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Fantasy Baseball Draft Strategy: Punting Categories

Feb 14, 2019

Punting categories is risky, but it can elevate your squad if done well

It’s draft day and you’re sitting at your computer with your rankings and perhaps a notepad, or maybe you’re actually among the company of about a dozen or more friends as players begin to come off the board. A few rounds later, it happens, there is a massive run on a category and you’re left on the outside looking in at a void of viable options. You quickly realize that your team has more statistical holes than players to fill them. It’s here at the fork in the road where you see the path of taking some uncomfortable names on your roster or where you look to sacrifice an entire category to make sure you’re competitive as possible in the others. The time comes, sometimes out of anxiety, sometimes via necessity, you need to make a decision. You ask yourself, “Am I about to punt (insert category) here?”

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To begin, let me say that I’ve personally never gone into a single draft (any sport) with the intention of punting categories, but I’ve done it. Doing so successfully can rely largely on the difference in being ready to roll with the punches at your draft or not. Punting categories is almost something that is done in-season. This strategy often crosses our minds in the draft room but rarely becomes a possibility until we’re way behind in a category. In my experience, it’s almost always been out of need if you’re actually punting at the draft.

Whether it’s rotisserie or head-to-head, sometimes we need to make a sacrifice and being prepared to do so is always important. Those of you in points leagues, don’t punt categories. Your main focus is to accumulate as many points as possible by any means necessary, so by all means, do that. But those of you in head-to-head leagues, you need to win your matchup by being better in more categories than your opponent and sometimes punting one category means beefing up in another.

Last year, punting categories was territory I was all too familiar with and I’ll take you through a couple examples as there are different ways to execute the risky strategy of punting. I feel like it would be irresponsible of me not to explain that I consider it risky because it can cost you a championship. In some leagues, if you’re not fully investing in competing in every statistical chase, you simply won’t have a shot at the title. I’ll explain why punting was both the right and wrong moves in different ways in different leagues for different reasons. Now I know people don’t care about my 2018 fantasy baseball teams, but giving you a hands-on account of specific, recent examples is likely the most logical way for me to give you a taste of the strategy.

Take for example two 16-team leagues, one head-to-head and one rotisserie. In both of these drafts, hitting goes faster, and I knew that was even truer in the head-to-head league. The roto league was not as extreme, still giving each owner an opportunity to draft a very balanced roster. My concern was over picking near the turn in a league with two extra categories on both the hitting and pitching side. The 7×7 roto draft was playing out well when out of nowhere, nearly all of the good setup guys started flying off the shelf just after a pair of my picks.

All the elite guys known for helping your ratios had disappeared by the time it swung back around, leaving me somewhat shocked when my pick came up next. I’ll admit, not having researched middle-relief as much as I wanted to really stung me here, and it was there that I had a clue as to what was about to happen. Not being comfortable with the remaining question marks of middle relievers at that point in the draft, I elected to bolster my infield with a pair of value picks that would later prove to come in handy. I arrived at a decision when I was on the clock next time around. I was definitely punting holds. For pitching, I recommend only punting categories like wins, saves, and holds.

For hitters, I recommend only punting speed or batting average. It’s never a good idea to punt power bats because the associated numbers that come with power like runs, home runs, and RBIs, are subsequently also reduced in a manner that hurts you across those counting stats. Something to remember if you go down this road is that it’s easier to punt a category that requires you to carry a certain type of player on your roster, kind of like the example above with middle relief/setup arms and holds.

Therefore, it’s best to try and punch up those counting stats and navigate away from statistics that require you to roster a certain type of player. In this instance, I punted most, if not all, middle relievers in favor of other players that gave me depth elsewhere like stolen bases and saves. Those two categories are also viable punting options as you must roster a pair of closers to pick up a competitive level of saves in most leagues and it’s imperative that you have speedy position players on your squad to pile up bag thefts.

This is where league formats come into play. Being familiar with your league settings and scoring is paramount. If you’re familiar with a league, then you may know for instance that saves are critical for success, or what’s more, that closers usually fetch a high price tag when it comes time for owners to spend free agent acquisition budget. This is a huge advantage as you’ll probably want to use a pick or two on closers so you’re not stuck shelling out FAAB dollars for highly volatile back-end bullpen arms in hopes of getting lucky. Inversely, if you don’t have FAAB in your league and you know you can scoop up closers off the waiver wire here and there, maybe you don’t spend draft capital on closers.

The roto leagues I referenced above was like that. I drafted a couple closers, but flipped them for bats. I was able to do an excellent job of picking up closers as the season went on and I ended up finishing first in the category.

In a head-to-head format, things are largely dependent on your week-to-week performance and not the sum of your season-long efforts. Making good waiver moves is also clutch and plays a huge part in your strategy. That said, if you’re holding onto a couple fringe bullpen guys and you’re facing a host of teams in the next few weeks that are loaded with good closers, then perhaps unloading fringe bullpen arms would be best. This is especially true if you’re able to pick up a guy that can help you with steals, or maybe landing a two-start pitcher that has a couple of favorable landing spots. Weekly matchups require more strategy to win that a roto league, but they also provide more opportunity to be competitive.

When Kevin Kiermaier went down last year, Mallex Smith stepped in and not only got you stolen bases, he hit for average in the process. If you were rostering someone like Blake Parker and decided to move on in favor of Smith, you scored a player that would help you for the long haul.

It’s tough in a head-to-head format to analyze for the weeks ahead, but try it. Go look at your upcoming schedule. Does the team employ a bunch of rag-tag starters and strong relievers, do they have a bunch of power bats and no speed? This is where you take control. Don’t be afraid to trade or drop a player if you know that the upside of another player, or even a free agent hitter or pitcher that’s sitting on the wire, could potentially offer you a more competitive roster going forward, even if it means punting stolen bases or saves.

In head-to-head leagues, it can always be a short-term deficiency if you’re aggressive with waivers or willing to trade to get back into a position to compete in said categories once again. So many of these lesser parts are interchangeable and the replacement value is out there on the waivers.

Waivers and draft strategy are so important, but the evaluation process is also a major component to success when you punt a category. For example, you did your best on draft day, but it’s mid-May and your team is lagging behind in holds. Don’t be afraid to jump ship on the one or two reliable relief pitchers you have. If they’re not getting holds and helping your ratios, there’s really no need to move off them.

However, if these are guys that you simply had for racking up holds, the time may be right to deal them for a player with multi-positional eligibility that can help you field a complete roster every day. It’s things like this that will ultimately help your team. After all, if you were going to get last in holds anyway, why not tank that category completely and help boost the others? Even if you’re doing it after the draft, you can still makeup ground on the competition.

Know when to leverage your roster for that purpose. Don’t wait until it’s urgent. Try to read the direction of your team in advance.

Knowing your team’s strengths and weaknesses in the draft room and mid-season can go a long way. Knowing when you can’t make up enough ground and re-evaluating your strategy is key and making sure you’re doing the right things to stay competitive. Sometimes, that means not being afraid to punt…just make sure you’re prepared to do it. Practice drafting with your league settings, you can be more prepared, especially in keeper leagues. Get a feel in advance just in case it comes to that.

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Josh Dalley is a correspondent at FantasyPros. For more from Josh, check out his archive follow him on Twitter @JoshDalley72.