, and if readers are being honest, you know most of you cannot either.
Management during the season means watching all the player news and not being afraid to make a move to make your team better. Specific steps to take include:
- 1) Tracking prospects that may be coming up, and if your league allows (like Tout Wars), grabbing them before they come up.
- 2) Searching for spot starters for good teams and those in favorable pitching parks against bad teams.
- 3) Finding the vultures – watch who managers frequently bring in when games are tied, as they will get more cheap wins.
- 4) Spotting playing time changes by tracking injuries/poor play
- 5) Watching who your competitors cut and see if the advanced metrics portend a rebound (i.e., if a player is cut because his ERA is way above his norm yet his BABIP is inflated and strand rate suppressed, you may have a waiver-wire opportunity).
A in S.M.A.R.T. stands for “anchors”
Before the draft, identify and target specific starting pitchers who will give you production in the four non-save categories. As a general rule, it is safer to make substantial investments in hurlers who throw hard. Simply put, those who throw gas get away with a lot more mistakes and are more likely to jump to their next level and yield a bargain. Remember, do not invest too much in pitchers who have only done it once or, worse, not at all.
“Anchor” means a pitcher who is as sure of a thing as there is to start atop your rotation and stay healthy enough to toss a substantial number of innings. Where have you gone Mike Mussina? A lonely fantasy sports nation turns its lonely eyes to you! Bottom line here: “Anchor” doesn’t mean get the best pitcher in baseball, as the cost is often way out of whack. A classic “anchor” candidate this year is once again Walker Buehler, a pitcher who will not likely go in the top three but has great stuff, strong years under his belt, and plays on a championship team that will earn him wins. Oh, and his 2020 “down” year was 42K in 36 IP with a WHIP under 1.00).
R in S.M.A.R.T. stands for “relievers”
Get a steady, hard-throwing closer on a good team. I know that many say do not pay for saves, but, once again, we do not agree. Pay for your one closer and then speculate thereafter. Make sure that you have at least two other relief pitchers who either get saves or are second in line – preferably on teams with shaky closers or on bad teams that will trade their closer by July 31. If you did that last year and rostered Matt Barnes or Ryan Pressly, you got yourself real bargains.
T in S.M.A.R.T. Stands for “team”
A very important part of the S.M.A.R.T. system is to make sure that when in doubt, you pick the player from a better team. Good teams score more runs, making it easier for hitters to get RBIs and runs. Good teams also provide more opportunities for pitchers to get wins and saves. Plus, players on good teams usually do not get traded to be backups or setup men in July.
The Rules of Engagement
No rule is absolute, but these will help in staying focused and making good decisions at the draft and all year long.
Age Matters: When looking at your big-money, early-round selections, pay for prime players (loosely defined as 26-32) with proven track records. Players without a track record might produce full value, but why risk it? Vladimir Guerrero Jr. in 2019 provides the perfect example. Despite not having seen a pitch that counts in the major leagues, Vladito was going for big bucks and in early rounds. Those who violated the Rules of Engagement and paid the price were “punished” to the tune of 15 HRs and a .272 average — not catastrophically bad but hardly the stuff of a third-round pick or $20-plus-dollar player.
Stated another way, that investment suffered a loss while plenty of other, more reliable players prospered. This year, that player could be Kyle Tucker. I have seen him ranked as a third-round pick in a 15-team mixed league. I like Tucker and his skills, but no way am I paying third-round value for a guy with only 300 MLB plate appearances and a career batting average under .270.
For your mid-range investments, focus on young players with decent baselines and more than 1,000 ABs or 300 IP but who have yet to reach full potential. Those players made the majors at a very young age precisely because they are that talented. Once they have the experience to go with that talent, they break out. You time it right, you profit.
Injuries Matter: Do not invest heavily in players who have undergone offseason surgery or who have lengthy injury histories. Predicted medical recoveries do not always go according to plan. It might sound simple, but never forget that injury-prone players get injured. Note, this rule does not say you should never draft these players; it simply means you should not pay full price. For example, if you think a healthy Aaron Judge will be worth $40-plus, do not pay $40. He simply seems to always miss time. However, you should be prepared to pounce at $30. I always shake my head when I hear, “If Giancarlo Stanton did not get hurt, I would have run away with it.” Yeah, who could have seen that coming?
Big-Money Free Agent Signings Matter: Do not pay big bucks for free agents who signed big-money deals to play in a new city. Same rule applies to those traded to a new team. Adjustments (to a new city, new teammates, new place to live, etc.) often take a couple of months, and as a result, year-long stats suffer. (Note the same rule as above applies. Be ready to pounce at a discount on the big-money free agents, just do not pay full freight.) I have seen projections that predict very big things for George Springer in Toronto (or Buffalo or Dunedin or wherever they call home), but I am not going to pay the price in 2021.
Throwing Gas Matters: Do not invest anything but a very late-round pick or more than $1 (if that) on a Devin Smeltzer type (no offense Devin). Hard throwers are more consistent fantasy performers and easier to track. Plus, Ks come from hard throwers with late movement. Thus, a hard thrower is much more likely to become a strikeout pitcher and less reliant on his fielders.
Upside Matters: All late-round picks and low-dollar players should be those with upside as opposed to aging veterans with low ceilings.
Hype Matters: Do not pay full value for predicted-but-unrealized upside. Instead, pay for baseline performance with the indicators of a breakout.
Protection Matters – Ratio Protection That Is: In the ratio categories (BA, OBP, OPS, WHIP, ERA, etc.), do not take any players at high values who will cripple your ratios. There is always another player there.
Home Park Matters: You need to get a discount on Coors Field and Camden Yards Pitchers. Look at Ballpark Ratings for other examples.
Speed Matters: Only take one-trick pony speedsters if you get a huge discount. It is better to fill your roster with players who run some so that you have a balanced approach to speed and don’t become reliant on one player (usually one who does not help in other categories).
Conclusion: The S.M.A.R.T. System and the Rules of Engagement will not guarantee you a fantasy baseball title. What they will do is provide critical structure to your draft preparation and performance, trading, and in-season management. What the S.M.A.R.T. System and Rules of Engagement will do is give you the best chance to be celebrating with a Yoo-Hoo shower this October!
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