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Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy 2014: How to Build the Perfect Team

Andrew GouldFeatured ColumnistMarch 23, 2014

Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy 2014: How to Build the Perfect Team

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    Paul Goldschmidt helped many fantasy baseball managers emerge victorious last season.
    Paul Goldschmidt helped many fantasy baseball managers emerge victorious last season.Jennifer Stewart/Getty Images

    They say nobody is perfect, but that shouldn't stop fantasy baseball managers from trying.

    Technically speaking, the "perfect" fantasy squad would lead the league in every category or shut out every head-to-head opponent. Unless everyone else in your league is counting on Greg Maddux to anchor his or her rotation, that's not going to happen.

    A fine-tuned juggernaut, however, will do well enough. Winning is hard, and winning comfortably is even tougher. While some luck would help, I don't have a guide to correctly guessing which players enjoy lucky seasons.

    The beauty of fantasy baseball is the massive 162-game season limits luck's reach. Unlike football, one play can't swing several championships. This places the onus on draft preparation and team management.

    Seeking out fantasy baseball literature bodes well for your dedication to the craft. You'd be surprised how many casual players are content with printing out someone else's cheat sheet or just going with their gut on draft day.

    I'll warn you now: There's no fool-proof formula to winning your league. All I can offer is helpful insight and effective strategies that should tilt the odds closer to your favor.

     

    Note: All advanced stats are courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference.com, two essential tools for your draft preparation. 

Know Your League

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    Joe Mauer receives a substantial boost in leagues that include OPS as a category.
    Joe Mauer receives a substantial boost in leagues that include OPS as a category.Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    The first step is simple, but often goes ignored. You must know your league like the front of your hand. (You don't need to be as close to fantasy baseball as the back of your hand, but I'm assuming you have a solid grasp on what your hand's other side looks like.)

    What does that entail? Let's start with the basics. How many teams? Is it mixed or a mono-league that limits draftable players to just the American League or National League? Does it employ a rotisserie format, head-to-head rules, or a point system?

    Are there any weird quirks to consider? For example, I'm in a league that includes slugging percentage and OPS as categories, even though slugging is part of OPS along with on-base percentage. With that in mind, I fill my plate with affordable power bats in the Carlos Beltran, Nelson Cruz, Brandon Moss mold.

    More leagues are stretching to 6x6 categories, adding OPS and holds to the standard 5x5. That adds value to power-starved bats such as Mauer and Matt Carpenter that otherwise may seem overvalued. It also invites middle relievers into the fun, so stud set-up men Mark Melancon and Joaquin Benoit should get their due.

    If this isn't a public league or the inaugural season, look back at past years. In a rotisserie league, note how much production is needed to succeed in each category. Examine past draft results and your leaguemates' tendencies. 

    Not every league is the same. Knowing this becomes essential when appraising the playing field.

Create Your Own Rankings

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    Yahoo ranks Rick Porcello two spots ahead of the injured Matt Harvey as the No. 81 overall starting pitcher. I rank him as my No. 51 starter.
    Yahoo ranks Rick Porcello two spots ahead of the injured Matt Harvey as the No. 81 overall starting pitcher. I rank him as my No. 51 starter.Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

    Now that you've familiarized yourself with your league settings, it's time to buckle up and formulate rankings.

    If you're super serious about winning your league and know your way around formulas and spreadsheets, consider using a value system to create rankings based on projections. That may be too much work, but at least do some recon and ballpark a list.

    From assembling my own rankings before viewing Yahoo's order, I know I like Matt Holliday, A.J. Burnett, Jed Lowrie, Rick Porcello and Oswaldo Arcia much more than it. Locating this market inefficiency allows me to secure value picks, at least in my mind.

    But your perception of value could differ, which is why you need to put in the field work. I'm too timid to gamble on Billy Hamilton, but you might place him in your top 50, making him a coup at his current going rate. You can risk waiting a little longer, but at least this prevents you from falling too heavily under the draft host's influence. The same goes for in-person drafters crossing names off a magazine's cheat sheet.

