My Personal Fantasy Baseball Primer

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.

Happy spring!

Baseball’s back!

It’s been a long Minnesota winter. Really long. And cold. And snowy. And cold. Baseball is one of the most rewarding-feeling sports to see start up… it just conjures up so many pleasant images and sensations – the smell of the grass, the feeling of the sun on your skin, a crisp breeze, a cold beer, the crack of the bat, the thunk of the ball in the mitt. The color of baseball is green, for me… the vivid green of center field grass; the color of spring and revitalization. Yes, I am happy to see baseball back.

Personally, I’m a Tigers fan, as previous posts indicate. That’s my hometown team, you see. As a displaced Detroiter, I feel even closer to them that I would at home… they’re one of my connections. At any rate, I think this year’s Tigers – in Year 1 of the Ausmus Era – will look a lot different than last year’s Tigers. Comerica’s not a hitter-friendly park; one of my concerns with the Fielder signing was that we’d lose games in which we didn’t mash, and sure enough, the plodding Tigers team of the last couple years had trouble “manufacturing” runs in tight games. The Fielder trade is good for the team’s economic flexibility, but also a boon for lineup flexibility. Cabrera will probably get an extension and remain the central power threat in the lineup, but otherwise, Dombrowski seems to have realized that a small-ball squad might yield better results than the softball team he fielded previously. The new lineup seems designed to take advantage of Comerica’s spacious outfield to produce doubles and triples and cause more havoc on the basepaths. Both Boston and St. Louis fielded similar-looking teams last year, so I can’t lament the loss of power as a result. My bigger concern remains the bullpen, just as it was last year. I didn’t like the Tigers going out after Joe Nathan; there were plenty of reliable relievers on the market that could have been had at smaller prices, with that $10M/year easily being spread out among 3-4 guys. But Dombrowski is very obviously enthralled by the closer tag, based on the Valverde reclamation project last year and the Nathan signing this year. That’s a shame; if you look at Boston and St. Louis, neither team finished the season with their season-opening closer. Both teams, rather, had incredibly deep bullpens. The Tigers might have a top-flight closer, but age concerns aside, what happens when their shaky middle-innings guys can’t carry the lead? Both set-up guys – Al Alburquerque and Bruce Rondon – are essentially unproven in consistent roles. The best player in the bullpen last season is starting this year (Smyly) after the mind-boggling Fister trade. Joe Nathan’s been a great pitcher, but wouldn’t that $10M/year been better spent spread across a combination of guys like Jose Veras, Jesse Crain, Chris Perez, or Scott Downs? Maybe even throw in a trade for a guy like Luke Gregerson, especially given how little Oakland dealt to obtain him? That’s a lot of money in one guy that doesn’t help an already thin area. Nevermind the Joba Chamberlain deal, which I think is a reasonable risk at a reasonable price – but I’d feel better about it if the bullpen was deeper.

I live in Minneapolis, though, so I’m inundated with the Twins. As such, I can expect another year of very boring local baseball – it’s hard to get excited about the Twins right now. They’re waiting on their mega-prospects, to be fair, but they’ve also demonstrated an inability to make critical moves at critical times and/or acquire reliable starting pitching. The Twins have seen valuable expiring contracts walk away as free agents when they should have been traded; among these are Joe Nathan, Michael Cuddyer, and Jason Kubel. More recently, they’ve failed to capitalize on peak trade values of Josh Willingham and Glen Perkins; I appreciate the desire to keep your good players, especially when you want to fill up a new stadium, but let’s face it – Willingham isn’t part of the bigger plan, and Perkins is a closer… by the time the TWins are relevant, they could develop a new closer and/or Perkins could be less effective, as the shelf life on closers is so short. The White Sox made a daring deal this winter by dealing their young closer – Addison Reed – for help in other areas; that’s the kind of move the Twins should have made last year. So, at any rate, I feel like it’ll be another year of vaguely boring Twins baseball.

One thing that always intrigues me is how my pre-draft fantasy baseball plans look in my keeper league (more on that in another post). Without realizing it, I’ll end up keying in on several guys from a team that wasn’t successful the year previous, making me wonder if this year will be their year. Last year, for example, that team was Kansas City – I was really looking hard at Salvador Perez, Alcides Escobar, Greg Holland, and stuck with Mike Moustakas as a one-year keeper. I asked myself, last March, “wait a sec, do I expect this team to be good?” I kinda did. And they kinda were. This year? I’m keying in on the White Sox. Avisail Garcia, Jose Abreu, Nate Jones, Matt Davidson… I feel like the White Sox have sleeper potential written all over them. In fact, I think the whole AL Central (other than the Twins) looks to be more competitive than it’s been in years. Cleveland and Kansas City are legitimate threats to Detroit’s reign, and again, I think the White Sox have serious dark horse potential.

Otherwise, I have no other predictions to give voice to at this time. I have them, yes, but that’s not what this post is for. I’m just happy to see baseball coming back. Expect to see occasional fantasy baseball-related posts, as I discuss the custom-format keeper league I’m in (and love being a part of), as well as general baseball observations. What matters most right now is that Opening Day is less than a month away and with it, hopefully, all the joys of spring.