Rotisserie, or Roto as it’s colloquially known, is the grand pappy of all fantasy baseball formats. The original leagues formed in the 1980s used that style when they first started and it’s still the most popular format today. Perhaps the reason it’s still the most popular league type is that there are a ton of ways to build your teams from year-to-year based on a ton of factors. We’re just coming off of the fantasy football season and in that sport, there’s really only two ways you’re going to start building your team, you’re either going receivers or running backs through the first few rounds and then hope you find the right value guys the rest of the way. In fantasy baseball though, and especially in roto leagues, there’s no set way to build a roster and every year, people win their leagues using completely different strategies from the year before or even from league to league.
In this piece, we’ll give you winning strategies to take down your league(s) no matter if it’s a start-up this year or a long-lived league. But it’s not just about strategies in the preseason and for league setups as you’ll need in-season strategies too and how to approach things based on how long you’re going to be with the players you’re selecting or picking up. By the end of this piece, you should have a very solid base on which to build from for your roto leagues.
General League Concept
Now let’s get a few things straight, rotisserie has to do with the scoring style of the league, not whether it’s a keeper or dynasty or redraft nor does it have to do with league size as you can have any size league and still play roto scoring. Also, just because you’re playing in a roto style league doesn’t mean you’re limited in the way you’re league will draft as you can do snake, auction, draft-and-hold, or random number generated order. Typically, you’ll see a roto league described as a “5x5” or “6x6” in reference to the number of categories for hitting and pitching that the teams are scored in. These categories are where quite a lot of the customization happens in rotisserie leagues as there are standard sets of categories for both hitting and pitching, but plenty of leagues have gotten away from those “standard” groupings. Usually we’re looking at average, home runs, runs, RBI, and steals for hitters and wins, saves, strikeouts, ERA, and WHIP for pitchers in standard 5x5 roto setups but make sure you know your league rules, a draft guide piece is coming on that in early February, before you just assume what stats you need to be looking at/for in your league.
Is This Guy Worth Keeping?
If you’re in a league that’s a keeper or dynasty format, each year around this time you have decisions to make in terms of who you’re carrying over and who you’re throwing back into the pool for the draft. In roto leagues, much like every other league style, the decision mainly comes down to is the player worth the value you have to pay to keep them at whether that be a dollar value or draft pick. In points leagues, it’s generally reasonably easy decision as the players with the most points are the ones you’re going to keep. That’s not quite as easy to determine in roto style leagues. We need players that help with multiple categories to make them worth the price/pick we’re giving up for them. Sure, some of them are easy to tell who that will be, but what about the mid-tier players or the single-category guys who you’re just hoping they exceed expectations in other categories? The best way to try and sort these players out is to simply look at the at-bats or chance for at-bats you believe them to have. Projections clearly help with this and take into account roster constructions for the major league teams, but why are at-bats important for these players? Getting at-bats equals getting chances to produce and the more chances a player has to produce, the better chance they have of reaching the numbers you’re hoping for from them. The same thing can be said about innings pitched for pitchers. If you’re debating between starters to keep, the pitcher with more of a shot of getting innings is the more helpful one to keep. This is especially true in leagues with a minimum innings mark to hit. As for the single-category contributors, it comes down to how scarce that category is to find in the draft. Take steals for example, there are far fewer guys that are stealing 15 or more bags a year than guys hitting 25 or more homers a year.
Let’s Get Drafting
Regardless of the way the draft takes place in your league, be it auction, snake, or random order, the principles of drafting in a roto league are basically the same. We’re trying to get a team that can compete in all of the categories you’re league counts evenly so that you have a balanced team and one that’s less susceptible to slumps and injuries. Sure, it’s that simple. As they say easier said than done. What’s not included in that concept is the idea that you’re not going to get everyone on your team that helps in all categories and you’re not going to be able to get top players at every position, because… well that’s impossible to pull off. There is scarcity in positions and stats and premiums to pay on those positions and stats for the top contributors there, which if you’re not careful, can cost you late in drafts.