    For a guiding hand, check out FantasyPros, which provides consensus rankings from over 50 experts. You can also see where each ranker listed a certain player, but don't take anyone else's word for gospel.

    Unless you're playing in a standard league with default roster spots and categories, nobody else truly knows your league. For example, top catchers need to be viewed differently in a two-catcher format. If you're playing in a long-standing league where aces always get taken higher than their average market value, you need to factor that into your rankings.

    Besides, what's the fun of drafting guys some stranger likes? Just because I view Porcello as a draft-day steal doesn't mean you share those sentiments. You're allowed to disagree with even the mightiest experts if you don't like the cut off their jib. I wouldn't blame you after that cliche.

Sabermetrics Are Your Friend

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    Drafters who used sabermetrics last year were able to aptly identify Adam Wainwright as an ace despite his high ERA.
    Drafters who used sabermetrics last year were able to aptly identify Adam Wainwright as an ace despite his high ERA.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    If you're serious about assembling the best fantasy squad possible, it's imperative to delve into the wonderful world of sabermetrics.

    Playing in a league where your peers think Jorge de la Rosa's 16 wins make him an intriguing target? Developing a working knowledge of advanced stats will give you a competitive advantage and increase your chances of engineering the best team.

    This is coming from someone with a journalism degree, so don't tell me you're not math-savvy enough to understand these numbers outside the typical box score. Here's a basic guide to a few of the most important stats (all available on FanGraphs) to help evaluate players. There are so many more useful metrics to consider, but I don't want to overload you, and quite frankly I'm not that smart.

     

    Strikeout and Walk Percentages

    The name explains this one pretty well. Don't expect high batting averages from players who constantly whiff. Justin Upton provided a disappointing .263 average due to an ugly 25.0 percent strikeout percentage in 2013. Meanwhile, a walk machine like Shin-Soo Choo (15.7 walk rate) puts himself in place for more run-scoring opportunities.

    These are especially important for pitchers, who hold less control over batted balls than hitters, but can take batters into their own hands with punchouts. It's also useful to measure these per nine innings, with a 7.0 K/9 or higher and a 3.0 BB/9 or lower good barometers for what you want.

     

    Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP)

    Perhaps overused at times, BABIP removes strikeouts and walks from the equation to determine how many balls found open terrain after contact. For hitters, BABIP is most useful when identifying outliers among career rates. Joey Votto finished ninth with a .360 BABIP, but that's hardly a fluke considering his career mark sits at .359.

    But consider the case of Max Scherzer, In 2012, his .333 BABIP was second among eligible pitchers. Last year, the dip dropped drastically to .259, paving the way for his career year. He owns a .302 career BABIP, so expect him to stray somewhere in the middle this season, which will veer his ERA north of 3.00.

     

    Batted-ball Rates 

    Batted-ball rates can often explain a BABIP discrepancy. Looking at how a batter or pitcher's batted balls are spread out between line drives, fly balls and ground balls is a better indicator of whether luck or skill played a part.

    Line drives produce the most hits, so .300 hitters like Votto, Mauer and Mike Trout will occupy the top of the line-drive rate leaderboard. 

    For pitchers, you want as few liners and fly balls (home runs are bad) as possible with as many ground balls, which produce the least damage and are most likely to result in outs. A ground-ball artist, Justin Masterson led the league with a 58.0 percent ground-ball rate last season, which helped him notch a 3.45 ERA.

     

    Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)

    Pitchers are at the mercy of their defense, which is another reason hitters draw more excitement at the draft table. ERA isn't always the best judge of a pitcher's individual merit, which is why FIP was created.

    FIP measures a pitcher's play with normal outcomes on batted balls in play. Strikeouts and walks are also weighed in the formula since hurlers determine those. There's also xFIP, which normalizes home run/fly ball rates to a league average. Many pitchers harbor above- or below-average tendencies on fly balls while not pitching in neutral parks, so FIP is the better metric.

