This is the first of several installments in RotoWire's guide to winning your fantasy baseball league.
(1) Do Your Research
(a) Know the relevant player pool cold. That might sound obvious, but I'd bet most people still trust in their general knowledge of baseball, pick a good cheat sheet and research players about whom they're unsure during the draft. You can do this, but it's not optimal for a few reasons:
(1) In a timed draft, you won't be able to do the research quickly enough, and you'll end up making panic picks. In an untimed draft, you'll annoy the hell out of everyone waiting for you to pick;
(2) Cheat sheets are usually based on projected stats, and those stats are usually simple expected returns (the 50th percentile season in a player's range) and don't separately take into acccount volatility. As you go deeper in your drafts, you'll want to target volatile players with high ceilings and low floors. Without knowing the back end of the player pool, you'll wind up drafting low upside players whose rankings are based simply on playing time or modest track records. In other words, you'll be drafting useless players, while the knowledgeable owners are mining late-round sleepers;
(3) Even the players you think you know are not exactly as you imagine them. Did you know for example that Andrew McCutchen was successful on only 62.5 percent of his steal attempts? That means the Pirates would have been better off had he not run at all. His stolen base totals also declined for the second straight year. I certainly wouldn't have been aware of either of those facts had I not just looked them up. And this is for a player projected to go in the first round. As a result, I'd probably drop McCutchen out of my top-seven; and
(4) You won't learn from your mistakes if you were simply going off someone else's list. If you make your own rankings for your own reasons, you can look back and evaluate where you were right, where you were wrong and why. Through this process, you'll have a chance to get better, something on which you'll miss out if you don't learn the player pool for yourself.
(b) Materials - I would strongly suggest you build you own cheat sheet from scratch, using the following resources:
(1) Team Depth Charts/Player Pages - Even though baseball is largely a game of individual matchups (one pitcher vs. one hitter), its structure as a team game governs playing time and job description. It's not enough simply to know each player's skill set in a vacuum - you need to know where he fits in around the diamond, the players with whom he's competing for playing time, who in the organization is blocking his opportunity for full-time at-bats and what his role is in the lineup. Moreover, it's far easier to remember who has what role when you organize players by position on each team.
For that reason I build my cheat sheet each season in a spreadsheet by painstakingly clicking on every player linked to the depth charts team by team. In shallower mixed leagues, you don't have to go through every middle reliever and all of the prospects, but in deep AL or NL ones, it's worth clicking on every single player to read the latest news, outlook and stat profile for him on his player page.
(2) Stats Pages
(a) Sortable 2012 Stats
(b) Three-year Averages
(c) advanced stats - including BABIP, strand-rate and fastball velocity - to help separate skill from luck in a player's stat profile.
(2) Know Your League Parameters
(a) Categories - Most leagues are 5 x 5, which means five hitting and five pitching categories. The standard hitting ones are batting average, home runs, runs batted in, runs and stolen bases. The standard pitching ones are wins, strikeouts, saves, ERA and WHIP. Some leagues add categories like on-base percentage and slugging for hitters, walks and losses for pitchers, making them 7 x 7. This affects player value, as it creates new areas for players to contribute or detract from your team. Make sure you're valuing your players according to their contributions in the specific categories used by your league. A simple example is a 5 x 5 league that scraps batting average for on-base percentage, a growing trend as owners want to approximate real-life baseball value more closely. In such a league, players who hit for a decent average but don't walk a lot like Adam Jones are worth quite a bit less, while players like Carlos Santana who hit for a low average but walk frequently are more valuable.
(b) Starting Rosters - Leagues vary greatly in terms of what positions you're required to start. One of the biggest variables is between Yahoo!-style leagues that require only one catcher and NFBC-style leagues that require two. In a 12-team mixed, one-catcher league, the last starting catcher is likely going to be someone who hits 20-odd home runs (in 2012 it was Mike Napoli) or hits for a decent average, so the difference between him and the top catchers won't be that great. But in a league that requires two starting catchers, the replacement value backstop is going to be the No. 24 player at the position (currently Russell Martin), widening the gap between him and the upper-tier options. As such, you should draft catchers far earlier in the NFBC than in a typical Yahoo! league.
Other roster requirements range from the number of outfielders, to the number of utility (all-purpose) slots to the designated number of starting and relief pitchers. Each of these permutations has particular (and often significant) ramifications for player value, and you'd be wise to plug your specific parameters into our draft software that will help you sort it out.
