I love fantasy baseball. I started out as a fantasy football guy, probably 10-12 years ago.. gosh. I just remember winning my first league because it was the year Steve Smith went down with an injury, and Jake Delhomme and Muhsin Muhammed ended up being an elite QB-WR tandem that year. That’s how long ago it was. Anyway, about five years ago, a friend of mine started bugging me about fantasy baseball. He recognized my skills and seemed to believe I’d be well-suited for the deeper fantasy baseball. I relented and, in 2010, partook in my first fantasy baseball league. It ended up being a 9-man rotisserie league. Without a lot of baseball knowledge beyond my hometown team, I floundered in the middle of the pack until I got familiar with the statistical trends that govern fantasy baseball. Solid midseason waiver pick-ups ended up guiding me to a 2nd-place finish. After that, I took a year off – I wasn’t sure it was for me. In 2012, that same friend invited me into a new keeper league he had started. Also in 2012, another friend from my years in Seattle invited me to his redraft league. In 2012, I won the championship of the keeper league, and lost the championship round in the redraft league. Both leagues played again in 2013; after holding down the top seed all year in the keeper league (finishing in 1st by more than 10 games), I lost in the first round of the playoffs, and won the redraft league. Because it’s fantasy baseball and requires more attention, I don’t play more than a league or two per year – so my sample size is small, especially compared to fantasy football, where I used to carry 3-5 leagues per year. But make no mistake – that’s my track record of fantasy baseball coming into 2014. Five leagues. Two championships. Two second-place finishes. One non-championship playoff loss.
Going into 2014, it looks like my redraft league won’t continue. But the keeper league – named the Keeper Bank – continues. Most of my fantasy baseball posts will be tailored to the specific rules of that league, which are rewardingly complex. The basic twist is that the draft is broken into tiers every 4 rounds (A-tier = rounds 1-4; B-tier = rounds 5-8, etc). At the end of the season, every manager has to keep a player from each tier. Six keepers per year, one per tier, and they’re mandatory. On top of that, keepers are signed to “contracts” – each year, the manager has 3 one-year contracts, 2 two-year contracts, and 1 three-year contract to sign their six keepers to. Keepers are undroppable for the duration of their contract, although they can be traded (recipients of keepers via trade must honor their contracts). Contracts cannot be re-signed when they expire; expiring contracts return to the draft pool the next year.
I love this system. I can’t express enough how awesome I find the Keeper Bank. It’s a brilliant system that pushes all managers to find depth and value across their roster, and maintain good roster management all season. As I explained to a friend coming into the league this year, it’s less about finding a stud All-Star in each tier as it is about making sure you have some safety blanket in each tier, so that if you end up with less-than-stellar options, they won’t be actively bad options. The best example of this I can think of is that I kept Marco Scutaro in 2013 as a one-year keeper in my C-tier; I think he had round 12 value or thereabouts. Is that a great keeper? Not really. But he was solid. Outside of a cold stretch early in the season, he never actively hurt my team. I had studs elsewhere; you can’t win every tier – but the ones you can’t win, try not to lose, you know?
Anyway. My years of fantasy baseball, both in keeper leagues and redraft leagues, have taught me some lessons.
Rule #1 – There’s always more SP
There’s a reason people don’t “stream” position players. Starting pitching is deep. Always is. Part of it is that each team deploys 5 starters (sometimes more), so there’s a high probability of breakout players or impact rookies. I treat my fantasy starters like a real GM, to a point – I like to have one or two anchors in the rotation; maybe they’re aces, maybe they’re not – but they’re guys I feel like I can rely on. Last year, my anchors were David Price (my A-tier keeper, round 4 value), Max Scherzer (my F-tier keeper, round 25 value), Matt Harvey (drafted in round 11), and Shelby Miller (drafted in round 22). Price and Harvey were my true aces; Scherzer was just an obviously good keeper at that value (although I only kept him for 1 year, whereas I kept Price for 2… oops). Miller was a gamble that I figured was worth a late-round pick, who obviously panned out. After those four guys (especially after Harvey went down, and Miller started to tire down the stretch), I just rode hot hands. Some guys stayed in my rotation for months, some only for days or weeks. But there was always someone else to pick up.
Rule #2 – 2B and SS are the true premium positions
Power is key in fantasy baseball. You need HRs and RBIs. But the fact is, you can find those late in the draft at the 1B/3B/OF positions. Sure, it might not be an elite player, but you will find 3/4/5 hitters late in the draft who will get RBI chances. Perfect examples are Mat Adams and Alex de Aza, both of whom have ADPs this year above 170. If you’re feeling risky, you could gamble on Mike Moustakas, Justin Smoak, or Ike Davis, all of whom have ADPs over 240. But you know what you won’t find? Reliable 2B/SS. Gambles, maybe. But if you want a 2B/SS you needn’t worry about, you need to snag that guy early. In my first year in the Keeper Bank, I was saddled with garbage at 2B. I had Scutaro at SS, but my best option at 2B was Dustin Ackley. In 2012. I ended up doing something that’s conventionally unthinkable – I traded Clayton Kershaw for Aaron Hill. And, truth be told, it saved my team. I was deep in pitching and virtually empty at 2B. Hill’s presence immediately solidified my lineup. Last year, in 2013, I drafted Robinson Cano in the 1st round. Having a 2B who puts up 1B/3B numbers is a huge boon, because that simply isn’t something you’ll find on the waiver wire in June. If you’re asking me what my 1st/2nd-round targets are in a draft, I’ll probably tell you 2B and SS, unless I have a particular taste for a certain elite 1B/OF, or plan to take a 2B in the later single-digit rounds.