    Using FIP during 2013 drafts led savvy drafters to Yu Darvish (3.90 ERA, 3.29 FIP in 2012), Max Scherzer (3.74 ERA, 3.27 FIP) and Adam Wainwright (3.94 ERA, 3.10 FIP). There aren't as many cases of underrated studs this year, but Doug Fister (3.67 ERA, 3.26 FIP), Homer Bailey (3.49 ERA, 3.31 FIP) and Corey Kluber (3.85 ERA, 3.30 FIP) make for strong choices. 

Play for 2014, Not 2013

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    Michael Cuddyer isn't hitting .331 again this season.
    Michael Cuddyer isn't hitting .331 again this season.Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

    The biggest sin drafters are guilty of committing is placing too much emphasis on 2013 stats. You're playing for this season, and the most recent results are not always the best indicators of future performance.

    It's easy to sort the available players by batting average and grab Michael Cuddyer due to his .331 clip. Look at that big, shiny number! A .331 hitter offsets any downfalls of owning an average killer like Pedro Alvarez or Mark Trumbo, who will make their living elsewhere.

    But you're not signing up for Cuddyer's 2013 stats; you're trying to figure out what he'll deliver this season.

    Here's a hint: not a .331 average. He's a career .277 hitter who enjoyed a .382 BABIP well above his .312 mean. There was no spike in any batted-ball rates to support such a bloated improvement. In fact, his 78.9 percent contact rate represented his lowest mark since 2006.

    If you stole Cuddyer last year, kudos. This time around, drafters should expect a .280 hitter once he regresses from last year's bizarre variance. Considering he'll turn 35 before the Colorado Rockies begin the season and has averaged 123 games played over the past three years, don't reach too high for the outfielder.

    To be fair, that's a fairly obvious one. Drafters tend to be swayed by poor seasons even more than they're encouraged by breakout campaigns. Nick Swisher has hit at least 20 homers in each season of his nine-year career, yet he's going unnoticed after batting .246 in 2013.

    Matt Cain holds a 3.35 career ERA through 1,721 innings, but his 4.00 ERA from 2013 has him tip-toeing on most top-20 starting pitcher rankings. 

    Kevin Gausman is getting dismissed after failing to light the world on fire during a rookie stint, but he is still a top prospect capable of delivering tremendous value. Despite his 5.66 ERA, Gausman generated 9.25 strikeouts and 2.45 walks per nine innings with a 3.04 xFIP. He holds sleeper appeal as a starter, but he could also become a top-15 closer should the Baltimore Orioles go that route.

Stay Connected Before Draft Day

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    Yordano Ventura has won a starting rotation spot and climbed up draft boards during an excellent spring.
    Yordano Ventura has won a starting rotation spot and climbed up draft boards during an excellent spring.Norm Hall/Getty Images

    Don't finish your rankings a week before draft day and divert your focus to March Madness. The research should not halt until draft day, and even then you should still pay attention during the season.

    Spring stats should not drastically change anything, unless there are any starting roles at stake or injury concerns. Unfortunately for pitchers, they're falling by the day.

    Kris Medlen, Brandon Beachy and Jarrod Parker will undergo their second Tommy John surgery and miss all of 2014. Patrick Corbin could be next while Cole Hamels, Hisashi Iwakuma, Mike Minor, A.J. Griffin, Josh Johnson and Jon Niese are all expected to start the season on the disabled list.

    You can't afford to fall asleep at the wheel with several pitchers breaking down. After adjusting your rankings accordingly, some hurlers will have to move up as a result.

    Managers will also want to stay abreast regarding position battles. Many skippers are taking their sweet time naming starters, but Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost gave the fantasy community some good news on St. Patrick's Day.