(c) Position eligibility - To the extent the configuration of your league's starting rosters matter, then of course, it's important to know which players qualify for what positions. A common set-up is 20 games played the previous year or 10 played in the current one. For example, in that type of league Mark Trumbo, who played 97 games in the outfield, 21 at first base and eight at third base in 2012, would be eligible at both OF and 1B but not 3B in 2013. However, some leagues are more liberal and allow players to qualify if they played five, three or even one game at a given position. Because Trumbo is more valuable as a 3B-1B-OF than simply a 1B-OF, it's important to know what your eligibility settings are in order to value him accurately.
Players with multiple eligibility have added value, of course, because they offer roster flexibility. If you own Trumbo, he backs up both OF and 1B slots while occupying only one roster spot. That might allow you to carry an extra starting pitcher on your bench, or an extra middle reliever who has a chance to win a closer job.
(d) Bench - The size of the bench has important implications for player value and draft strategy. For example, if you're allowed only a couple reserve slots, and no DL, i.e., injured players count as regular reserves, then players slated to miss a significant chunk of the season like Alex Rodriguez or Brandon Beachy are virtually undraftable. You will have injuries to players who are too good to drop, and you will want to bench pitchers against elite offenses, so you simply cannot have a player out for half a season clogging one of your two or three available bench spots.
But if you're allowed 10 reserves, then Rodriguez and Beachy should be rostered and stashed because you'll have plenty of room to manuever with your other slots.
(e) Depth of Player Pool - If you're in a 12-team mixed league, you don't have to worry much about prospects like Mike Olt who will probably get an in-season call-up at some point. In a 12-team AL-only league, you'll need to know Olt's chances for playing time, who stands in his way and what he'd likely deliver should he get the call. Player-pool depth is determined by four factors:
(1) The universe of eligible players, e.g., AL-only or mixed;
(2) Number of teams in your league;
(3) Number of starters on each roster; and
(4) Size of each team's bench
If there are 12 teams in your league, and each team starts 14 offensive players, then you know 168 offensive players will be starting. If you also have five bench spots, you figured another 42 or so offensive players will be drafted, bringing the total to 210, not including pitching. So you'll need to have a cheat sheet that's at least that deep. In an AL-only universe, that's pretty much every active player including a few prospects.
League depth determines replacement value, i.e., the value of the highest-ranked player available to you on your waiver wire. That replacement value player serves as the baseline to which all other players compared and valued (more on this in our subsequent piece on player valuation).
Replacement value at each position helps you identify how steep the drop off is if you pass on one player in favor of another. For example, in a 12-team mixed league that starts nine pitchers of any kind, I know that the 108th-ranked pitcher (including relievers) will be the last one used in a starting lineup. If we posit that roughly 30 relievers will be used, that means if I pass up drafting Jordan Zimmermann in Round 7 and instead take Matt Wieters, I know I can get the 78th ranked starting pitcher (maybe Chris Carpenter) as a worst-case scenario with my last pick (in leagues where starters are drafted separately from reserves). In a one-catcher league, I know that had I taken Zimmermann instead of Wieters, the worst-case scenario might by Ryan Doumit or Jonathan Lucroy. By knowing the depth of the player pool at each position, I know not only the value of the players I'm contemplating drafting, but also the opportunity cost of the ones I let pass.
(f) Trades - Whether your league allows trades (and whether your league-mates are apt to trade for anything resembling fair value) will determine the importance of drafting balance across your league's categories. If trading is liberal, you can largely opt for value, even if that means nabbing four top-10 closers at a bargain. If trading is not allowed, you'll have to shore up categorical weaknesses at the expense of marketable surplus. As such, you'll need to have some idea of how many home runs, RBI, saves, steals, etc. it takes to be competitive in your non-trading league, so that you know where you're out of balance. For example, if 250 home runs is typically good enough for an "8" out of "12" in that category, then when you get to 230 projected homers in the ninth round (with five hitters left to draft), you should probably switch gears and target another category in Round 10.
(g) FAAB/waivers - Most leagues are of the weekly variety with a Free Agent Acquisition Budget (FAAB) bidding or waiver pick-ups every Sunday night and lineups set Monday before the first game starts. But leagues with daily moves change the equation as they typically come with pitching innings limits, and therefore high-strikeout pitchers gain value and even good low-strikeout pitchers are largely undraftable in shallower leagues. Leagues with bi-weekly or monthly FAAB/waivers elevate the importance of having backups at most positions and enhance the value of players with multiple position eligibility.