We’re not going to focus on the guys that go early in drafts, for the most part, because those guys are all well-known and their values are well established. So how do you go about getting a roster of players that fit the stated goal above? This should start well before the draft and involves looking at the previous year or few years of standings, assuming this isn’t a new league. Heading into every roto league draft that I do, I set up goals for each category that’s in the league that generally gets me into the top-five of the standings for each category. Why top-five and is this achievable? Choosing top-five means that if I hit that goal, I know I’m going to compete in that category and if I fell just short, I’ll still be in good standing. Averaging top-five finishes in categories is a good rule of thumb to compete to win the league. For example in NFBC leagues, both TGFBI and Main Event formats, they are 15-team leagues but the top-three finishers in most of those leagues cracked the 100-point mark in 5x5 formats. That means the top finishers average top-five finishes in each category to finish in the money. Now for the second part of that question, is this achievable? That’s where the rest of this drafting strategy section comes in, so let’s keep reading.
At the start of the draft, whether it be auction or snake, the base of the team needs to be setup well or you have a much tougher road to hoe to compete. Assuming you have keepers and you’ve kept guys that can help out in multiple categories and/or multiple positions, we’re going to use our first few picks to continue to solidify that base you started with your keepers. The players that can help in multiple categories or top starting pitchers are the guys that need to be the focus early on in drafts. Why? Well, as was talked about in the Single-Category Contributors draft guide article, it’s far better to rely on many guys helping some in a category than a few guys helping a lot in a category. Knocking out chunks of your category goals early in the draft also helps to show you where you need to strengthen later in the draft and can help you see how you stack up against your league-mates, especially if you’re using draft software or an online draft room that tracks these things. As the draft progresses, this is where we’ve got to go value hunting and focus on the scarcity factors talked about earlier. For example, second base and first base are notoriously thin for top-flight options and so keeping tabs on who’s still available in those positions as you get to the middle of the auction or snake draft is imperative. That’s not to say that you are reaching for names just to get a name but rather compare the projected stat lines of the options left with ones left at other spots. For example if you’re in the middle of the draft and you notice that there are only say three first baseman left with 20-plus home runs projected but there are several options with that stat left at other positions, it’s time to snag a first baseman. With pitching being so up and down from year-to-year, the best strategies for building a fantasy rotation is to get a top-5-10 starter to anchor the staff and then fill in with number two and three starters. That means early in the draft you should be grabbing a starter and then focus on hitting for a while before circling back to pitching, at least in a snake draft. For auctions, you want to follow a similar plan but if you see starters going for less than you expect, pounce.
As the draft continues to progress, the two things that should be simmering to the top of your mind are, firstly, do I have a few guys that can be played at multiple positions, or will qualify of multiple positions during the season, and secondly, what stats do I still need to reach my predetermined goals? In the back third of the draft, that’s where the single-category contributors come to the forefront as you’ll see in the piece linked above and those are the guys that are going to get you over the hump in several of the categories you’re trying to fill your goals for. For example, people tend to like to bolster their power numbers in the back half of a draft but that means it’s the perfect time for you to bolster the speed part of your roster as power can be found everywhere and especially in-season, speed can’t. Getting guys with high averages but not a lot in the way of counting stats is also the guys you will see going in this part of the draft like Adam Frazier and Bryan De La Cruz. Average, like steals can be a tough thing to find in-season so getting those sured up late in the draft is a great way to steal a few points in key categories without anyone paying attention.
Can You Punt A Category?
Now, if you’ve been paying attention, you may have noticed that there’s one category I’ve conspicuously not mentioned yet and that would be saves. While the other four, standard, pitching categories can be filled with starters and even swing guys, saves really has to be hunted for if you hope to compete for top spots in that category. SOLDS (Saves+Holds) leagues are becoming quite popular and holds are a bit easier to find, but are still, to a degree, as finicky as saves. So this begs the question that’s titling this section, can you punt a category? First let’s explain what we mean by punt. This doesn’t mean we’re not going build a roster that won’t put up any stats for that category, it simply means we’re not making it a priority and are simply going to pick up the scraps others look past. But wait, wait, wait a second, you just said we should target top-five stats in every category, what changed? That’s true, however you still only have to average top-five finishes to finish highly, and doing this way of building teams, in specific categories, allows you to focus on nailing down the others and keep the average finish in tact.
