There is a great debate out there in the fantasy sports community about whether strategy is really important. Many terrific fantasy sports experts say “let the draft come to you.” Rick Wolf and I respectfully disagree (albeit in a far more colorful fashion that begins with one of us scolding fantasy sports owners to “never ever leave their wingman” in classic Top Gun style and often morphing into both of us yelling “stop projecting” and “hillbilly” as we channel John and Jeremy from Wedding Crashers, but I digress). OK, seriously, after adding expert league titles eight and nine in 2014 (including a record shattering Tout Wars AL season), we are more convinced than ever that you need a plan and need to follow a proven system. If you want to maximize your chances of winning a fantasy baseball title in 2015, play SMART and follow the Rules of Engagement. After all (now channeling Tom Skerritt’s Viper), those rules exist for your safety and the safety of your fantasy baseball team.
S in SMART Stands for Scarcity
Each year, different positions in different formats are scarce. The first step is to identify those scarce positions and adjust the prices that you pay for quality players at those scarce positions. 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. Worst kept secret alert: I still believe Robinson Cano is the safest bet at 2B and well worth a premium. Arguments can be made for Jose Altuve, but after that…
M in SMART Stands for Management
Management means managing not only the draft, but the entire season. In the draft, that means religiously following the SMART system and the Rules of Engagement (more on that below). Specifically, it is critical to have a plan and contingency plans. One should never be so surprised by the results of a draft or auction that you deviate from your plan or one of your contingency plans. Is it a surprise that we followed our Tout Wars AL plan and won but deviated from our LABR NL plan in a way that cost us the title? I think not. Never ever leave your wingman!
Management in season means watching all the news and not being afraid to make a move to make your team better. Specific steps to take: 1) track prospects that may be coming up; 2) search for spot starts for good teams and those in good parks against bad teams; 3) find the vultures – watch who managers bring in when the game is tied as they will get more cheap wins; 4) spot playing time changes by tracking injuries/poor play; and 5) watch 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).
Before the draft, identify and target specific starting pitchers who will give you production in the four non-save categories. In so doing, be especially careful that you WHIP protect, as it is very hard to make up ground once many bad ratio innings are in the books. 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 thus yield a bargain. Remember, do not invest too much in pitchers who have only done it once or worse, not at all. How did it work out last year for those who invested $25+ or a first round pick on Jose Fernandez or $15+ on Danny Salazar? Anchor means a pitcher who is as sure of a thing as there is to start atop your rotation. Anchor doesn’t mean get the best pitcher in baseball, as the cost is often way out of whack.
R in SMART Stands for Relievers
Get a steady solid closer on a good team that throws hard. I know that many say “do not pay for saves.” We do not agree. Pay for your one save guy and then speculate after that. Make sure that you have at least two other relief pitchers that either get saves or are second in line—preferably on teams with shaky closers (see Hawkins, LaTroy).
T in SMART Stands for Team
A very important part of the SMART 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 RBI/runs. Good teams also provide more opportunity for pitchers to get wins/saves. Plus, players on good teams do not get traded in July just to be backups or set up men in July.
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 selections, pay for prime players (loosely defined as 26-32) with a proven track record. Players without a track record may produce full value, but why risk it? (Mea Culpa - Bryce Harper in round 1 last year was a classic violation of this Rule of Engagement). For your mid-range investments, focus on young players with decent baselines and more than 1000 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. Do not be that owner that misses Rick Porcello’s breakout because you forgot he was still only 26.
Injuries Matter: Do not 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. It may sound simple, but never forget that injury-prone players get injured. Note, this rule does not say do not draft such players at all, it simply means do not pay full price. For example, if you think a healthy Troy Tulowitzki is worth $36, do not pay $36 but be prepared to pounce at $24. At that price, you have serious profit potential and only need him healthy and productive for 2/3 of the season to come out even.
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. Adjustments (to a new city, new teammates, new place to live, etc.) take a couple of months and as a result, year-long stats suffer. Note that the same rule as above applies. Be ready to pounce at a discount on the big money free agents such as the Kung Fu Panda, just do not pay full freight.
Throwing Gas Matters: Do not invest anything but late round picks or small dollars in Kyle Lohse types. Hard throwers are more consistent roto performers and easier to track. Plus strikeouts come from hard throwers with late movement, so a hard thrower is much more likely to become a strikeout pitcher and one less reliant on his fielders.
Upside Matters: All late-round picks and low-dollar-amount players should be those with upside and not aging veterans that you could write down their max stats now.
Hype Matters: Do not pay full value for predicted but as yet realized upside—instead pay for baseline performance with the indicators of a breakout.
Protection Matters - Ratio Protection, That Is: 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. There is always another player there.
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: Take one-trick-pony speed-only guys 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 do not become reliant on one player (usually one who does not help in other categories).
The SMART 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, actual drafting, trading and in-season management. What the SMART system and Rules of Engagement will do is give you the best chance to be celebrating with a Yoo-hoo shower this October.