Strategy Tips: Beginning, Middle and End of Drafts (Fantasy Baseball)
I’m feeling a bit giddy today and it’s not just the four cups of coffee. The Super Bowl is over, and pitchers and catchers report next week, which can mean only one thing: Baseball season is right around the corner!
Now is the time to start getting serious about preparing for our fantasy baseball drafts. We’ll all be knee-deep in player rankings before you know it, but I like to begin my draft prep by thinking a bit more broadly about draft strategies — before I get inundated with daily news blubs out of spring training.
Last week, we dove into the hot button topic of position scarcity, but today let’s come at draft strategy from a different angle: How to approach the different portions of the draft (beginning, middle, and end). This advice will be primarily geared toward standard snake or linear drafts, but I’ll try to throw in a tip or two for auction drafts where I can.
In The Beginning There Were Busts And Non-Busts
As I mentioned in the position scarcity piece, good drafting starts with tiered positional rankings that allow you to maximize value. If there’s only one second baseman left that you really like but five first baseman that you rate relatively equally, it probably makes sense to grab the second baseman and hope you can get one of the first basemen with your next pick.
But often your tiered rankings won’t point toward drafting a specific uniquely-valuable player, particularly early in drafts. So what should we do?
As a general rule, drafting skill and knowledge become increasingly important as the draft moves along. In the early rounds, we are choosing between a group of great players. Yes, some of them may be a bit underrated and some may be a bit overrated, but they’re all going early for a reason. Even a novice fantasy owner can hit a home run with his/her first-round pick. It’s in the later rounds of drafts where the novice will be completely lost, taking a player who will have zero or even negative fantasy value, while the knowledgeable and experienced fantasy owner will be collecting diamonds in the rough.
Therefore, I like to adopt a draft strategy that bets on my ability to differentiate myself from the competition in the later rounds. And that primarily means not completely screwing up the early rounds by drafting busts.
With my early-round picks, I tend to gravitate toward safe, reliable fantasy assets, and try to steer clear of boom-or-bust players. That’s not to say I’ll never accept risk with early round picks. I’ve long felt the top starting pitchers’ potential impact in roto leagues outweighs their injury concerns, for instance. But I tend to err on the side of more stable early-round picks as a general rule.
So give me a Paul Goldschmidt or Nolan Arenado over a Giancarlo Stanton or Bryce Harper. Yes, I may be missing out on Stanton and Harper’s through-the-moon upside, but I’m also avoiding their significant injury risk. The bottom line is that Goldschmidt and Arenado have been top-10 players in standard 5×5 roto leagues each of the last three seasons, according to Baseball Monster, while Stanton and Harper have each managed that feat in just one of the last three seasons.
If you take Stanton or Harper and they again succumb to injury, you’ve suddenly dug yourself into a giant hole that you may not be able to get out of. Taking Goldschmidt or Arenado with a first-round pick is highly unlikely to lose you the league, and gives you a solid foundation to mold into a championship team with later-round value picks.
The same strategy applies to players I spend heavily on in auction drafts, whether it be early on or late in the draft. But in terms of strategy for the early portion of auction drafts, I’m not afraid to bid aggressively on the most elite players. This is another way of betting on yourself to find good bargains later on. I also tend to nominate players I don’t want early, hoping other managers will waste their FAAB dollars on them so that I can get the guys I DO want for less later.
Position Yourself In The Middle
The middle of the draft is usually when position scarcity becomes most important. Here, I want to make sure that I find a way to get a player at every position that I will feel ok about starting on Opening Day.
Sometimes there are more solid options at a position than there are teams in your league. For instance, if I’m in a 12-team league and I decide that there isn’t much difference between the catcher I have ranked fourth and the catcher I have ranked 14th, I might as well wait on the position for a long time once the top three catchers come off the board. Fantasy managers won’t typically draft two catchers in a league where they can only start one, so why waste a mid-round pick on the position when you can get a decent option much later?
At other positions, the drop-off in value may be far more severe. If you’re in a 12-team league, and there are eight or nine players at a position that you would be comfortable with as your starter, it’s worth prioritizing that position enough to ensure you get one of your guys. The middle rounds often feature a run of picks at a particular position, so you don’t necessarily want to wait until there is only one or two guys left that you want, particularly if there are a lot of other managers picking in between your selections.
Certain roto categories can also become scarce in the middle rounds of a draft, namely saves and steals.
From my experience, closer runs tend to happen in the late single-digit rounds of drafts despite the common refrain not to pay for saves. Depending on your league format, you can sometimes gain the upperhand by being the one who starts the closer run, getting the best options at the position and then forcing your opposition to devote picks to a position you no longer need to address.
While saves are the scarcest stat, stolen bases are also getting harder to come by — they have dropped precipitously across baseball over the last few years. So if there is only one elite stolen base threat left on the board, he might be a good value pick in the middle rounds of a roto league.
In an auction draft, I’m similarly willing to bid aggressively for players who fill scarce positions or categories that I won’t be able to address later. This strategy partly depends on the depth of your particular league, but the more confidence I have that I will be able to find $1 bargains late, the less concern I have about spending heavily in the early and middle portions of an auction.
Win Your League With Late-Round Steals
While the early rounds are about building a solid foundation and the middle rounds are about making sure your roster is balanced, the late rounds are the most fun of all because you’re now free of such concerns. This is the stage of the draft where boom-or-bust picks are just fine, scarcity is less important, and purely going with your “best available” player makes sense.
If you’re playing in a relatively shallow league, the late rounds are really all about upside. The cost of a failed pick here is minimal, so why not reach for the stars? Don’t waste a late-round pick on a player who will give you the same mediocre production as five guys who won’t even get drafted. Go for a guy who’s got a shot — however small — of being a true difference-maker, knowing that if he doesn’t pan out you’ll have plenty of waiver wire options available to replace him.
Some of these late-round picks might be buzzy prospects or popular breakout candidates, but the best draft-day values are players who aren’t on your opponents’ radar. This may be boring veterans who provide consistently underappreciated production or ageing stars who everyone wrongly assumes are about to be washed up. It could be bounce-back candidates who are coming off a down year, particularly if there’s a logical explanation for why last year was an outlier. And it could be your own personal list of prospects and breakout candidates that aren’t getting the attention they deserve from the fantasy community at-large.
The story is often the same in auction drafts, particularly in fairly shallow leagues. If you’re filling the back end of your roster with $1 picks, go for sleepers with legitimate upside.
Simply put, the late rounds are what separate the contenders from the pretenders. A bad fantasy manager may stumble into a late-round bargain or two, but a well-prepared manager will have a much higher success rate over the long haul. If you play your cards right, you’ll prove your fantasy acumen and gain a huge advantage over the competition.