How to Play Fantasy Baseball - Basic Draft Strategy
By Chris Liss
Whether your league uses a draft, auction, or any other method to allocate players to
their rightful owners, there are certain principles and considerations you ought to take
I list and explain them below in order of importance.
1. Be prepared.
I am not an advocate of the mind-numbing process whereby you add up the total dollars
to be spent in your league and allocate the proper amounts to every single player that
might possibly be acquired. If you want to do this, good for you, but I dont believe
its necessary. What I do believe is necessary is a familiarity with every single
major league regular and all of the important bench players on every team. Yes, you ought
to know who the Florida Marlins outfielders are, and the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, too.
Every team in the major leagues will win forty-five games, score runs, and amass a few
saves. Chances are that there will be a few players on even the worst teams that can help
you fill in for an injured starter, jump start you in stolen bases, or even emerge as one
of your stars. That these teams exist means that opportunities exist, and, in my mind,
just about any player with enough talent to make it to the pros has the potential to put
up numbers if he gets the chance to play.
Know who these players are, whether they can run or hit for power, whether they have
closer-type stuff, and whether they will get a chance to be on the field in 99.
2. Make sure you get the best available players relative to the position(s)
at which theyre eligible.
To some, this is an obvious point, but I am always surprised when talking to veteran
rotisserie owners who routinely ignore it. I suggested to a friend of mine recently that
in a single list draft (one where all MLB players are included), Id select Alex
Rodriguez as the first pick. He said hed take Ken Griffey, Jr. I said: "But
Arods a 40/40 guy and a shortstop!" He said, "Yeah, but Griffey could hit
The fact is, if Arod hits 40 homers and steals 40 bases again, hell likely be
worth more than Griffey even if Griffey does crack 60. Why? Because Griffey is an
outfielder and Arod is a shortstop.
If your league has ten teams, each of which has five outfielders, 1 shortstop, and 1
middle infielder, then you know that you need only consider the top 50 outfielders and the
top 15 or so shortstops. Anyone worse than that will not be drafted, even in the last
Consider who the 50th best outfielder might be this year. It might be Brian
McRae of the Mets, who was a 21/20 guy last year, or it could be Bobby Abreu of the
Phillies, an up and coming hitter who batted .312 with 17 HR and 19 steals. Now compare
that to the 15th best shortstop, possibly Jose Valentin or Gary DiSarcina?
Valentin batted .224 with 16 HR and 10 SB. Disarcina did hit .287 but with only 3 HR and
The point is that if you get ARod, you have filled your SS slot, and thus still need
five outfielders, but if you take Griffey, youll need four outfielders and a SS. So
when you take Arod over Griffey, you get his numbers plus the difference between an
average outfielder and an average shortstop. And you must always remember to factor in
that difference when drafting.
3. Factor likelihood of injury into player values ahead of time.
Another obvious, but often overlooked point. Larry Walker in Coors Field when healthy
can put up numbers with the best of them. Just take a look at his monstrous 97
campaign where he hit 49 HR, stole 33 bases, and batted .366. But Larry Walker has
bad knees. In 1996, he managed only 272 at bats, and in 98 only 454. Last year, I
witnessed an auction filled with knowledgeable owners where Walker went for the same price
as Griffey. Although his upside is equal to Griffeys, hes less likely to
achieve it. Therefore, Walker should have been valued more in the Ray Lankford range, even
though he could turn out to be a dominant player. Take the value out up front. Dont
draft Walker too high and then complain that you had bad luck if he gets hurt.
4. A great starting pitcher is usually the most valuable player on a rotisserie team,
but pitchers are particularly unpredictable, and that unpredictability should be
factored in ahead of time.
I believe an ace starter is usually going to be the most valuable player on a given
roto team. Why? Because in most roto formats you have only nine or ten pitchers, two or
three of which are closers. That leaves roughly seven starters. Those seven starters will,
in most formats, contribute to at least three, if not four categories, Wins, Ks, ERA, and
sometimes WHIP. On the other hand, most roto formats have roughly thirteen offensive
players contributing to four or five categories (HR, RBI, RUNS, SB, AVG.). Even if you
conflate the middle infield positions and catchers into three rather than five players due
to their limited production (which is dubious with Nomar, ARod, Biggio, and Piazza out
there), you still have eleven players contributing to five categories versus seven
pitchers contributing to four. That means that the average starting pitcher gives you four
sevenths of a category, and the average hitter gives you five elevenths. Do the math. Four
sevenths is 44/77, five elevenths is 35/77. Thats more than 25% more value for the
pitcher. So starting pitchers are where the value is. (Unless your league has more hitting
categories than pitching in which case it is much more even).
