Strategy Tips: Beginning, Middle, and End of Drafts (2021 Fantasy Baseball)
Welcome to the third entry of our draft strategy series. In this edition, we will look at how to approach drafting in the middle of the early, mid, and late rounds. A lot of this depends on your league format and scoring settings, so make sure to check out how strategies differ between rotisserie and head-to-head (H2H) here and how strategies differ between H2H categories versus points here.
Early Rounds (1-7)
The early rounds are often the most exciting, with all the big-name players set to come off the board. It’s hard to win your draft in the first round. For the most part, every player picked is an elite stud at his position. However, it’s entirely possible to lose your league with a poor pick in the first round. This is not the round to take chances. In fact, the early rounds are where your team’s core is built, so let’s take a look at how best to minimize the risk factor and reap the rewards. I call this strategy the “triple play.”
Catching the Line Drive
Draft players in their prime (generally ages 26-32) since they generally perform like a line drive screaming off the barrel. They have enough of a track record to make them dependable, and they’re less likely to succumb to the injuries that affect older players and the sophomore slumps that often seize younger players taken in their second year after a rip-roaring debut the previous season.
Last year, Fernando Tatis Jr., Eloy Jimenez, Brandon Lowe, and Cavan Biggio avoided the dreaded sophomore slump. However, Mike Soroka, Pete Alonso, Chris Paddack, Nick Anderson, Keston Hiura, and Victor Robles were all early-round darlings that failed to deliver on lofty, perhaps unrealistic, expectations after successful rookie campaigns.
None of that means those players won’t be good in 2021, but it’s a lesson that baseball is hard, and it often takes more than one or two years to become a good Major Leaguer, regardless of talent. If nothing else, it should make you think twice about targeting a player like Jo Adell or Dylan Carlson with an early-round pick, even if both have the upside of perennial All-Stars in the near future.
Beware of players with long injury histories or no proven track record. I call it the Sizemore Rule – you don’t want to be the guy who takes a Grady Sizemore early because you think, “This is the year he puts it all together.” Some tantalizing talents never do (Byron Buxton, anyone?) or just can’t seem to ever stay healthy like Sizemore, whose body broke down right as he entered his prime.
Even some of the biggest names in fantasy baseball like Stephen Strasburg and Giancarlo Stanton are all sure to get drafted early this year, but it’s fair to pause given the extent and types of injuries they’ve faced.
Last year in this article, I said I would not draft Christian Yelich and Chris Sale due to injury risks at the time, and both proved to be right calls for different reasons. I likely won’t be drafting Sale, Strasburg, or Stanton this year; I likely won’t touch Clayton Kershaw or Carlos Carrasco either, despite the big trade to the New York Mets.
Jeff Zimmerman over at Fangraphs wrote a great article analyzing how the accumulation of injuries (120 days on the IL and three or more arm related IL stints) leads to a starter aging faster than normal. According to ADP, all these players (except maybe Yelich) come with arguably the highest injury risk of any other player drafted in their respective rounds. As much as I root for these players to be successful, drafting them is a risk I’m unlikely to make.
Stepping on Second
Our second “play” is to avoid the “super aces” and stockpile elite, versatile bats. Many people will tell you this isn’t wise because teams aren’t asking starting pitchers to throw 180-plus innings anymore, so the top hurlers are, in fact, game-changers at the top of drafts. But that’s the same flawed logic that says you should draft a catcher early (don’t) since only a handful are great hitters, and you’ll seemingly have an “advantage” that way (you won’t).
You see, this logic ignores the fact that the risk and variability that comes with gambling on a big-name starting pitcher early is still very much in play. In fact, starting pitchers continue to be the most-oft injured position in the game – pitching takes a toll. Thus, you’re better off grabbing elite standouts at other positions.
And here’s a tip – whenever possible, draft elite bats that also possess multi-position eligibility. Being able to juggle a lineup last year that featured some combination of DJ LeMahieu (1B/2B/3B), Brandon Lowe (2B/OF), Gleyber Torres (2B/SS), and Manny Machado (3B/SS) provided invaluable roster flexibility to handle off-days and injuries.