    After throwing six shutout innings in his latest Cactus League outing, Yordano Ventura was officially named the team's fifth starter, according to The Kansas City Star's Andy McCullough. Considering the young hurler's ability to hit triple digits on the radar gun, Yost said what many fans were thinking about his promise as a rightful major league starter.

    “It’s obvious,” Yost said. “Everybody in Kansas City saw it today. It’s obvious.”

    Two years ago, I saw a report that Ryan Madson will miss the entire 2012 season. This happened a mere few minutes before my draft. I could have potentially wasted a pick had I not checked for updates right before kicking things off.

Auction Strategy: Chase Value

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    Evan Longoria is an affordable star to monitor in a Yahoo auction draft.
    Evan Longoria is an affordable star to monitor in a Yahoo auction draft.Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images

    I have an embarrassing secret to admit. The other day, I completed my first auction draft in years.

    For someone obsessed with fantasy baseball, that's the equivalent of a film buff admitting to never having seen Goodfellas.

    Auctions are commonly the drafting portal of choice among serious gamers. After re-assimilating myself to the format, I quickly remembered why.

    Auctions give all league owners a chance to acquire anyone they please. Want Mike Trout? The highest bidder gets him rather than the winner of a random draw. Want Miguel Cabrera too? Well that's aggressive, and you're probably the type of person who runs out of Monopoly money after 20 minutes, but that's your prerogative.

    There's also no lull between picks. Selecting first or last in a snake creates some boredom, but you can't go downstairs and make a sandwich during an auction without missing a potential bargain. Use your bathroom breaks carefully.

    When it comes to auctions, I wouldn't advise entering with an unbending approach such as, "I want two top-10 players" or "I won't touch a top pitcher." Your task is to collect the most bang for your buck, so chase value wherever it presents itself.

    For this to hold any credence, you need to slab a dollar value on every player. After that, it's all about locating market inefficiencies. This is fun. I feel like Billy Beane.

    This is easier for those drafting on a site, where you can gauge values by comparing projected and average prices. In my 12-team, mixed-league Yahoo draft, I noticed Evan Longoria goes for an average cost of $28 while Freddie Freeman and Yasiel Puig—both of whom are considerably lower in my rankings—were typically appraised for around the same amount. In my mind, Longoria is worth $30 considering the league contains only 10 starting slots for position players, so I'd gladly grabbed him at $26.

    You'll have to take team construction into account, but don't be afraid to pounce on a good deal. I froze on Adrian Gonzalez, who went for an incredibly cheap $10 during a lull, because I already had Votto at first. I ended up grabbing Brandon Belt in my utility spot for $8, so I could have secured a better batter for two more bucks.

    With auctions, you don't have to worry about taking a closer before a run breaks out. You can build your ideal team under the given budget, so consider players you like more than anyone else and hope your peers aren't operating on the same wavelength. (Or reading your articles on Bleacher Report.)

Other Auction Notes

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    I had to change my auction plans when the bidding for Chris Sale surpassed my limit.
    I had to change my auction plans when the bidding for Chris Sale surpassed my limit.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Leave No Money at the Table

    Not spending your entire allotted budget is the worst mistake an auction drafter can make.

    And no, you're not excused from scorn if you toss your remaining $10 on Jason Vargas to occupy your final bench spot. That means you missed an opportunity to snag a $35 stud instead of a lower-tiered $26 player earlier in the auction. In mixed leagues, you'll find solid $1-2 contributors to round out your roster.

    It's OK to exude patience while everyone else is making their fake money rain at the start, but don't remain too passive. You're eventually going to have to buy some players, and the big names are usually nominated early.

    Trout and Miguel Cabrera will cost a fortune, but at least find an underrated star to lead your roster. Votto, Edwin Encarnacion, Adrian Beltre and Robinson Cano are the stars I believe deserve some more recognition, so don't be afraid to spend your idea of full price for one of them.

    Being the richest person in the room after an hour or two will be a blast, until you realize you just used your surplus to buy Daniel Murphy for $10 when Ian Kinsler was sold for $17. 

