I started playing Rotisserie baseball in 1988. I read EVERY sports publication. Each Tuesday night I waited for the Baseball Weekly to get dropped at the newsstand. 

The League of Alternative Baseball Reality or LABR was founded by John Hunt in 1994.  The first season included Keith OlbermanPeter GammonsDanny SheridanBill JamesIrwin Zwilling & The Legend Lenny Melnick and Fantasy Sports Pioneer Greg Ambrosius. Amazing. Fantasy baseball now had celebrity status.  

In late 1997, as the GM of Fantasy for CBS Sports, I bought a sponsorship package from USA Today Baseball Weekly including a seat in LABR for the 1998 season.  We had amazing writers and baseball minds, but there was no way I was not playing.  We hired AOL Live to broadcast it. CBS SportsLine had huge online coverage and promotion for the first time.  I studied day and night. I was READY! 

I finished dead last.  


Over the next three years, I worked harder and was in the Top 5 all three years. Was telling this to my long-time college friend, Glenn Colton. At that time, Glenn was a federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.  Pretty cool right? Come on now, playing in LABR was WAY cooler? Glenn signed on to play as a team and the most successful duo in fantasy sports began.

We started to prepare for our first season in 2002.  We decided that we needed rules to agree on, so we didn’t fight. 

I said, if we must have rules, we need an acronym. There were systems out there and almost all of them had acronyms that I couldn’t figure out.  Baseball icon Ron Shandler had his LIMA system.  Was it really for “Low-Income Mound Aces”? Or was it named for the player that was a perfect fit for the system, Jose Lima?  Gary Huckabay’s algorithms for Baseball Prospectus were called Vlad.  Was that a player’s name converted to an acronym?  Nate Silver was coming out with PECOTA. Ok.  Well…that is an acronym, but too HEADY even for a byte head like me: “Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm”. 

So, I suggested to Glenn that we decide on the acronym before we decide on the rules so they would fit.  That is when he said that I was being too “SMART”.  No one ever said that before, so PERFECT.  

“We’ll call it SMART because acronyms are DUMB”.  Then I said that I wanted to go further and call it SMARTASS.  With the new rules this year, we can add Age, Speed, and Shift.  We were just amusing ourselves as I am now.  We didn’t know that using these rules would win 10 titles between FSGA, LABR, and Tout Wars.

Will this set of rules work for you?  Maybe not these exact rules but have a plan with a set of rules for your style.

If you make your own system, please make a lame acronym like ours to define your rules. Would love to hear about those @FantasyAlarm or @RickWolf1 or @GlennColton1 on Twitter. 

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 premium for top-quality players or proven performers. For example, second base in the National League is scarce. However, as you will read below, each of the top 3 players breaks the rules of engagement. Ozzie Albies is coming off an injury. Jazz Chisholm both had injuries last year and doesn’t have a track record. That makes the rest of the players more valuable.  Tommy Edman had his second strong season in a row, so paying a couple of dollars over value makes sense.

Scarcity also pertains to statistical categories. With the new rule changes, this is incredibly difficult to gauge and understand for stolen bases and batting average.  Still, with properly adjusted projections you can factor that in. Check out Understanding Projections and Category Targets article.

M in SMART Stands for Management

Management means managing not only the draft but the entire season.  For us, in the draft, that means religiously following the SMART system and the Rules of Engagement.  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 are forced to deviate from your plan or one of your contingency plans.  The bottom line here is that if you make reasonable plans, you will never ever have to leave plan A!  If you plan on paying $20 each for José Ramírez and Trea Turner, well, that plan will not work.  If you want both of those guys, you better budget around $90-95 and stay close to that range. 

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; 5) watch who your competitors cut and see if the advanced metrics suggest 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); and (6) this year, track the affects of the rules changes on players to get an understanding of how it will affect those players or similar players.

A in SMART Stands for Anchors

Before the draft, identify and target specific starting pitchers who will give you production in the four non-save categories.  As a 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.  Anchor means a pitcher who is as sure of a thing as there is to start atop your rotation. Bottom line here: anchor doesn’t mean get the best pitcher in baseball as the cost is often way out of whack. There are usually 4-5 pitchers in each league who can be your anchor.  Make sure that they do not violate the rules of engagement below.

One more thing for this year, is to get a discount on pitchers who consistently take longer than the pitch clock timing.  Guys like Burnes, Kopech, Verlander, Manoah and Giolito all average over 20 seconds between pitches.  With the pitch clock at 15 seconds for when no one is on base, this could make them less effective for their first couple of starts.  That is enough to throw off a season.

R in SMART Stands for Relievers

Get a steady solid closer on a good team that throws hard.  Pay for your one closer and then speculate thereafter.  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.  Emmanuel Clase and Jordan Romano are two of the steadiest targets for a closer. 

T in SMART Stands for Team

A very important part of the SMART system is to make sure that when in doubt, 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 opportunities for pitchers to get wins/saves.  Plus, players on good teams do not get traded to be backups or set-up men in July.

The Rules of Engagement

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 25-31) with a proven track record.  Players without a track record may produce full value but why risk it?  For instance, recently noticed that helium has started for Gunnar Henderson.  He had 116 at-bats in the majors.  Have seen some projections with him hitting 30 home runs.  He will not be on my teams.  Not because he is not going to be a great ballplayer, but because the price you will pay will be too much for the risk.

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 their 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. 

For power spikes, it is usually the year that a player turns 25.  Look for steady players whose power has not popped yet.  I am looking at O’Neill Cruz and Jazz Chisholm to take the next step this year.  

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 George Springer will be worth $30+, do not pay $30 but be prepared to pounce at $20 or so.  He had off-season surgery and has been hurt in each of the last two seasons. That said, at $20, you have serious profit potential and do not need full-time health. 

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.  

Trea Turner signed an 11-year, $300M deal to move to the Phillies.  Many professional players can transition, but this has all the hurdles of an April struggle.  Turner moves to a city with intense fans and media. He is married for four years so changes will be difficult there too whether it is long distance or moving to the city of brotherly love.  Expect a 10-15% reduction in stats so pay 10-15% less at least.  There have been exceptions to this rule, like J.D. Martinez arriving in Boston and blowing up the stats sheet but they are exactly that -- exceptions.

Throwing Gas Matters:  Do not invest anything but late-round picks or small dollars in Rich Hill-types.  Hard throwers are more consistent roto performers and easier to track.  Plus, Ks come from hard throwers with late movement.  In the last few years, Hill was on a good team and got some wins, but with a 7.9 K/9, it is hard to invest in that for today’s game. Thus, a hard thrower is much more likely to become a K pitcher and one less reliant on his fielders. In today’s game, all of your pitchers have to have more than a strikeout per inning pitched.

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 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 and Camden Yards Pitchers and PetCo Hitters.  Look at Ballpark Ratings for other examples. Important this year to look at the balanced schedule effects.  May be easier to take players that were in the NL West as pitchers will play less games at Coors and hitters at PetCo.

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). This has become more important as there are only 19 players in the majors projected for more than 20 stolen bases with only seven in the NL.  You need to get guys who run some from just about every player on your roster.  Well, except for 2nd catcher.  This year, you need to really focus on younger players and the smarter baserunners. Players will be able to steal more bases with the new larger bases.

Conclusion:  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 trash-talking this October!


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