Fantasy Baseball: Playing "SMART" In 2014
A guide to winning at Fantasy Baseball by Glenn Colton
The key to winning fantasy baseball titles lies in one simple word - SMART. Smart is more than a word that means intelligent, it is a rules based system my fantasy sports partner and cohort Rick Wolf and I created to help fantasy baseball players do what we have been fortunate enough to do: Win! The SMART system will help you design and manage your fantasy baseball team and maximize your chances of hoisting that trophy, getting a yoo-hoo shower, and boasting to your league-mates all winter long.
Before delving into the details of the SMART system, allow me to digress with a warning, some bad news and some good news. Warning: the paragraphs below contain many Top Gun references - it is after all, the Colton and the Wolfman theme. The bad news: Rick and I were not very smart in 2013. We tried to be too clever and deviated from the system. Shame on us. We learned the hard way what Maverick and Goose learned in 1986 - never ever leave your wingman. The SMART system and coordinate Rules of Engagement exist for your safety and the safety of your fantasy baseball team. Deviate from them at your own peril.
The good news is that Rick and I did something very smart in advance of this fantasy baseball season - we joined forces with an incredibly talented group of people at Fantasy Alarm. We now have the privilege of working side by side with the likes of the great Ray Flowers (aka the "Oracle") and the incomparable Jeff Mans (who defies any single nickname) - experts who no doubt will further maximize the chances that our readers and radio listeners reach the fantasy baseball promised land in 2014.
Ok, enough blather. What is SMART? Answer: An acronym that stands for Scarcity, Management, Anchor, Relievers, Team. How each of those key concepts work is detailed below. As you will also see below, since winning back-to-back titles in USA Today's LABR league - the grandaddy of all the expert leagues - Rick and I have added the Rules of Engagement to our SMART system to make sure that we never ever leave our wingman again.
Scarcity is pretty straightforward. Think about it this way. In a 12 team league, if there are 12 good first basemen, then everyone will get solid production at that position. However, if there are only two solid secondbasemen, then the team that owns the top-2 second sackers will have an big advantage over the other 10 teams. Thus, the SMART system says to allocate your scarce dollars in a way that makes sure you land a quality players at the scarce positions.
Two key considerations to keep in mind. First, you need to study the player pool to decide which positions are scarce in that year. Second, you must make sure that you pay the scarcity premium only for a top quality player, not a middling player who just happens to be better than his below average competition. Stated another way, if you think say Brandon Phillips is worth $20, feel free to pay $22-24 because you lock in production where others will lack. You can be secure in the knowledge Phillips is a talented, consistent performer who will provide good numbers even if you do not profit. On the other hand do not pay a premium for a middling 2B just because of the position. Darwin Barney will play everyday but he is a Punch and Judy hitter who cannot help you win. Scarcity will not change that.
It may seem obvious but this warrants repetition and a place in our vaunted acronym. One must carefully manage before, during and after the draft/auction. Before the draft you need to do your homework and know the player pool cold. Then you need to create a plan, with contingencies, for exactly how you are going to construct your team. Rick and I always have plans A, B and C before each draft/auction. Yes, there are a few fantasy baseball players out there that can rely on pure skill and seat of the pants value hunting to create a winner. However, unless your name is Jason Grey, Lawr Michaels or one of the other rare grandmasters, it is just too dangerous to fly without a flight plan.
During the draft it is important to manage your budget and make sure you stick to the plan while at the same time not hiding your head in the sand when huge opportunities could be popping up at the most unexpected times. In other words, be very diligent in avoiding temptation but do not be tone deaf. You may like Carlos Gonzalez but if you have not budgeted for a $35 outfielder, do not change your mind and pay the $35 throwing your plan into complete disarray because you have no willpower. On the other hand, no matter what your plan, if you hear "Clayton Kershaw $20 going twice" yell $21 - you will figure out how to manage through getting $14+ savings on baseball's best pitcher.
Another key to draft management, actually auction management, is to bid early while some owners hold their powder because other stars are still out there and then bid late once other owners have emptied their magazines. In the middle, cherry pick by being active in the bidding for many players but carefully bowing out once the bid raises the price beyond bargain level. Stated another way - in the middle of the auction, do not price enforce beyond a number where you would look in the mirror and say "wow that was a bargain."
In season Management means watching all the news, specifically, tracking: (1) prospects that may be coming up; (2) spot starters for good teams in good matchups; (3) vultures whose managers bring them in when the game is tied late; (4) playing time changes due to injuries/poor play. With this information in mind, make every move that makes your team better. Period.
The SMART system dictates that you roster an Anchor - an ace starter who you can, as safely as possible, count on to provide strong ratios, solid wins and big time Ks. Having such an anchor will allow you to overcome the lousy stats that will inevitably emanate from the back end of your fantasy rotation in everything but the most shallow of shallow leagues.