The Throw to First
For our final “play,” we make a conscious pivot. Somewhere around Rounds 4 and 5, you need to shift your focus to pitching. It’s here where you want to target those arms ranked between the top 10 and 25. If any arms in the top 12 have slid this far, jump on that like a stock tip from Warren Buffett. In fact, do your research to identify these hurlers most likely to leap into the top 10 or 12.
Focus on starters with high K/9 rates (supported by SwStr%), high ground ball percentages, low hard-hit percentages, O-swing (how often hitters swing at pitches outside the zone), and BB/9 (a sign of how well a pitcher can command the zone). It’s always good to consider Zone% when you look at BB/9 since if a pitcher stops throwing in the zone and hitters refuse to chase (e.g., infamous breakout-turned-bust, Zack Godley, in 2018), the walks pile up.
I call these five analytical tools the “Five Finger Pitch” for the evolution of a fantasy starter (coined after this great theory on human evolution from Paul Anderson from TEDEd) ) since they are the processes of what generally makes a pitcher evolve into a fantasy stud. Try to draft at least three of these arms. If it sounds like a lot, don’t worry – I will go over how to apply the “five finger” trick in drafts for a future article.
Middle Rounds (8-16)
The middle rounds are where you fill out your roster after drafting your core. It’s best to finalize your starting roster here before, say, adding a fourth and fifth outfielder. Additionally, if you were unable to draft players with multi-positional eligibility, that should be more of a focus here. You will need roster flexibility to weather the storms of a long season. Quality middle infielders should be prioritized here since they add depth and slot into your starting lineup in the UTIL or MI slots.
If you absolutely must draft a top catcher still on the board and wisely resisted the temptation to do so earlier, you can take the plunge here, though I still advocate waiting until the later rounds since there’s usually not much of a difference between the fifth and 15th-ranked catcher. Note that the middle rounds are typically where we see a run on certain positions, and you don’t want to find yourself taking your 13th-ranked third baseman because you waited too long.
If you recall from earlier articles in this series, depth and balance have been preached, especially in categories and rotisserie leagues. It’s in these rounds that you want to address any category weaknesses you have still have. The one exception to this rule is the culture of your league. If it’s a league that features a lot of trading, you may be able to add a surplus in one area to deal away for needs later. There’s an inherent risk in this approach, though, since you’re banking on other owners playing ball with you when you need them to do so.
Sticking with the five elements of what makes a great fantasy pitcher (K/9, BB/9, GB%, Hard%, O-Swing%), continue to target upside starters here and build your staff. If you only came away with one or two arms in the early rounds, this is where you want to load up before most of the top 30-40 arms are gone.
Finally, this is the sweet spot for closers. The biggest names are already off the board, but there’s still a lot of value and reliability (if one can ever use that term to describe a closer). You want to leave the draft with at least one, preferably two, established and secure closers, and this is the place to grab at least one, if not both of them.
Later Rounds (17 until the end)
The end of the draft is where you can take some chances and seek out value. Chase the upside since there’s very little to lose. Many of these picks will be among the first drops, cast into the river of sludge with other waiver wire fodder in search of whatever shiny new fleck of fool’s gold glitters brightest during the first few weeks of the season. However, it’s entirely possible that one or two players drafted late become some of your biggest contributors.
It’s here that you may draft the toolsy, but flawed outfielder who puts together a 20-20 season, a prospect with some buzz and hype who emerges with a bang, the speculative bullpen arm that emerges as a dominant closer, and the high hard-hit rate bat that runs into 30-plus home runs out of nowhere.
While you won’t find many five-tool players at this point of the draft, you will find a lot of players who specialize in one tool. It won’t be hard to find low-average power hitters or guys that provide steals and little else. The late rounds are the perfect place to fill in any lingering needs if you remain deficient in a particular skill category.
Whatever you do, don’t be boring here. A lot of fantasy managers tend to try to draft older, “safe” players late in drafts, thinking that they’ll give themselves a floor with a position player they “can’t believe fell this far.” More often than not, the floor collapses on that player, so you’re better off prioritizing skills, upside, and needs here. Now, go take these tips and crush your draft.
If you want to dive deeper into fantasy baseball, be sure to check out our award-winning slate of Fantasy Baseball Tools as you navigate your season. From our Lineup Assistant – which provides your optimal lineup based on accurate consensus projections – to our Waiver Wire Assistant – that allows you to quickly see which available players will improve your team and by how much – we’ve got you covered this fantasy baseball season.