That said, pitchers performances are harder to predict than their lumber-wielding
counterparts. This is partly because pitchers are more likely to get injured than position
players and are less able to play through injuries, and partly because pitchers are far
more dependent on the performance of their teams than hitters. I cant tell you how
many times Ive watched a rotten bullpen cost one of my starters a win. Bad defense,
bad hitters, and even bad base running can also rob you of wins. ERA can be damaged by bad
middle relief or bad defense. Hell, a manager might pull your guy in a tie game for a
thirty-eight year old left-handed specialist.
In sum, only Ks are in the pitchers hands, and one category does not a reliable
player make. In general, take great pitchers just after great hitters, but before very
good hitters. Take very good pitchers, just after very good hitters, but before good
hitters... you get the idea.
5. Where the player plays and whom he plays against makes a big difference.
Another obvious point with not so obvious implications. Everyone knows not to take
Rockies pitchers and to go after Rockies hitters. Lefties hit home runs at Yankee stadium,
righties hit doubles off the green monster at Fenway. Albert Belle might hit sixty at
Camden Yards; Mike Piazza will be better off at Shea than at Dodger Stadium. Okay, you
know all that.
The second point relates to the competition. A Minnesota Twins pitcher must face the
Yankees, Indians, Mariners, Orioles, Rangers, and
Angels lineups, replete with the DH, roughly half the time he takes the mound. If
his name aint Brad Radke (who had a woeful second half last year) he probably
doesnt deserve a spot on your squad (unless you are playing in an AL only universe,
or have 15-20 teams in your league). The point is that with the DH in the AL, National
League pitchers are generally better for ERA and Ks, because the pitcher is an easy out, a
welcome rest, and often a strikeout.
That said, superstars like Roger Clemens and Pedro Martinez are good enough largely to
transcend the quality of competition, though all three had ERAs significantly higher than
NL studs Maddux, Brown, and Glavine in 98.
6. Dont believe the opinions that you read. Gather the facts and decide for
Just because Im writing this article doesnt mean I have a clue as to
whats going to happen in MLB next year. I may have all kinds of knowledge and roto
experience, but for some reason I am out of the zone this year. My hand has slipped from
the pulse of the game. Dont take ARod first
just because I said I would (I may change my mind between now and draft day anyway).
Decide for yourself.
What does it mean to decide for yourself? It means to make an informed decision based
on the facts. Statistics are facts. Sure, an umpires opinion on an error-call may
have crept in there, but for the most part, they are facts. Off-season injury prognoses,
(these are often opinions of doctors but medical experts are held to a higher standard
that roto-experts, so take them as fact), and off-season training regimens are facts. Last
year I read about the talented but injury-prone Brian Jordan working out in the off-season
with Jackie Joyner Kersee and her husband. I figured he was probably learning how to
stretch properly and run with better form, thereby reducing the likelihood of injury. I
got him cheap, and he produced very nicely, even though most of the "experts"
had written him off as a bad draft-day investment.
That said, read experts opinions and cheat sheets if you like, but dont buy into
their conclusions. Scour them for the hard facts upon which their conclusions are based,
and then make your own decisions. Over time, (and it may take a little time before you get
good at it), you will blow away anyone too timid to make their own roto calls.
7. Almost always take a potential star over a known mediocrity.
During an auction in which I participated last year, I needed two more outfielders to
complete my roster. Among those remaining were BJ Surhoff, Lance Johnson, Shawn Green,
Vladimir Guerrero, Johnny Damon, and Jeffery Hammonds. I had wanted to go with Shawn Green
and Guerrero, because these were two players with speed, power, and opportunities to play.
But before I put in my bids, I phoned a friend and asked for his advice. He declared as if
it were obvious: "Lance Johnsons by far the best outfielder left." I ended
up going with Green, who had a monster year for me, and Johnson, who got hurt.
Unfortunately someone else got Guererros 38 HR and .324 average.
Not only did I violate principle six (trusting someone elses opinion), but I
settled for a player who at his very best can give excellent SB and RUN production, along
with good batting average, but actually damages your team in HR and RBI. With his best
year (1996) two years behind him, I thought Lance Johnson was a mediocre roto outfielder,
but, because I feared making a mistake, I went ahead and picked him anyway. Dont
fear making mistakes. If a player is slated to start and has shown signs of breaking out
like Green and Guerrero did in 97, dont pass him up for a BJ Surhoff or a
Lance Johnson. Set out to win the league that youre in; dont play simply to
avoid last place.
That said, dont be ridiculous either. Green and Guerrero had demonstrated promise
at the major league level, had tools, and were getting an opportunity to play. I
wouldnt take Troy Glaus or Adrian Beltre over Travis Fryman just yet until I
witnessed some success from them at the major league level. But I would take Fernando
Tatis over Cal Ripken, Jr. In general, be smart about it, but always keep an eye on the
If you keep these seven principles in mind, you should do very well in your roto draft
and hopefully enjoy the process.
Article first appeared 1/31/99