     

    Adapt

    If players are varying significantly from your values, it might be time to reconsider your values.

    During my auction, all the top-flight starting pitchers went above my price range. I wanted Chris Sale or Madison Bumgarner for $25, but I would have had to pay at least $27 for either. Gerrit Cole went for $20, ruining my idea to snag the breakout candidate for $15.

    So while I waited too long to win a true ace, I eventually secured Anibal Sanchez and went the extra dollar ($17) for Matt Cain. After that, I had no trouble finding mid-level hurlers of my liking (Danny Salazar, Fister, Burnett and Masterson) at affordable prices.

    If you stay too stuck in your ways, you might get priced out on a position of need. Say the initial bidding gets out of hand for stars, with all the superstar talent going $5 or more over your comfort area. In that case, forking up $1 or $2 more than you wanted to for a stud may no longer be an overpay.

Snake Strategy: Build Around Dependable Hitters

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    Adrian Beltre should be considered a first-round player.
    Adrian Beltre should be considered a first-round player.Sarah Glenn/Getty Images

    Auctions are fun and addictive, but snake drafts remain the popular vehicle to create fantasy squads. They're quicker and easier, and we're used to them by now.

    Before becoming the pretentious snob who frowns upon the peasants foraying into their common snake drafts, let's shift gears to strategize for the more-used format. By comparison, it's harder to plan for the traditional selection process. You wait for you turn, you take the best guy available. Repeat for 25 rounds or so.

    Of course, it's not that easy. Do you seek offense or pitching? Power or speed? Does positional scarcity make a big difference? 

    While the value approach still applies early in snake drafts, my idea of value is a sturdy, reliable hitter. Think Cano or Beltre for those picking later in the first round. Even if they deliver second-round production, you'll live.

    Keep loading up on offense with an onus on power. Five-category players are always ideal, but they don't exactly grow on trees. Don't worry too much about position scarcity, as catcher and second base are deeper than usual while first base features a barren drop-off from the stars to mid-level talent. 

    But I'm not encouraging you to ignore pitching altogether. Some experts are content with waiting as many as 10 rounds to address the position, but I want one ace in a standard mixed-team league. Pitching is deep, but that waters down the utility of mid-tier starters like Jon Lester and C.J. Wilson.

    According to FantasyPros' average draft position, which factors in five other ADPs from around the web, Sale, Bumgarner and David Price are all in play at pick No. 45 and later. Unless you can get a good deal on a better ace, consider the fourth- or fifth-round your area to pounce.

    If everyone else, taking the same approach, has shunned Clayton Kershaw into the second round, to heck with the plan. Pairing the indisputable ace with a top slugger of your choosing is too good to pass up, and you now don't have to worry about pitching for another few rounds. 

    Eventually, it becomes all about team construction. If Beltre, Votto and Jay Bruce form your offense's foundation, it's time to look out for speedy middle infielders. Everth Cabrera is a great buy at a 114 average ADP.

Other Snake Notes

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    Don't assume Koji Uehara will cost too much on draft day.
    Don't assume Koji Uehara will cost too much on draft day.Rob Carr/Getty Images

    Don't Overreact to a Run

    It's the seventh round of a 12-team draft. One owner takes Joe Mauer off the board, which leads to the next guy grabbing Yadier Molina. Two other managers panic and promptly select Carlos Santana and Wilin Rosario.

    You're on the clock now, so do you grab the best catcher left? Please don't.

    Sure, you can take Brian McCann here, who is barely separated from those other backstops on the catcher rankings. That is, he's No. 6 when somebody in that bunch is No. 5, but their actual production holds much more distance than one spot.

    McCann leads a new, lower tier of catchers that should not be sniffed in the seventh round, especially if the league requires one starting catcher. Wait 10 more rounds for Jason Castro or Wilson Ramos, who could very well outpace the New York Yankees' veteran if all pans out.