This isn’t necessarily for the faint of heart as you are in fact actively giving league mates an advantage over you in a definitive way, but the logic works both ways. If they are expending money or draft capital to get that one category on their roster, that means they’re missing out on filling out others in a strong way. This in effect means that while they’re busy bidding up or using mid-round picks on closers, you can take a five-category hitter or very good SP2 option who really shouldn’t be falling to you. Saves is an especially good category to use this strategy with because of the volatility of the role and the rate of injuries for pitchers. An example of this was last year with those that spent a bunch of capital on José Leclerc for Texas coming off a great 2020 while no one was paying attention to Ian Kennedy or Joe Barlow. Both of those guys went undrafted or late in leagues but still got you a good amount of saves while Leclerc was injured. Paying attention to teams who may trade players at the deadline or players who are on shaky ground coming into the year is a good way to get bargains in a category like saves.
Now We’re In-Season
We’re done drafting we’ve kept the players we want to keep and now the season is starting, is making moves any different in roto leagues than other ones? Yes, is the simple answer. Unlike H2H and points leagues where it can be apparent very quickly that you need to change things up, in roto leagues, it’s a longer wait-and-see period before you make big moves. Now if a guy gets injured early on and will be out for a while, that’s a clear move that needs to be made, but if a player is just off to a slow start, it’s still possible to make up ground when that player gets going again. A perfect example of this is Anthony Rendon in 2016. That year he was expected to be a 20-90-90-10 third baseman with a good average, in April he hit zero homers, with one RBI, and a .242 average and people bailed. What happened? He finished the year with 20 homers, 91 runs, 85 RBI, 12 steals, and a .270 average which is exactly what you got him for. Bailing on him and trading him away meant that you’d have given a .291 average and basically all of the counting stats to your opponent and you’d still be stuck with the .242 average bringing you down.
Pick-ups are a different story though as we want to capitalize on the hot hands and flavors of the week when they happen, that is without losing guys who are keys to the roster. Everyone remember when Aristides Aquino had his moment in the sun for Cincy a few years ago? It doesn’t matter that he hasn’t done squat since, those that capitalized on that late-season run got a major boost in categories. Baseball is by definition a streaky game and so getting as much exposure to the hot streaks as possible is always good but that doesn’t mean to mortgage the rest of the season for them. Another thing you don’t want to mortgage the rest of the season performance on are rookie call-ups no matter how highly touted a prospect is. We’ve seen plenty of big name prospects come up in the last few years and take a while to get going, Jarred Kelenic and Andrew Vaughn last year are prime examples, Jo Adell and Brandon Marsh in L.A., and Clint Frazier before that. We just never know how well or how much a rookie is going to play when they come up so take a while to evaluate their situation before making a key move for them.
Ups And Downs
Every fantasy setup has its pros and cons regardless of sport and roto fantasy baseball is no different. A few of the major pros with this format are that it gives you the most flexibility with how you build your team. This format is also the most customizable one offered in terms of draft style, league-size, categories included, and how deep of rosters you play with. It’s also the format that allows for the most movement up and down the standings throughout the year.
For each of these pros though, there are cons. A few of the major ones are that it’s perhaps the most involved version of fantasy baseball as there is more to pay attention to in this format than any others. If you’re playing in a customized league with different stat categories than standard, it can be tougher to find projections and/or appropriate draft values. If you’re in a deep league and injuries hit, it can be tough to get adequate players to fill in the roster and still make up ground in the standings. The final con to this format is that if you are drastically behind in ratio stats early, it can be tough to make up ground after the first couple of months.
Rotisserie leagues have been around the longest of any league type in the history of fantasy sports and there’s reasons for that. They’re endlessly customizable, can best imitate how MLB teams actually build their squads, and can make riding the roller coaster that every season is that much more in-depth. If you want a more in-depth way of playing fantasy baseball, roto leagues are hard to beat for that experience but you have to be up-to-date with news and injuries to excel at them.