Yes, I know all pitchers are at risk of injury or a down year. However, every year there is a group of talented starters on good teams who have a strong track record of consistency and no known injury concern. In the early 2000s, Rick and I built our LABR title teams around Mike Mussina. Arguably, the Moose was not the best pitcher in the game but he was awfully consistent. This year, look at the likes of Adam Wainwright and Jordan Zimmermann - young hurlers on good teams who are long removed from Tommy John surgery and have strong years under their belts.ã€€
There are those who insist you do not pay for saves. We say that is nonsense. Just as you need an anchor starter, you need an anchor reliever. Getting a steady solid closer on a good team assures you of at least middle of the pack points in saves. If you then find the second closer by carefully managing your team, you are all of a sudden at the top of the saves heap. Also, while a solid and reliable closer will not throw 200 innings or register 200K, he will provide 70-80 innings of strong ratios. Thus, together with your anchor, you should already have 300 really good innings to support your staff. Not too shabby.
When in doubt, pick the player from the better real team. Good teams score more runs which not only makes it easier for hitters to get RBI/runs, it gives them more at bats during the course of the year with which to put up numbers. Pitchers on good teams will get more opportunities for wins and saves. Yes a closer could save 40 for a 70 win team but he is more likely to save 40 (and vulture some wins) on a 90 win team. Further support for the importance of the real world team is that starting players on good teams do not get traded in July to be backups or set up men (see Rodriguez, Francisco 2011; Wood, Kerry 2010).
RULES OF ENGAGEMENT
No matter how SMART you think you are. No matter how SMART your plan, it is very easy to get thrown off course during the stress and uncertainty that comes with every fantasy baseball draft and most certainly with every auction. Rick Wolf and I developed these rules to make sure that we minimize risk wherever possible and minimize the possibility of leaving our wingman during the draft/auction. You too can use these Rules to insure that you stay with Iceman rather than finding yourself searching the ladies room for your name on the second place plaque.
AGE MATTERS – Pay for prime players (26-31 for hitters and 28-32 for pitchers). Whenever possible follow the modified John Benson 27/3 rule – 25-28 years olds with more than 1000 ABs or 200 IP are more likely to jump to the next level. Don’t pay big bucks for players without a track record (at least 1000 ABs or 200 IP). Wil Myers might have a big year in 2014 but aren't you more confident in Adam Jones and his track record at the same price? Take your risks at the $1-5 range not at the big money range. To be clear, we are not saying you should never roster a young talented player who lacks a track record. We are saying do not roster such a player at close to full price. Insist on a 25-33 percent discount or spend your hard earned fantasy money elsewhere.
INJURIES MATTER - Don’t invest heavily in players who have undergone off-season surgery or who are oft-injured. Predicted medical recoveries do not always go according to plan. Plus, players who get hurt once, often to get hurt again. Of course, you cannot take this rule too far. This last part bears repeating, we are not saying you should never roster an injury prone player, we are saying do not roster such a player at close to full price. Insist on a 25-33 percent discount or spend your hard earned fantasy money elsewhere.
FREE AGENT SIGNINGS MATTER - Don’t pay anywhere close to full price for a player who just signed a big new contract in a new city. Players are human beings. They miss home, they miss their families, they need to get to know their teammates etc. However, most of all, players who have signed for enormous numbers press at the start in order to try and justify getting paid the gross national product of many countries. That means that most big money/new home players start slow and thus fail to put up year long stats that match their projections. So, what do you do? Come on, you can do it - you make sure you get a discount. Last year Robinson Cano was a $40 player when you consider his scarce position. This year, I will not spend more than around $30. Robbie may be Robbie in Seattle but I am not going to risk my whole season on him doing what Albert Pujols and many others could not do. I will spend my $40 on Mike Trout or Miguel Cabrera instead.
THROWING GAS MATTERS– Don’t invest anything but late round picks or small dollars in Kyle Lohse types. Hard throwers are more consistent roto performers. They are easier to track, have a greater ability to make a big pitch to turn a bad game around and are less reliant on their fielders. Of course, we are not saying avoid all soft tossers. However, when you get only one or two $20+ starters why take on the extra risk?
Note: To all those who will quote Summer Catch and ask when was the last time Greg Maddux threw 90? remember, Maddux is retired, on his way to Cooperstown and was a very unique and special pitcher.
Only UPSIDE When it Gets Late – All late round picks and end game auction purchases should be spent on players with upside and not aging veterans for whom you could write down their max stats now. Who would you have rather spent your last $3 for pitching on in 2013: Gerritt Cole or Livan Hernandez?
IGNORE THE HYPE - No pre-breakout predictions - Do not pay full value for predicted but as yet realized upside. Instead pay for baseline performance with the indicators of a potential breakout.
PROTECTION MATTERS - RATIO PROTECT. PERIOD. – In the average categories (BA, WHIP, ERA and if you play OPS, OBP), do not take any players at high values that will cripple your ratios.
HOME PARK MATTERS – You need to get a discount on Coors Field Pitchers and PetCo Hitters. Look at Ballpark Ratings for other examples.
SPEED MATTERS - Get Speed Across the Board – Do not rely on a one trick pony to fill your stolen base category. That guy will likely hurt you in three or all four of the other categories. It is far better to make sure that most of your players chip in SBs so that by the time your team speed is tallied, you have a strong number of swipes. It really is not that hard to make sure that your outfielders and middle infielders all register a decent amount of speed. So, do it.
I really could go on forever on this topic but I doubt the Oracle would allow it. So suffice it to say that you should stay SMART, follow the Rules of Engagement and tune in to Colton and the Wolfman every Tuesday from 8-10pm ET all pre-season on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio. Do that and you may just see your name on that championship trophy come October.