    If you planned on taking a third baseman before the person picking in front of you swiped your target, don't settle for the next-best thing unless you feel that player stands on equal footing with the guy you missed.

     

    Pay for Saves?

    "Never pay for saves." Most fantasy gamers have heard the saying before, so a majority of managers abide by the mantra. Could that possibly establish top closers as a market inefficiency?

    While I agree with the overall concept of waiting for affordable closers, I'm not comfortable limiting my options by completely removing top-tier relievers from the equation.

    ESPN's Matthew Berry has popularized this notion, so it's not surprising to see late-inning hurlers going later in drafts hosted by the site. Koji Uehara, who registered a 1.61 FIP and 11.22 K/BB ratio last year, is ranked No. 120 overall. At that point, I'm zigging when everybody else zags.

    As a general rule of thumb, don't plan on paying top dollar for Craig Kimbrel or any big-name closer. But in the right situation, don't stay stubborn to the philosophy.

     

    Target Upside Late

    You made the boring, responsible picks early in the draft. Now it's time to have some fun during the later rounds. 

    Someone comparable to Chris Johnson will pop up on the waiver wire during the season. Heck, Chris Johnson might be there if he starts off slowly. So why not swing for the fences on Mike Moustakas finally realizing his potential this season?

    Starting pitchers are especially interchangeable after the top names, so eschew Matt Garza and Ervin Santana for breakout candidates. Ventura, Porcello, Kluber, Zack Wheeler, Tyson Ross and Alex Wood all could finish 2014 as top-35 starters. Give them a shot to conclude the proceedings.

    Chasing prospects with limitless potential is a national pastime among fantasy gamers, but be sure you're acquiring players at a reasonable cost who hold a realistic shot at playing time. Don't soar for Javier Baez in Round 12; you'll be twiddling your thumbs for months as he cooks in Triple-A. But if the league rosters deep benches and the hulking infielder lasts long enough to occupy one of those slots, go for it.

Keep Working After Draft

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    Hisashi Iwakuma went undrafted in many standard leagues last year.
    Hisashi Iwakuma went undrafted in many standard leagues last year.Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images

    The draft is in the books, and your hard work has hopefully yielded a ferocious contender. Sorry, your job isn't over yet. You've assembled a loaded team on paper, but that won't matter if you lose interest by May. A watchful eye is necessary to maximize your team's value.

    Just like every MLB team entering Opening Day with an aroma of optimism, all owners are going to like their fantasy teams before the season kicks off. After all, you drafted based on your preferences. Why would you draft guys you don't like?

    Just like every MLB team, you're going to have to deal with injuries. The best-laid plans of mice and fantasy baseball owners will almost always go awry because, of course, every pick isn't going to pan out accordingly. Even the winning club will deal with some injuries and duds, but wise waiver-wire adds will offset them.

    In addition to injury management, you especially need to keep a watchful eye on your pitching staff. Make sure your probable starters are in the lineup, unless you've identified a poor matchup or slumping hurler you'd rather sit. 

    If the rules allows it, consider streaming starters. You don't have to go overboard picking up three matchup plays a day, but finding one or two pitchers a week with a fortuitous schedule will add up throughout the season.

    There's a common mantra to abstain from trading until June 1 so you can get a good idea for your squad. Nonsense. The beginning of the season provides rational owners with a golden opportunity to cash in on the impatience of panicking owners.

    Look for a proven pitcher sporting a high ERA despite steady strikeout and walk rates. Find a career .280 hitter who's batting .225 after a brutal week. Sell high on your streaky players who have caught fire.

    Your competitors may not understand the perils of small sample sizes. Even if they do, anxiety over sitting in the basement could drown out rationality. That directs well-meaning advisers to detest early trading, but they're really just opposed to making stupid trades.

    You're smarter than that. I trust you to remember your preseason research before and after your draft, which will guide you to a fruitful fantasy season.

     

    Looking for more fantasy baseball advice before draft day? Ask away on Twitter.

     

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