Rule #3 – Don’t overpay for saves
Obvious, I know, and I say this as a guy who took Kimbrel in the 3rd round last year in my keeper league (for a strategic reason, though). I treat my relievers the same as my starters – I like an anchor, and then whatever works. Kimbrel was my anchor, and is likely to be again this year as a 1-year A-tier keeper. After that? I forget. I finished with Koji Uehara and Chris Perez as my other saves guys. Both were free agent pick-ups. I think I started the season by drafting Kimbrel, Jason Motte, and Jim Henderson. The Keeper Bank also scores holds; despite being an obnoxious stat by nature, I enjoy the depth it applies across RPs. Using holds means many RPs gain value, and some players with serious misfortune on saves can punt the category and go after holds. I usually draft a couple holds guys, but they’re generally set-up guys who profile well as closers; that’s how I ended up with Uehara – I saw his stat line and the closer trouble Boston was having, snagged him as a holds guy hoping he’d switch to saves. When he did, I picked up Tazawa to replace him and got a one-two HD/SV combo that reaped rewards. This year, my eye is particularly on Rex Brothers and Danny Farquhar, although I think Farquhar is currently being drafted way too high for a set-up man who might become a closer.
Oddly, last year, my “drafting RPs” plan went perfectly in the Keeper Bank, but horribly in my redraft league. In the end, my best laid plans in the Keeper Bank went astray as Motte went down with injury (at round 8 value! Agh!) and Henderson imploded early; ironically, my very piecemeal redraft bullpen ended up being steady as a rock, despite including unsexy names like Steve Cishek and Bobby Parnell. Go figure.
Rule #4 – Victory lies on the waiver wire
Look, a good draft never hurts. No doubt there. It helps. The draft is where you find your corner stones; your 40-HR guy or your 40-steal guy, your 100+ RBI guys. But those guys don’t win your league usually. Success is found on the waiver wire, when it comes to reading trends and dropping that slow starter who never takes off for someone with a sustained hot streak. In all my leagues, I’m an active waiver wire hunter. I do believe that every player deserves time to shake off a slump, but that’s relative to your investment in them. If I gamble on Mike Moustakas in the 24th round this year and he bats .180 for the first two weeks, I’ll probably cut bait unless he’s been absurdly unlucky. Keeper leagues alter this formula slightly, as you might give a younger player a little more slack than otherwise, but I think it’s easy to get blinded by youth in keeper leagues – why wait forever on a potential 22-year-old stud when you could pick up a reliable 30-year-old who will put up similar numbers, and has a track record of doing so, for the next couple years?
Rule #5 – Steals are getting rarer, and therefore more valuable
Most leagues score steals, and steals can be a very feast-or-famine category for most teams. There aren’t a lot of 30-steal guys anymore; hell, there aren’t even a ton of 20-steal guys… especially not guys who won’t hurt you elsewhere. There’s a lot of hype around Billy Hamilton this season, but is he really someone you want on a well-rounded team? Sure, maybe he steals 50 bags this season. But is that worth having if he does so largely as a pinch-runner or he puts up otherwise poor numbers? Hamilton is a largely unproven player in every category other than steals – including his minor league track record – and he’s projecting an ADP around 70. Absurd. But this proves how scarce steals can be nowadays. Finding those 20/20 guys for your team can be a huge boon, and it’s partly the danger I ascribe to taking a high-end 2B or SS; the big boys in that category don’t steal so much anymore. I think OF is the place to look for steals largely, unless you find a speedy shortstop to your liking. If you can get a guy like Starling Marte or Coco Crisp or someone else with legit 20/20 potential, I don’t think it’s a poor decision to reach for that player. But also, know the teams a little – for example, Austin Jackson could put up 20+ steals every season, but the Tigers under Jim Leyland simply didn’t steal; on the flip-side, Kansas City is a super-aggressive base-running team. If you’re looking at a guy and counting on him for steals, make sure he plays for a team that will help you out (I say this with Austin Jackson as a keeper, entering year two of his 2-year contract).
Rule #6 – Have fun with it, duh.
Right? Chill out. Have fun. Make daring trades. Draft that prospect you love. Draft a hometown hero, even if you reach for him. Make bold waiver pick-ups. Watch some baseball. Eat some sunflower seeds. Drink some good beer. And try to find friends to play with; it makes a big difference. No matter how you draft, no matter what you prioritize over what, the only way to truly do it wrong is to not have fun doing it.