(h) Advanced Considerations
(1) Historical data for your league - It's worth having at least a general idea of what it takes to win each category, e.g., 300 HR, 130 wins, etc. It'll help you get a sense of what combinations of players it will take to contend.
(2) Other Owners' Proclivities - Over time, you might observe that certain owners take a lot of Yankees or Red Sox, and others always go for the top prospects. Depending on your draft slot and the round, you'll have some idea who those owners might take, and if you like a particular player, you'll know to reach for him before that owner's turn.
(3) Have a Draft Plan
(a) Draft slot - Many drafts like the NFBC give you the choice of where you'd want to pick and also advance notice of the slot from which you're picking. It's hard to say whether there's generally any advantage to a particular draft slot, but in certain seasons there's a perceived drop-off after say the top-3 (Miguel Cabrera/Ryan Braun/Mike Trout), or top-5, or at some other point. Sometimes the big drop-off is early in the second round, so there's an advantage to picking late in the first. And no matter where it seems the drop-off is, often the market is wrong anyway, and so we wouldn't get too wrapped up in where you pick.
But once you know your slot, you have a chance to plan your draft to an extent. You can't know what people ahead of you will do, but say you pick fifth in 2013, you're likely to have either Robinson Cano or Matt Kemp available. Knowing that, you can map out your strategy for subsequent rounds based on either contingency.
(b) Mock Draft - You can go to MockDraftCentral.com and practice drafting from different slots and see what you wind up with. It'll give you a sense of whether you really can lock up middle infield with Cano, Dustin Pedroia and Starlin Castro with your first three picks or not. Of course, every draft is different, but seeing owners react in real time and the decisions with which you're likely to be faced - and their consequences - will keep you clear-headed during your real drafts and reduce the chance that you get stuck and make a panic pick.
(c) ADP - Looking at reports drawn from thousands of mock drafts gives you a sense of what a player's Average Draft Position (ADP) will be. Every draft differs, but ADP is a good general barometer of market value. If you're under the delusion that you'll get Bryce Harper in Round 3, think again. As of this writing, his ADP is No. 18 overall (though ADP like any other market is dynamic and will change until Opening Day). Being realistic about who will be available when allows you to plan for the likely choices with which you'll be faced. It'll also let you know whether a certain strategy - wait on starting pitching, but get bounce-back candidates like Roy Halladay (ADP 79) in the sixth round (maybe) and Tim Lincecum (ADP 147) in the 10th (probably) - is viable. (I actually think Halladay's ADP will climb, and Lincecum's might too as March rolls around).
(d) Position scarcity - Obviously, big-hitting outfielders are easier to come by than big-hitting shortstops. The question is how much one should adjust for the scarcity of production at certain positions. In a typical 12-team league with five outfielders (and a utility player, who is an outfielder roughly half the time), you're dealing with the 66th OF as replacement level. Is Colby Rasmus (ADP 66 among OF, 244 overall) that much better than the 18th SS (assuming 12 SS, and six SS filling middle infield slots)? The 17-19 SS by ADP are J.J. Hardy, Everth Cabrera and Jed Lowrie as of mid-January. Scarcity matters to an extent, but as you can see, you don't want to overdo it.
(e) Position/Category Depth - It's important to know what constitutes rough replacement value at each position across the board - Rasmus at OF in a 12-team mixed league, Hardy/Lowrie/Cabrera at SS, Chris Carpenter at SP, etc. There are nine players - given healthy seasons - projected for 35 or more homers, there are 11 players (assuming health) projected for 35 or more stolen bases. As you get deeper into your drafts, and you need to shore up a particular category, it's important to be aware of the depth in categories as well as positions. (And 35 is obviously an arbitrary cut-off, but it illustrates the point).
In sum - there's no substitute for deeply researching the player pool, and you absolutely must know your league parameters and their ramifications. How specific you get with your draft plan is a matter of personal preference - I usually prefer to target a few players I think will overperform in the context of what the draft gives me, but I see no problem with being more precise about category and positional targets. Either way, you should have a good grasp of market values and your league's positional and categorical depth.
Next up, we'll take on the topic of player valuation.